The colour of the inhuman world

by Dorian Minors

November 7, 2022

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt: The great mistake of humans is to imagine that we know what it's like to be something that is not us. That we have an insight into the minds of infants, of dogs, of even our plants. We imagine that there is no other way of being than the way that we conceive of, and all experiences are ultimately relative to ours.


Humans imagine that there is no other way of being than the way that we conceive of, and all experiences are ultimately relative to ours. This is a practical mistake, but one that leads to astonishing errors of judgement.

In the movie Marley and Me, Jennifer Aniston’s character leans over her crying baby and coos sympathetically “I know baby, I know, I know”. This short scene illustrates wonderfully both a staple of the comforting baby noises we make, and the ultimate human hubris.

Let me tell you something. Aniston has only the slightest idea what that baby is feeling. The first 12 months of an infant’s life bear very little resemblance to our later years. We start off with essentially two emotions—a ‘go’ emotion and a ‘no go’ emotion. Approach and withdrawal. Attraction and repulsion. By about six months we have developed a more nuanced picture of ‘no go’: fear and sadness and anger start to emerge. By about eight months our ‘go’ has become a complex continuum of three or four items: mild pleasure (evidenced by smiling), less mild pleasure (evidenced by laughter), and maybe one or two forms of curiosity. After 12 months, the picture becomes more blurry, with more complicated forms of emotion appearing as our model of the world shifts drastically with things like object permanence and early forms of theory of mind.

But until then, babies are not living in any kind of world we would recognise. How do you imagine a world coloured by only two, or even four emotions? And it’s not merely their emotions, but their perceptions that are drastically different. It’s difficult to tell precisely what babies can see or hear, but it’s likely not much. Not just because their equipment is still developing, but because they have no real sense of what to do with it. For example, babies don’t start to look for the sources of sounds until they’re about six months old. They probably don’t know that sounds come from places until then. What does a world in which sounds emerge from nowhere feel like? If you can’t identify what a sound is, then how can you hold on to it? Remember it? Use it to appreciate the world?

The great mistake of humans is to imagine that we know what it’s like to be something that is not us. That we have an insight into the minds of infants, of dogs, of even our plants. We imagine that there is no other way of being than the way that we conceive of, and all experiences are ultimately relative to ours.

This leads to some fairly obvious mistakes. For example:

for a very long time, we’ve been under the impression that animals couldn’t grasp abstract concepts. In 1689, John Locke wrote:

Brutes abstract not.

And until the 20th Century we just assumed that was the case. But then we started to test it and we found some surprising results.

In that case, we found out that not only can animals grasp abstract concepts, but do it in ways that are entirely different to the way we grasp concepts. Bees can count—numbers are abstract concepts—and it’s actually easy for their landmark-oriented brain. Probably something they have the capacity to do from birth. What kind of world would it be if we could count from the day we opened our eyes? How would our perception of things change if we had a detailed map of the world around us from the very first time we perceived it? Impossible to know.

I have said before:

The way we resolve [the world] into observable phenomena is according to the purpose or the meaning which aspects of the world have to us. We bring forth the world as it is … Obviously … water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made of? .. the air which is just about the pond? … we don’t know how to define it exactly … The same is true for window, door, walls, or arch. None of them can be exactly bounded. They are all entities which have a fuzzy edge

But they are all entities which come into being because they are some centre of purpose for us. We simply need to resolve the puzzle of the fishpond enough to engage with it. If we’re freshening the water, it is the water that matters. If we’re fixing a leak, the concrete. But how does a honeybee deal with the fishpond? Or an infant? Their purpose is different, and so too will their centre of purpose. For the bee, the air might be precisely the important feature. The water, only in-so-far is it is not something to fly into.

There is an important question too about how much of the world we fail to see merely because it has no immediate purpose. This famous test of selective attention demonstrates a feature of human perception we’ve know about for some time: inattentional blindness. Without ruining it for you, it’s famous because most people entirely miss the very striking point. This is because the brain does not see the world for what it is, but merely what it could or should be.

The implications are astonishing. What things do other animals see that we would never dream of, merely because it has no purpose to us? One example always struck me:

Birds … have four dimensions to their colour vision. They can, for example, see ultraviolet light. We cannot … being able to see ultraviolet—or rather having four-dimensional colour vision—is not quite the same thing as being able to see a colour you’ve never seen before. We can get a better flavour of this if we add our sense of time to our colours. Rather than pink, we might also have ‘fast pink’ or ‘slow pink’. Something like this better approximates the world that birds live in … some animals … may see in five dimensions, which defies any sensible human-level analogy. These animals live in a world we can’t even approach describing, never mind have ideas about.

As Thomas Nagel notes in his famous article on consciousness, some ways of seeing the world are puzzling or difficult because of our perspective, “simply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type”.

This particular limitation is why states of transcendence are so powerful. Mystical experiences, or psychedelic ones that have us surrender ourselves to something greater, or experience some all-encompassing unity, seem to push us outside of this biased ‘self’ We are, unusually, able to see something of the world that other creatures inhabit. Notably, these states are enormously rare.

All this uncomfortable philosophising might seem impractical or irrelevant, outside of the biases it introduces to our cognitive sciences. But it’s not. One clear example is that of euthanasia. We are very fond of killing our animals. We see them suffering and decide that it’s our job, the human to whom all states of being are known, to end it for them. We take our arthritic dogs and our crippled horses and kill them as a kindness. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone reflect on whether the dog or horse would like to be killed. Do dogs even have a concept of death? It seems that they might. But whether they do or do not, are they so self-aware that they would prefer death to living in pain? There is every likelihood that euthanising dogs is far from the kindness we imagine, and more like an act of selfish murder. We are the ones suffering its pain, and ending that suffering for ourselves. Much less is known about how much this benefits the dog. This is not to say we shouldn’t kill our animals, but we could certainly afford to be less secure in our murder.

Indeed, less security is really all we can concretely take away from this line of reasoning. I have no doubt that Aniston would be a much less effective fictional mother to her crying baby if she were to inhale LSD before comforting it. She might be closer to understanding its world, but that won’t help her stop it crying. But she can certainly take a moment to recognise that, no, in fact, she does not know.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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