The Pink Elephant in the Room with Six Blind Men is Hiding in a Strawberry Patch

I awoke this morning with a joke in my head.  This is not a particularly uncommon occurrence for me.  I often wake up with a song or scene from a movie inexplicably tumbling around in my brain.  Maybe some left over dream absurdity, who knows?  This morning it was a joke, one I hadn’t heard for a long time, and one I can’t remember ever recalling before this morning.  The joke, as it was told to me, goes like this:

Ever seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch?
No.
See? They’re good at it!

Admittedly not the most laughable joke.  To be frank it sounds like one your grandpa tells and you laugh at out of sympathy.  Yet, for some reason this joke wouldn’t leave my mind.  It was nagging at my brain all morning.  As a fiction writer, I tried to log it away as a possible witty quip that some clever character would say in something I write someday, but I still wasn’t satisfied.  Somehow I was compelled to get to the source of this joke.  Little did I know the rabbit hole I had stumbled upon.

I started of course with a quick google search, and came across a cultural fad from the 1960s called elephant jokes.  Elephant jokes, much like the modern fad of anti-jokes, derive their humor from deconstructing the riddle-joke formula.  This works because we all know this formula, either consciously or subconsciously.  It works by setting up a ridiculous premise and providing a simple, reductive solution that usually involves a pun or a stab at the characteristics of the subject matter.  So a basic joke about an elephant might go like this:

Q: Where does an elephant keep his stuff?
A: In his trunk!

Hilarious, I know.  If this joke isn’t particularly funny to you, you probably have an intellect higher than that of a small child.  Hence the need to add some irony into the format.  Elephant jokes do this by replacing the simple, reductive solution with one more absurd and complicated than the premise, while also usually ignoring the obvious characteristics of an elephant, most commonly its size, for example:

Q: How can you tell that an elephant is in the bathtub with you?

A: By the smell of peanuts on its breath.

Obviously, if an elephant were in a bathtub with you, you would notice for any multitude of reasons besides the smell of peanuts on its breath.  This format has lent itself to some rather offensive jokes in modern time, like this one about Helen Keller:

Q: Why couldn’t Helen Keller drive?

A: Because she was a woman.

This joke is funny (if you have a sick sense of humor) because it casts Helen Keller’s affliction of being blind and deaf as less of an impediment to her ability to drive than her being a woman, a tasteless jab at a gender stereotype.  The fad has evolved in many other ways however, and the elephant has since become the centerpiece for any kind of nonsensical or absurdist humor, such as this website dedicated to all of the absurd methods you could use to catch an elephant in the Sahara desert, including one that extends the strawberry patch joke (though they use tomatoes, but we will translate it to a strawberry patch for our purposes):

Put a strawberry patch in a cage.  The elephant will naturally come to it for hiding.  Close the cage.  The only problem now is to find the elephant in the strawberry patch.

Anyway, it is from this fad that the precursor (that I was unaware of) to the joke I couldn’t shake comes:

Q: Why do elephants paint their toenails red?
A: So they can hide in strawberry patches.

As explained above, this joke defies your expectation of a simple, possibly punny answer with one more illogical and absurd than the premise, as well as playing on the illogic (and comical imagery) of an elephant trying to hide in a strawberry patch, given its size, coupled with the absurd suggestion that painting its toenails red would do anything to help hide it.  Often many of these jokes were strung together to create an outlandish surreality where the normal characteristics of an elephant are completely ignored, which gives us the complete version of the joke that I was unaware was incomplete:

Why do elephants paint their toenails red?
Why?
To hide in strawberry patches.

Have you ever seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch?
No.
See? It works!

The second part of the joke can stand alone though, as it plays on the logical fallacy known as the converse error. This logical fallacy breaks down as such:

If P, then Q.

Q.

Therefore, P.

This is fallacious logic because P is not the only condition that yields Q.  Plugging the joke into the equation (which necessitates a double premise) yields:

If elephants hide in strawberry patches, AND they are good at it, then you wouldn’t see an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch.

You’ve never seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch.

Therefore, elephants hide in strawberry patches AND they are good at it.

