I read a news item the other day that reported how an ancient village had been discovered submerged by the sea. The village dated from a time before the sea had broken through to form what is today known as the English Channel (or La Manche, if you are French) and when the inhabitants of Britain could, had they been so minded, have walked dry-shod to Calais. Fascinating as this is, and the knowledge that will derive from it, what struck me about this event was the manner of its discovery.
The village was apparently found by a diver but not directly. What caught the diver’s attention was a lobster cleaning out its burrow. The lobster was tossing out pieces of stone and the diver recognized these as flints that had been worked by humans. The perspective this opened to me was almost dizzying in its immensity.
The lobster is a successful species: its very abundance testifies to that. It has evolved to fit its niche in the environment nearly perfectly. Not only does the lobster thrive but it is in harmony with its surroundings: I have never heard of lobsters polluting the environment or causing the extinction of other species. It seems reasonable to suppose that lobsters cannot solve quadratic equations or form theories about the origins of the universe. I cannot be certain about this, of course, never having been able to converse with a lobster and find out what it knows, but the hypothesis seems reasonable. That is not to criticize the lobster: lobsters don’t need to do such things and are, as far as we know, perfectly happy with their lot.
To the lobster, the flints are just useless annoyances, something to be got rid of. To the diver and the archaeologist, they are artifacts of great interest. Now consider the amazing gulf between two minds, one that sees the flints as rubbish and the other that imbues them with deep historical and metaphysical meaning. It is truly staggering. The lobster can no more share our conception of the flints than we can share his experience of what it is like to be a lobster. Here are two worlds and the gap between them is huge, wider than the trickle of sea water called the Channel, wider perhaps than the distance that separates us from worlds in other galaxies. How can we ever bridge it?
The human race is a race of explorers. It has ransacked the dry land and is ransacking the oceans. It has already struck out beyond planet earth, visiting the moon in person and other planets by proxy. Stephen Hawking says we must colonize the planets and, barring some fatal disaster, we are bound to do so. The vast distances of outer space are no obstacle to our expeditionary zeal. But what about inner space? Will we ever make up our minds to explore its vast reaches? Can we ever penetrate the boundaries between mind and mind and experience thinking as others think, knowing as others know, sharing another’s awareness of self and the world? To spend 5 minutes experiencing life as a lobster experiences it would be far more marvellous than sending a robot to Mars.