Cogito, ergo…sufflimandus sum! (Sorry!)

The human brain is a utilitarian organ. It developed its skills to counter life’s challenges long enough for us to reproduce. It wasn’t designed to apprehend the universe in all its vastness and complexity. It doesn’t need to. Think of the number of times in a single day that you are forced to think, “Well, I don’t get that, but I’ll just have to accept the incomprehension and move on.” Especially in the age of the algorithm. (And this experience is multiplied a thousand times for us anorexics.) The brain responds to, and mediates, the sense data from the tiny proximal patch of existence that we are heir to. I suspect most of our more thoughtful functions are freeloading co-incidences or side effects.

Even Albert Einstein couldn’t remember where his glasses were or why he’d come into the kitchen or why he’d put his keys in the fridge, but it’s not just that we are all capable of intellectual glitches – vast tracts of the universe are denied to even the most intelligent human, although we can assign some areas symbols or metaphorical images to stand in for meaning, the “Here Be Dragons” labels on the blank bits of the map, that allow us to write codes and equations to navigate them.

For example, I’m told the human brain has a limited capacity to understand the concept of plurality. Apparently, our brain goes “1, 2, 3, 4…Lots”, So a million is “Lots and Lots” and doesn’t appear much different to a billion, which is “really lots and lots”. Because we can do the calculations, following each step mechanically, we think we understand it, but the truth of such orders of magnitude is lost on us. This wreaks havoc on our ability to work out how likely we are to win the lottery, or understand the odds if we have a “1 in 10 chance of survival”.

I think we see intelligent thought as a form of perception, allowing us to perceive the reality of the world with clarity. But the very concept of a perceivable reality suggests that the whole universe can be encompassed, at least in its principles, by a single human mind. To know something for certain, so much else must first be known. This is astonishingly arrogant.
(I’m not a post-modernist. I still think truth exists, it’s just very difficult to come by and even more difficult to be sure of. That’s what makes it so precious and worth striving for.)

So, in fact, your understanding of the world is as limited and reactive as that of your cat. And I’m not praising the cat. We once fostered a young, snow-white cat who was so fascinated by the flush that he fell in the toilet bowl, took fright and shot up the chimney to hide…

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