This, I believe, is why the joke somehow stuck with me for so long.  The joke blatantly points out this logical fallacy, one that you often encounter in arguments with deluded individuals.  It is the basis for confirmation bias, which is the basis for many delusional theories.  The intelligent design theory, for example, breaks down when we subject it to the logical equation:

If the universe were created specifically for us, then we would be extremely well-suited to survive in it.

We are extremely well-suited to survive in the universe.

Therefore, the universe was created specifically for us.

The Ancient Alien or Ancient Astronaut Theory is also broken down this way, though it involves some syllogism:

If aliens visited our ancient ancestors, then our ancient ancestors would have misinterpreted them as gods.

If our ancient ancestors misinterpreted them as gods, then they would have written stories about them.

Our ancient ancestors have written stories about gods.

Therefore, aliens visited our ancient ancestors.

We could go on with other theories like Creationism or the Illuminati, but I think you get the idea.  The point is that the joke blatantly and humorously exemplifies the illogic of this line of reasoning in an absurd and obvious way, and that’s what makes it such an interesting joke.

 

But the internet wasn’t done with me yet.  I kept digging and found that the common thread of the elephant jokes, the obviousness of an elephant being present in any situation, has long been fodder for comedy and ironic situations.  Wikipedia gives us this bit of trivia:

In 1935, comedian Jimmy Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante’s reply, “What elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper.

It may be from this joke or any derivations thereof that we get the phrase “the elephant in the room,” generally referring to something obvious to the situation that no one is addressing.  It conjures up an image of people sitting around a room in which there is a giant elephant without even addressing the presence of the elephant, almost reminiscent of an absurdist play.  The irony of the situation comes from the fact that to have an elephant in a room without addressing it takes a conscious effort on the part of everyone in the room not to address it.  This phrase has become so common as to be conflated with other phrases, for example “the pink elephant in the room.”  In this case the phrase was combined with the idiom of the pink elephant, which comes from a thought experiment in which a subject is asked not to think of a pink elephant.  Inevitably, and even despite the conscious effort of the subject, he is forced to think of a pink elephant, exemplifying ironic processing.  This psychological phenomenon is also the basis for the popular game you may have encountered in which whenever you think about the game, you lose.  If you’re unaware of this game, you may have noticed some people around you unprecedentedly and unexpectedly complaining, “Damn, I just lost the game.”  It should delight you to know that these people are not, in fact, schizophrenic.

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

Hold on now, this is where it comes full circle.  The ‘elephant in the room’ has also been used by several philosophers to debate our method of gathering information or knowledge known as epistemology.  The most famous of these arguments comes from… I’ll give you three guesses… got it yet… if not, go check the about page…….. You got it!  In an early philosophical discussion with his friend and mentor Bertrand Russel, patron of this very blog Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked if he could at least say with certainty that there wasn’t an elephant in the room.  Sometimes the story involves a rhinoceros instead of an elephant, but Russell’s own autobiography confirms that it was indeed an elephant (granted he wrote this much later in his life).  Unwilling to admit to certainty in any matter, Wittgenstein replied that he could not say that with certainty.  Russell then went to work searching all of the cupboards and under each piece of furniture for the elephant, a sight gag very similar to Durante’s much later use of it.  Ironically, the information superhighway had thrown me down a rabbit hole only to bring me back to a familiar starting point.  I’m not sure if there is meaning in this or not, but I know better than to try and find it.

There was one last stop along this journey, however, seemingly unrelated, but interesting nonetheless.  While exploring this cultural psychological philosophical phenomenon surrounding elephants, I came across a parable I hadn’t heard before, but which goes along with my own philosophy about epistemology and theology.  The parable seems to be shared among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others, but the moral is always the same.  I’ll go ahead and tell my own version for the purposes of this post.

Six blind men are called by the king to his court in which he has placed in elephant.  Each of the blind men is asked to touch a different part of the elephant and confer with each other on what the elephant is like.  The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.  Unable to agree upon the nature of the elephant, the blind men set to quarreling and throwing blows, all to the delight of the king.

