World As Text

 

Imagine that due to a congenital condition you were born blind and lived the first twenty years of your life without ever knowing what seeing feels like. It would be wrong to say that you were living in the “darkness” — the term darkness simply means the absence of light — to you, everything that has to do with light is an unfamiliar sensation, something you have never experienced. One day, thanks to advances in medicine and science, a breakthrough operation restores your sight. You open your eyes and for the first time see the sun, the faces of friends and family, the doors, the chairs, the windows, the flowers…

Except that none of this would happen. In fact, you would experience a strange, overwhelming, disorienting sensation. It would be much like if you suddenly started “seeing” the Earth’s magnetic field the way some birds do or feeling the electric capacitance of nearby objects (an ability common to sharks and other species). The new sensation is so disconcerting that people whose sight was restored in adulthood often have to wear blindfolds for a very long time and, in some cases, even have the operation reversed.

Restoring sight to people whose blindness is inborn is a very different challenge than restoring sight to those who lost it due to accident or illness. In one case, extensively documented by MIT scientists, a woman regained her sight after a successful surgery to remove dense cataracts that obstructed her vision since birth. It took her six months to learn to recognize the faces of her siblings and more than a year to recognize everyday household objects. In fact, most ophthalmologists believe that, past a certain age, treatments of congenital blindness are unlikely to succeed even if the physical sight is restored.

The reason for this is that the brain of someone who has never experienced sight is simply not wired to interpret the incoming new signals, much like your brain is not wired to sense the magnetic field or electric capacitance. Though the eyes see the incoming light, the mind does not how to make sense of it. To quote philosopher Henry Bergson, “the eye can only see what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
What does the following quote say?

thera inins 
pains taysma 
inly int
hepla in

 

It might take a couple moments to figure it out, but if you mentally remove all the spaces it would soon become clear. Note that all the information was there to begin with, and your eyes saw the same exact black-on-white sguiggles even before you understood what the quote says. The physical world stayed the same; the only thing that changed is your mind’s point of view, the way it groups the squiggles.

Similarly, a congenitally blind person whose sight was restored, let’s call her Jane, sees the same faces, chairs, and windows as the doctors who are in the room, but her mind does not know how to parse what it sees. Just like you had to figure out where the word “rain” ends and where the word “spain” begins Jane has to slowly and painstakingly learn where the object “table” ends, and where the objects “wall” and “vase” begin. There are many moving lines, spots, stripes but Jane’s mind cannot tell whether a particular dark spot is a power outlet on the wall, the hair of a doctor walking down the corridor, or a fly zooming close by.

Is it possible that you, the sighted person reading this, are in the same boat? That, in fact, you are seeing lots of strange moving squiggles, and your mind tells you a story that you take as the apparent reality? Extend your arm as far as you can and look at your thumb. While staying focused on your thumb’s nail, without looking away, slowly become aware of what your eye sees on the left and on the right. You will find that the focus of your vision does not extend more than a foot on either side of your thumb; everything else is very blurry. Then, of course, there is a giant invisible blind spot right in the center of your visual field. [Try this!]. And, last but not least, consider the fact that everyday objects look entirely different depending on which angle you look at them. For instance the 2-dimensional images that a chair projects onto your retina will be completely different when you look at it from the above versus from the side. Geometrically, the two figures will have very little to do with each other. (While we are at it, your eye also sees everything upside down, with the brain providing a helpful image-flipping service after the fact.)

So, where does this bring us? As you walk around what you actually see is a kaleidoscope of rapidly morphing projections of geometrical shapes, all seen within a narrow stripe of visual field about a foot wide, amidst barely intelligible blur, upside-down, with a big blind spot in the center. And yet, unless you stop and perform these experiments everything looks in perfectly sharp focus, with no gaping holes, and a chair is recognizable whether it looks like a circle when you are about to sit down or two parallel lines when you look at it sideways, from far away. It seems that your mind is able to parse all this chaotic input stream and paint a nice smooth picture that we take to be our reality. But how does it know what to look for in the first place? That there are chairs, and tables, and windows to be seen?
When we learn a foreign language in school, we open our dictionaries and learn the names of things in the other language. It seems obvious to us that chairs, tables, and windows already exist; we just need to know what those other guys call them. We can never know what it was like to learn our native language, so we assume that it was sort of just like that — that we learned names for things that were already out there. But herein is the self-referential paradox: before you knew what a door was, how would you even know that it was a separate object from the wall that enclosed it? Or even what a “wall” is, for that matter? The door came into existence for you when you first learned its name; in learning the word “door” for the first time, you learned to parse the world in a particular way, a way that was useful for a biological creature of your size and needs.

The Earth moves around the Sun at 67,000 mph, but we don’t notice it because we’re on it. Similarly, we don’t notice that we parsed the world in a particular way — just one among many — because we live embedded in a linguistic environment of creatures who are biologically similar. To us, water is a distinct entity endowed with many properties; to a fish, water does not exist because it is embedded in it. And what is water anyway? What do a rainstorm, a puddle, an ocean, and a shower have in common? We only begin to recognize it as a single something when we learned that the word water referred to all these seemingly unrelated experiences.

