Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My green and your green

You may recall, once upon a time, wondering whether your experience of the colours, shapes, sounds and smells of the world was the same everyone else’s. Perhaps your picture of the world was completely unique. After all, how would you ever know it wasn’t?
You could compare what you knew as “green” with a me, but that wouldn’t help: even if we agreed that, yes, that patch of grass is green – even if we were more specific: a bleached out sort of lime green, since it’d been trapped under a brick for a week – we still could not know we were having the same experience. Your green might have been different from mine: what you saw as green I might, if I saw it, see as maroon. For all I know, you may even perceive colours as smells or sounds, but so long as we couldn’t directly share each other’s sensations, we would remain none the wiser. Richard Dawkins sums it up nicely:
Perceived hues – what philosophers call qualia – have no intrinsic connection with lights of particular wavelengths. They are internal labels that are available to the brain, when it constructs its model of external reality, to make distinctions that are especially salient to the animal concerned.
I imagine most of us have, at one point in their lives, been through that thought process, and most resolve it in the same way. While we can’t really be sure, we just shrug our shoulders and suppose we must perceive the same things the same way – for how else could we understand each other?
A few years ago, I came across a poem by Ogden Nash – unusually for him, a serious poem, entitled Listen ...:
There is a knocking in the skull,
An endless silent shout
Of something beating on a wall,
And crying, “Let me out!”

That solitary prisoner
Will never hear reply.
No comrade in eternity
Can hear the frantic cry.

No heart can share the terror
That haunts his monstrous dark.
The light that filters through the chinks
No other eye can mark.

When flesh is linked with eager flesh,
And words run warm and full,
I think that he is loneliest then,
The captive in the skull.

Caught in a mesh of living veins,
In cell of padded bone,
He loneliest is when he pretends
That he is not alone.

We’d free the incarcerate race of man
That such a doom endures
Could only you unlock my skull,
Or I creep into yours.

To me, this poem, reflects on this very dilemma. We are social animals. We have evolved to communicate and co-operate yet, deep down, we never quite know whether experiences we take to be common really are. We never know for sure that our sentences are understood exactly the way we mean them, with every subtle and unspoken nuance conveyed. Nor do we ever know we understand, they way they’re meant to be, other people’s sentences.
We remain incarcerated in our own skulls, hoping against the doom, but never knowing, that we’re getting through.

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