The king in this allegory may be God (or for my atheist friends, ‘that which knows the true nature of reality’), who instills within us a desire to know the true nature of reality, knowing full well that we cannot know it.  Each of us attempts to investigate it by our own means, and we quarrel and fight amongst ourselves when we cannot confer on its true nature.  This allegory has been used to describe many things, from philosophy to theology, and even the strange phenomena encountered in quantum physics, such as wave-particle duality.  Ironically, the story has become like the elephant itself, with each of us determining our own interpretation of it, unwilling to confer on one meaning.  This is at once the beauty and the curse of stories, jokes, and metaphors.  When we hear them, we know we’ve learned something, but when we try to put it into words, we create our own controversy.  To tie it all up, a clever elephant joke retells the story this way:

Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

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B.I.T. (Beta Test) Part 1: Memory

This is an excerpt from an attempt to expand an idea I started with this short story.  I’d love as much feedback as possible.  Enjoy!

I think I was part of the last generation that didn’t grow up with BIT. I mean it was around, but nobody really understood how to use it. It wasn’t everywhere like it is now. I’ve seen kids with chips that couldn’t have been older than 10. That’s just crazy. You don’t even know how to use your brain yet. But I guess it’s just progress. I mean I’m glad I have my chip. I think that BIT is probably mankind’s greatest achievement, but I’m glad I had my brain to myself for as long as I did.  Take nostalgia for example.  With post-chip memory it’ll be a thing of the past.  All those little annoyances of an experience that fade away as you get older, they’ll be there in vivid detail, so no nostalgia bias.

See, one of the first mainstream chip features was memory upgrades.  Problem was everyone did them differently.  The first ones all tried basic SDB, sensory data backup, which is basically just recording the standard sense-data to the cloud.  But then to recall the memory, you had to redirect the neural pathway from the hippocampal formation to the memory database in the cloud, which everyone soon found out was a bad idea.  With kids it was ok, their brains are still pretty plastic and open to rewiring.  But in adults, this is one of the strongest neural pathways in the brain.  So strong it would actually override the chip’s rewiring, which consumers saw as paying for shit that didn’t work.  So then they tried storing the sense-data in the hippocampus, but that got tricky too, because the brain already stores the memories itself, so they had to find a way to attach the sense-data to the memory the brain created.  Problem is, the way memory works, the brain only really stores the information from the memory that it feels is important.  Over time, the more you recall the event, the information you use from it once you recall it, that’s what the brain reinforces.  So if you don’t use all the sense-data stored for the memory – and who does? – the brain naturally dismisses it.  Which, again, just comes off as faulty programming.  So then someone said, ‘Well why are we trying to store information where the brain stores memories? Why don’t we just store it where the brain naturally stores information?’  Which, yeah, it’s obvious once you know it, but just no one had thought of it yet. So what we did was send the sense data to the parahippocampal cortices, which is where the brain stores semantic memory (facts, information, data), then all it took was strengthening the neural connection between the parahippocampal cortices and the hippocampus itself, where information is stored and where the memory is stored, which already existed. Just fire a few hundred neurons through it at the startup and the brain automatically reinforces it. Then it stays strong from there because it’s actually useful information to have when recalling memories.

So what resulted was two different sets of memories, pre-chip and post-chip, though technically it should be pre- and post-SDB, but no one says that.  The pre-chip memories are still vague and fuzzy like natural, but the post-chip ones are fully-detailed, vivid.  You can almost relive the moment in a weird way.  What’s really weird is when you recall your pre-chip memories, the recollection gets stored by the SDB processors, so you have a post-chip memory of recalling a pre-chip memory. This really made people realize how faulty pre-chip memory was, because they could look at every time they recalled the memory and see that it changed each time.  And the post-chip hippocampus tries to assimilate all of these different details into one memory, but it can’t.  They’re too different, and they contradict each other.

Anyway, the younger you get the chip, the less of those memories you have.  And kids are getting the chip younger and younger.  Pretty soon they’ll just be putting it in babies and no one will even remember what natural memories were like.  I’m just glad I was born when I was.  I like my pre-chip memories.  Somehow they feel more real, even though they’re actually less accurate.  I think there’s something kind of special about that process.  Maybe it’s just the thought of it being extinct that makes it feel that way, but I don’t know.  Maybe we’re supposed to forget certain things.  Maybe the past is supposed to look different every time you remember it.  I mean, our brains could have adapted to keep memories exactly as they happened, but it didn’t.  I’m not saying there’s a reason, like intelligent design or anything like that, I’m just saying the brain saw some reason to do it this way.  But I guess we know better than our brains now, don’t we?

Where Is My Mind?

