BIG IDEAS: Understanding Beyond the Human Scale

The universe at a micro and macro scale simply doesn’t look or work in the same way as the perceptual world of the human. And so, we discount or disbelieve that which doesn’t fall in our perceptual range or explanatory power.

Hominus Limitus

What can a human, without aid, perceive? Here is a short list:

The human eye has a contrast ratio of about 100:1 but a luminance range of about 10 to 10 to the 14th power. So, we can detect small amount of light in the dark but we can’t look at the sun or a lightning bolt. In terms of wavelength spectrum, the human eye has a visible range from 380 to 740 nanometers, which is a tiny portion of the full spectrum of electromagnetic waves. The full electromagnetic spectrum, in order low to high, is gamma radiation, X-ray radiation, ultraviolet radiation, visible light, infrared radiation, microwave radiation, and then radio waves. We can ‘see’ just a short bit in the middle.

What about hearing? What can a human hear? The accepted measure is that humans can hear low and high frequencies from 20 to 20,000 hertz. This is not very good compared to dogs and cats which can hear up to the 45,000 hertz range. Bats go higher than that.

Olfaction describes the human sense of smell, and here, humans score well, but fall well behind the dogs and cats. There are fewer accepted measures of smell, but dogs are thought to have noses 10 to 10 million times more sensitive than of humans. Insects and even fish have smell detection systems far beyond the human.

Stories That Explain

The conclusion is unavoidable; humans are limited. In every way, we fall on a limited scale; 4 to 7 feet tall, no hard protective shell or fangs, eyes that see in a range, ears that hear in a range, and limited smell. We are limited and yet, our minds are formed by our perceptual experience of the world. Naturally, our minds are then limited as well since we tend to believe what we can directly experience.

It is in the creation of tools that humans have no peer. Unlike the other animals, we can expand our capacity with incredible invention. We don’t have a hard shell or long fangs because we can make weapons. In the same vein, we have machines that let us ‘see’ beyond the range of the eye and hear beyond the range of the ear. We can see in to the microscopic world, and peer out in to space at things beyond the capacity of our minds to truly grasp. With the microscope and the telescope, we leave the dogs, cats, and every other animal behind in seeing and understanding.

It is here, where our minds shaped by our limited experience collide with the world as revealed by our incredible tools that a problem arises.

Humans are driven by narrative stories; it’s how we make sense of a complicated world. Our oldest stories often depend on human scale explanations for complex abstract issues. How did we get here? A loving father God, that’s how. Easy to grasp and understand for all.

This tendency, however, gets applied to the new observations we make with our tools. We use our tools to observe beyond our native capacity but then we apply our own stories and limits to explain what we see. A theory is, after all, a story. A scientific theory is a story based on something observed. The big bang, dark matter, quarks, quantum mechanics are all stories based on observations that are imperfect. Science that falls close to our perceptual range we can turn in to proofs and finally, products, like radio stations, microwaves, and the internet.

Much of science, however, is just stories to explain things that we can’t directly observe. These stories are theories based on observation or math, but they are often wrong because the data set or math is incomplete. The observer didn’t know about another layer of complexity that fed in to the phenomenon. Science stories are more often than not based on assumptions that are only half understood or wrong. And while this is OK, real science is always being revised and rewritten, we now have the problem of big S science: Science. And the problem with Science is that it must fit in to our perceptual narrative, complete or not.

Question Not

Because science is the new religion, we really aren’t supposed to question it, but it is quite often not only wrong, it is catastrophically wrong and creates untold harm and misery. Race theory is one scientific story that is complete bollocks, but so was phrenology.

Phrenology was the ‘science’ of studying bumps and formation on the skull which it was believed corresponded to the function of the mind. By measuring various skull formations, conclusions about the person could be made, things like mental capacity or tendency towards criminality. This study had all the same characteristics of science, in that is pretended to be quite precise. There were 19 ‘organs’ of the mind that could be felt with the hands on skulls but of course, this is bogus nonsense. The more serious study of the mind came from these early studies, which is good, but at the time, people were declared to be dumb or criminal based on nothing more than the shape of their head.

Why did something that appears to be so limited persist? Well, people have heads that can be felt with hands and so we just went forward from there. It made sense and so became the prevailing story about people.

The Quantum World And Us

Quantum phenomenon is beyond my scope to explain here and anywhere else because I struggle to grasp it and what it means, but suffice to say that it involves, in both physics and biology, the ‘superposition’ of things, meaning they can exist in a state that is in constant flux. They can be here and there at essentially the same time, and on the micro-level, particles and light have superposition. Quantum computing will be here very soon and it will go beyond the on-off of 1 and zero and allow for information to be stored on a continuum.

When we consider that physics behaves differently at different scale, it should not be surprising that science has struggled to explain or make useful anything not observable at our scale. We’ve come up with theories that may well be proven that exist in the quantum world.

A deeply vexing issue for physics, philosophy, and religion is the issue of human consciousness. the hard core physicists say our brains are our minds and there is no consciousness, just the physics of our brains. The philosopher is not so sure; what if, they suppose, our minds are just projections on to our brains, they ask. The religious scholar is sure our consciousness is not our minds; it’s our souls which will outlive our brains and have some destiny or purpose beyond that of our body.

The scientific philosophers are grappling with the middle ground between the theist and the atheist. There is a world of research that uses quantum ideas to consider the nature of our experience here on earth. We may exist in a physical state, switch to some other state, or our energy that is not measurable in the chemical or electrical sense, is moving in and out of time and place which is normal. Our understanding of the physical is still nascent, and our understanding of things beyond observation, which is far beyond theoretical but not quite hard science and it is not understandable at our human scale. For many, if it’s not something we can understand at our current scale, it’s just not real.

Scientific Faith

It seems to me that it is simply foolish to think that things we can’t experience or prove through the basics of the scientific method means those things don’t exist. Are we supposed to be at the end of knowledge right now? This is it? This is as good as understanding gets? That seems foolish as well, but masses of people still don’t believe in even the possibility of things that we can’t see or prove. Even though no one could see or prove the existence of radio waves just a few decades back, we now accept them as real. But a consciousness separate from the brain? That’s just woo-woo mumbo jumbo! Everyone has ‘awareness’ but still, the lack of physics and proof of consciousness outside of the human brain traps many in the believe that the physical brain about which we can measure and the mind that we experience are one and the same.

And yet, even if we can’t measure consciousness, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a moving and motivating factor. There are humans, and then there is the human experience. There is at least the possibility that they are not the same thing. At the crossroads of science and philosophy, these questions arise and are seriously considered.

Phillip Goff, a professor at Durham University and the author of ‘Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness’ speculates that consciousness is everywhere. He believes it is the product of complex systems processing information and so there are degrees of consciousness. Cells may have consciousness and their amalgamations may have greater consciousness. Humans are tremendous information consumers and processors, but then, trees can consume information and adjust to it. Trees may not be self aware, but they are consciousness in some way, with a life force, a goal, and a will to live.

What if consciousness is a force, and further, a fundamental force of the universe at a scale that we just can’t understand yet? That is not impossible and I suspect, not even unlikely. My personal experience is that the more aware I become, and the better I process information about life, the more consciousness I get.

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