The definitions for this word have a surprising beauty. They lead from a fairly concrete example to ideas that are far more ephemeral: (1) A way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading; (2) The course or direction in which a person or thing is moving; (3) A course of action or conduct
The definitions for this word have a surprising beauty. They lead from a fairly concrete example to ideas that are far more ephemeral:
A way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading
The course or direction in which a person or thing is moving
A course of action or conduct
There are a couple more, but these will do nicely. Movement along a path is usually imagined, seen in the mind’s eye, but a path of conduct may require the individual to remain immobile, mind cleared, thinking only the thoughts that come without thought.
Whether consciously or not, we all describe paths during our time. We also define many more paths than we “walk.” We define a path to becoming a physician, but somehow become a lawyer or a laborer. We define a path to becoming a pro bono environmental lawyer, but do patent work. We define a path towards perfection in all of our professional work, but end up cutting corners and doing less than we know we should. Some of us don’t expect much of ourselves, but end up surprising the world. This is sort of like the Yiddish proverb “man plans and God laughs.” I wonder how many of us, if all humans were polled from the past, present or future, would say, without prevarication “I did exactly what I expected to do when I was five years old and everything that happened to me – everything – was just as I expected.”
Let us imagine a perfectly spherical object that we will call human knowledge. Let us imagine this object when humans first came into being. By this, I mean when the first *human* memories started accumulating and the first *human* experiences were had and then passed on to children. I place “human” in asterisks because it is doubtful to me that we will ever know for a certainty when memories and experiences were first translatable across generations or perhaps species. Did pre-sapiens humans have memories and experiences that were somehow passable to our immediate Homo sapiens antecedents? It’s worth wondering about, but no answer will probably ever be found in the bones.
Back to the object: the perfectly spherical object is tiny and represents all human knowledge when we first became “wise (sapiens).” From that early, imaginary, perfectly spherical object radiates a huge number of imaginary lines – vectors – out from the object. The lines are the paths that describe the potential for knowledge growth, each in a very specific “direction.” One line may be a line for learning the long “A” sound for human speech. Another may be for learning various ways of walking. Another may be learning to differentiate edible plants from toxic ones. Another for learning types of rock – flint, chalk, marble, granite, limestone, shale, mica, etc. Another for watching the stars at night, another for observing living things growing and changing, day after day, another for watching tides come in or waves break. As those early humans learned more, stored memories about these observations, passed their knowledge on to their elders, peers, partners, progeny, communities, imagine that tiny sphere bulging out ever so slightly in the direction of the vector we have imaginarily assigned to that type of knowledge. As we continued to roam the earth, grow families, watch them die, hunted, planted, gathered, farmed, fished, slept and woke and told stories to each other, as we continued to query our world and the sky and stars above it, as more knowledge accumulated, our knowledge sphere grew, unevenly, in fits of lumpiness, but along these imaginary vectors out towards the possible terminus of each vector that represented absolutely everything that could ever be known about any thin slice of the overall possible sphere of human knowledge. In those early days, the lumpiness grew out along the vectors for communal interaction, subsistence, group and self-protection, some kind of language (or languages – we’ll never know how many there were), but the lumpiness did not grow at all in the direction of vast distances – like how far the stars were away – or in the direction of minute phenomena – like microbes and molecules and atoms. The lumpiness grew along the vector for passing whatever knowledge was deemed worthy, through what were considered facts and what were less facts and more fictions, through speculations regarding what was completely unknowable to our antecedents tens of millennia ago. The lumpiness did not bulge along the vector for semiconductor design or organic synthesis or n-dimensional mathematics or computer programming – or along a vector for writing stuff down! So many other directions were ignored for those long, early millennia in our existence, not out of malice, but from ignorance that there was any there there (apologies to both our antecedents and G. Stein).
But the sphere, not so sphery anymore but a post-spherical collection of asymmetric protrusions with vectors of various finite lengths poking out like spines on a pufferfish or quills on an annoyed porcupine, keeps on growing in fits and starts as knowledge and communal memories and speculations and stories are built and exchanged and kept alive. The paths, the vectors are subsumed in the new skin of the growing post-spherical shape of “all human knowledge.” There are also webs of interconnections between the vectors, but let’s keep our metaphor simple for now and recognize that the metaphor attempts to illuminate something far more complicated.
During this process, facts crystallized: “a smooth, round stone makes grain into a powder;” “a long, strong stick can be sharpened and used to hunt;” “one cycle of light and dark is followed by another;” “some people are friendly and others are not,” and so on. While the facts are accumulating, so are the mysteries: “what makes the sky dark and light?;” “what makes the thunder and lightning?;” “why was my village destroyed and my friends killed when the river rose?;” “why do so many children die?;” “why are we here?;” “what is ‘here’ and how did it come to be?” Not all of these facts are, of course, passed along as new humans are born. Some facts are learned, or not, as the need arises. Utility of a smooth, round stone, making of a spear, proper use of a plow are complete mysteries until they are taught afresh and as humans have developed technologies over the millennia, it is far more likely new children will learn the use of a tablet computer than a smooth, round stone from their community.