 

As scientific research exponentially expands and progresses its reach and grasp, the role of the philosopher has become somewhat marginalized.  In ancient times, it seemed almost a prerequisite for scientists to also take part in philosophy, hence the greats like Aristotle and Pythagoras.  But now, as science becomes much more complicated and all-enveloping, the scientists of today hardly have time to sit back and process the information they are discovering.  As the scientists spend long nights crunching numbers, it has become the role of the philosopher to put the information that science discovers into context for the laymans, those of us unwilling or unable to do the number-crunching.

One long-standing problem of philosophy is that of consciousness.  Since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have tried to find the right place to put consciousness in our logical picture of the world, and have had nothing but trouble doing so.  The majority of our logical reasoning is about the material world, which appears to behave more or less by logical principles.  But when it comes to placing consciousness, philosophers have more often than not steered away from materialism and placed consciousness in the realm of the metaphysical.  But as logical people have continuously done away with the metaphysical, we have tried harder and harder to pull our consciousnesses out of that realm and into our logical picture of the world, but still to no avail.  The philosopher most often cited when it comes to these matters is DesCartes, who championed the concept of dualism.  Cartesian dualism asserts that the only thing we can know exists is our own consciousness, yet that consciousness cannot be said to exist in the physical world.  So we are left with both the empirical view that nothing but our consciousness exists, and the materialist view that our consciousness doesn’t exist.  But dualism is a hard pill to swallow for many.  It flies in the face of our need for everything to fit into a logical picture.  This has caused many people to dismiss consciousness as a by-product of brain function, the end result of data analysis.

Enter neuroscience: a complex and quickly-growing branch of biochemistry that attempts to map the events that occur in our brain under certain circumstances.  The more we map out the processes of the brain, the more advocates of a metaphysical mind have had to strip down the definition of consciousness.  Things like memories, emotions, and even some abstract thinking have now fallen under the category of what can be explained through materialistic neuroscience, causing advocates of the physical consciousness to theorize that one day all of consciousness will be defined by physical processes of the brain.  This becomes the fulcrum of the debate, the materialists claiming that just because we haven’t found a physical explanation for consciousness yet, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, and the metaphysicalists(?) stating that the true definition of consciousness evades physical science.

One contemporary philosopher who has championed this debate is David Chalmers.  Chalmers has done a fantastic job of defining where we can draw the line between the physical and metaphysical consciousness.  He has dubbed these two categories as the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.  According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness describes the entire process of data analysis, while the hard problem has to do with subjective experience.  While materialists claim that subjective experience is the end result of data analysis, Chalmers believes there is a fundamental difference.  This difference is something he calls ‘qualia.’  Qualia is the subjective experience of sense-data.  For example, as your eyes take in a certain wavelength of light, your brain processes that wavelength (perhaps incorrectly as discussed in the Limits of Language post) as the color red.  But the physical data of the wavelength has no correlation to your definition of ‘red’ in your mind.  One simple thought experiment to better grasp this concept is to imagine a person whose color spectrum is somehow switched.  This person would see red as violet, and vice versa, and, similar to the negative of a photograph, all the other colors would follow suit.  Now this person would grow up learning to call what we define as red ‘violet’ and so on.  There would be no way to tell that this person’s color spectrum is switched, because there is no way to observe his subjective experience.

While Chalmers has given us a terrific vocabulary to discuss this debate, I think there is an easier method to understanding the difference between our brains and our minds, and that is the struggle between the two.  We humans have always and eternally waged a battle with our brains.  We know full well that our brain can play tricks on us.  Our data analysis processes can lead us to false information, yet we can be fully aware of it.  For example, when we watch a magician or look at an optical illusion, we are willingly participating in a presentation of the fallacy of our minds.  We are fully conscious of the fact that our data analysis is feeding us false information.  We’ve entered into a reciprocal process of data analysis where we let our sense-data deceive us, yet use the knowledge of the deception of our sense-data to put the illusion into its proper context, so that we don’t think the magician is some kind of demon.  This knowledge of the fallacies of our brain functions permeates the rest of our lives as well.  As psychological theories have entered the common vocabulary, the contemporary person may be well aware of his or her own psychological idiosyncrasies, and behave accordingly.  The common phrase, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,’ is a perfect example.  The knowledge of a fallacy of the mind, and the definition of it as such, allows our consciousness to take that knowledge into account when making a decision, and choose whether or not to act on that fallacy, or rise above it.  For example, if we recognize the times we let our emotions govern our decisions, then the next time it happens we can choose to ignore our emotions and govern ourselves according to our reasoning.

