What We Can See, and What We Can’t

Earth rising as seen from the lunar surface via Apollo 8 (Photo: NASA/Bill Anders)

Lessons learned from the last U.S. election cycle are still being processed and discussed. A big theme for me is just plain epistemological: How do you know what you know? The strange and the unreal took over somewhere in this process, and I am left wondering how it gets sorted out. Who would have guessed that reality itself would become such a crucial player—unreliable, furtive, indeterminate and squirrely.

If you are up to a full on confrontation with the strange circumstances that define our world today, watch Adam Curtis‘ documentary HyperNormalisation.

A description of the film from Curtis’ blog:

We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed—they have no idea what to do.

This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening – but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.

It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West—not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves—have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.

Chuck Klosterman addresses similar “what is reality really?” questions in his new book, But What If We’re Wrong? He uses the concept of gravity as an example. Some now believe that it might not be a fundamental force but an emergent force (meaning gravity might be a manifestation of other forces, not a force itself.) In considering the history of our beliefs about gravity Klosterman asks, “If mankind could believe something false was objectively true for two thousand years, why do we reflexively assume that our current understanding of gravity—which we’ve embraced for a mere three hundred fifty years—will somehow exist forever?”

He goes on:

The practical reality is that any present-tense version of the world is unstable. What we currently consider to be true—both objectively and subjectively—is habitually provisional. But the modern problem is that reevaluating what we consider “true” is becoming increasingly difficult…If there’s a rogue physicist in Winnipeg who doesn’t believe in gravity, he can self-publish a book that outlines his argument and potentially attract a larger audience than Principia found during its first hundred years of existence. But increasing the capacity for the reconsideration of ideas is not the same as actually changing those ideas (or even allowing them to change by their own momentum.)

This touches into the concept that environmental philosopher Timothy Morton has called hyperobjects—“entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” In Morton’s view we live inside an array of hyperobjects—climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, nature—that we cannot comprehend and that cannot be parsed with normal reasoning.

The implications of this are demonstrated with the example of global warming as described by Morton:

We can’t directly see global warming, because it’s not only really widespread and really really long-lasting (100,000 years); it’s also super high-dimensional. It’s not just 3-D. It’s an incredibly complex entity that you have to map in what they call a high-dimensional- phase space: a space that plots all the states of a system.

In so doing, we are only following the strictures of modern science, laid down by David Hume and underwritten by Immanuel Kant. Science can’t directly point to causes and effects: That would be metaphysical, equivalent to religious dogma. It can only see correlations in data. This is because, argues Kant, there is a gap between what a thing is and how it appears (its “phenomena”) that can’t be reduced, no matter how hard we try. We can’t locate this gap anywhere on or inside a thing. It’s a transcendental gap. Hyperobjects force us to confront this truth of modern science and philosophy.

And to close, an excerpt from another writer/thinker I admire, Kathryn Schulz, who brings another dimension to this concept of what we know and what we don’t:

Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.

I have no answers to offer. But it seems clear to me that we are in need of a different set of tools, ones that can allow us to access new ways of perceiving, conceptualizing, describing, decoding, envisioning and enacting.

2 Replies to “What We Can See, and What We Can’t”

  1. I have been very troubled about how certain words with nuanced meanings have been stripped of nuance and tossed around as though everyone knew what they meant and holds an identical understanding of them. “Trust” is, for me, the primary example but “corrupt” runs a close second.

    The famous curse — may you live in interesting times — haunts me.


    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Good examples, both. Thanks for this Melanie.

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