Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Snakes on a _____

For the past week, I smelled pizza in my apartment, but I couldn’t trace the source. It turned out the smell was coming from a cardboard box that once contained wood for a bookshelf. After a moment’s thought, I realized that I had associated the smell of cardboard with the smell of pizza. I suspect this has something to do with the boxes my pizza arrives in and not the quality of pizza I buy.

My sister and I used to test each other’s senses growing up, and I didn’t always pass. When we were younger, we used to draw numbers on each other’s backs with the other person had to guess what the number was solely on the basis of touch. When we upgraded to spelling words, the game got more difficult, and I realized my sense of touch had its limits. On the mischievous side, we used to sneak up behind each other or hide behind corners and yell, “Boo!” at the last second. If only my ears had been sharp enough to hear her breathing.

Cases can be made against my remaining senses, as well. As much as I wish it would, my sense of taste does not always lead me to foods that are good for me. While I do my best to figure them out, I am still fooled by the sight of sleight of hand and other magic tricks.

Human senses factored into the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya, who argued the world was false and Brahman (by definition) the only truth. He used the analogy that a person might superimpose the image of a snake onto a piece of rope in the dark and then see its true form in the light to argue that knowledge– in his case, knowledge of Brahman– could free a person from the illusion of the world.

Does a complete picture of reality require something beyond our sensory capabilities, and if so, how close can we come to understanding what it is? John G. Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant” has a unique take on this. An abridged version:

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant,
Though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The third approached the animal,
And, happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
They all were in the wrong!

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2 responses

  1. Des

    “The Blind Men and the Elephant” is one of my favorite poems. I first learned about it in my Physiology Class when one of the coordinators showed us a cartoon with six blind scientists doing the same thing as the Six Men of Indostan. Science typicall makes HUGE predictions from very SMALL bits of data because of the limitations in our “measuring sticks.” Such predictions can be on the money at times, and other times be wrong. Sometimes we can’t even tell whether we are wrong, because we sort of use circular arguments/definitions. At any rate, I think it’s funny how our perceptions of the world are shaped by our upbringing (or training) and our current mental condition (eg. stress factors, stubbornness, prejudices, etc).
    Seldom do we make decisions which are purely “ours.” Most of the times we approach problems or even the world from the point of view that was given to us by some past events, which we (or someone else) may have misinterpreted in the first place. These inherited points of views are akin to the blindness of the six men of Indostan. In other words, we may each be partly in the “right” but we are all WRONG!

    August 7, 2006 at 4:57 pm

  2. Krish

    It’s interesting how humanity has adapted to its limitations. The poem relates this from the point of view of people with a disability, but it is possible humanity is disabled in ways it is incapable of realizing.

    August 9, 2006 at 6:49 am

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