I’m sure this exists in some Umberto Eco book or something somewhere-
But imagine a man who is supernaturally bestowed with the power to truthfully answer any question someone else poses to him, but only on the terms that the question was posed. Our poor supergenius, call him Bert, cannot add new vocabulary that the asker doesn’t already use. He can’t draw or move to better convey his answers to others’ questions visually. Poorly posed questions about elan vital or phlogiston or angels on pinheads get warped answers, instead of denials of the premises (perhaps because if Bert had to deny all false or vague premises, he’d never be able to answer anyone’s questions at all). Even well-designed questions with direct answers might suffer from an “Up-Goer Five” effect, where Bert has to constrain the absolute truth to terms and ideas that already exist, leaving him frequently tongue-tied or unintelligible. There are clean-cut and simple answers that he cannot give especially well because of his inability to expand vocabulary or introduce new concepts. There are simple questions that he wished someone would ask but if never occurs to anyone to ask in the right way, most of the time. Many of what people bring to him as Big Questions are instead just very confused nonsense that he can only answer with his own tortured nonsense response.
We are not equipped to understand Bert.
Just as there are odors that dogs can smell and we cannot, as well as sounds that dogs can hear and we cannot, so too there are wavelengths of light we cannot see and flavors we cannot taste.
Why, then, given our brains wired the way they are, does the remark “Perhaps there are thoughts we cannot think” surprise you?
Evolution, so far, may possibly have blocked us from being able to think in some directions; there could be unthinkable thoughts.
-Richard Hamming, Bell Labs
An affordance is a possibility for action, latent in the designed artifact itself but recognizable and actionable to the user. Knobs and wheels afford turning. Buttons afford pressing. The possibility for the action is clear just by looking at it- at least, for someone who has already mapped the mechanics of an artifact to an experience they recognize.
One could imagine an alien species with strange appendages and sensory organs, creating tools that seem very natural to them because of their history and what their bodies allow, tools that for humans are worse than unusable- they’re practically unfathomable.
I want to take a stab at thinking about what is and isn’t “fathomable”.
Continue reading The Weird and the Banal