"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
--From Hamlet (I, v, 166-167)
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
--Title of short story by Philip K. Dick
There is no accurate way to describe the beauty of a sunset. The colors fail any attempt at classification or reproduction. The frequencies of light may be studied, the intensity plotted, and reproduced on film, and yet there is something that escapes our attempt to regularize this natural wonder. Part of the problem lies in the level of complexity, the vast number of refractions that produce the stunning array of light, but there is something more, something intangible. Maybe it is the constant flux of the colors, the imperceptible highlights that shift and glimmer due to the ever-increasing angle of incidence caused by the slowly sinking sun. In a certain sense, we will never know. The level of complexity in a single drop of water confounds even the greatest of minds. We know something, albeit vague approximations of real world events. And yet we strive for more concrete empirical conception of the world around us. As Lewis Thomas put it, “You cannot really hear certain sequences of notes in a Bach fugue unless at the same time there are other notes being sounded… The real meaning in music comes from what is only audible in the corner of the mind” (Thomas 610). Yet those same notes can be transcribed onto a page, analyzed critically - the specific mode of harmony - individual constructive and destructive interferences identified, but it misses the point. We seem to pride ourselves on our own exactitude, yet our greatest achievements lie outside the realm of the exact. Our own evolutionary origins as well as our propensity to learn and adapt are not derived from perfection and consistent logic, but instead in our own ambiguous and subjective perception and thought processes. However our present lifestyles, medication, and creature comforts are the direct result of centuries of scientific inquiry, based upon theories that are testable, with regularly reproducible results that in effect create certainty.
In Thomas’ “In the Corner of the Eye” the distinction between these two kinds of logic is clearly delineated and a case is made for not only the necessity of ambiguity in human cultural and intellectual development, but for the beauty and wonder it allows in our world. However we are also met by the apparent contradiction of our own search for logical connections and causality in the cosmos. Thomas questions the place of reason and empiricism as well as ambiguity and emotion in the human being’s attempt to understand the world around us and our interconnectedness with that world. “It immensely pleases a human being to see something never seen before, even more to learn something never known before, most of all to think something never thought before” (Thomas 612). That which separates humanity from the rest of creation is its ability to reason, to calculate, and think empirically. Maybe neither paradigm is enough. The rational mind cannot think critically and create without the input of our fallible senses.
Perhaps it is our inherently error-strewn perspective that forces scientific inquiry. We cannot fully grasp the causality of the universe, nor are we able to comprehend every aspect of the natural world because of our own shortcomings, and yet we feel an intense desire to attempt just that, to find things that challenge our own points of view because we somehow realize that we are not perfect and we strive to minimize those imperfections. In Scott Russell Sanders essay “Wayland” he describes the empirical pursuit of knowledge, “With Science … in order to answer a question, you limit the variables” (Sanders 532). But where does this idea of perfection come from that provides the impetus for our scientific search into the nature of the world around us? If we are imperfect, and view the world imperfectly, how can we conceive of a perfection to strive for? I think that perfection comes from the wholeness and interconnectedness of the organism that is the biosphere that we are a small, highly integrated part. “Seen from the right distance, out of the corner of the eye of an extraterrestrial, the earth must surely seem a single creature, clinging to the round warm stone, turning in the sun” (Thomas 612). This interconnectedness is the source of our struggle for certainty through our errors as well as the source for our ability to create, grow and adapt. “ … the queerest structure we know about so far in the whole universe, the greatest of all cosmological scientific puzzles, confounding all our efforts to comprehend it, is the earth” (Thomas 612).
