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The world behind the world inside our heads or something


Had a nasty allergy attck last night of the flattening kleenex-clutched-to-nose-for-hours variety, got no work done in the evening. Settled for playing a half-hearted game of Civ III (the Germans are always declaring war on me, those jerks) and reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker.” Brilliant book. Makes me want to go beat creationists around the head and shoulders screaming “Away with your tired old canards! Come back when you actually understand how mutation works and god help you if you try to abuse the Second Law of Thermodynamics in my presence!” This is, however, a fairly normal state for me, and hardly anybody ever comes up to me on the street ranting creationist rhetoric about mutation rates at me any more, so it doesn’t have too significant an impact on my daily life. But anyway, good book, built on “The Selfish Gene” and had a great section on positive feedback loops in sexual selection that was really interesting.

The thing that I keep coming back to, though, was near the beginning in an section on bat echolocation, and is the sort of thing that we all know, but rarely give that much thought to–the notion that our world is inside our heads. I look at the computer in front of me, and I believe that what I’m seeing is what the world looks like. But it’s not–it’s a set of interprations of light wavelengths being mapped inside my skull by a lot of elegant (and evolution being what it is, wonderfully jury-rigged) wiring. The computer, and the stuffed wombats and mole rat and plastic okapi on top of it, are almost certainly there, but I’m not seeing them. I can’t see them. Nobody ever sees any object. What I’m seeing is a lovely sorting of light wavelengths entering through my photocells (which are on backwards, which is dreadfully inefficient and proves that if God made man, any modern engineer could teach Him a thing or two), but that’s evolution for you–you can only work with what you’ve got, hence the human blind spot. Octopi don’t have one, because their eyes evolved seperately, the right way around) and being interpreted in my brain into an elegant, apparently 3-D map of the world, a sort of virtual reality.

And this is the key bit–the world isn’t like what I see in my head. How could it? If a bat bounces an echo off a kumquat and catches it on those magnificent ears, it may get a pretty good idea of the density, size, and location of the kumquat, but a kumquat isn’t an echo, any more than a kumquat is a bunch of reflected photons or a blip on a radar (and if you don’t think that we’re scanning the skies preparing for an invasion of kamikaze kumquats, the Illuminati have obviously gotten to you.) That’s just what we use to detect the kumquat. It’s not the thing itself.

Things like this make me wonder what the world really looks like, as it is, not on the map of lightwave data generated inside my skull. And of course, there’s no way to tell–to observe, you must have an observer, and for me, I’m pretty much it. So it’s mostly useless to speculate, particularly if there’s something practical that needs doing, but it’s interesting if you’re an artist having an allergy attack and not getting any sleep anyway. You can’t visualize a world behind what you do visualize, any more than you can bench press a whale, but you can sure get a workout trying. The only thing that my brain was kicking up, for no apparent reason, was a world where everything was made out of textured stone, sort of like a De Es painting, with odd fiery light sources, or a dark shadowy grey-rust world where we all wandered around quite confidently in the dark, secure in our mental maps, like tightrope walkers with virtual reality helmets on.

Then I had a rough allergy night, slept poorly, woke up again. James said “How do you feel?” “Like hammered shit.” “I’m sorry you feel that way, but wow, good description.” So after breakfast, and more work on this logo, I went back to sleep for a few hours. I never do that, but today I needed it. And now I feel better.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.