We’re unique creatures, humans. Not only are we conscious of our own mortality, but our survival is based solely on our ability to outwit the environment. We are vulnerable, soft, squishy, and unprotected…we probably taste like chicken. (Update: I have since been informed, in no uncertain terms, that our flavor profile is more akin to pork. Great.) Humanity never developed the ability to outrun threats or blend into our surroundings. Rather, we utilize cognition and reason to navigate the world, and have developed tools that allow our success as a species.
Because our survival is dependent on our capacity to think…to fashion tools and to plan, our brains are very good at extrapolating information. We can take existing knowledge about the world and use it to fill in the blanks, positing theories about what is yet unknown. If the information is good, this strategy can be very successful. In his book The First Brain: The Neuroscience of Planarians, Dr. Oné Pagán discusses this concept. In regards to scientific Theory, he notes “When thought about in this way, a Theory can be useful to relate and connect a wide variety of observed phenomena and has the power to explain and relate additional observations that may be obtained at a later point,” (Pagán, 2014, p. 12). He further reflects that Theory can predict outcomes based on known information. This is the reason that we are able to make mathematically calculate information about states of matter than we cannot observe, based on what we can.
Thus, our ability to infer missing information is a very handy tool. Not only can we engage in a little light quantum physics, but also deduce that the shadow on the bedroom ceiling must be cast by a tree outside the window, rather than a flailing Kraken. However, this cognitive gift can go awry. We are so used to filling in the blanks, that it begins to be a necessity to maintain comfort. We become uneasy when faced with the unknown, likely due to the inherent fragility of our chicken (ahem, pork)-flavored frames.
We are limited in our perception of the world by sensory input. We can only observe what falls in the range of information that can be picked up via the nervous system. We have developed sophisticated equipment to aid our senses, and this has expanded the knowable world for us, but there are some phenomena that will remain beyond our physical capacity to understand. Rather than concede that we can never be omniscient, the brain searches for answers to the questions that it insists on posing at all hours of the night. Why are we here? What does life mean? How did the universe come into being?
It is at this point that the brain, faced with insufficient data to make a solid prediction, begins to substitute with pure fancy. Thus, we have lulled ourselves into the belief that we are a somehow special, singular species, cherished and protected by an all-powerful being. It’s an all-purpose comfort mechanism, that explains the good and the tragic, and an escape from inevitable mortality. Illogical as it may be, the brain latches onto this idea. It fills in the gaps. It removes that nasty tinge of doubt and makes us feel as though we have some defense against an apathetic universe. We thus don the emperor’s clothes, so to speak, and go about with an invisible, and ultimately non-existent shield.