You’re out in the yard and movement past the fence catches your eye. Something is on the other side, you tell yourself. An animal, large, fur rippling in jagged orange and black patterns. You can only see it through the interstices between the slats so you can either see a leg and paw, or musclebound torso, or a section of tail. You start to think it could be a tiger. Bengal. You’d know for sure if you saw its face. And you think with a start that you do not want to see the face of an adult Bengal tiger staring back at you between the slats of a wooden backyard fence.
But even if you see the face you haven’t seen the whole tiger. You have put together the parts you’ve seen and filled in the gaps with educated guesswork and constructed a theory for a tiger. Think about that. There are parts you haven’t seen – fangs, claws, a killer instinct – but you are certain they are there. You don’t even think of them separately, they are part and parcel of the thing we call tiger. There’s no such thing as a tiger without fangs and claws, right? So if that creature really is a tiger you have to assume it comes fully equipped.
Basically, you believe in things unseen because they fill in the gaps between the things you can see. That which we perceive must necessarily be filtered through what we think we know and how we see the world. It’s how we identify animals, it’s how a mess of vocalizations becomes speech, it’s how we recognize patterns even when sections are slightly modified or missing entirely. Sure, sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes what we thought was a real tiger was just an amazing throw rug recent from the wash and left hanging outside to dry.
But leaving the idea of imminent danger, or even of a physical experience, the idea of a fence forcing a limited view can carry on to other areas of intellectual considering. We know that there is something in the gaps between what we can see, we know that something will affect what we can see and we can make some adjustments in anticipation for it, even if we don’t know its precise nature. Sometimes.
Sometimes the actual physical make up of our brains prevent such adjustments. Optical illusions fool the brain in a profound way even if we know we can’t be seeing what we think we’re seeing. Sometimes our ability to imagine what goes in those interstices is severely impacted by such conditions as exhaustion or prevailing neurochemistry, to say nothing of physical or experiential limitations. Maybe you are colorblind, or maybe you’re used to assuming the neighbors have spectacular taste in throw rugs.
The saying “past is prologue” invokes the idea that what came before is a model for what will come next. But the idea that there is nothing new under the sun doesn’t leave any room for the possibility that we can only see things within the scope of what we’ve already encountered. Maybe orange and black striped fur viewed in-between slats of a fence is something otherworldly, something our grasp of physics – energy and mass – just doesn’t allow for. Maybe we ignore extraneous details in order to be able to deal with the parts we’ve seen before.
Is it a tiger? Is it a throw rug? How can you find out without exposing yourself to greater risk than you already have? We put our observations in the employ of our intellect to establish probabilities and then act according to them. Instinct isn’t exactly this. Our pre-human antecedents didn’t study the sights and sounds. They heard a roar and they scampered up the trees to the highest branches. But we’re not so great at climbing anymore (most of us) and it would be pretty dumb to be afraid of the backyard because of goofy rug, right? To give the monkeys from way back when some slack, there wasn’t much of a market for rugs with pictures of tigers on them. And that’s just the thing about instinct, when it’s correct it seems reasonable. Until we can grasp an instinctual response with our intellect it doesn’t make sense and we’ll almost want to remove it from the pattern of things that should be done. An instinctual response that doesn’t fit into the narrative of cause and effect as we understand it is a strange one-off that we’ve learned to ignore. No matter how much the little hairs on the back of our necks stand up.
So anyway, a construction of details into a coherent whole. A narrative. That’s how we humans get on in the world, for better or for worse. It may slow our reaction time and encourage us to invite and create extraordinary amounts of complexity to our system of making choices, but that’s just how we are.
Having more information is like widening the interstices and narrowing the slats. You see more of what’s beyond the fence and have do less guessing. But we only sometimes have that luxury. Often what it comes to is doing better guesswork and running experiments that will indirectly confirm what we imagine to be on the other side. Any and all of these approaches come down to building a narrative.
I mean, at least you can see a tiger. You can even touch a tiger in certain cases, but that will probably quickly turn into you getting touched by the tiger and what lies beyond that is a certain undiscovered country….
