How is it that we are able to perceive that which is not repeatable, not reproducible, and, really, not even communicable?
I am of two minds on this question. My first theory, which in many ways I prefer, really only answers the question as if it is a special case for humans - hence the second theory, which I feel has more flaws but at least allows for a little less anthropocentrism in its ideas.
While this idea is going to resonate very strongly with the folk notion of a "sixth sense" or "second sight", please try to think about it in its coarse, scientific aspects before allowing the folk wisdom to interfere.
I suspect, or would like to postulate for further examination, the idea that there is a very crude, barely evolved perhaps, "organ" by which we are capable of perceiving certain information not ordinarily available to us. By organ I wish to refer to any possible method by which this sense might operate - a physical arrangement of cells, a certain conditioning and learning process in the brain and nervous system, a combination of glandular and secretive formations that result in our perceptions - in other words I do not want at this time to assume we know where to "look" for it.
My favorite example of how this might work and be understood in a way, is to compare it to the sense of sight and the perception of visible light information. With our fine eyes, ability to focus and discern colors, and the combination of binocular vision and a major portion of the brain with which to process the data collected by them, we hardly think twice about the correlation between "what we see" and "the world around us." I just is the way we perceive the world and since there is pretty much a one to one relationship between what our visual systems (eyes plus cortex plus learning), we imagine that what we see is the real world.
Now consider the earliest days of the development of sight in animals. It is likely that the first "eyes," to use the term very loosely, would have been a cell or grouping of cells that somehow had mutated to react in some small way to the presence or absence of light energy falling on them. Since it is probable that some form of behavior in response to this reaction could have been a survival advantage, the trait was passed along to the creatures successful descendants. As the trait mutated from time to time, various improvements in its functioning and accuracy would be favored, slowly developing into the vast range of sight organs we observe in the creatures around us today. Its very correspondence to the physical world makes sensing light energy a very strong survival advantage, since typically most forms of food, shelter, and predators are identifiable by visual means.
But in those early days... just imagine. If we today had only that rudimentary, subtle perception of light, along with everything else we take for granted, including communication and sharing of information, what would we make of the occasional reports of "something" being perceived by some people, some of the time? It would not be easy to repeat for experiment, since we would not even know what it was that they were responding to, we would have no idea of what electromagnetic energy even was, except perhaps if we felt the warmth of infrared light. It would be difficult to describe, since language develops in response mostly to survival needs, to what we want to try to communicate about the world we share in common.
Perhaps those among us with a stronger sense of "vision" would grow accustomed to exercising whatever meager response they felt to this stimulation, and improve their awareness of it. Even as they succeed, how would they communicate this to those who had perhaps never felt it or perceived it themselves? It would take millions of years, hundreds of millions even, for this early form of sight to respond to evolutionary pressures and mutations to the point where it would be a common sense and taken for granted.
Now consider this in relation to my subject. Let us for a moment imagine there is some nature of the universe that we somehow are capable of "tuning in" to, but very crudely, gleaning the barest information from it, if any at all. let us go one step further - and this is critical - let us say that there is not much survival advantage in this information! Sure, it might be handy to know a predator is around the corner, or that one is being lied to, etc., but at the stage of development we are at, these responses are too erratic and too diffuse to be of much use - especially in our civilized, non evolutionary times. In this case there would not be much evolutionary advantage to the trait, or pressure to improve it. In fact, when I look at the nature of these sorts of experiences in my life, I suspect they may even be a disadvantage! My terrifying visions of some unknown, indescribable beauty tend to leave me rather unproductive, meditative, unconcerned with the daily routine and hassle of keeping my life organized.
So if there is some "organ" by which some or all of us at times are able to "see" beyond the familiar world into a realm where ordinary language completely fails us is its descriptive powers to translate what perceive, how would it appear to others and to the attempt to make scientific inquiry into it? How would the tales related by those who experienced its activity be taken, when we do not even have much beyond a rudimentary language to share this information?
This theory is something I have had floating around in my mind ever since reading a book, long ago, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I largely ignored his heavy handed attempts to make a scientific basis for a lot of Christian theology, since it seemed too silly. But there was a thread in his writing, perhaps only barely perceptible, that had my mind running along in parallel forming this idea about the nature of matter.
This idea is essentially that matter is all related to the part of the universe that is beyond understanding, that which is not predictable, and that this relation can be magnified by certain arrangements of matter. The particular arrangements of matter are very important, in that simple large scale objects do not necessarily "concentrate" this feature. What matters is not the size of the object but its structural complexity, something about the interrelationship of its parts, perhaps also their ability effect one another. So for instance, a star, which is a huge physical phenomenon, has very little beyond the basic connection since it is actually a very simple object, and rather random in a lot of its internal structure. On the other hand, and possible at the other extreme, we have something like the human brain, with its incredibly dense network of neurons firing in fairly coordinated fashion, and in a very causative way.
This is not to glorify the human brain as much as it is to bring up the point that most living things are far more complex in structure than the material phenomena that surround them. Thus life may also be serving as a way to concentrate this special nature of matter in such a way that it becomes apparent. Even the non living matter around us has some of it, and we can "hear" it if we listen very, very carefully. A special case would even have to be made for the objects we fashion from our environment to help us survive, and enjoy life. Many of them are crafted by hand, from objects that were once alive, and objects either once living or not that have been selected for their special qualities - perhaps not just their texture or workability but also for their "meaning" to the craftsman. These are very important talismans with which to surround our nascent souls, for they act as lenses to focus our ability to discern the world beyond, lenses and antennae for the energies we struggle to perceive.
I am not even going to go into where the Internet stands in this equation. I have promised myself never to add any files that attempt to analyze its ramifications in our lives to this site. But you are free to think about it...
© Huw Powell