Humans lack the senses to make sense of everything

For the most part, humans don’t have a lot of sense. No, I mean, really, there are a lot of things we don’t have senses for. We only have five senses, and that’s only if you count generously. These include sight, sound, chemical (which includes taste and smell) and touch. Even these are incomplete. Many animals’ sensing spectrums go far beyond our own abilities.

It is difficult to understand how we (I am generously including myself in the category of human) think we know so much. Modern scientists make all kinds of proclamations about the world and how it works. In fact, we (I am generously including myself in the category of scientist) don’t even know everything that is going on in the world because we have no senses for the information.

It is not surprising, then, to discover that humans, generously including scientists, may not really know what reality is. How can we know what is real when we don’t even have the sense to detect everything? If there is information we don’t sense, how can we even know we don’t know it?

Rene Descartes was confused about this as well. He wrote an entire book as he imagined that reality wasn’t real. I think he finally decided it was real, although I was never really sure if I understood his book. And I don’t recall any mention of echolocation. I guess that sort of makes sense because radar and echolocation weren’t really around when Descartes was writing in the 1600s. He still thought he knew what he was talking about, though. I mean, how can we think we know it all without a sense of echolocation?  Bats experience a whole spectrum of information that we can never fully understand except through secondhand sensors.

Or like sharks. Sharks have channels in their heads that are filled with some kind of bizarre fluid that detects electrical fields. Animals move by tiny electrical currents that run through their nerves and muscles. These currents set up a vacillating electrical field around the creatures which sharks can detect from some distance. In fact, sharks rival our best physics laboratories in their ability to detect these tiny electrical currents and can determine, in many cases, the source.

Scientists have decided that these tubes actually detect minute temperature changes and transform that into electrical charges. How do we know we aren’t turning their sensations, which we obviously don’t perceive naturally, into a system we do perceive?

What about magnetic fields in birds and bees, which has nothing to do with reproduction but with navigating space, in many members of both groups?  Most of the time I’m not sure which way is up, let alone north and south, east and west. Heck, without a mountain skyline, map or compass, I would never be able to fly right. Have you ever tried to find your way around Boston?

Everyone makes a big deal out of bee dances that communicate direction and distance to floral sources for foraging. Has anyone asked how the bees see the dance inside a dark hive? Of course, the bees don’t see the dance. They have very poor eyes and don’t see in the same manner as you and I do, or form the same perspective. I suspect the bees feel the vibrations of the dance on the beeswax comb.

I haven’t consciously experienced pheromone communication like in insects. What about the tapetum lucidum in some mammals? It might be a good idea for humans to be a little more reticent about what they think they know. I’m not even sure if I have enough senses to know what I think I don’t know.

People who think they know everything tend to think other people should do what the person who thinks they know thinks is best for the people that don’t know, whether those people have echolocation powers or not. Those people are called politicians.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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