Imperfections riddle the natural world and humanity is not without its own, but these flaws are not limitations, instead they allow for the wide range of creativity and human understanding that we are capable of. Through the dialectical process we synthesize new ideas, word and images from the varied backgrounds of our own life. Humanity is able, through the synthesis of disparate ideas and the nature of our own evolved biology and psychology, to create and wonder, in a way that could never be matched by artificial means. The inability of computers to “make mistakes with words, intuitively, as we build our kinds of language… constructing and elaborating the varieties of ambiguity without which speech can never become human speech”(Thomas 611) limits their capacity to develop as human intelligence and communication has. The soft lines that delineate our synapses allow for a mixture of concepts and ideas in a purely human way to arrive at a truth that would have escaped cold hard logic. Their accuracy is inherently limiting in these most human respects, but in terms of science computers calculate and simulate the world around us providing the answers to our search for order and understanding. We, however, flourish, creating and basking in our own pregnant ambiguity, not limited by the cold hard fact of precision, but these machines use their virtually error-free circuits to expound upon problems that defeat the human computation facilities.
Our memories, like our consciousness operate in a similarly imprecise manner and also allow leaps of intuition and paradoxically connect us to the objectivity our shared reality. In Sander’s “Wayland” memory is nothing but a stream of emotions connected with certain places of his past that he has revisited. The truth and meaning of his experiences and memories is embedded in his emotional response to the places from his childhood, not necessarily from the fact of his past. I’m quite sure that a narrative of his first encounter with love could not have been in any way similar to the feelings he felt on his return to the scene of his past. The aged smells and sights, although different, synthesize with his memories to create a new experience that is neither past nor present and yet is completely a part of an internal experience. As Sanders put it “I cannot be sure where the pressure of mind has warped the surface of things. If you were to go to Wayland, you would not find every detail exactly as I described it. How could you, bearing as you do a past quite different from mine?”(Sanders 632). Reality is nothing but our subjective translation of the objective outside world, and each of us, with our own eclectic biases and perspectives. We view the world individually but also ambiguously, because our histories are not the specific timelines we so often would like to believe, but are diverse interwoven emotional tapestries. Through this multi-faceted perspective, the world does not take on the crystal clear absolute that computers or other simple logic devices fall into. But do we live, breath, and imagine on the soft rippling tides of the unconscious memories and our own inexact wiring alone? Are there not some memories that we can agree on? To be sure, if you ask someone about a recent event, they will respond from memory, and their response would be remarkably similar to that of another person who experienced the same event. In my life there are certain facts that surround the death of my grandmother. Certain immutable truths, the day she died, the people around her, and the last words she said to me, and all of these are very important parts of that memory and definitive truths that can be agreed upon. They lead me down the path of that moment and reflect my own experience of the event. The intangible emotions, the smell of the country, the twinkle in her eye, and the wisdom of her words, move beyond their everyday significance with the undeniable events, into a transcendental expression of love that can never be rationalized, codified or even ever truly reproduced again. These feelings and facts live with me and in me in a constant state of flux. They change as I change, folding themselves into my dynamic mental landscape. Much like in “Wayland”, there were certain specific events, however the recollection of those events are influenced by his personal viewpoint. Where does the line between subjectivity and objectivity fall in terms of memory? There may be emotional differences, variation in perspective that leads to variations in experience, but nevertheless some parts of these two stories will coincide. The individual perspective in memory is tied into the external events that can be observed and verifiable outside world experienced and remembered by others. There is no absolute gap between our worlds for ambiguity and fact.
The human mind is the product of eons of evolution, a process of genetic bungles, and out of this uncertainty of our origin our psyche derives its strength and creativity through our own ambiguous thought process, imprecise translation of the objective reality and our connection with the complex web of life. And yet against this canvas of chaos our ego endeavors to classify and regularize our cosmos. Like Tantalus, the poetry is in the interminable struggle.
Thomas, Lewis. “The Corner of the Eye” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry
Second Edition Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. McGraw-Hill 1997. 609-
Sanders, Scott Russell. “Wayland” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry Second Edition Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. McGraw-Hill 1997.522-533
Shakespear, William. Hamlet Act 1 Verses 166-167
Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Dick, Philip K. Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick
Los Angeles, Calif. ; Columbia, Pa. : Underwood/Miller, 1987.