So the lumpy sphere (1) starts small and symmetrical with every new child and is comprised of purely autonomic and genetically proscribed (pre-scribed?) abilities and (2) is fashioned by the needs of the child’s community as they grow. A young fellow growing up in an isolated Amazonian tribe or in New Guinea will develop their sphere quite unlike that of a child in suburban North America, but each will start with a sphere of possibility and develop their knowledge along vectors as they need to. The isolated child can learn just as much about contemporary particle physics as the suburban youth and (perhaps) the suburban child just as much about shimmying up trees and fashioning tubers into a wholesome meal. The suburban kid can spend their lives learning about a whole series of video games or about the lives of the suspiciously rich and unduly famous or they can grow their knowledge to grasp a vast array of skills and lore. Thermodynamic laws and their corollaries as applied to noble gases – and all the accompanying knowledge necessary to comprehend what that entails? Done! Coding in an ever-increasing armamentarium of languages, plus appropriate knowledge of their use in accompanying hardware? Absolutely? Cooking organic vegan Asian fusion meals using only locally sourced foods? Covered! So can the kid from a place that almost no one (except them and their family) knows about do all of the above? Yes they can! The small sphere of no known color prickly with vectors of possible knowledge can grow in any way it is trained if its owner, the seat in which it will function, makes the necessary effort (although perhaps some of us are better at learning some stuff than others are – but that’s another matter for another potential post).
For some reason, the human mind answers questions with stories – in the fictional sense – when no answers seem obvious, seem easy to grasp. Some of the mysteries listed above are now well-understood, at least by folks who embraced rational inquiry. What animates us? Let’s call it a “soul” or a “spirit.” How did the universe come to be? There was nothing and “god” made everything to fill the void (earth-wide, so many “gods,” so let’s keep the name in small letters until we visit the topic later on). What keeps the earth suspended in the sky? Why, it’s turtles, turtles all the way down!
The problem with these and other stories is that they blithely attempt to answer complicated questions as if the answers were known to a certainty. They presume to represent human understanding, going as far back as stories were passed between members of communities, as infallible. “We understand perfectly all questions posed to us,” say some humans to all that inquire. In fact, we are all on a path to understanding each line, each vector of inquiry in our shared, global, lumpy, not-so-spherical, not-so-symmetrical collection of knowledge. When our observations and our analyses have run out of plausible hypotheses and theories and laws, at least until new means of observations and data collection can be contrived, then it is time for the communal “us” to say “I don’t know.”
I stress the communal “us” for a few reasons: (1) we are social creatures (or are wired that way); (2) none of us individually can know everything that has ever been understood and documented by the greater “us;” (3) knowledge, both rational and irrational, has been a cumulative phenomenon for as long as stories, oral and written, have been documented.
Let’s take one of these imaginary vectors, lines, paths and talk about what progress along a knowledge path “looks” like. First of all, I’ve made the diagram below, but it does some things quite poorly. First, it breaks up the transitions from black through various shades of gray in a way that cannot accurately portray the transitions. The labels are more useful, but also imply absolute ranges for the knowledge that might fall within each one.
In general, though, the diagram suggests progress in a direction – along a knowledge vector, if you will – and the labels are:
Knowledge within common reach – this is knowledge that will come to most people as they work with people in their community, including parents, peers, community members, teachers, etc.
Knowledge to be gained through some level of study of precedent learning – this is knowledge that will only be gained, with or without teachers, if the “pupil” reads the work, works the problems, does the experiments, develops their own insights into the precedent work, pursues a career thinking about the matters studied on a regular basis, or pursues an avocation that has the same effect. For brevity’s sake, this can include mastery of a skill, science, technology, etc.
Knowledge to be gained through de novo observation, data analysis, hypothesis testing – this is knowledge that has not yet been achieved, but can be through additional investigation, experimentation, innovation, novel data analytics of new or existing observations, engineering, etc. It may be achievable in one year or ten or one hundred, but persistence and insight will result in new information added to the sum of all previous knowledge.
Knowledge most probably beyond reach in perpetuity – this is knowledge that is highly likely to be unknowable given our place in time and the tools we may be able to create in area 3 for anything like the foreseeable future (vide supra). This may include items in the past (e.g. exactly how long did the saurian extinction take and between what BCE years (this is the problem of specificity – we know the extinction took place, but completely accurate dating and duration are beyond the pale); was there a universe before our universe? (this may be a problem of data collection – all existing models of universe age can only “see” back to what is hypothesized to be the start of our universe, but was there something equally as huge before our universe?) or it may be items in the future (e.g. exactly when will we be able to measure with certainty dark matter and/or dark energy?; are there practical ways to travel between interstellar distances that have the effect of exceeding the speed of light?) or it may be matters that lie within us (e.g. exactly how does the brain/mind work?).
My proposition is this: we would all do better in this world if we paid more attention to vectors 2 and 3. Progress along vector 1 will be achieved if our parents, peers, community, teachers, etc. take care of their responsibilities. This happens a lot of the time, but it does not happen 100% of the time – and this needs attention all by itself. We can all work together to ensure that every child born in every country progresses successfully through vector 1 to (at least) vector 2. Progress in vector 2 requires nurturing, encouragement, resources for the child/young adult to achieve what they can, but it also requires hard work on the part of the child/young adult. Not everyone will choose vector 3 as a path for their lives – and that is okay. It is a personal choice, but if the previous achievements were fulfilled, at least vector 3 can be addressed partially, if not completely.