Now none of this unequivocally proves the metaphysical mind, but it is a rather interesting notion that we can be ‘conscious’ of the fallacies of our data-analysis processes.  The question begged here is whether or not this is simply another level of data analysis, or if the knowledge of these fallacies is evidence of a transcendent consciousness.

My Best Friend Is Dead

ws_Alone_in_the_field_1440x900

My best friend killed himself seven years ago. I asked him about it last week. He said he couldn’t even remember doing it anymore. I think his mind is starting to go. He said he can hardly even remember being alive. He can’t remember what it was like, who he was. “It’s like it was a dream,” he says, “an illusion of identity,” whatever the fuck that means. He doesn’t make much sense when he talks now.

He doesn’t talk much though. He likes listening to me talk. I don’t know why. It can’t be that interesting, me just telling him about my life. I mean, he ended his for a reason, so how could he be interested in mine? It makes me feel better though. He never seems to mind. It’s hard to tell. He always just sort of stares off, a million miles away. Not that he wasn’t like that before he died. He was always off somewhere in his own mind. It sort of makes sense what he did.

It took me forever to even convince him to get a chip installed. He said he didn’t like the idea of something tapping into his brain. He always had these moral objections to shit, like an old man. He would say the world was moving forward too fast, and that he wished he could just go the other direction. He came around to everything eventually though. Once he found out he could write his own programs, he was hooked.

The field was the first program we wrote together. It was just sort of to get our feet wet, get used to the programming. It was nothing but a big open field with a huge oak tree in the middle. There were trees lining the outside of the field, but you could never reach them, no matter how much you walked. We set it up on a private server online, so we could go there to hang out without actually going anywhere. It was just a space to practice in, but he really loved it there. He said it was peaceful, unspoiled. When I moved on to writing games and simulations, he kept working on the field. Adding little details like the bark on the tree and the texture of the grass. I didn’t understand the obsession then, but I think he was preparing it. Making it a space he could spend forever in.

“Forever’s not as long as you think it is,” he said last week. I was trying to ask him if it was his plan all along. To spend forever in this field. I can never get a straight answer out of him. “It’s sort of like one moment just got stretched out. That’s all forever is.” I said I didn’t get it. He said, “The past and the future are just delusions. The past only exists because you remember it, and the future only exists because you can imagine it. They’re only in your mind. Without them, all there is is right now.”

“Maybe in here,” I said. “In the real world, the past and the future are very real.” The words sounded mean coming out. I looked to see if he had taken it that way, but he was just stoic, like always, which just made me more frustrated. I wish he would have been offended. At least that would mean there’s some human part of him left. But he just shrugged, said ‘Maybe,’ and kept staring off at the unreachable trees in the distance.

The first time I saw him after he did it, I didn’t even know he was dead. He wasn’t answering his phone, so I just plugged into the field program, hoping I would find him there. I saw him walking around, blank-faced, staring at the artificial sky. He was surprised to see me, but he didn’t mention why. I asked if he wanted to do anything but he said, “I think I’ll just stay here. You should go do something though.” I thought he was just in a weird mood, so I left him alone.

As soon as I came out my mom told me what had happened. They found him locked in the garage with the car running. I didn’t believe her at first, so I went to his house. They were bringing his covered body out on a gurney. His parents were hysterical. I stole up to his room and shook the mouse attached to his computer. The screen blinked on and I saw the sync window was open. He had had it on a timer, giving himself enough time to prepare.

I went back in and found him. I think he knew as soon as he saw my face. I asked him if he was dead. He said he wasn’t sure. He didn’t feel dead. He made me promise not to tell anyone. He said he wanted to be dead, he didn’t want his family trying to come visit him or anything. He said he didn’t think I would show up, but I’m not sure I believe him. Part of me thinks he did it on purpose, like he wanted me to stick around. I didn’t ask him why he did it. I feel like I should have, but I don’t know, it just didn’t seem relevant at the time.

