Sixthth Sense: Minding The Explanatory Gap

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We think of our sensory equipment as separate from that which it apprehends, that our eyes and ears passively convey particulars of the world to our brains. But seer and seen are not separate—looking at a gamma ray burst would detach your retinas. We also tend to forget that our sensory equipment isn’t complete, attuned to all things available for apprehension. I know, but don’t often think of, other sentient beings’ different perceptual capacity—dogs’ intense sense of smell, whales’ low-frequency hearing, a hawk’s ability to spot a mole a mile away. Each organism is equipped to perceive its environment as needed to survive. The word for this species-specific, self-reflexive model of the world is umwelt.

The name for our human subspecies is Homo sapiens sapiens, which reflects this self-reflexivity with and of our meta-sense. A sense is “a faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus.” Language is what we feel ourselves feeling with—it either constitutes or makes plain the outer rim of everything beyond which we can’t perceive.

Philosopher Joseph Levine coined the term “explanatory gap” (the gap is in the explanation and is the explanation) for the schism between our physiology and psychology—between our sensory circuitry and how we experience it. For instance, the phenomenon of pain can be easily explained by the mechanics of the nervous system, but how to explain the way it feels? I wonder if this lack of understanding is a lack of language. (By “lack” I mean both paucity and deficiency.) Is knowledge built into, and thus limited by, our means of expressing it? If we could say more, might we see it?

Are math and science more description than explanation?

(Given: I don’t understand either, and surely this is a fallacious question.) (Which is no less a question.)

We create gods and superheroes with extra- and supersensory perception to imagine other, more inclusive umwelten. We want to sense completely—see to the bone, hear better, acquire more nuanced taste. In fact, we train our perception, as wine tasters, perfume makers, and five-star chefs with their tweezer-applied microgreens show. But even with the assistance of X-rays or the glass held to our ear at the door, we are bound, mediated by our sensory apparatus. And just as our senses describe less the world than the exigencies of our organism, language describes itself. Even if we can’t get outside of it, though, how might we attend to the equivalent of its fragrance notes, apply it with tweezers, use it to the utmost?

(Red herring/false parallel/fun fact: only a small percentage of people hate cilantro. A lot more of them loathe the word “slacks.”)

(Is whether you see two faces or a vase a matter of taste?)

In a Paris Review interview, W.S. Merwin said, “I think of poetry as an attempt to use language as completely as possible.” For the past few months I’ve had a line from Ryan Murphy’s excellent new book Millbrook (Black Dress Press, 2017), stuck in my head: “I hate the girls from their windows at night,” whose prepositional conundrum—who’s in the window, the speaker or the girls?—is just the kind of vase/faces moment I look to poetry for.

From Ann Lauterbach’s “Testing the Waters” (Under the Sign, 2013):

I’m getting good at sailing
unaccompanied through time

holding on to delay

the familiar bridge
across a mirage

whose voice concedes

and it still recalled
even as it bends

under the weight
of forgetfulness.

Here the poet’s shifty language is used to convey the shiftiness of language—that last “it” could belong to any preceding noun in the poem. A constellation of possible meanings holds onto its delay, never resolving into the discrete stars of which it’s made.

Language is domesticated perception, which is redundant, since our senses are already body-bound. Poetry shows our double sapience circling itself.

The point is, I don’t understand the parsimony principle. Which is easier, God or physics? Needless to say (nothing is), Homo sapiens-sapiens-sapiens-ad-infinitum will never know.