Imagining ‘Umwelts’ Is Unnecessary
By Martin LeFevre
Rows of magnificent cumulus are piled up to the east. It’s an unusually cool afternoon before a protracted heat wave is due in California. I seize the opportunity and drive to Upper Park, parking near the last gate at the end of the gravel road. It’s less than half a mile walk along a rocky, undulating trail to a great meditation spot. The slopes of the canyon open up to the east, with a layered cake of vertical cliffs looming overhead just to the north, and a narrow slash of a gorge lying below, its steep walls formed by huge volcanic slabs of pillow rock. It’s the finest meditation spot anyone could ask for. The place never fails to shock the mind into stillness and the heart into wonder at the beauty of the towering cliffs and precipitous chasm. On some days vultures glide by at eye-level, so close you can look into their ceaselessly scanning eyes. But today they’re catching updrafts and flying high above in groups of a half dozen. Methodless meditation is not an escape, a “turning inward” in the pejorative sense of the phrase so often heard in the American media, but the best way to keep one’s mind and heart alive in a pervasively dead culture. Systems, techniques and ‘guided meditations’ are inimical to quieting thought, since they are all products of thought. They are forms of hypnosis, dulling the mind rather than making it deeply sensitive. Some people advocate trying to envision, through knowledge and imagination, an animal’s ‘Umwelt’ - the world as experienced by a particular organism. They marvel at how “birds have four types of color-sensing cells compared to our three, allowing them to see an entire dimension of colors that we cannot.” That knowledge may add to our experience and imagination, but it doesn’t deepen our actual experiencing. The antidote to anthropomorphizing, to the human tendency to “shove the square peg of animal life into the round hole of human narratives,” is not to imagine viewing animals through their own eyes. Nor by watching pets in the city or birds in nature, and “feeling less inured to my own life, more aware of the perpetually changing environment around me.” In order to glimpse animals through their own eyes, thought must fall completely still, allowing our eyes to be bathed in immediacy and innocence of perception. The idea that each animal has its own “Umwelt, its own unique perceptual world,” is still a product of human separativeness projected onto animals. Though there’s much validity to the Umwelt idea, a more applicable insight for human beings with the urge to move beyond the projections of the human mind is the saying, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It means that as life evolved more and more complex forms, each stage contains the stages that came before it. Therefore human brain, being the most complex thing that has ever evolved on earth, contains all the stages of life that preceded it. This is not the old ‘pinnacle of creation’ fallacy, but the realization that our sensory apparatus is not simply fitted to a specific niche, as all other animals. Having escaped the bonds of ecological niche, we have shackled ourselves to thought as memory, conditioning and the known. Freeing oneself of those shackles through right observation and passive awareness, the brain awakens as an organ of perceptions and insights beyond words and knowledge, experience and the known. Therefore it’s simply not true that “our own senses constrain us, creating a permanent divide between our Umwelt and another animal’s.” The philosopher Thomas Nagel was mistaken when he wrote in 1974 “the conscious experiences of other animals are inherently subjective and hard to describe.” Other animals do not have conscious, subjective experiences; only humans do. “An informed imaginative leap” cannot show what another Umwelt is like, and it’s nonsensical to say, “you must work to imagine it.” When we correctly observe (which means without the infinite regress of the separate observer) the movement of thought and emotion within as we observe nature and the world around us, our brains fall silent, and grow tremendously aware. In deeper meditative states, when thought is completely quiet and one has spontaneously left the dimension of the known, animals are often drawn to one. It isn’t ‘me’ they are drawn to, but the human being, which is a very different kind of animal than ‘I,’ the conditioned human. Sometimes though it works the other way. Once I was meditating at a picnic table in the park that runs through town, with a stream in front and a narrow path in back. Two women approached on horseback, and the leading horse stopped. The angle was such that I could see one of the horse’s eyes staring at me, and saw immediately why it wouldn’t move, despite the woman repeatedly squeezing its belly. In that timeless of being, I waited for confirmation. After half a minute, the clearly exasperated rider commanded, without a trace of awareness or irony, “Speak, it doesn’t know what you are.” Chuckling, I replied, “Hello horse,” at which it instantly started ambling forward. Animals and small children discern the difference between humans and human beings, even if they’ve never seen one before. Animals are incapable of all-encompassing subjective experiencing, which is not at all personal. And tragically, parents, teachers and society condition children to see only what they are conditioned to see, or imagine they see by “working to imagine” the Umwelt of other people and animals.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com