Saturday, December 18, 2010


Minds in cars in fog

Out there in the fog, I recalled the conclusion drawn from the wide reading of my youth: that we can never really know the mind of another person. As if in a fog, we wander through life encountering others, working with them, playing together, marrying them, or raising them from birth through adulthood, or being raised by them, exchanging words, laughter, touches, expressions, but we never really know their minds in completeness, with certainty. 

Most likely, just because they won't let us know. Much is concealed on purpose. Also because we probably wouldn't want to know if we could. But in any case, we can't, strictly speaking, at a given point in time, have access to every thought, emotion, and whatever else it would take to "know" another mind, let alone store or reflect on such information. There's simply too much, and too many barriers. So, the conclusion that we interact with others through an impenetrable fog of not-knowing is probably true.

Out there in the fog, I recalled how much force that conclusion had on my young self. Quite a lot, it seemed then. What mystery! What tragedy! What tragic mystery! The other! Right next to me, yet, might as well be on the other side of the universe, for all I know. Because I can't actually know.

Out there in the fog, though, here and now, the distance between us doesn't hold as much significance for me as it did then. For a couple of reasons. 

First, while it's true that we can't possibly know it all, we often know a great deal, and often with very little to go on, often to an amazing level of detail. Our powers of intuition, of memory and recall, the significance of our common ground, of our non-verbal communications and our innate powers of mirroring others, connect and inform us of what's on the other's mind. We can't know everything, and often what we think we know is wrong, but we have evolved to be able to figure out a lot of what matters, very quickly, and put that to our own virtuous and less-than-virtuous uses in every moment of our social lives. 

Second, though, and what this post ends up being about, the other reason that other-fog holds less force for me these days, is that I eventually figured out what was really underneath the feelings I experienced when I contemplated the uncrossable canyon that separates minds.

Out there in the fog, the real question returned to me: can we even really know our own mind? This inward query, this recursive investigation, this poignant self-pointing, is actually what gets me going. For one thing, if we can't really know our own mind, what's the point of stewing about the minds of others? Even ignoring the infinite regress out-of-memory error (I cannot know myself knowing myself knowing myself knowing myself knowing myself....), which seems like something perilous to ignore by the way, kind of like ignoring the effects of friction in an experiment about friction, we have no good basis or foundation for claiming to know anything about anything if we can't make the claim of knowing our own minds.

Yet. And yet. In the cold light of a December morning fog in the desert, sitting on my bicycle on a quiet street with the traffic creeping past, I asked myself: for what reasons do you do what you do, feel the way you do, act the way you do, will the things you will, imagine, hope, dream, want, crave, desire, fear, miss, hunger for, believe, cry for, love, question, quiver, aspire, ponder, understand, prioritize, plan, laugh for, tire of, find routine, do naturally, feel comfortable with, struggle against, wonder about, seek, find, overlook, misunderstand, doubt, rock out to, blend with as smoothly as if it were already a part of me yet I've never seen before? What can you say with confidence about those, and everything else there is up there in the mind? Quite a lot, don't get me wrong, but explain fully? Predict accurately? Control completely? Direct like a pilot at the controls of a jumbo jet? No. Not quite. Not enough to be able to say I know my own mind completely.

That's why, standing out there in the other-fog, I know the trouble with never being able to really know the mind of another: I am myself the first example, to myself, of an unknowable other, and that bothers me. Even if I more or less understand it. I am somewhat comforted by the idea that I can make progress against the problem with practice, investigation, thought and imagination. 

Because when I grapple with the sorts of problems that I am given to understand are impossible to solve totally, I have learned to find some contentment in the notion that I have done everything I could do, have succeeded more often than not, and have learned along the way. This thought gives me encouragement to continue the process, even while acknowledging that I shall not complete the task. Get up. Go ride.



  1. None of us will accomplish the task, but is that our real goal?

    By trying to understand ourselves, we alter our relation to others. Hopefully we become more willing to serve others.

    Is that our real goal?

  2. Very thoughtful, thought-provoking.

  3. riding is the best solutions to clear the mind, and open up about sharing such thought-answer seeking issues. thx for sharing

  4. BigOak I think that whatever our real goal is, continuous growth of self-knowledge can only make us more effective at achieving that goal. If we are aware of our strengths and weaknesses, we can play to the strengths while managing the weaknesses.

    JK, I often feel that I can never have too much thought provocation. A new idea or challenging question grabs my attention. That seems to be a minority position, though.

    m e l i g r o s a, it seems like such a bonus to me, since I already love riding, then discover that it also has these other virtues. That seems to be a minority position, though. :)

  5. I shall be interested to see how I feel about the fog this winter compared to last. When I had the long commute that included a stretch on a high-speed highway, I didn't ride to work in poor visibility conditions because there are always a lot more traffic problems in the fog. This winter, I think it shall be a treat to ride in the fog.

  6. Steve, safe bicycle riding in fog would make a good post. I think the omni-directional exposure to sound that you get on a bicycle helps when visibility drops.


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