But vector 4 should not claim our time or energy. The first stanza of the poem attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr is helpful in this regard, although I like demystifying it:
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
(There is a dispute that what we have come to know as the serenity prayer was actually penned by Niebuhr, so I use this version because it seems more likely that he did.)
Another way of saying this, although also by a person with a theistic bent, is found in the opening lines of “An Essay on Man: Epistle II” by Alexander Pope (1688–1744):
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.”
While Pope viewed this path as the only proper way of dealing with the certainty of a divinity, I view it as a very similar (and wise) caution as Niebuhr’s: pay attention to matters that can be addressed by “you,” human! It is, in its way, a very Buddhistic perspective as well: we all suffer and the desire to control matters beyond our ability leads to much of this suffering. Sounds like Niebuhr, hmm?
So, take a path (you will take many simultaneous paths (a course of action or conduct) – and that’s a good and inevitable thing) – and follow it (them) through as far as you possibly can (or not – it’s your life and your decision). But when you reach the place in the path where it fades into nothingness, do not presume to know what lies beyond – unless you can communally create the tools to go further. It is okay to say “I do not know what lies ahead.” It is not okay to make stuff up and speculate wildly what may lie ahead. Attend to the wisdom of Niebuhr and Pope. Attend to the words of the Buddha. When you arrive where the path fades, say “I do not know” and work another path. There is some joy, some happiness in letting go of what you cannot control and attending to that which you can influence through hard work and insight.
Human beings – we – are storytellers. Each of us, if or when we gain the ability to speak and/or write and/or perhaps even touch, will tell someone a story. We will probably all tell huge numbers of stories, but let’s start with a single story. (Post continues with epistemological musings.)
Human beings – we – are storytellers. Each of us, if or when we gain the ability to speak and/or write and/or perhaps even touch, will tell someone a story. We will probably all tell huge numbers of stories, but let’s start with a single story. It may be a completely factual story that is based on carefully collected data and carefully documented observations. It may be a partially fictional story, where an initial fact is supplemented with personal biases or understandings that are not entirely supported by information available. It may be an entirely fictional story, although these stories tend not to resonate with us unless there is some truth to them. Most of us communicate with each other principally in various forms of fiction. There are about 7.4 billion of us, with an estimated 4.3 births and 1.8 deaths occur per second and an inestimable number of these will never be educated, will never learn to read, will only know what has been told them by the people they know. It may be the case that more stories have been forgotten by people who never knew how to write than have been written since. But this may be a fiction.
The stories are highly varied; some are simple, some are complicated. Some seem simple and aren’t; some seem complicated and aren’t.
We are inundated by stories in various forms. There are the various types of evening and cable news shows doing their bit to tell tales. There are the dramas on Twitter and Facebook and other platforms. There are old stories in books written long ago and there are novels that are barely stories at all, but seem to garner interest. There are newspapers, but not all objects that look like newspapers share a consistent mission. Some papers exist to trade in baseless speculation. Some provide reasonably clear interpretations of events occurring around the world, along with opinions about those events and what might be done about them all. Some have national, regional, political, racial, financial, and other biases. Some have writers who are allowed their biases whether the paper shares those biases or not. There are the stories we tell each other (or failing that, ourselves) around dinner tables or in restaurants or in the cabs of our trucks or in our cars, in trains and in airplanes. There are stories that are developed for work settings and then the stories that the employees tell, which may or may not diverge from the stories developed for them to tell.
I don’t know all of the stories, nor will I or anyone else know them all. New ones are added every second, although the birth rate of stories is not known or even queried. Some stories are dying or already dead, along with the people who tell them. We take inadequate efforts to preserve those stories.
Ancient stories can be entirely factual, although misunderstandings of observations may confound the facts in complicated ways. Modern stories can be entirely fictional, although an entirely fictional story may be rendered only in a fictional language about fictional “things” and thus may be incomprehensible to any of us attending to it.
I have lived some decades in this world, inhabiting this body and moving every so often from one location to another. My stories are what they are and probably include misunderstandings or misapprehensions of data and observations provided by others. They may include facts that are solid as I know them, but may change as the days pass. I’ve found myself accumulating stories and with that inevitable process has come a desire to share some of them. This platform, a factual location or set of locations on one to several cloud servers, is made up of a language of codes. Ultimately, the language is boiled down to two numbers, a fiction that we created centuries – even millennia – ago to differentiate between nothing and a thing; 1 (one) and 0 (zero). This fiction starts at what became zero can extends to infinity in both directions. It includes, because someone saw a need, the inherently fictional realm of imaginary numbers. But 1 and 0 are all that are used here to display these thoughts to you.
Sight (and Light)
I am intrigued by what we believe. It is clear to me that everything we believe is stored within the confines of our minds. If we see something, we do not know the thing itself, we know only what electromagnetic transmissions – what we blithely call “light” – collide with the structures of our eyes, the cornea, lens, retina, the rod and cone cells, the optic nerve (among numerous other constructs), which transmit some version of that collision to our brains and its multitude of cells. We each are confined to those cells, if you will. We then compare that transmitted information, consciously or not, with all the other information of that type that has gone through a similar process earlier in our lives (if it has been retained). It may even be that there is information stored in our genes forming the basis of some of these comparisons (although I may be telling a story here, I must admit). We only know what our minds have on board.
