is this your card
When I was a kid, I had a habit of touching walls. I thought bricks were magical…I could place my finger in one spot, feel the texture…and if I waited long enough, my mind would focus on different aspects of the texture. It would shuffle the sensations around, focus on one aspect of the brick, then another. The more my thoughts sifted through these impressions, the more it would begin to feel like the brick itself was moving, undulating. Something as simple as a wall became this inexhaustible sensory landscape.
At school, teachers would ask why I kept touching the wall. I didn’t know what to tell them. I thought the answer was obvious. They sent me to the school counselor. She asked why I kept touching the wall. I could only respond by wondering: why isn’t everyone touching the wall?
It was perplexing. I couldn’t make sense of people. Our realities seemed unsychronize-able.
For, I don’t know, two thousand years or so, Western philosophy tried to discover…not truth, so much as the ability to formulate truth via some kind of universally valid principle or theory or whatever you want to call it.
Philosophy has been trying to understand the relationship between the world and our minds. I look at a doorknob; clearly it exists. But the doorknob that I am perceiving…what exactly is this perception? My senses bring data back to my brain, a picture forms of a doorknob. What’s the relationship between the stuff in my head and the stuff in the real world? Analogy? Is the mental image of this doorknob basically a mind-photograph made out of senses and brain processes? Or is the picture show happening in my brain something more ephemeral like an “essence”?
World…mind…how we know what we know: philosophy.
Different people located our truth-knowing in different places.
Plato theorized that all things were singular examples of perfect, universal Forms; know the forms, know the things. Descartes predicated his truth-knowing somewhere else, the whole, “I think, therefore I am,” thing. Empiricists like Hume located truth-knowing in our senses. Kant in the structures of reason. And so on.
The problem is that philosophy wanted one, perfect theory. It ended up with more theories than any one thinker could sort through in a life time.
This was frustrating. In fact, in the early 1900s, a philosopher named Husserl became so frustrated that he said it was time to ditch the world part of the equation- screw it! It was just too shifting, unknowable- also, human values were all mixed up in our reality perceptions and it was becoming increasingly clear that there was no reliable way to fully separate the two. (Existentialism loomed.)
So, Husserl did something drastic: he put the world in brackets…and set it aside.
All of reality. The world, everything in it…a frustrated philosopher said, “Meh, let’s table that for the time being.”
A search for answers that inquisitive minds had been working on for millennia…and this was the result; “We must lose the world,” Husserl said.
(This means Western philosophy needed two thousand years to reach conclusions strikingly similar to the ones ancient Eastern philosophy began with. It’s fun. Human stuff can be fun.)
Meanwhile…bats aren’t blind.
It’s true. Some bats have small eyes…some bats have not-so-great vision. But all bats have sight, along with a type of biological sonar called echolocation. This sonar is not compensation for a missing ability.
“He’s as blind as a bat!”
Why do we think bats are blind?
I think it’s because humans tend to believe that difference equals deficit. Bats navigate the world with sonar…they perceive reality in a very different way. Humans can only make sense of that if these differences are the result of an absence. Bats use echolocation…so they must be counter-balancing blindness.
It’s one of our bad species habits: we don’t just perceive the world…we make our perceptions the standard by which all others realities are judged.
Difference, from that stance, becomes “less than”. It gets labeled “weird” or “wrong” or “lacking” or “dangerous”. Something amazing like biological sonar is turned into a lack of sight.
This bad habit persists because it’s a pretty sweet deal for conventional thinkers (of which there are many) and a pretty crappy deal for the rest of us (of which there are, from what I gather, not nearly enough).
Even in a scenario where a sense is disabled or lost, that does not mean a reality is diminished. All perception is surplus. All senses create a reality…a world. Thinking of the “real” world as an amalgam of five human senses- viewing any particular reality as the “right” world…again, this is one of our bad species habits. We miss more than we gain with such a rigid view of the universe.
Certainty is the only true deficit.
Beethoven began to experience hearing loss during the “middle period” of his compositional career, a time when many of his greatest works were created.
Sounds became increasingly feint…he could conjure the music in his mind, but not match it up with the sounds of his piano.
In order to synchronize the two- the world and his mind- Beethoven attached a metal rod to his piano. As he played, he would bite down on the rod, causing vibrations from the piano to travel through his skull, thereby stimulating his inner-ear and allowing him to literally feel the music.
The principle behind this technique is now a common feature of modern assistive listening devices. It’s called bone conduction.
I call it stimming.
World stuff versus head stuff…finding the symphony between the two.
Or, a long line of philosophers saying, “No, here’s what the world is!” until someone else comes along, knocks down their system, builds a new one. Rinse, repeat, until there’s nothing left. Eventually, grumpy Husserl takes his brackets out and all of it-the entire world- goes away; all because we can’t stop playing King of the Hill with reality.
It’s an approach favored by the world-technicians and category-makers…by those weirded out by wall touching…the kinds of people who see echolocation as evidence of blindness.
I don’t think we need to lose the world. But maybe it’s not necessary to definitively find it. Maybe it’s enough to feel out the multiplicity of realities that each sense- and each perception- represents. Maybe there’s more meaning and humanity in the interstitial spaces of life than in the empty commonalities we use to hide them.
Maybe there are invisible…
Wait, I have to pause here. There’s a storm outside and my chimney is leaking.