Cleansing the Doors of Perception

The earliest masterpieces from Isaac Asimov. This edition published by Panther Books 1979. Cover illustration by Chris Foss.

Our understanding of the universe is based entirely on how we perceive it.  Which, for human beings, is dependent on what we are able to comprehend through our five senses.  And that may pose something of a restriction which is not necessarily entirely obvious to us.

Arthur C Clarke considered this is his essay More Than Five Senses, which was reprinted in his 1972 collection Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations.  Starting with descriptions of the sound location senses of bats, dolphins and whales, he explained how some fish have evolved an electric sense through producing pulses of current.  He suggested that a magnetic sense in certain animals was quite feasible, as indeed has since been shown by research on various birds and invertebrates.

And all that is just on this planet.  Clarke went on to speculate how life-forms on distant worlds could, through necessity, have developed senses to, say, detect radioactivity or to see by X-rays.  We often see such ideas in science fiction, from the relatively straightforward (though highly effective) infrared vision of the enemy in the 1987 film Predator to the exceptionally advanced sense of smell used in a near vacuum by aliens in Hal Clement’s 1945 short story Uncommon Sense.

Underlying this is the supposition that life will have evolved senses to enable it to survive, and will go on to perfect them.  But then, if it can survive reasonably well with the senses it has available, it isn’t going to be too bothered about developing anything which isn’t essential.  A blind fish species living in the darkness of the deep ocean will not find that it misses the sense of vision; even if it had the intelligence to understand such things, it might not be able to comprehend what eyesight is.

Murray Leinster’s 1945 short story De Profundis provides a highly effective account of an intelligent species living in the depths of our oceans which has no concept of any existence outside its dark abode, let alone beyond the mythical “Surface” which might, or might not, exist.  When one of its members encounters humans, its conception of what it has found is largely incomprehensible.  Not surprisingly, others of its race regard its report on the experience as probably delusional.

Which leads us to wonder whether an intelligent alien race could really exist in total ignorance of something which is all around it, yet which is obvious to us.  Conversely it might perceive things which we can’t – there could even be forms of sensitivity which we humans could not hope to understand.  Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story The Secret Sense, which has been anthologised several times including in his significant collection The Early Asimov, or Eleven Years of Trying, describes a situation where Martians do not have humans’ highly developed vision or hearing, but they do have a sense of their own which baffles Earthmen.

When a Martian is confronted by an Earthman who suggests that he doesn’t know what he’s missing since he has such limited senses by terrestrial standards, he responds that “One misses nothing that one has never possessed.”  He is unable to explain the sense that Martians have, and it works both ways: “Can you define color to me, who cannot even conceive it?”  What is made clear is that no-one should presume a superiority over someone else because of a presumed advantage in one sense.

Given our technical advances, we tend to suppose that it’s highly unlikely that there’s anything on this planet, or elsewhere, which has completely escaped our attention.  Or perhaps that, given time, our technology will enable us to find, analyse and understand anything which is currently obscure to us.  It’s comforting to think that.  But then, given the way we’ve evolved, and the possible limitations of our existing senses, just maybe we wouldn’t even know what to look for in the first place.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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