The amazing fact is that we see only light transmitted in the electromagnetic wavelengths (represented by the Greek letter λ or lambda) between 390 and 700 nanometers (1 nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter or 0.000000001 meters – oh, and a meter is about 3.4 inches more than a yard). The shorter (in our example, 390 nm is shorter) wavelengths have higher energy, the longer wavelengths have lower energy; scientists worked this out in the early 20th C. and established beautiful relationships:
E=hν (energy equals Planck’s constant (6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s) times the frequency – this is known as the Einstein-Planck relationship; the “v”-like symbol is the Greek letter “nu”)
ν=c/λ (frequency equals the speed of light (c=3.00×108 m/s) divided by the wavelength of the frequency in question)
Okay, after that brief definition of terms, let’s return to the implication of this information. We see only light that is transmitted from objects we are facing or that is reflected to us when that light has wavelengths between 390 nm (shorter and with the color “violet”) and 700 nm (longer and with the color “red”). We do not see objects if they only transmit infrared electromagnetic radiation (again, the formal term for light) and we do not see objects that transmit microwaves or radio waves, although we have come to use both ranges of light very handily. So, if an object transmits light at 350 nm our eyes do not “see” whatever light is transmitted at that wavelength – that is in the ultraviolet range, which may burn us although we do not see it. We do not see objects that transmit at 1000 nm (1 micrometer or μm) or 1,000,000 nm (1 millimeter or mm) or 1,000,000,000 (1 meter or m). Light, or more accurately electromagnetic radiation, is transmitted at all of these wavelengths and at all wavelengths between. We do not visually detect any of these transmissions at all, although we experience the information carried by them (microwaves carry cell phone signals and radio waves, pretty obviously, carry radio signals, but both of these are translated from their transmitted form into mechanical energy, which is not electromagnetic energy).
I’ve used the terms wavelength and frequency above. A wavelength is the distance (length) between the peak of one wave and the next wave. You can imagine this as a sine wave or between peaks of waves in a body of water (a glass, a pond, an ocean).
Frequency is the number of times a wavelength passes from peak to peak (or trough to trough or node to node) through a unit of time. In physics and chemistry, the time unit used is the second, 1/60th of a minute. The following chart provides a nicely detailed list of relationships between the class of electromagnetic radiation (gamma or γ at the top with a wavelength of one-trillionth of a meter), the VERY narrow band of human-visible light between near-ultraviolet (NUV) and near-infrared (NIR) in the top third, and extremely low-frequency (ELF) at the bottom – with wavelengths of 100 megameters (Mm) or 100 million meters (100,000,000 m).
To summarize, we are washed with electromagnetic radiation, but we only see a very narrow bit of it – and that bit is so amazingly rich, in spite of its brevity, that we spend our entire lifetimes in awe (or should be) of all that is before us. If you are not in awe, you are not trying.
Here’s another complicating factor in what we see. Our rod and cone cells do not interpret the visible spectrum with equanimity; they are better at absorbing some wavelengths of transmitted light from objects better than others. Here’s a chart that shows this inequality:
And to completely befuddle us all, our sun, center of our solar system, but only one sun among countless suns in the known universe, does not transmit equally in all wavelengths:
This figure shows the solar radiation spectrum for direct light at both the top of the Earth’s atmosphere and at sea level. The sun produces light with a distribution similar to what would be expected from a 5525 K (5250 °C) blackbody, which is approximately the sun’s surface temperature. As light passes through the atmosphere, some is absorbed by gases with specific absorption bands. Additional light is redistributed by Raleigh scattering, which is responsible for the atmosphere’s blue color. Regions for ultraviolet, visible and infrared light are indicated.
See that jagged red bit between 390 and 700 nm? That is energy (expressed as irradiance or watts/m²/nm) graphed against wavelengths. The energy is not a flat line, so the light hitting earth is not represented evenly through that range. Lucky for us, in fact, that some of that energy (although still not equally distributed) is absorbed by layers of atmosphere before it ever reaches us. Nonetheless, the objects we see do not absorb wavelengths from the sun equally in part because wavelengths from the sun are not provided equally within our visible range. The light that is absorbed by objects is not what we see either – we see the wavelengths that are transmitted, a sort of inverse image of what the object absorbs. Our eyes absorb light unequally as well, with some rod and cone cells doing service in some ranges, while leaving dips in the absorbance of wavelengths in other ranges.
But there are also an important difference in sources of light that adds to the complexity of what I’ve said above. There is transmitted light – light that is NOT absorbed by objects around us, but is transmitted to our eyes and interpreted as discussed – and there is emitted light – light that arrives at our eyes without being absorbed by anything else. A red (or green or blue) laser emits a specific wavelength of light. For instance, red lasers are available at 660 and 635 nanometers (nm), green lasers at 532 and 520 nm and blue lasers at 445 and 405 nm. While the quantum mechanism used to create the emission is more complex and involves stimulating a material to produce the emission, the light is emitted and, if looked at carefully (not dead-on), you are seeing each of those wavelengths without absorbance by an object and how your eye and brain interprets them. There is also thermal radiation – the radiation we see from suns and stars, although you only see the unfiltered color of those objects if you are in space without any light-absorbing material between you and the thermal object. Here is a clear explanation of the different types of light – and the associated colors – we see: http://homepages.wmich.edu/~korista/color-bb.html.