But can you see through the interstices to view yourself as your mother’s child? Can you see the very shape of your eye that requires you to wear corrective lenses? Can you see the defensiveness that your ex-partner accused you of as a prelude to dumping you?
When it comes to ourselves it’s perhaps not correcting for the parallax view we have through fence interstices, maybe it’s more like sitting way too close to a jumbo movie screen. We’re watching the sort of high action film that means there is something happening on every inch of the screen, but we can only clearly see one section at a time, so we miss what happens elsewhere. In order to think coherent thoughts about ourselves we have to tune out the details that are present but not directly helpful to the section with which we are concerned. If it’s your relationship with your mother that is on your mind, the matter of your physical existence and your relationships with other people aren’t irrelevant and in fact may be consequential. But if you really want to focus, perhaps because you’re on the phone with her, you have to pay attention to the section of your reality that is right in front of you. You may have to reconstruct a narrative on the fly that doesn’t bring in all the other details of your life, but that way you can pare down to the manageable elements.
It’s your relationship that’s on the other side of the fence now and the details, experiences and patterns specific to your mother’s narrative are hidden behind the slats.
Biological aside: Have you ever noticed that you can make out details in a room with low light better than the details of a tree when it’s sunny out? Sunglasses make the light easier to deal with – or better yet they keep sunlight from falling into the eye. I’ve had a lot of trouble with my eyes and at various points I’ve had to have them dilated for weeks at a time. It’s not just a pain, it’s actually dangerous for me to drive without sunglasses during the day. The sunlight puts visual “noise” in my eyes that in normal times would have been filtered out. Let me put that another way, the sunlight is always there. But when I’m in good health my irises will constrict the pupils, keeping light that gets in to a tolerable level, allowing my brain to distinguish from all the various sources of light, effectively letting me see what is around me within normal parameters.
The whole existence of our cognizance is both sussing out more information than what’s available at first blush and filtering out details that could occlude the information we seek. We’re detectives continually trying to solve the case of the moving whatsit behind the fence.
But! We are also willing dupes. We shut out details that mess up the story we’re telling ourselves. That can sound like we regularly exercise self-delusion (and for the most part I would hold that we do, but that’s a different essay), but the truth is that we have to have patterns and symbols that simplify the subject.
Like any good nerd I watched Star Trek (Next Generation was *my* generation) and no matter where they went a lot of the business that the aliens they encountered was routine across the great myriad of species. For example, the individuals always had a domicile of some sort to retire to, for rest, for time with their families, for their meals, for relaxation. It was a clear delineation from the public spaces which demanded a different sort of demeanor – diplomacy or bluster, cunning or thoughtfulness, depending on the characteristics of the species. But I could rely on the pattern to bring the characters to their homes. The place where they would take off their public demeanor and be themselves – the selves that would inevitably drive the episode’s plot.
This human habit of creating a home is to species-wide, and more specifically socialized than merely claiming territory. We may find it interesting to investigate just how our houses vary around the world and across eras, but we’ve always gathered our tribes to us and created homes since the times when we first inhabited caves. To this day we can meet a stranger from any part of the world and imagine he has something in the way of personal or familial territory, some place that is his, where strangers ought to request invitation to enter. We can’t see it, short of specific circumstances where we go to the stranger’s home, we don’t know of it – he could be homeless, in fact – but that pattern of living is long and profoundly rooted. So profound is it we just don’t think twice of tossing off “when you go home tonight” in conversation, or “back home I…” – it never crosses our minds that we might have to explain this “home.”
In other words we shut out the details behind the word, taking for granted that the meaning will be evident without an investigation of it.
That leads to long established patterns becoming a symbol unto themselves. We go home, where we can relax. Home becomes synonymous with relaxing. Home is a symbol of relaxation.
But what if we’re trying to get through a situation where the territory is not so well known? We desperately need symbols then. And symbols have to make sense, and the sense they make has to be *our* kind of sense. What good is a map from Tang dynasty China to anyone but a scholar of ancient China? If we want to get from point A to point B we need to have a way of knowing the lay of the land – and that “knowing” is inherently predicated on the knowledge being in a form we can use. If we don’t already have experience, and visual cues aren’t available (the sun rising in the east, ducks flying south for winter don’t help when it’s noon on a day in July in New York City), then it’s time for established symbols on a map and/or a guide who speaks our language.