Nothing illustrates this function of language more powerfully than the story of Helen Keller. Left deaf and blind by a childhood illness, and isolated from language for many years, she vividly remembers what it was like to use words for the first time, when her new teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her the meaning of the word water.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.

I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.

As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. wikiquote

Our ability to see water, chairs, tables depends on our mind’s having the prior idea of what these things are. And these ideas come from language — from the distant time most of us don’t remember, when, like Helen Keller, we first realized that the “wonderful cool something” was water. Your mind, among other things, is a fine-tuned device for parsing the world into objects and entities in a way that is useful for your daily life.

Look at the letters above. If you imagine that you’ve never seen these symbols before, you’d probably agree that, visually speaking, they don’t look very alike. Yet, when you read a book, you never even realize that they look different from one book to another. Do you remember what the letter “R” looked like in the last work of fiction you read? Was it san-serif or not? Unless you are in the business of creating fonts, your mind never registers these differences even though they can be large indeed; the mind just sees the concept of “R” directly.

What makes a chair a chair? Is it something that has a seat, a back, and four legs? No, a chair could just as easily be a something with three legs, with one big leg, with a back or without a back, or even just a suitably large cylinder with a soft upper surface. Just like your mind reads the concept of “R” and skips the irrelevant details, your mind also has the idea that a chair is a device for sitting, and in your daily life you don’t even notice what a particular chair is like — you just sit down. More importantly, if you take the cylindrical chair you just bought, and instead of placing in it in your living room, you turn it upside down and make it a part of an abstract sculpture with lots of other odd-looking contraptions, the passers-by wouldn’t even realize that this is a chair. You take it out of context; it stops being a chair.

This is exactly analogous to taking a word out of context. If you just say the word gathering it could refer to a meeting, to the gathering of demographic data by census workers, hunting and gathering, and many other things. In other words, it’s meaningless just like our cylindrical chair lying on its side in a landfill. Only the context of a sentence, “They are gathering rosebuds” can give it meaning.

This analogy is not coincidental: It was through language that we first created our world by choosing which parts of to distinguish as separate objects, entities, concepts. We have given them names and brought them into existence by choosing to parse the world this way for the rest of our life. The central role of language does not diminish as your grow older — it just recedes into the background. As we walk about our day, if we see chairs and tables, it is only because they are embedded into sentences of rooms and houses and offices. The world is a text that we cannot stop reading.

When we look at the map of the world we see continents and rivers and oceans. Is what we call “Pacific Ocean” real? Real in a sense that it is something that exists independently of humans? Well, it is real in that the body of water it refers to exists independently of the human observer. But the fact that we chose to take a specific part of Earth’s water and call it “Pacific Ocean” is an entirely arbitrary way to distinguish a particular aspect of the world and give it a name. On further reflection, Pacific Ocean is not even a “part” of Earth’s water — it is not separate from the other “oceans” in any meaningful way. If anything, it is just a complement of the contours of the continents that form its boundaries. For a whale or an octopus, for whom the Earth’s water is just one big watery “continent”, there are, no doubt, other ways to parse their world into parts that are meaningful to them, but, whatever they are, they have nothing to do with our oceans.
Our world, then, is neither real nor imaginary. It is rather like the famous parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant with one crucial and subtle difference: in the parable there is a privileged perspective — that of the sighted person. As a sighted person you think that, presumably, you know what the elephant is really like — that your knowledge is superior to that of the blind men who can only examine by touch. But there are equally important parts of the elephant that you do not see, such as its digestive tract, its limbic system, its group behavior. A biology professor specializing in elephants can, with the same justification, claim that your knowledge of the elephant is as limited as that of the proverbial blind men, that you only perceive the superficial details immediately accessible to your senses. In fact, a blind person, with much more refined sense of touch, hearing, and smell, may well perceive important non-obvious characteristics of the elephant (e.g. the rhythm of its breathing) that the sighted person would overlook.

When it comes to the universe as a whole, there is no privileged perspective. Each new creature that walks or swims this planet brings its own unique way of parsing the world into meaningful objects and entities — the elephant is getting painted in more and more detail in an unfolding process that has no end. In a very real sense, different beings create different worlds, irreducible to one another.

It may seem as though this is just empty scholastics: that in reality there are things out there that are solid like concrete or soft like water, transparent like glass or opaque like carton. But to a sonar-wielding bat, the glass is no more transparent than the carton, and to a hypothetical alien consisting of an electron cloud the Earth’s invisible magnetic field may appear solid like concrete. There is no meaningful way in which our perspective is privileged — if it seems more real, it’s only because we are the ones who created it.


Bibliography

Bergson, Henri “Creative Evolution”
Bortoft, Henry “The Wholeness of Nature”
Edelman, Gerald “Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness”
Yuri Ostrovsky, Aaron Andalman, Pawan Sinha “Vision following extended congenital blindness”
Spencer-Brown, George “Laws of Form”

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