In spite of all the complexities of the electromagnetic spectrum and our perceptions within it, it is probably safe to say that the objects we see, whatever their transmitted light (colors), are shaped pretty much as we see them. They are assemblages of various arrangements of atoms, many of them are probably transparent until they absorb and emit light according to the material that compose them, but many of the illusions have distinct shapes due to their chemical compositions and we see things because the shapes – as well as the colors – have come to our eyes and become familiar in our minds.
Oliver Sacks, the eminent (and recently deceased) neurologist, has written about conditions in which the mind registers associations that are not as straightforward as I’ve suggested, but I’ll let him speak about that:
At the end of all this we see what we see, of course, but we see a distinctly earth-bound and human version of what there is to see. Other creatures, if we could understand their conversations, might disagree with us. We tell stories about the objects WE see and will never know the objects themselves in an impartial light.
These biases affect our experiences throughout all our senses. We hear because mechanical energy moves the fine hairs, the eardrum, hammer, anvil, stirrup, semicircular canals, cochlea and vestibulocochlear nerve and transmits some interpreted version of this physical jostling of molecules to our brain. To understand this process a little more anatomically, view the following:
The sound happens, but we “hear” an interpreted version that is limited in frequency (Hertz (Hz) or cycles per second (cps) and mechanical energy instead of electromagnetic radiation). We humans, when our ears work properly, don’t hear much below 20 Hz or much above 18,000 Hz (18kHz) (https://youtu.be/H-iCZElJ8m0 – at my age, having listened to the music I like at the volumes I once loved, I run out of frequency detection at about 8.5kHz).
View the linked video and you will see that each sound we hear goes through anatomical processes that are somewhat like the parts of a microphone.
Operation of carbon microphone. When a sound wave presses on the conducting diaphragm, the granules of carbon are pressed together and decrease their electrical resistance.
As scientists have developed better tools, our understanding of infrasonic and ultrasonic (i.e. sounds below and above our hearing range) are important as communication methods for many of our fellow creatures. Recently, elephants have been recorded using frequencies between 1 and 20 Hz to communicate over very long distances: Infrasonic Animal Communication). Many animals – from bats, dolphins and birds to insects use ultrasonic frequencies for a variety of purposes. In some cases, sound becomes a means of seeing: Ultrasonic Animal Communication. We are surrounded by sounds, but we can only hear some of them and understand far fewer.
There is also the matter of sound intensity. We do not hear sounds in our universe that do not rise above a certain pressure, described by the following equation:
There’s a world of sound that is happening, but because the sounds originate with tiny objects (objects expanding and contracting during the day, insect sounds), we do not hear them unless they are (1) recorded and amplified using special equipment or (2) we can listen to the “signal” in the absence of all the “noise.” Here is a whole page of tiny sounds that we may or may not ever hear.
There is much else to say about sound and the impact it makes on us. That “sounds” like an excellent topic for another post.
Taste and Smell (aka CHEMICALS!)
We smell smells. We taste tastes. We touch things and they touch us back. All of these are interpretations of the universe that surrounds us, but even these notions reside in our minds.
Our tongue is honeycombed with “taste buds” or papillae.
They resemble invertebrate life on a coral reef, but they are in your mouth, on your tongue.
Henry Vandyke Carter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
They translate the foods we eat, which are complicated composites of chemicals found in nature and added by food scientists and manufacturers, into impulses through the afferent (or sensory) nerve.
These sensors are complex chemoreceptors, taking signals that are entirely unlike what the eye and ear translates and very much like what the nose translates and turning those signals into impressions that signify a great range of information to us. For instance, this molecule is known as (-)-menthol (or more accurately, (1R,2S,5R)-2-isopropyl-5-methylcyclohexanol) and is found in the peppermint plant. For whatever unknowable reason, we taste (or smell) this and we think “mint!” It provides sensations that are cooling and slightly analgesic. It interacts with a protein receptor known as transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily M member 8 (TRPM8). But we don’t perceive it as a chemical that interacts with a protein receptor; we perceive it as “cool!” and “minty!” Without the protein signalling our brains that it had a fresh load of menthol on board, there would be no cool and minty.
When we place the following substance in our mouths, we think “sweet!”
We call it table sugar or sucrose or (2R,3R,4S,5S,6R)-2-[(2S,3S,4S,5R)-3,4-dihydroxy-2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)oxolan-2-yl]oxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)oxane-3,4,5-triol.
This also tastes sweet, although it was synthesized by organic chemists and tested by careful methods to evaluate its taste. It is called sucralose, but consumers know it as Splenda®.
By Harbin (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The next molecule has a very unpleasant smell and taste and humans almost always gag when they experience it at sufficient concentrations. It’s a little amusing that we gag when we smell this as it is the principal smell and taste component of human emesis, although it also is found throughout biology and is nothing more than a short-chain fatty acid. When it is present in sufficient amounts, usually following emesis or during the putrefaction of an animal, it is an extremely unpleasant smell. Humans principally react to this taste/odor and then associate it with other experiences they have had (illness, too much “fun,” a dead animal in a field, etc.). It is a smell lodged in the human mind, although we all wish we could forget it.
