I’ve always had an affinity for free thought and the act of pondering. In high school, my favorite teachers were those in philosophy, history (a subject I’d only come to appreciate in recent times), and English. They were the ones that could facilitate conversations that went far beyond the realm of, say, the relatively limited world of what algebra offered.
But it was not until recently that I really started to explore that part of me a little more thoroughly. I have picked up an incredibly fulfilling reading habit, usually paired with cigar. My explorations into political policy, culture, sociology, psychology, and philosophy are my life blood, my quiet passion. I spent my 20s in the haze of addiction — a haze I believe millions of Americans unknowingly live in— but from where I sit now, I’d take an evening deep thought and conversation over more, call them primitive, pursuits.
Part of this recent awakening in me came from the most unassuming of places: just the simple acknowledgement and awareness of the limits of human perception.
Six Limited Senses Mean One Very Limited Mind
I’ve long known, as most do (I hope), of our limits in our sense of sight; light visible to humans makes up just a fraction of one percent of all light energy. For the 99.9% of waves that exist, our eyes cannot detect them at all.
Human hearing is infinitely better, comparatively speaking. While the sound wave spectrum is theoretically infinite, we can hear about one fifth what all Earth’s organisms can hear. This, too, is of little surprise, if you’ve ever played with a dog whistle, or app.
It stands to reason that all of our senses are deeply limited, the question is not if, but how much.
It was this line of thinking that landed me on a somewhat profound observation: if each of the human senses was incredibly limited then so too would be human perception at large. Perception, comprehension, all that it is to be human, all we can possibly know, all of it, deeply limited by our mere existence.
That lead me to (at least) two practical implications that I’ll share here.
With all human senses and perception vastly limited, it means that all we can ever know is just a fraction of what there is to know. That the things we take for absolute truth — gravity, matter, what it means for an object to exist — are just our best approximations.
And if all of our foundations can be called into question, than all of the things that we’re most passionate about — opinions, values, political leanings — become comically uncertain. We’re just doing the best we can with the very limited knowledge we’re able to gather.
It should be pointed out that I am far from the first person to come across this idea, my own journey shaped by those that came before me. This idea is loosely the basis for a number of very popular ideas in classical philosophy.
The Allegory of The Cave
In Plato’s classic Allegory of the Cave, he muses that we are all but staring at shadows of true existence. As if we were seated in a cave, our backs to the opening to the light of the real world, observing the shadows cast on the cave wall as animals passed by, our entire reality is comprised of shadows, and so it would be our entire reality.
More, if someone were to come tell us of the true nature of things outside the cave, we’d almost certainly discount and ridicule their radical ideas — all evidence for all we have ever known had come from shadows, so the idea of those not being true reality would be so unsettling we’d surely reject it.
So we should remember that all we see are but shadows, approximations and representations of true reality, bound not by a cave and light, but by the limits of our senses.
Je Pense, Donc Je Suis
Another of philosophy’s heavyweights came nearly two millennia later, a Frenchman named Rene Descartes. First a mathematician and physicist with ample advanced knowledge learned, Descartes began to ponder what it was to actually know. Math and physics are little more than theories which are built upon one another, tested and proven.
But Descartes became aware that even the most foundational theories, ones that are accepted as assumptions of our reality, we not immune from being toppled with the passing of time and greater understanding.
That driving desire for a starting point of truth in knowledge is best expressed by Descartes himself in his very suitably and elegantly titled work ‘Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences’:
“I entirely abandoned the study of letters (ie the pursuit of degrees, “BA, BS, MA, etc.), Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world…”
In other words, “what can I conclude from just my own flawed perceptions of the world around me?”
It was from here Descartes crafted his most famous maxim — possibly, next to maybe one carpe diem, the most famous quote in all of philosophy, originally written in Descartes native French as “Je pense, donc je suis”. This would later be translated and popularized in Latin as “Cogito ergo sum”; in English, “I think, therefore I am”.
Descartes goes on to extrapolate several other “conclusions” from this observation, some, like the one to follow, quite reasonable, while others, like his proof for God, seen are more dubious). He observed that others appear to also be having this conscious experience, and theirs appeared to be independent of his own, so they too likely exist.
Did You Know? The Matrix Trilogy, the idea of being unaware if you live in a reality or a dream being manipulated by someone else, is based upon Descartes’ works?
But every step beyond knowing one exists is nothing more than the strongest of inferences, inductive reasoning — there’s no way to really know that your mind is not fabricating, dreaming, every part of your reality, including everything and everyone in it. All you know is that you do, in some form, exist enough to question what you know.
Two lessons, one from classical philosophy and one from modern philosophy to remind us to respect and acknowledge our incredible limits, and the humility that should bring.
The second practical application I took from the observations of a limited human perception and comprehension is something I wish I could share with every person — and the inspiration for both the act of my writing, and sharing it: a profound sense of wonder.
If I know that all I can ever know has such narrow limits, paradoxically, that pushes me not to nihilism and futility of knowing I can never reach absolute truth, but to seek the edges of those limitations, daring to push our current understanding ever closer to the boundaries which we can never break through.
It’s hard to explain or even conceptualize why this inspired such wonder and determination in me, but I think it must come down to the foundational human desire to explore. Be it the horizon, the seas, the stars or our minds, humans have an incredible desire to explore, for no other reason than to explore.
I often ponder why men were willing to board ships and point them to the edge of the horizon, little to gain beyond satisfying their own curiosities. The unknown fascinates us in a way, so far as we can tell, that no other organism feels.
Once I realized that human knowledge wasn’t finite, that the accumulation of knowledge would always be more abstract than objective, it made this quest the only thing that really mattered. When thinking that humans were capable of eventually understanding all there is to know, progress felt like a slow moving percentage, ever inching up. But when it slid to feeling like the exploration of our physical universe, nearly unbound in every direction, and a limitless unknown that lies beyond that, the desire to live on those boundaries was ignited within me. It started within me a journey I happily take knowing there is no destination, only a valuable moment of cosmic time for me to enjoy the experience first hand.
All that from the moment I really stopped to think about what it meant that there was such a thing as “visible light”, and thus so much that was not visible to us.