“Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us? What is there around us that we cannot know?” – Frank Herbert, Dune
You may already have read this unprecedented story about a man blind for 20 years who has spontaneously regained his vision. Experts in the field are baffled by it; Kevin Coughlin’s experience of Leber Optic Neuropathy “should” have left him without optic nerve cells to conduct raw optical data to his brain. Yet today he sees, although not perfectly, and he’s unutterably grateful for it:
“Now, I’m totally different. I’m a person who meditates daily, I pray,” he said.
I certainly would, in his position. I have no doubt that most of my Gentle Readers would, too.
However, this is a case of sight regained. Our knowledge of persons born blind is much bleaker. They, it seems, either lose the brain capacity required to decode and process optical data or never develop it. If he’s to live, one blind from birth must gain his eyesight before he reaches puberty; otherwise, the experience will cause him a fatal brain overload.
There’s a whole banquet of food for thought in there.
Human senses are incredibly rich. We process our sensory data with a fineness and accuracy that’s only beginning to be appreciated. However, our senses are also finite:
- Vision: Electromagnetic radiation within a narrow band of frequencies;
- Hearing: Longitudinal pressure waves from roughly 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz;
- Smell: A group of minerals and organic radicals for which we have olfactory receptors;
- Taste: Eight discrete chemical sensations;
- Touch: A limited range of pressures applied to our skins.
We cannot directly sense events outside those bands. In some cases we can build devices that will detect the substances and phenomena that produce them...but what of events that fall qualitatively outside the capabilities of the senses?
Our Weltanschauung is so completely dependent upon the kinds of input our senses can detect that we lack words with which to discuss the subject. Some imaginative souls have touched, albeit tentatively and usually with pronounced discomfort, on the possibilities. For example, in his early novel Sixth Column, Robert A. Heinlein employed the possibility of waves other than the electromagnetic kind – electrogravitic and magnetogravitic – that could be used to produce wholly new effects.
Imagine that such phenomena exist. Imagine further that a few of us were to gain, spontaneously, sense organs that could detect them and neural pathways that could route the data to our brains. What would happen to such persons? Would they survive the experience? Or would they begin to “babble” about what they can “see” that we cannot – and how would we react to their “babbling?”
If you’re thinking of Ray Milland’s old movie X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, you’re on the path I have in mind.
If we go by our experience in such matters, it would be incredibly dangerous to perceive something that others cannot. Even if the recipient of such a sense were wise enough to keep it entirely to himself – that is, never to mention to others that he perceives events to which others are insensate – it would change his behavior in ways that would surely be plain to those around him. It’s odds on that he would be classified as “disturbed,” to be confined and treated for “his own good.” That’s been the common lot of “visionaries” throughout history.
The reason is obvious: The rest of us would have no way to distinguish between one gifted with such a new sense and a lunatic afflicted with hallucinations he cannot distinguish from “reality.” Perhaps we would be right to try to “help” him...but it’s not something about which we should ever be perfectly certain.
In this connection, what shall we make of the divergences among us that spring from our interior senses: the senses we possess whose reports we experience privately, in a fashion that cannot be fully shared?
An experience that must, for whatever reason, remain forever private is a tough thing to relate to others. C. S. Lewis touched on one aspect of the difficulty in The Screwtape Letters:
You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real.’” They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building;” here “real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It's all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it's really like:” here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness.
Reality – the world as it is – is independent of our observations. Yet our grasp of reality is uncertain. What others perceive, we may not, whether because “you had to be there” or because some of us perceive more broadly or finely than others. The limitations on our senses and their shareability or the lack thereof are insuperable.
It should make us humble, reluctant to impose our conclusions about things on others as if their perceptions and conclusions are somehow inferior to ours. That’s not always the case.
