This world contains realities that we were not born to perceive. For instance, the Earth’s magnetic field constantly passes through each person, yet it passes unnoticed. Students of biology know this is because magnetic fields are not a part of our umwelt, or the slice of physical reality a particular organism can sense. Members of different species have different umwelts because a physical reality that matters for one type of organism might not matter for another. For instance, certain birds sense the Earth’s magnetic field as a biological compass to help guide them during migration.
Through inventions such as the compass, we have made use of physical phenomena beyond our perception to create technologies that have rendered our lives more efficient. However, sometimes venturing into the unknown can lead us to a world in which our intuition fails us. Quantum physics is perhaps the most famous example of such a failure. Books can and have been written about the peculiarities of quantum physics, but a quick highlight reel would include the role of observation in altering phenomena, the wave-particle duality of light, and the probabilistic nature of electron clouds. We continue to uphold these tenets of quantum physics because they lead to testable mathematical models that have been confirmed via experimentation; yet, these tenets utterly abandon our intuitions.
What could account for the discrepancy between our intuitions and reality? Well, similar to how our senses did not evolve to detect magnetic fields, our intuitions did not evolve to comprehend quantum physics. Rather than independent observers, our minds can be seen as a part of nature, a biological byproduct subject to natural selection like any other aspect of life. Through natural selection, we developed a conception of reality that optimized our chances at surviving and reproducing rather than the most true conception of reality.
Most of the time, survival depends on an accurate picture of the surrounding world. To avoid getting run over by a car when crossing the street, you need to be able to judge the position and speed of the car in relation to you. However, consciousness sometimes provides shortcuts, allowing us to work with the pertinent realities of the world without bogging us down with unnecessary details. For instance, physicists tell us matter consists mostly of empty space and the real reason I cannot punch through a concrete wall is because the protons in the wall repel the protons in my fist. But consciousness, to the contrary, tells us simply that massive walls and massive fists cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
How does consciousness deceive us so? Well, while a third of the neurons in your brain are dedicated to vision, only a fraction of that third is dedicated to actually sensing light. The rest is dedicated to perception, or to reconstructing your sensations to paint a coherent picture of reality. Therefore, we are limited not only in our ability to sense our surroundings — we lack the ability to sense magnetic fields — but also in our interpretation of the sensations we do have.
But why does any of this matter? Who cares if our perceptions do not match reality? We all should care because reality may have more to offer us than do our perceptions. The advancement of new technology will depend on our ability to harness the power of what lies beyond our umwelt. For instance, the next generation may see a future run on quantum computers, systems that would make use of the principles of quantum physics to store and analyze massive amounts of data. To prepare for such a future, we need to be ready to accept, trust and work with tools beyond our understanding. In fact, a stubborn fixation on personal experiences typically characterizes a denier of science. Think about lawmakers in Washington who deny climate change on the basis of it not getting hotter where they live. While we should challenge each idea presented to us before accepting it, we should also not be afraid to reject our presuppositions should we come across evidence that contradicts them.
Ayan Mandal is a junior in the College. Grey Matter appears every other Friday.
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