We don’t have time to learn everything about everything about the location in which we’ve found ourselves. We take the little we know and recognize and press on.
And knowing everything about our location won’t necessarily answer the questions we have. We can be an expert on a locale, a history buff for our town. But if we are to solve a crime we have to ignore a lot of detail and focus on the facts that we deem relevant. If we decide to play Sherlock and try to apply forensics and epistemology only to deduce how a crime happened, we have to admit that a lot of what we believed we knew was actually a priori knowledge and quite possibly only accepted guesswork regarding things perceived but not experienced.
The skilled detective will still make certain assumptions, but they will be reasonable. For example, the chances are overwhelmingly good that a perpetrator can’t pass through walls, but must cross a window or door to go from one room to another. Crossing out the possibilities of phasing atoms through a wall isn’t delusional but in fact totally rational. (That is, until Star Trek becomes a reality. Just sayin’.)
On the flipside to playing the detective is spectating constructed narratives. That is, theatrics. Presenting facts and events in a particular fashion that guides the viewer to a coherent narrative. If you’ve ever been to a large theatre, the sort with a big frame around the stage (which we call a proscenium), you can just guess that behind the proscenium, beyond the small side curtains (legs), is the backstage material that makes the show work, actors loitering, waiting for their entrance, stage hands bustling to having props and set pieces ready to go on, etc. If you’re not actually watching a show you can well imagine that it is there. But in the case of watching a show, if it’s any good, you should find yourself forgetting or not caring about it. It’s a failure of the show if you can’t.
Same with watching a movie. Those are actors moving and speaking so that the camera will catch their intentions and feelings. But you shouldn’t be aware of the intermediary of the camera, only of the story developing between the actors.
We tune out these realities, these technical details, to take in the presentation. That thing we call art. And those of us who call ourselves artists don’t always want the audience to take in the technical media over the essential expression that we created. (Usually.) So we build a frame – sometimes literally – and train the audience to pay attention only to what happens inside of it. Anything outside is not a part of the artwork.
But to take the idea out of theatrics and artistry, we tuck away knowable details for various reasons. Nefarious and exploitative efforts are obvious. But sometimes we guide a narrative because there has to BE a narrative. For example, if you have a job interview everything you present needs to support the idea that you can do the job at a such a proficient level someone will pay you for it. You will dress a certain way, any material you carry should be organized, perhaps as a portfolio, your speech will be respectful and to the point, you will corral your demeanor to be cordial and pleasant but not casual.
And on the receiving end, the person interviewing you will consider what you present to see if it fits the opening. They may well imagine your demeanor and dress would be different at home or at the beach, but, assuming professionalism on their part, they probably won’t waste any time thinking about it. Who you are at Thanksgiving dinner is probably irrelevant to the narrative of your professional persona and would just distract from the effort of an interview.
In such a scenario, you intentionally frame your professionalism. Now YOU are behind the fence and the slats hide away your home life, what a terrible cook you are, the unpleasant relationship you have with your siblings, even the mistakes you made at your first job when you weren’t clear on the difference between being welcoming and being casual. The interviewer will know that framing is happening and accept they are receiving a narrative. That’s okay, it helps them understand the data of “You as professional” that they are getting. Data of “You” as anything else just confuses things and wastes time.
It may just be a story I’m telling myself to pass the time, but the occurrence of narrative as the essential key to understanding our predicament comes up again and again, frequently unintentionally. In the coming posts I’ll be writing more on how filtered perceptions give us clarity (or, sometimes, an illusion that’s easier to process). The parts will be: Observation – things unseen but perceived, artistic truth, and how brains realize different truths, Neurobiology – physical processing, what science tells us of how brains perceive reality and see into the future as well as how they are startled by the most expected events, and Singularity – the presence of all, intentional acceptance of filters, for good or ill.
I’ve been struggling with these blog posts for ages and I know I could keep slogging away studying and writing for ages more. But it’s time to send a little something out into the world.
And, hell, I’m only writing about reality. It’s not like it’s something important.