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Post details: Scope and Range

Scope and Range

Light is a special form of electromagnetic radiation. It is made out of the same undulating field as its oscillatory brethren: ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, radio waves, microwaves etc. The important difference is that your retina can register the light waves as long as their wavelength is roughly between 400 and 700 nanometers. That does not mean that the other forms of radiation are any less real. You can verify their existence through various detection devices. But you won't see them. If you could, the world would look like a bizarre blurry nightmare of a drunk cartoonist. Just think X-ray vision. Sure airport security guys would have easier job, but a rose garden would lose much of its charm. Our view of the world depends crucially on what part of the electromagnetic spectrum we can directly detect.

When I was in high school, I thought that our knowledge was fully defined by its scope: some people knew Egyptology, some knew all the secrets of Thai cooking, and some were experts on vintage Porsche cars. But once two people trained their crosshairs on the same thing, I assumed that they would see the same thing. That turned out to be a deploringly oversimplified assumption.

Once, in my junior year, a friend of mine gave me his take on the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and I realized that his impression of the piece was completely and bafflingly different from my own. It was then and there that it dawned on me that our understanding has a wavelength, too, and that perception is a crucial cog-wheel of our cognitive apparatus: not only has our knowledge scope, but it also has a very subjective range at which we are individually able to process it.

Have you ever heard two people describe the same event? No, I don't mean the Republican and Democratic talking heads clashing their opinion swords on Sunday morning shows. I mean normal people. It's like hearing two different stories altogether. That is just one of the consequences of the fact that they perceived the event at hand in their own personal wavelength ranges. Their intellectual retinas were sensitive to very specific and highly subjective stimuli.

Different emphases, different blind spots, different levels of detail. That is all part of our mental range, whose traces can be found in all areas of human activity: in visual arts, where the same painting may elicit diametrically opposite reactions, in psychology, where the same person can generate the widest scale of feelings, in singing, where a jarring voice for some may be a soothing sound for others, or in sciences, where the same subject often produces different expertly opinions.

Sometimes it fascinates me, how brilliant some scientists can be, and yet, almost at the same breath, display what looks like a gaping hole in their judgment. But it is really just a missing part of their perception spectrum. Perhaps that is why many major discoveries or inventions are often best described by the follow-up researchers, rather than original creators. Those who come in subsequent waves after the initial discovery have different cognitive range and see the matter in a context which is often better aligned with the mainstream way of thinking. If you want a report on Anna Kournikova's sprained ankle, you'll be better off giving it to a New York Times sportswriter, even though it was the guy with the X-ray vision who spotted it first.

Our perceptional idiosyncrasies also show how utterly foolish it is for one person to judge another. How can you even understand someone else's reality, without seeing it in the same light. I think only a reasonably broad group of people has a chance of passing a somewhat fair judgment, because that group can collectively span a representative range of perception and reach a relatively objective judgment. And even that I have doubts about.

But individual judgment is like writing a book review without speaking the language in which the book is written; it betrays failure to appreciate the beauty whose wavelength happens to lie outside of one's mental range. Yet many court jesters embark on that folly every day.

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