For the first few years afterwards he was the same. I would get home from school and plug in and spend hours talking to him. About my life, asking him what it was like being dead. He had a lot to say at first. He said it didn’t really feel that different, except that he felt more free every day. “Like a huge weight was on my shoulders when I was alive and it gets lighter and lighter every day that I’m not.” He used the word ‘enlightened’ a lot. I didn’t really understand, but he seemed happy, so I didn’t ask questions.

I kept working on the program, improving it. I would ask him if he wanted anything in particular. He would decline for the most part. He would say, “I’m dead. Dead people don’t get indulgences.” Sometimes I would convince him to let me try to make him pot or alcohol. He said it sort of worked. I kept improving it. I think I learned most of what I know about programming from trying to make shit for him. Eventually I tried to make him a girl. The first few were a little scary, just big tits and blank faces. I finally made one that was attractive and functional, and we had some fun with her. But he said it drove him crazy having her around all the time. She was empty. Not a real person. Eventually he stopped letting me make things. He would say “This wasn’t the point. I’m supposed to be dead.” I never knew what to say when he said shit like that. I stopped trying to understand why he did it. Maybe cause I was afraid it would make sense.

He said he doesn’t remember why he did it. He said he hardly remembers being alive. He dug his fingers into the grass and said, “I feel like I’ve always been here. Like I was here for a long time before I was born, and now I’m back. And my life was just a bad dream.”

I tried to ignore the fact that he thought it was a ‘bad’ dream. “But that’s not true,” I told him. “We built this place while you were alive. You couldn’t have been here before.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe we didn’t build it. Maybe it was always here, and we just discovered it. Or it revealed itself to us.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.  We wrote the code.  Without the code, there’s no field.”

“The code’s just a combination of a fixed number of letters and symbols. There’s only so many possible combinations you can make, so the possibility always existed. It was just waiting for someone to find it.”

I didn’t want to argue with him anymore. It was pointless. I’m supposed to feel better when I come and talk to him, but I just felt more confused than before. And his stupid fucking blank stare just made it worse. Just an off day, I thought. Try again tomorrow.

He asked me about college when I was there. I’d tell him about the parties, the drugs, the sex. I could detect a little bit of jealousy in him the first couple years. I almost thought I had him regretting his decision. But by the time I was getting ready to graduate… I don’t know. It’s not like he lost interest. He would still ask me about it, but it was sort of like he was just doing what he thought he should. He would sit and listen, always with that far off stare. It got harder and harder to understand him. He spoke in generalities, like some Buddhist monk. I’m not sure I understood it all, but it made me feel better. He helped me through a lot. I guess it sort of became routine, like a meditation or yoga or something. I ended up needing him, when I thought it was the other way around.

I graduated and got a job writing virtual reality games. The industry was just taking off at the time, and I had more skill than most. People were doing a lot of innovative stuff. Virtual physics simulations and genetic programming. He liked hearing about that. He was always better than me at programming. He had a passion for it that I could never understand. He could have been great. Eventually someone asked the question. I don’t know when I first heard it. Maybe the news or something. But pretty soon everyone was talking about it. What would happen if your body died while you were plugged in? No one’s had the balls to try it and find out. Except him.

I’ve kept my promise though. I’ve kept my mouth shut. I don’t know what I would tell them if I could. Is he real? He seemed real at first, but now I don’t know. He’s not really himself anymore. He says he realizes that he was never himself, but that he was all selves, tricked into thinking he was one self. He says that’s what all people are. “One soul trapped in a billion bodies.” That’s what he said the last time I talked to him. He said, “Never forget that. It’s the most important thing you can know.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Maybe someday I will.

The next day, when I went in, I couldn’t find him. I stayed in for about three hours, waiting for him to show up, but he never did. I can’t imagine where he went. Logically, it doesn’t make any fucking sense. Maybe he’s still in there somewhere, wandering around in those trees I can never reach. It’s been a week now, and still no sign of him. I’ve been going in every day, just in case. I’m starting to think he was never there at all, that maybe I was just imagining him all these years. I guess I’ll never really know.

