I contend that most of us are narrow minded.
As I wrote the previous sentence I had a vision of the fingers of the majority of the few people who come here immediately pouncing on their keyboards to pound out an exceptionally fervent agreement or disagreement with that statement. Or maybe they’ll get defensive and pen a personal repudiation.
Prove me wrong. Please wait until you finish reading this post before spouting your response.
First, notice that I said, “narrow minded,” not “narrow-minded.” I left out the hyphen intentionally. The reason for the missing hyphen is that I’m not talking about narrow-mindedness, i.e. the unwillingness to listen to or tolerate other people’s views. What I am talking about here is my belief that our minds are comfortable contemplating only a very narrow band of most physical scales.
What nonsensical crap am I on about now? Well, consider just a few examples.
Imagine that a reviewer whose judgment you trust gave a stellar recommendation for a restaurant you haven’t visited. The restaurant’s menu is well within your budget and it serves your favorite type of food, but you decide not to go because it’s too far from your home.
You might eliminate a possible vacation spot for the same reason, but you’d probably be willing to travel farther to get away for a few days, or a week or two, than to have a nice meal.
We’re used to thinking in those sorts of distances, but distances that are much more than what we can personally experience in our everyday (or vacationing) lives tend to be little more than just numbers to most of us.
The point that I’m so inelegantly and insufficiently making is that we’re comfortable with thinking about distances of a few miles (or kilometers for those of us of the metric persuasion), but thoughts of longer distances are too much for our brains to reflect on in a way that makes them seem the least bit tangible to most of us.
Hm. That didn’t make it any more elegant or sufficient, did it? Sorry about that.
OK, I hear you. “A few miles” exaggerated it a little on the low end. According to United Airlines, the distance between New York and Paris is, 3,649 miles. Looking at a word map or a globe we have a general sense of how far that is relative to the circumference of Earth. (Although, how meaningful is the circumference of Earth to us?) If we’re fortunate enough to be able to spend time in both of those cities and fly between them at some point in our lives, and we don’t nap on the way, we also have an idea of how long a flight that is.
United, which flies the flight nonstop, says the distance between Newark, New Jersey, USA and Tokyo, Japan is 6,732 miles. I live in Toronto and have never crossed the Pacific (so far; I hope to correct that one day), but if you’re a world traveller you might have a sense of how far that is in terms that you can relate to, i.e. travel time.
(Full disclosure: Apart from being a member of Air Canada’s frequent flier program, which, along with United, is a member of Star Alliance, I don’t have any connection with United Airlines. I used United in the above examples only because it was the first airline I found that listed the miles of each flight when I did a flight search.)
Distances much greater than that are, for the most part, just numbers to us. For example, consider this: The Milky Way—only our own galaxy, not the whole universe consisting of maybe more than 100-billion galaxies—is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers wide. That’s about 62,137,119,000,000,000,000,000 miles.
Some clever journalist might try to put that distance in terms we can relate to by telling us that’s about 9,230,113,000,000,000,000 trips between New York and Tokyo. Um, really? We can relate to that? Does that have any palpable meaning for you? It doesn’t for me.
All I know is that I couldn’t complete all of that travel within my lifetime. I’d be short by several millennia. But think of the frequent flier miles I’d get!
So, on astronomical scales, most of us—possibly excluding astronomers—are comfortable thinking about only relatively minute distances.
The same is true on the short end of the scale. If we can walk somewhere within a few minutes, most of us think of that as close. Or, to use another example, for people living in most of Canada, anything less than a couple of centimetres (we spell it centimetres, not centimeters), which is almost an inch, is only a light dusting of snow.
OK. Now consider this. To our minds, a human hair is exceptionally narrow. That’s why we refer to almost no distance at all as being a hair’s breadth. Most of us can’t conceptualize anything much narrower than that.
Yet, if Wikipedia is accurate (I can’t guarantee that it is), then a typical human hair is about 1-million carbon atoms wide. The point is that the width of an atom is inconceivable to most of us. I could look up and give you a number with a large negative exponent that would be the diameter of, for example, a hydrogen atom, but it would have no more tangible meaning for most of you than it does for me, which is none at all.
And it’s not just distances.
Think about weights or, more accurately, mass. I weigh about 165 pounds under Earth’s gravity at Toronto’s altitude. At a little less than 5’ 6” tall, I should weigh a less than that for optimal health, and my weight varies over time, but at time of writing, that’s roughly what it is.
I have a general impression (which is probably not accurate) of what a 300-pound person of my height would look like. And I can conceive of them dying at an early age from heart disease, diabetes complications, cancers or other diseases in which obesity is implicated.
But, what would 1,000 pounds look like? I haven’t the foggiest.
Yet Earth, has a mass of almost 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms. That’s about 13,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. (I might have one extra or one too few zeroes. I’m not good at that sort of thing.)
Then there is the small end of the scale. Like I said, I weigh about 165 pounds. According to an article in The Guardian newspaper, one of the 20 amazing facts about the human body (I would have thought there were way more than 20) is that the average adult human body contains about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.
You do the arithmetic to figure out how little a atom weighs if I have an average adult human body. As I mentioned two paragraphs ago, I’m no good at getting the decimal place (or negative exponents) right with division of that scale. Suffice it to say, your bathroom scale doesn’t offer anywhere close to the accuracy needed to measure the mass of an atom. In fact, you’d need a great many zeros to describe the orders of magnitude that your scale would be short of the necessary accuracy.
Time is another scale on which we are narrow minded. We say, “just a second,” but rarely mean just a second. If we live 80 years, we’re doing well in most countries. Recorded history spans thousands of years, but single digits of thousands. Any longer than that, and the best the most of us can come up with in terms of relating to those timeframes is, “eons ago,” but, in truth, that doesn’t mean much to us.
And, consider the short end of the time scale. Most people would probably say that they see what’s on the computer screen they are reading as soon as it’s displayed. For the vast majority of human purposes, they would be close enough to correct to not fault them for thinking that. But, in fact, they are wrong.
Light has a finite speed: 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum, although it’s a bit sluggish when travelling through air. So, in fact, the light from your screen takes a fraction of a second to reach your eyes. True, it’s such an infinitesimal fraction of a second that, for your purposes, it might as well be zero, but it’s not.
Is it possible to conceptualize how short a time that is in any concrete way? Probably not. The time period would be long over before your brain even began to conceptualize it.
And those are just three scales. There are more, such as temperature, acceleration, force and others. Most of us feel comfortable concretely conceptualizing (if that’s not an oxymoron) only a very narrow band of those scales. But because I’ve probably bored you to tears already and chased too many people away with this long and pedantic post, I’ll stop here.
So, you might well ask, what’s the point? What are the philosophical meanings and implications of our narrow mindedness? Or are there no deeper meanings or implications whatsoever? And why did I start uttering this nonsense in the first place?
Damned if I know. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please leave them in a comment here. A few of the billions upon billions of neurons and synapses in enquiring minds want to know.
Categorised as: philosophy