The Mind Denies What It Can Not Conceive

After my A levels, I spent seven months working in a pub to save for a gap year. At the time I had set my heart on being a writer and the patrons of the bar were such delightful personalities I must have got a lifetime’s worth of plots and characters just listening to the conversations. I quickly learned that pulling pints is only the beginning of a barman’s duties and at times I functioned as an informal counsellor and confessor as well as a bouncer and master of ceremonies.

The bar opened at 11 in the morning and played host to a steady stream of retired men who would come and nurse a pint of “mild and bitter” and argue the toss about minute details of events that had happened 40 years earlier. Taffy was a tall and exceptionally thin welshman who had been twice imprisoned in Poland during the war. He told me that he lived on Guinness and eggs, and I think he probably did. Trevor was another welshman who was extremely garralous after a few drinks and very suspicious of my “eddycation” (education). Stan was half the stature of everyone else and lovely company unless he was drinking gin. Turk was working into his eighties, delivering carpets and still as strong as an ox. Michael was ancient and came for a pint of mild and a sausage sandwich every day like clockwork. Younger working men came in at lunch time or after 4pm to unwind; painters, decorators, construction workers from all over the British Isles. It was mostly gossip, the conversation, and sometimes it got philosophical.

Tall Ship

I really wish I remember the name of the painter who told me this story. We had many long discussions. I told him about the book I was writing about a child who is brought up, literally, by a garden instead of having parents. He told me about the books he was reading and he told me something about “perception” that has haunted me ever since. I have never been able to verify this tale but it illustrates a seductive possibility.

A ship-borne explorer and contemporary of captain Cook put in by a remote pacific island one day. Through his telescope he could plainly see the locals on the beach, going about their everyday business and seemingly oblivious to the approach of the galleon. With a small detail of sailors, he put down a rowboat and they headed for the shore to make contact. As they got closer, the locals continued as if nothing was happening but as soon as the prow rammed into the sand and his men leapt out they turned in absolute terror and fled into the interior. Over the next few days they were able to make contact with the people and trade with them, and the curious fact emerged that they had never seen the great shadow of the ship off the shore or noticed the sailor’s approach. In fact they were unable to percieve the ship at all until it had been described to them. All of this is supposed to have been faithfully recorded in the captain’s log.

If there were aliens in our midst would we even be able to see them?

It is as if the eyes receive the visual stimulus but if the thing seen is beyond the mind’s ability to conceive, it simply dismisses the data as erroneous. If there really were, for instance, aliens from another planet walking our streets, we’d never see them unless we had first been able to imagine them.

I have also been told that in atomic physics, the presence of a subatomic particle has to be postulated and conceived of before it can be measured. How much are we missing? This tale serves to remind us that, like Horatio, there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosopy.

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