I hope he comes back one day. I hope someday I can understand all those things he said to me. Maybe I’ll see him when I die. I’m not really sure how all that works. Is he in heaven now? Did he finally actually die? I hope so. Either way, it’s going to be hard living without him. I’ve gotten so used to it. Maybe I should still go in, just sit in there and talk. Maybe he can still hear me. Probably not, though. But it would make me feel better, which is all he ever wanted anyway.

The Limits of Language

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Remember when you were learning the colors as a child? Of course you don’t, you were much too young. But imagine trying to teach a child colors. What would you do? You would probably make a little flashcard or something of each of the seven primary and secondary colors and show them to the infant over and over again. And that would probably work. But take a look at the color spectrum below.

Can you tell me where the red ends and the orange begins? Drawing a definite line on that spectrum becomes pretty difficult. And there are literally an infinite amount of wavelengths along that spectrum that we whittle down into seven categories. So why do we do this?

A recent study into developmental psychology shows that infants are more perceptible to subtle changes in hue than full-grown adults. This is because they have not yet been taught to categorize colors into the seven categories that we have words for. More accurately, infants process colors using the right hemisphere of their brain, the one responsible for creativity and imagination, but adults process them using the left, the hemisphere more concerned with analyzing language and data. This means that learning the names of colors actually re-routes our perception of them to the other side of the brain, and actually causes us to become effectively “color-blind” to subtle differences in hue that infants can perceive much more easily.

This phenomenon is called linguistic relativity, and to fully understand it, let’s try another thought experiment. Imagine that instead of a human baby, you were dealing with a computer baby. Now this baby thinks like a computer; it retains information instantly and processes data quantitatively as opposed to qualitatively. How would you teach it the colors? You would have to draw a line on that spectrum and define each color as being every wavelength between two of those lines. But that’s not how we want our computers to process colors. We want them to be able access every wavelength along the spectrum separately, so we give them a system of numbers that correspond to certain amounts of each primary color. But if this is a more accurate way to process color data, why do we humans use names like ‘fuchsia’ or ‘magenta’ to signify slight changes in hue along the spectrum? Why do we use qualitative language to define a quantitative world?

The answer is that we do not think quantitatively. To even understand a numerical system, we have to assign characters to each quantity, the same way we assign characters to represent sounds that our mouths make that in turn represent objects around us or even abstract concepts. We need a language in order to understand anything. So how did this come about? The obvious assumption is that language develops naturally out of a necessity to communicate with each other. Many animals make different sounds that mean different things in order to communicate to each other, but can we really consider this ‘language’ the same way we use ours? These animals cannot use their language to discuss abstract thoughts or work out solutions to problems, and I think it’s safe to assume that they’re simple language does not affect their perception in the same way ours does. So if language came out of a necessity to describe the world around us, at what point did it start informing our perception of that world? The change from how we process colors as infants to how we process them as adults may be a good indication. Our brain has a fantastic way of sending signals so that they cross as much of our brain as possible. The visual data you take in through your eyes gets processed in the very back of your brain, and the signals actually criss-cross, with your left visual field being processed by the right hemisphere of your brain and vice versa. This, along with the shift of the color processing from one side of your brain to the other as you develop, is a good example of how the brain works. It likes to send information to all corners of the brain, so that those separate parts can all collaborate on processing the information and informing your perception of it. Thus we think using associations. When we see something, we associate it with other things we’ve seen, heard, felt, learned, or experienced. This is why symbols and language are the basis of our understanding of the world.

But why do our brains work like this? Wouldn’t we be more efficient and productive if we processed information the same way a computer does? Why would we evolve in a way that is counter-productive to our survival? It may be that there is something more important and essential to our survival in drawing associations between vastly different things, than simply processing the data in front of us logically. If we start to look at how we perceive the world, the limits of our perception become clearer and clearer. Take the visual spectrum as an example again. Humans see the spectrum as starting with red and ending with purple. These are the lower and upper limits of what we interpret as visual light. However, the spectrum continues far past those limits. We know that infrared and ultraviolet light can be seen by animals such as insects and snakes (and Graboids), but we cannot see those wavelengths ourselves without special instruments.

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Our bodies interpret infrared light as heat and ultraviolet light actually damages our eyes. But the spectrum goes on from there. We use microwaves to heat our food and radio waves to send signals across vast distances. In the other direction, we use X-rays to see through our own skin and Gamma rays can mutate our bodies in disgusting ways. So we interact with different wavelengths of the same energy in vastly different ways. Thus, the data we receive from the outside world is always perceived qualitatively, i.e. as different effects on our bodies, though in a logical world, they are simply numbers on a scale. So it would be counter-intuitive for us to simply perceive the world as quantitative data.

