This Is Water: How To Understand People (A Little Bit)

Maarten van Doorn
Jul 26, 2018 · 5 min read

In 1806, US entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to tropical Martinique with a big scheme to sell ice to the locals.

Sounds like a solid business plan.

Didn’t work.

The islanders found the product to be nothing other than a curiosity. Having never experienced a cold drink, they could not get why ice had any such value.

They left Tudor’s cargo to melt away — unappreciated and unsold.

Unknown unknowns: the Totality Illusion

The moral: people’s finite ‘conceptual horizons’ constrain how they make sense of the world.

If you don’t have the concept of a ‘cold drink’, you don’t understand the value of ice for that purpose.

It’s hard to sense a failure to recognize a concept when you lack that concept in the first place. These are things that we do not know, that we don’t know: unknown unknowns.

In fact, what each individual knows is merely a narrow slice of the concepts that humanity has developed to comprehend the world we inhabit.

Unfortunately, people often incorrectly assume that they are experiencing the world in full.

Psychologists refer to this as the ‘Totality Illusion’ or the ‘What You See Is All There Is’ phenomenon.

For instance, people with red-green color blindness are often unaware of their color vision deficiency well into adulthood: they see something but are unaware of what else they miss.

Another example is Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland. ‘Flatlanders’ are two-dimensional creatures living in a two-dimensional world, and as such could not comprehend three-dimensional ideas such as ‘up’ or ‘sphere’.

Alas, the way you and I make sense of the world is similarly constrained.

That means that a huge percentage of ‘knowledge’ I’m certain about is probably incomplete:

“We know that evolution doesn’t program us for truth, but for survival. There are many hidden parts of reality — that would be picked up by the senses of other animals — that we can’t even come close to experiencing because that wasn’t what we evolved for.” — Zat Rana

Your conceptual horizon determines what you can know

In science and philosophy, we want to understand how the world works independently of us — we want to know how reality really is.

In other words, we want to know reality ‘objectively’.

A view is more objective if it relies less on the specifics of the individual.

However, if our conceptual horizon determines how we make sense of the world, a fully objective worldview might be impossible to attain.

To some extent, ‘how the world is’ cannot but depend on whom you ask.

Contemporary humans, for example, have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Our knowledge of the world seems to require that it behaves in certain ways (e.g. if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A will be bigger than C).

Such epistemic concepts determine what we find reasonable — or even intelligible — at every stage of any inquiry.

In fact, we cannot check our beliefs about what the world is like against reality itself, but only against other beliefs that we already accept (like the cited principle of transitivity).

Attaining knowledge is like coloring within the lines set by these fundamental concepts — it’s not like working with a blank slate.

Interestingly, it’s quite possible that there exist facts beyond the range of human concepts.

If people base their interpretations of their circumstances upon available cognitive frameworks, the frameworks one does not have limit the scope of which understandings are possible:

“The very idea of objective reality guarantees that such a picture will not comprehend everything. We ourselves are the first obstacles to such an ambition.” -Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere

It’s about more than knowledge

So we’ve taken a brief look at (a) how our concepts limit what we can know, (b) how we’re unaware of that and (c) how it might not even be possible to acquire an objective picture of reality because we cannot get rid of ourselves.

This extends beyond knowledge about ‘how the world is’.

In his field study of the Society Islands in Tahiti, anthropologist Robert Levy noticed that when Tahitians suffered from a painful loss of a loved one, they expressed no such thing as ‘grief’.

By contrast, they described their sorrow as “sickness” or “feeling strange”.

The point: our conceptual horizon not only limits what we can know about reality, but also penetrates how we experience it.

Unknown knowns: this is water

There are things we don’t know that we don’t know, but there are also things that we don’t know that we know: unknown knowns.

Unknown knowns form the frame of our experience of reality — they are the beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves:

“There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says: “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks: “What the hell is water?”” — David Forster Wallace

The message of the fish story is that the most obvious and important realities are the hardest to see. Often, this is because our natural setting is to be self-centered and to interpret everything through this lens of self.

We don’t realize that each of us has a personal frame through which he/she perceives the world and engages in it.

For example, the subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, nor, presumably, is mine to him.

What concepts could be used to explain to someone who is not to me what it is like to be me?

Can we make sense of experiences having an objective character? Does it make sense, in other words, to ask what my experiences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me?

Not really. It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the ‘objective character of an experience’, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it.

Any individual interprets his environment (1) with a certain context and (2) by using his personal interpretive framework.

There is an unlimited quantity of (1) possible contexts and (2) unique interpretive frameworks since each person has an idiosyncratic collection of knowledge, prior experience, concerns, motivations, and goals.

Experiences are highly personal.

The facts of experience — facts about what it is like for the experiencing person — are accessible only from the point of view of the experiencer.

There is something that it is like to be a particular person and this subjective character of experience can only be understood from the inside.

It’s essential to learn to take some distance and to view one’s own experience from the outside, as an event in the world.

As one interpretation, and not as the interpretation.

This is water.

This is water.


There’s more to that

If you drink water, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD candidate in philosophy. What do you think you know, and how do you think you know it? Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.

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