By Calvero. (Selfmade with ChemDraw.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We taste something, we smell something, sometimes at the same time we taste it, and chemoreceptors in our nose and tongue communicate a set of information via a nerve into our mind and associations are made. We are not smelling or tasting the entire thing, perhaps, we are just tasting the chemical components that are (1) at a sufficiently elevated concentration to grab our attention and (2) are received in some meaningful way by a protein receptor in a manner that triggers the afferent nerve. This stimulates some kind of association in our minds.
An odd thing about taste and smell is that it has a cultural component. There is a fruit called the durian. It looks like this:
Sort of innocent-looking, if you ignore its spiky exterior and kidney-shaped flesh (the good stuff in fruit is called “flesh,” making it kind of creepy for no good reason). Its taste is something that many in southeast Asia love above all other fruits. It is called the king of fruits. British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described it as follows:
The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acidic nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.
Travel and food writer Richard Sterling writes:
… its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.
It is thought the principle reason for the second reaction is that it contains butyric acid in sufficient quantities to make it redolent of “gym sock,” as Sterling says. But here we have a cultural filter in gear. Some of our brains say “ugggh – butyric acid – I want to heave!,” while others say “mmmm – durian – I want to have it now!” Even with chemo-received information, our minds make of it what we individually will. I have looked for a video of people reacting to the smell of durian, but every video had some stagey nonsense or western bias that made it unsuitable. Suffice it to say that opinions differ markedly.
I have a thing about smelling perfume in airplanes, particularly when the airplanes are bucking around in some turbulence; the combination triggers dizziness and nausea and makes it more likely that I will grab for that convenient little bag in the seat pouch before me. That is not the intent with perfume, but for whatever reason intense smells are more likely to trigger emesis than the general smell of an airplane.
And that brings me to something we “smell” and “taste” every day, although we never really do either. We smell and taste more of it than anything else in our lives. It is, of course, air. This complex solution of gases – nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and so forth (as listed in the table below) – have no smell or taste that I can describe. Too much carbon dioxide and we feel short of breath; it has a sort of stale smell (perhaps). Too much methane and we might smell something that reminds us of a petroleum product. Sulfur dioxide is used in some dried fruits and some wines and is not usually considered a pleasant odor, although I would be hard-pressed to describe it. Ammonia is the smell associated with smelling salts – it causes the nose to constrict and our eyes to water – we want no more of that smell! But when these sixteen gases are mixed in something like the percents listed below, it smells of nothing at all. We might smell a wood fire or bakery. We might smell a diesel engine or incident of flatulence, but all of those smells are extraordinary and do not represent what we, as adults, breathe in and out somewhere between 12 and 20 times a minute. It smells and tastes of “all is good, all is normal.” But we also know when something is wrong or unusual or poisonous or dangerous, and it is not always because we have been in that situation before. It is most probably because we know what normal and good is and what it isn’t. Our minds know that something is up.
It’s all about signal-to-noise, with noise being good, old-fashioned, regular air and signal being anything that alerts us to something odd.
Gaseous composition of dry air.
trace to 0.0008
trace to 0.000025
trace to 0.00001
trace to 0.000002
trace to 0.0000003
* Low concentrations in troposphere; ozone maximum in the
30- to 40-km regime of the equatorial region.
Mackenzie, F.T. and J.A. Mackenzie (1995) Our changing planet. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, p 288-307.
(After Warneck, 1988; Anderson, 1989; Wayne, 1991.)
Soft, rough, cold, hot, sharp, dull, furry, hairy, smooth, spiky, watery, oily, breezy, windy, rainy, snowy, painful (dull pain, sharp pain, terrible pain, pain all over), tingly, silky, satiny, creamy,…. All words that start with a finger or a tongue or a foot or a calf or a back or a belly contacting something… well, except for the feelings of pain, which may be acute or chronic, external or internal, slight or severe or so many degrees and types in between. But most of them start with a touch and we find a word in our made-up universe of words to describe how that object is interacting with us. If is oily and we touch it with our tongue, that initial impression may be preceded or followed by taste and smell – does it taste hot or is it hot, does it taste like a salad dressing or does it taste milky, we find a way to add our senses together and tell a story about that which we have sensed.
Medical scientists have a more analytical approach in appreciating our touch. From this article (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK390/), a world of terms comes to help us understand the world we touch. Many of the terms inform the extent of sensation – it’s absence or decrease or excess – even the sensation of touch when no contact has been made. Some sensations are felt within the body or displace the sensation from where it occurs to another location. It is, in some people, as mysterious a sense as any other, with as many subtleties and nuances as any sense.
But most of us use it daily to make our way. We feel the press of our feet as they are pulled to earth, with two foot-shaped bits of this enormous home pushing back at us. We feel doorknobs and car doors and glass doors and bathroom seats and water washing and winds breezing or sliding or pushing by. We feel forks and knives and spoons and dishes as we ladle food into our mouths for it to be touched and tasted and smelled on its way to creating energy.
In the absence of sight, we rely on our retained senses more. We learn to read with our fingers, we pay greater attention to what we hear, we may attend to our sense of smell more vividly, although studies have determined that there is no heightened senses in these realms, just a more vivid attendance to them.
