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Essay of the Month: The Limitations of Human Perception

11-22-08 > Of the sensory gifts of human beings sight is the sense that is most used and depended upon to gain information and understanding of our experience. It is a wonderful gift in the range of visual experience – color, value, texture, pattern, line, shape and space. But even in realm of visual experience it is limited – limited by range, detail, clarity, depth, and wavelength. There are numerous creatures with capabilities that surpass ours in all these categories. Hearing may be our second most used sense. It also has the capacity to bring us great subtly and beauty, but again we are surpassed by many other creatures with more highly developed auditory capabilities, including those who have sonar functions. The sense of touch, our entire skin surface being an organ, is capable of bring us a tremendous range of sensation and information, from great pleasure to excruciating pain. It may be our most underused sense as it is suppressed from an early age, primarily due to prudish mores. Taste and smell, two highly related senses, have a limited use my most contemporary human beings. They are used mostly in our relationship with food, while if more fully developed these senses have the capability to bring us information and knowledge that goes far beyond consumption – again this is illustrated well by the wide range of creatures who use these senses in so many aspects of their existence.

The intellect and inventiveness of human beings have led to the development of many tools to help extend the capabilities of our senses; microscopes and telescopes of all kinds to extend our range of vision large and small and into new wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, audio devices to greatly expand the sensitivity and capability of our hearing, and devices that extend the range and detail of even taste and smell. But even with the many extensions of our sense capabilities our perception of the universe around is still limited. We still do not truly know what we and all matter are made of. We know that the entire universe is made of the same stuff: the stars, the planets, the rock, the water, the plants, the animals, the insects, the microbes, us – we are all made of the very same atoms and sub-atomic particles. We know that these particles are interchangeable and cannot be destroyed – only change the forms that they take on. But what are these subatomic particles. We can crash them together and watch their interactions and energy trails. But what are they? They seem to be energy in space – no real physical presence. They may be vibrating energy (“strings”) that take on their forms dependent on how they vibrate. That would make the universe a kind of symphony of vibration – a beautiful concept indeed, but still just a theory. It is unknown if we will be able to validate an understanding of the essence of what we, and everything else, is made of.

On the macro end of our perception the answers are even more radically incomplete. The tremendous strides in the past century in understanding our universe have been dazzling. Coming to an understanding that our sun is one of about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies in the universe gives a mental perception of our existence that takes one’s breath away. To try to give some physical meaning to these numbers, the number of stars in the universe is approximately equal to all the grains of sand on all earth’s beaches and deserts. But the physical matter of the above description, the stars, planets, comets, asteroids, etc. make up .4% of the universe, intergalactic gases make up 3.6%., dark matter is 23%, and dark energy is 73%. We have no idea what dark matter and dark energy are, so we have no understanding what consists of 96% of our universe. This is absolutely stunning and absolutely exciting at the same time.

copyright 2008 Mark W. McGinnis

from my new "Abstract Naturalism" series

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