And so we have invented a new language called science by which we attempt to understand the quantitative nature of the world.  Science allows us to broaden our perspective, because it breaks the barrier of what can be put into words and what can’t.  Those aspects of our universe that can’t be described with words are put into numbers and formulas that allow us to interpret data in a way that we can understand it.  There is a misunderstanding that science is the ‘language of the universe,’ but this is not so.  The universe does not have an inherent way for us to understand it, science is merely our attempt to do so.  If science were the language of the universe, we wouldn’t have the discrepancies that we encounter when we try to merge our scientific laws together.  Einstein was convinced, as are many others still, that one day we will find a Unified Field Theory, basically one scientific theory that successfully describes all of the fundamental forces and elementary particles.  However, the more we search for this theory, the more we find that scientific fields do not merge easily.  Physics work differently at an astronomical level than they do at our level, and even more differently at the subatomic level.  As we delved deeper into quantum mechanics, it became more and more obvious that scientific laws don’t apply at every level of the universe.  Subatomic particles are known to pop in and out of existence, exist in two different places at one time, and behave as waves when they are in fact particles.  This has led some theorists to believe that there is no unified field theory, that each field of science only applies within that field.  This theory makes sense if we think of science as a language.  Just like you couldn’t expect to speak English and have someone who only speaks Spanish understand you, you can’t expect to apply quantum-level science to everyday life.  The two languages are not only different, they are mutually exclusive.  So the more we develop our scientific language, the more we will understand of the universe, but we will never be able to fully comprehend its vast intricacies.

So if our understanding of the world is based on our language, how can we begin to understand the inexplicable, that which cannot be put into words? Wittgenstein (this blog’s honoree) had a simple answer for this. He said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Meaning quite simply that if you can’t logically talk about it, don’t. Any attempt to do so is an exercise in futility. This may seem like an easy way to brush off the question, but if we put it into context with the rest of Wittgenstein’s life, it may give us some more insight into what he meant. Wittgenstein devoted his life to logic and analytical philosophy. He was convinced that logic by its nature could solve all problems of philosophy. Wittgenstein’s biggest achievement was his Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, which he wrote in the trenches of the First World War. The Tractatus is a short, enigmatic puzzle box of a book that reads more like an instruction manual than a book on philosophy. His philosophical statements are put simply, with no explanation or examples of what they mean, because frankly Wittgenstein didn’t give a shit whether anyone understood it, even his best friend and mentor Bertrand Russell. He starts off by saying that, “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” With no examples, allegories, or any other helpful tools to decipher the meaning of this, we must simply read on and hope that it will all make sense soon. He goes on to break the world down into what is and what is not “the case,” meaning facts that make up the world are either true or not true. With these two ideas put together, we can start to see how Wittgenstein saw the world. Instead of seeing a red ball on a table and saying, “There is a red ball on a table,” Wittgenstein would have us say, “The fact that a ball exists is true, the fact that a table exists is true, the fact that the ball is red is true, and the fact that the red ball is on the table is true.” This view of the world as being made up of facts instead of objects, once extrapolated, is a beautiful way of merging the world of abstractions and the material world into one world of logical thoughts that is entirely dependent on our thinking them and putting them into words. And yet when we come to the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein starts to contradict himself. He says, “The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy.” This almost seems like a self-abasing joke at the end of his masterpiece. After a long discussion about philosophy, he comes to the conclusion that the only things that can be talked about logically are things that have nothing to do with philosophy at all. He confirms this with his statement, “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.”  This new view of philosophy as being ultimately futile came to characterize his later work.  He described all of philosophy as mere “language games” which, when played, may help us understand the world, but in and of themselves are meaningless.

And so it is the task of a person seeking the truth not to let language limit his perception, but rather to enhance it.  This means fully understanding the scope and purpose of language, but also realizing its limits and its effect on our comprehension of the world around us.  Let us never forget that things are not limited by their definition, but rather that our perception of that thing is; and that we may never fully understand the universe, but we may better connect to it by dismissing our definitions of it.