Perhaps most importantly, our bodies tell us stories about the world around us – its shape and size, its presence and absence, the state of the weather, in ways our other senses do not.
But all of the senses together tell us stories, or contort those tales, in ways that inform our lives and make them beautiful to live.
Mind and Brain
The brain contains numerous areas responsible for the functions that permit life. Its most entertaining function, though, is as the seat of the mind. The mind has been a matter of debate since Grecian philosophers and probably before, but the Greek philosophers were lucky enough to have many of their thoughts, wise and not, on-point and ludicrous, passed down through the ages in written form. It is highly probable that there were other adept human thinkers before the Greeks, in locations other than the eastern Mediterranean (let’s define the eastern Mediterranean as all the way from the eastern shore of Italy to the western edge of Egypt, plus at least some hundreds of miles inland from all point in between). It may be that their records were destroyed by some egomaniacal ruler – or perhaps several. It may be that their writings were destroyed in the Alexandrian fire. It may be that their traditions were still vibrantly rooted in the oral tradition, that their sense of mind was far closer to what contemporary cognitive scientists believe than what a few Greeks believed, but we know not.
The mind is where we perform sense synthesis. We take our interactions with what we know of the physical universe through sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and make a world within the lumpy lopsided ovoid of our skull. In spite of the sensual challenges I’ve posed above, many of us, at least as circumscribed by our various cultures, agree that chairs are usually chair-shaped (although sometimes quite oddly), trees and rocks are very much themselves, albeit in a staggering array of shapes, sizes and colors, the sky is sometimes very black, sometimes very grey, and sometimes quite blue, and often enlivened with the glorious hues of sunrise, sunset and countless nuances all day long.
There is a notion of the sensing homunculus, depicted as follows:
In this diagram, somatosensory and motor cortices in the right cerebral hemisphere are flayed open to show (1) where various senses and actions are experienced or directed and (2) how various of those sensory and motive skills dominate our experience of our worlds, internal and external. For instance, the very large hands in each diagram indicates that these are enormously important sensing and manipulating units, while the hip is relegated to inferior sensing and motor importance. The parts and regions of our bodies do not sense all things in equal measure, so yet again we find our minds presenting a distorted version of that which surrounds us.We know what we know, but we know it because we sense it and then make something of that which we sense.
With our other four senses off, we can traverse a space and feel gravity attract our mass, with the enormity of the earth, through the soles of our feet, up through our calves, thighs, pelvis, abdomen, thorax, back, neck, head, and through our dangling hands, arms, shoulders. We can encounter what we call a “wall,” and know whether it is coated in gloss or semi-gloss coating, or in metal, wood, cloth, ceramic, plastic, or at least have an idea from our touch because that sense integrates with our previous experience, which gives color and texture and dimension to objects we experience with touch and names the objects.
But the integration is beyond touch. The sight is beyond seeing. The smell is beyond chemicals. The taste is beyond what touches our tongues. The sound is both the direct sound and all the reflected sounds, but is beyond even these to our experience of these sounds.
Then there is what happens automatically, what happens with time and experience, and what happens that is beyond the automatic and beyond experience. There are thoughts – from the mundane to the ecstatic, from routines to dreams, from those grounded in what we perceive with our senses to those that we fabricate to explain what cannot be adequately understood. Feelings lull and hum and percolate and spike and surge and they are feelings about other beings – plants and animals and microbes – and things that are personal, but often communal or cultural as well.
And, from what I can tell, neuroscientists and psychologists still don’t have a sufficient understanding of how tissue we call nerves and synaptic clefts and electrochemical potentials between those cells and all of the connections among those fibrous tendrils and gaps in all of the various structures of the brain, that bulbous growth at the top of our spines, how all of that stuff and electricity integrates and becomes “who we are” and “what we know” and “what we remember” and “what we think and feel” and “how we become more of what we are every day that passes.” We, the sum of all human knowledge at this juncture in our continuous questioning of ourselves and everything that surrounds us, run out of road – reach an invisible, yet pliable and perhaps yielding, wall in what we can know about all of “it.”
We probe, though. Some of the interesting work being done is happening at MIT. Drs. Rebecca Saxe and Nancy Kanwisher are among the principal workers in cognitive science.
Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other’s minds
Nancy Kanwisher: A neural portrait of the human mind
Beyond these systems, and beyond a description of what physically constitutes a brain and how the general “plumbing” seems to be wired, yet flexible, there are videos such as the following that provide an animated map of where stuff happens (to the extent it is currently understood) and where those experiences are stored (see last parenthetical). Virtually everything else is more ephemeral than neutrinos.
If I were exploring facile notions of reality, I could now suggest that we all live in a reality dictated by a giant computer-mind as posited in “The Matrix” movies or “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream,” the terrifying Harlan Ellison story. But I am not.
Somehow, most of our minds, past or present, agree that our reality is a shared one. There are objects in our world, some of them near (the glasses on my nose, the trees and birds and asphalt and buildings outside) and some far (those objects that Hubble, CHANDRA, numerous others share with us, but that are beyond our immediate senses except for the intervention of powerful optics and false color imaging; the same could be said of sounds (mechanical energy) gathered from afar). It may be that people from from various cultures would describe commonly perceived objects differently – perhaps the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant applies here. If we are not speculating about varying perceptions of common objects, it is fairly predictable that we humans will come up with different explanations for different phenomena – for instance, why does the sun “rise” in the east and “set” in the west?
