Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sixth Sense

Olivia Judson, writing a blog entry on brood parasitism at, raises an interesting question. Brood parasitism is the behavior, not uncommon in the animal and insect world, of one species laying eggs in the nest of another and having the host parents raise the offspring. Judson focuses on brood parasitism in birds, and meditates on why the parents don't seem to recognize the parasites' eggs or young.

Here's part of what she writes:

...birds don't see the world as we do: they see more colors. Therefore, what looks like a good match to us may not look like a good match to the bird; and vice versa.

Which makes me wonder: what are we missing? Like the birds - like any organism - our sensory system defines the way we perceive and interact with the world, and it is limited in important ways. As I said earlier, our sense of color is not as vivid as that of most birds. As mammals go, our sense of smell is poor. We hear a limited range of sounds: unaided, we cannot hear much of the conversations of elephants, or of bats.

True, we have invented machines to detect many aspects of the world that are invisible to us, but most of these are kept in fancy laboratories and are not available for daily life. If another organism, a dog say, were watching us, what "obvious" problems would they spot that we are oblivious to? (My guess is that dogs often have moments when they look at us and wonder, "Why don't they notice?" For dogs are often able to smell things about us that we cannot. Many cancers, for example, change the scent of our urine and our breath. Without special machines, we cannot detect this - but dogs can.)

To what extent do our preconceived notions narrow our perception of the planet, and ourselves?

These are fascinating questions. In my classes I invite students to imagine that our five senses were much more acute than they are and to ponder how differently the world would then appear. What if we could see radio waves? What colors would they be? What if we could smell or hear what a dog can? How might it change human behavior and the way we live?

On the other hand, suppose we possessed not five, but six or seven senses. To appreciate how much different the world would appear to us imagine a man born blind and deaf so that he has only three senses. Imagine him walking along the surf at a crowded beach. How impoverished would his mental image of his surroundings be? He would be aware of heat and wind on his skin, the crunch of sand at his feet, and the smells typical of the beach, but that would be about it. Now imagine that this man walking along the beach suddenly, through some miracle, finds himself able to both see and hear. The experience would doubtless knock him flat. He'd be overwhelmed by how much different the world would be than what he had ever imagined. He would be unable, I should think, to comprehend what he was experiencing when he saw color for the first time or hears sound.

Or what if there are more dimensions than what our minds are structured to perceive? If we're really five dimensional creatures but are only able to perceive each other in three dimensions our "real" appearance would be totally different than how we currently appear to each other. In other words, what we "look" like is a function of the structure of our minds. If our minds were structured differently we would see each other as much different beings.

Why should we assume the world is just the way our senses reveal it to us? The world is perhaps far richer and more wondrous than we assume it to be. We are in this life like an unborn child in its mother's womb. The child's world is dark, warm and moist, with only a few muffled sounds. At birth, though, the child is suddenly delivered into a world that would have been literally inconceivable prior to its being experienced.

Perhaps at death we pass, like the aborning child, into a state of existence infinitely more beautiful than what we have ever experienced before. Perhaps we acquire more senses and/or the ones we have become more finely attuned. Perhaps we're able to experience additional dimensions. Perhaps we're able to "see" the world more as God sees it. Whatever it would be like it would not be something of which we could presently conceive any more than the child in the womb could conceive a world of color and flavor. It's very hard to imagine something we have never experienced with our senses.

Shakespeare reminds us that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our everyday musings. Plato depicts this world as being like a cave in which we have for our entire lives been imprisoned. All we've ever seen are dark shadows on a wall and we naturally think that those shadows are all there is. We are oblivious to the world of color and other sensory delights outside the cave.

But why should we think that reality is just the way we perceive it to be with our puny little sensory and conceptual apparatus? Why not think that the way we apprehend reality is simply a function of the number and type of senses we have and that the world really would appear quite differently to us, as it no doubt does to those birds victimized by the parasite, were we to have different senses or senses with greater sensitivity?


Giving Sight to the Blind

The stories of wonderful results from stem cell technology, particularly adult stem cells, continue. Now comes word of a technique that can restore sight to those who've been blinded by chemical burns:

Dozens of people who were blinded or otherwise suffered severe eye damage when they were splashed with caustic chemicals had their sight restored with transplants of their own stem cells - a stunning success for the burgeoning cell-therapy field, Italian researchers reported Wednesday.

The treatment worked completely in 82 of 107 eyes and partially in 14 others, with benefits lasting up to a decade so far. One man whose eyes were severely damaged more than 60 years ago now has near-normal vision.

"This is a roaring success," said ophthalmologist Dr. Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis, who had no role in the study - the longest and largest of its kind.

I imagine that researchers are working with every organ system and bodily disease trying to find ways to use stem cells to cure, reverse, or slow the various debilities which plague the human body. We applaud their efforts, admire their genius, and pray for their success.


Mr. President, Do Your Job

Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer is not taking President Obama's feckless response to the flood of illegals pouring across our borders lying down. This ad is effective, but it's unlikely to stir any positive reaction from a president who opposes border control out of both ideological conviction and political necessity. He's ideologically disposed toward open borders and is politically dependent on Hispanic votes for survival in 2012 so he's really not interested in Governor Brewer's insistence that he fulfill his responsibilities as the nation's chief law enforcement officer:

The President showed us how much he cares about the concerns of those who want laws against illegal immigration enforced by threatening to sue Arizona over their recent measure (SB1070) requiring local police to uphold federal law and by appointing a man to head up ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) who supports sanctuary cities and who opposes legislation like SB1070.

Mr. Obama's immigration policies can have only one of two long-term outcomes. Either border states will simply give up trying to keep illegal aliens out and the nation will be overwhelmed with the cost burden these immigrants will impose, or states will move further and further toward independence from a federal government that they perceive as hostile to their welfare. Neither of these outcomes is in any way good for the nation, but that's the hope and change we voted for in 2008.