What Does a Bee Look Like to a Bee? The Perceptual Multiverse

In reply to the question posed in the title, most people would say that when a bee looks at another bee, or if it were to see its reflection in a mirror,[1] it would see more or less the same thing that we see when we look at a bee. But what reason do we have for this belief? If we consider the matter a little more closely, we will see that this naive belief is highly unlikely to be true, since both the eyes and brains of bees are very different from our human eyes and brains. Like some other insects such as flies, wasps, and dragonflies, bees have compound eyes, meaning that instead of having just one lens in each eye, as we humans do, they have a multiplicity of lenses that enable them to see in many different directions simultaneously, a very useful ability to have if you are a small flying insect. Moreover, as is well known, bees can see ultraviolet light, which we humans cannot see. Given these significant differences, it is hardly likely that what they see through their eyes will resemble what we see through our eyes.

The same is true of all the other perceiving organisms in the world: the things they see or perceive through their senses are probably very different from the things that we perceive through our senses. Whereas other mammals, in particular apes, may perceive the world in a similar way as we do, the more a creature differs from us, then the more likely it is that it perceives the world in a very different way from us. In other words, there exist many different perceptual worlds, and not, as is naively assumed by most people, only one perceptual world, namely the one that we know intimately from our daily waking sensorial experiences.

According to some physics theories such as string theory, there exist many different universes which, depending on the person you are speaking to, can be accessed from our Universe via black holes, wormholes, and perhaps the holes which these fantasists have in their brains. What is remarkable about this gaggle of speculating theorists is that they have completely overlooked the great variety of perceptual worlds that already exist in our Universe, and more specifically on the Earth, since so far we have not found life anywhere else in the Universe. For all of their mathematical sophistication, these theorists are constrained by the same perceptual constraints that limit the understandings of most people – the simple fact that we cannot experience the world in the way that any other organism experiences it. But this limitation should not blind us to the existence of these other, varied, and very different perceptual worlds.

Anyone who has spent much time with young children knows that their understanding of other people – their feelings, desires, moods, and other sensory states – is usually very limited. It is only gradually with the passing years that most of us learn that other people do not always share our feelings, desires, moods, opinions, beliefs, goals, values, reactions, inclinations, tastes, preferences, and so on. Selfish people are those who fail to learn this lesson, or, even if they are aware of other people’s often very different emotional states, are indifferent to them.

What is true of young children is also true of human beings as a species: because we have no experience of the inner[2] lives of other organisms, we generally fail to understand how different they are from our own experiences. Not surprisingly, those who do have some understanding of the inner lives of other creatures are those who have spent a significant amount of time observing them.

So what follows from these statements? Nothing follows from them, for the belief that something follows, whether logically or not, from something else means only that a certain idea is suggested by or is associated with it in one’s brain, which will clearly differ depending on the previous experiences of the person who has read this particular sequence of words from the beginning of this essay, since different people have different neural connections in their brains.

For example, many people will try to imagine what the perceptual worlds of other creatures are like, and some individuals may devote much time to creating a computer program that will, according to them, allow human beings to experience the perceptual world of, say, a bee, fish, eagle, snake, or octopus. But these computer simulations can never be more than mere counterfeits or approximations of the real thing, for they will only present to a member of our species what another member of that same species believes the perceptual world of a member of a different species looks like when experienced through our human perceptual system.

There is another question that is suggested by this line of thought: “What does a human being look like to a bee, spider, ostrich, shark, elephant, or whale?” Of course, we cannot know the answer to this question, since we cannot ask these creatures this simple question and expect to have it answered by them. Hence, we can only answer it negatively in the sense that what these creatures see when they look at us is probably very different from what we see when we look at our reflected image in a mirror, or when we look at a photo or video of ourselves.

One of the conditions of life is that we can only experience the world as the members of our particular species experience it. Some clever person might then declare that God, not being limited in the way that every living creature is limited, can experience the world in whatever way It[3] chooses. But this view fails to recognize that God has no need to perceive the world, for perception is an attribute – indeed, it is an extremely useful and necessary attribute – of the limited, finite, vulnerable, and mortal creatures that we are. Just as an immortal being has no need of sex, since sex is a way of compensating for the mortality of every individual member of a species, an immortal being like God also has no need to perceive the world, at least not in the way that a living organism perceives it.

Rather than speculating about the nature and possible existence of other universes that, in all likelihood, don’t exist, we should instead learn to appreciate the many different worlds, as well as the many wonderful creatures that inhabit them, which actually exist all around us, and which, increasingly, are disappearing, or whose numbers have been greatly reduced, because of our very selfish indifference to their plight.

 

[1] Most mirrors are, of course, made to reflect visible light, since this is the only kind of light that we humans can see. But this does not mean they will also reflect other kinds of radiation, such as ultraviolet radiation.

[2] I am using this word metaphorically, and not literally, as is commonly done, to designate a different kind of existence, such as in the distinction between material, or physical, existence and immaterial, or spiritual, existence.

[3] I do not mean any disrespect by using the capitalized pronoun “It” to refer to God instead of the more customary “He.” But the common practice of attributing a particular sex, whether male or female, to God is an absurdity that begets such ludicrous questions as “What colour, and how big, is God’s penis?” Sex is an attribute of some species of mortal creatures, and therefore it is completely absurd to attribute a particular sex to God, since God is not mortal and therefore has no need to reproduce Itself. The common Christian depictions of God as an old, bearded, venerable-looking, but still virile man have caused a great deal of confusion among Christians and others, for these highly misleading depictions have led them to regard God as a sort of all-knowing and powerful grandfatherly figure. A famous example is the depiction of God painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. From this humanised conception of God, it is but a short but completely fallacious step to attributing other human traits to God, such as benevolence, wisdom, compassion, anger, love, vindictiveness, and so forth, a practice that can only mislead, confuse, terrorize, and ultimately disappoint. By using the pronoun “It,” I wish to emphasize the very important fact that God’s nature and concerns may be utterly alien to the things that we know and from all human experience, a fact that is all too easy to overlook, especially for those who have grown up seeing numerous images of God depicted in human form.

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