Obliviousness to What We Don’t Understand

This evening, one of my graduate seminars drew attention to a passage from the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s work The Structure of Behavior in which Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of a toad. Here is what he says (and why I think it is important follows):

“If an earthworm is placed in front of a toad but separated from it by a glass, the animal perseveres in its attempts at prehension in spite of the failures which ought to be inhibiting because, in natural life, the instinctual equipment prescribes repeated attempts when confronted with a mobile objective.”

So basically, this toad tries to get at its prey, the earthworm, over and over again despite the fact that it continually bumps against this glass. The toad doesn’t learn over time that it will keep bumping into this glass every time it lunges toward the earthworm. You can imagine the earthworm on the other side laughing its ass off. Anyway, Merleau-Ponty goes on to say that if the toad eats an ant and the ant tastes bad, the toad will stop eating ants. It’s learned its lesson (unlike me with aloe juice). Why does the toad learn in the case of the nasty-tasting ant, but not in the case of the glass wall?

Merleau-Ponty seems to suggest that the reason is that the toad’s understanding of the world does not account for the presence of a glass wall as an obstacle. The toad might vaguely realize that it keeps bumping into something that is preventing it from getting to its prey, but it does not learn from this because it does not understand what’s going on when it bumps into the wall. Our professor (the dynamic and brilliant Susan Bredlau) offered a link between this and certain behaviors pertaining to emotional, particularly romantic, life. Perhaps we keep making the same dumb mistakes because we don’t even understand what they are. We don’t sense the glass in our path, even though we realize that we are running into something. Or rather, we may sense it, as we can assume the toad perceives the glass wall as something it sees and feels, but our framework of orientation to the world does not include it, so in a sense, we do not perceive it, and we cannot learn from it. It is only in coming to recognize the glass wall as an obstacle that the toad can know not to keep bumping into it to try to get at something it cannot have.

I was led to think about the phenomenon in the case of our experience of physical reality, particularly when it comes to experiencing different dimensions. I think a very similar phenomenon to that of the toad and the glass wall is happening when we have difficulty imagining what is beyond the first, second, third, and fourth dimensions. Thankfully this video does an extremely good job of explaining it, and I think it’s useful to consider Merleau-Ponty’s toad/wall anecdote in relation to it:

As you might see from the disclaimer on this video, the specific account of the dimensions given in this video (which was first produced in 2006) is now being problematized by contemporary physics; however, I think that the video is nonetheless wholly worth watching for the way that it helps us to imagine how there could be realities beyond what we immediately perceive. (So if nothing more, I’d recommend taking the video as a helpful fiction– after all, scientific research is often not so far from that, anyway!)

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