Experience is the hardest teacher, because she gives the test first, and the lesson after. – Originator unknown
Ultimately our success, however defined, is the consequence of the accuracy of our perceptions and the conclusions we draw from them. This is as true for nations as for individuals. It suggests that shared experiences are an important determinant of a nation’s internal harmony – that our perceptions of the world cannot diverge too far without fracturing our attitudes too greatly to bear one another’s proximity. The application to several contemporary contretemps, especially untrammeled immigration, should be obvious.
Rudyard Kipling’s fiction and poetry provides many glimpses of this truth. Perhaps the best known is “The Stranger:”
The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk--
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.
The men of my own stock,
They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I am wanted to,
They are used to the lies I tell;
And we do not need interpreters
When we go to buy or sell.
The Stranger within my gates,
He may be evil or good,
But I cannot tell what powers control--
What reasons sway his mood;
Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
Shall repossess his blood.
The men of my own stock,
Bitter bad they may be,
But, at least, they hear the things I hear,
And see the things I see;
And whatever I think of them and their likes
They think of the likes of me.
This was my father's belief
And this is also mine:
Let the corn be all one sheaf--
And the grapes be all one vine,
Ere our children's teeth are set on edge
By bitter bread and wine.
Kipling wasn’t one to mince words. But the lesson applies to more than immigration, racial and ethnic divergences, and such: It pertains even more imperatively to religious convictions. Such convictions, even when held “secularly” and stated with no implication whatsoever of Divine provenance, can divide a people more immiscibly than any other kind of conviction.
Are you thinking of Islam at the moment, Gentle Reader? It’s understandable. But the matter is even broader than that.
I had an illuminating conversation yesterday, with someone dear to me who said at one point that “of course we’re all created equal.” “Equal before God?” I said. “Of course. Otherwise, not.”
As my conversational partner is an atheist, she immediately replied that “God’s got nothing to do with it. I’m talking about equality before the law.” I started to reply and checked myself. I’d had a flash of insight. My expression must have changed, for she noticed it at once.
After a moment I said, “Equality before the law is a religious notion,” and braced myself for her response. It was the one I’d expected: She sneered and said, “Nonsense. Where did you get that idea?”
I counted to three, smiled, and said, “Where did you get the idea that it isn’t?”
One can’t often see a connection forming in another person’s mind. I saw one then. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment, several of whom held themselves to be atheists, would have sneered just as my partner did. Yet they, too, would have been wrong, for the concept of equality before the law originated with the Christian faith. The Enlightenment thinkers to whom we’ve been told we owe it inherited it as a part of the Christian cultures from which they sprang. It seemed “self-evident” to them, so they gave it no further thought. That’s the way it is with a premise everyone around you shares.
The histories of Christian societies cemented the premise of equality before the law in the minds of their people. They inferred their conclusions from those experiences under a common understanding of the laws God wrote into Man’s nature: self-enforcing laws no legislature can repeal, modify, or except. Had their experiences been averse to the notion – that is, had the maintenance of equality before the law given rise to disharmony and disorder – they would, over time, have moved away from that premise and any conclusions based upon it.
Note what’s happened to nations that presumed the opposite. Note also the way nations upon which we’ve attempted to impose the concept of equality before the law, but without a Christian foundation, have failed one after the next and returned their people into the darkness.
I’m sure there are many persons who’ve come at some time to Liberty’s Torch, have read a few of the pieces here, and have concluded that I’m out of my BLEEP!ing mind. My guess is that in most cases, we’ve lacked the requisite shared experiences of the world to see things even broadly the same way. I think of it as the “Pauline Kael effect:” no one she knew voted for Nixon, and quite possibly no one she’d ever known would have done so, so how could she understand why anyone would?
The value of humility is made plain by such differences. However – and at least as significant – the importance of keeping to one’s own, mixing with outsiders only with caution and meticulous observance of formalities, cannot be overstated. It’s not merely possible to come to blows with others whose premises differ with those of one’s “milk culture;” it’s close to certain.
The subject is inexhaustible. I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. However, for now, I’ve ranted far longer than usual. It’s time for me to close and prepare for Mass.
May God bless and keep you all.