But this is the thing – whatever it is that surrounds us, whatever we see, hear, smell, taste and feel, our sense of our surroundings is something that occurs in each of our brains, individually. It sounds simple, but it is not. It sounds obvious, but it is so complex that we do not understand it in any completely satisfactory way. It is my belief that human beings get in the deepest trouble available to them when they lean too far out over their skis, so to speak, or when they get their cart before their horse or count chickens before they are hatched – we have a lot of cautionary analogies in our languages for this way of behaving, but we do it a lot anyway.
In 1961, the concept of the unreliable narrator was coined by Wayne C. Booth in “The Rhetoric of Fiction” (a convenient summary can be found here). While this concept applies to characters in fiction going back to Plautus (254 – 184 B.C.E.), the unreliable narrator may be applied to much of what we human beings say and write – in public or private. Vide infra.
There are several kinds of stories.
There are stories people tell each other that are, effectively, catalogs of factual events, subtitled with necessarily subjective commentary on how the storytellers felt during the events. These are simple conversations.
There are stories that attempt to explain events, but abridge the events so that details that are critical to understanding the facts are omitted for brevity or because the storyteller doesn’t understand their import, either to their general audience or to individuals within the audience. These are personal, communal and general histories.
There are stories that attempt to explain events, but fail due to the storyteller’s misapprehension of crucial phenomena within the event, or the event as a whole. These can be told out of good will (the teller truly wants to help their auditors understand the event) or arrogance (the teller understands that they don’t understand, but want to pretend that they do to make themselves seem more powerful in others’ eyes than they currently are perceived). These can be simple stories about complicated events, but can also be histories, autobiographies, biographies and religious stories. It applies to out-dated scientific theories as well (I’m looking at you, Ptolemy and Aristotle).
There are stories that are fictions, communicated to the auditor or reader as such, and that are intended to reveal nuances of life as we have known it or assume it may be some day. Sometimes, they are also just meant to entertain. These are what we commonly think of as “stories.”
There are stories that explain phenomena in words, in pictures, in mathematical formula (the mathematics of these stories are the key to understanding them), that attempt to define how life and objects in the universe we perceive seem to behave. Some of these stories, once rendered to anyone who will read them or listen, become false, become fictions, when our understanding improves – and that is part of the intent of science – that something intended as a fact becomes only partially true or even completely false when data is queried further. Some stories, although constantly queried for improvements, stand up to brutal scrutiny and become as true as anything we can know. There are three types of stories in this category: (1) outmoded hypotheses, theories, and laws; (2) current hypotheses; (3) current theories, over-arching theories, and laws (How Science Works).
Then, of course, there are various kinds of lies. Our world is full of lies and humans aren’t the only ones telling them. Is an insect that looks like a twig or a leaf telling its likely predators that it is a delicious insect? Does an octopus that adapts its color to match a rock telling predators it is an octopus? Do hognose snakes and opossums “play” dead? Does Koko tell the truth when she tells her human companion that a kitten ripped a sink out of the wall? We have taken lying to an entirely different level – but they all provide a basis for understanding why lying occurs among living things. Of interest is recent research into “tactical deception” among primates and why that may play an important, although often annoying, part in how we have evolved.
The whole point of this initial post is that (1) humans receive information from their senses, (2) human brains interpret that sensory information in very complicated ways that we do not completely understand, (3) human brains add information that is non-sensory, e.g. a dream, a feeling, an intuition (correct or incorrect), a belief, a thought, a concept, an hypothesis or two, that may or may not have any basis in reality, except for that individual or family or community or culture (but is usually individual) and (4) because of these factors, we should be more humble about our non-sensory, individualized senses of the universe in which we live, but we are often (very often) not! We privately believe or publicly state personal beliefs or communal/cultural belief stuff without an iota of sensory evidence to support these beliefs – and we believe others should believe as we do, in spite of the utter tenuousness of our belief.
But that’s what we do.
This collection of words, stories concocted of ones and zeros, will discuss this problem and try to come to some rational beliefs about belief. In spite of the length of this introduction, every aspect of what I have introduced above is far more complicated than I have suggested (e.g. electromagnetic radiation, structures of the eye and ear, structure of the brain, etc.). In general, I believe that the complicated stories are more likely to resemble objective truth than simple stories. For instance, it is more likely that it has taken the universe 12 to 14 billion years (note range, which implies hypotheses that are being investigated) to reach its current state than it is that it took 6,000 years. Why? Because the complexity of the process that arrives at that range is based in fastidious data collection and analysis by numerous research groups around the world and is open to change and refinement. It is the best current assessment of available data using a variety of different modeling approaches. It may be wrong – and that’s okay – but it also may be directionally correct and improving all the time.
If anyone made it this far, congratulations! That is all you get, except for all of the stuff compiled above – a congratulatory statement from yours truly. I hope you enjoy other entries to come.
A final note: Just because I believe what I write and believe it is rational does not mean I expect you to do so. I hope you do because I believe it is reasonably well argued, but it would be odd to write about my beliefs and expect that you fall in line. I do not.