How I Know Birds Fly For Fun


Decades ago, I was visiting a friend in Maine on this incredible island called Isle Au Haut with almost no people, no electricity, no running water. I’d gone for a walk on my own and was sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean. A flock of birds was goofing around, zipping here and there, flying high then swooping down, weaving around each other. And it suddenly seemed so obvious: they were flying for fun — not for food or ritual, not out of instinct, but for the sheer delight of it.

But how could I know such a thing? Indeed, how do we ever know what’s going in the minds and experience of another? This is a classic college stoner discussion: What if what I see as blue, you see as pink? How would we ever know, man?

Light can of course be quantified — which is odd. Color is such an affective experience; it’s run through with associations, moods, histories, sensations. But it can also be understood as a wavelength that has a certain measurable frequency.

Numbers — or, more specifically, measurement — are great as they provide the semblance of objectivity. We can all say different things, even see different things — I see blue! I see orange! — but the numbers don’t lie. This is, of course, insane. Think about it for a moment: a number on a screen is true while the experience we have — our actual lives! — are not.  I actually find it beautiful in a way, this clarity of numbers. It’s the madness of reason.

I do not mean to poo poo numbers or so-called objective measurement at all. It’s quite handy and helps us in lots of different ways, especially in the admittedly demented field of medicine. But I do mean to point out the supreme oddity of it, the way we appeal to some abstract markings on a page or screen while ignoring, or denying, our experience. Nietzsche calls this a kind of nihilism, a self-effacement in the name of an abstract ideal.

What this reliance on abstract measurement assumes is that me, my senses, my experience are not trustworthy, that they don’t have proper access to the world. I was walking in the Marin headlands a few years ago where there are these cement bunkers leftover from WWII. Presumably, soldiers would sit in there and scan the waters, looking to see if we were being attacked by Japan. This struck me as hilarious, quaint, sweet. But what’s odd is my reaction, namely, that we find it absurd to think that actually seeing something is knowing when a radar so obviously knows better.

Our love of measurement also assumes that experience is discrete rather than ecological.  That is, it imagines that there is a subject, more or less isolated, and an object that, too, is more or less isolated. And then we try to imagine how things can possibly be transmitted across this seeming abyss.

But what if this is a faulty assumption and that, rather than subjects and objects being discrete, we are all both subjects and objects that are interconnected through a series of forces both measurable and not? Let’s begin by saying I am a thing among things rather than a subject among objects. We are all things — me, you, this monitor and keyboard and screen, this phone, these ideas, these strange smells coming from my kitchen. And we are all connected in varied and complex ways. How, then, do we come to know anything?

Well, certainly not only through abstract, external, quantifiable measurement. That would be absurd. We know how people are feeling all the time even though we can’t measure it. And it’s not just through the explicit signs of smiles, tears, and words. In fact, often people say they’re fine when they’re anything but — and we know it! We can see, we can sense, that something is wrong.

How? Affect is transmitted in different ways: you beam your mood to me. This is something we’ve all experienced dealing with love and sex. You’re talking to someone and you know, truly know, that he or she is, uh, into you. They’ve beamed their desire into you. You can’t measure it but you know it.

But affect also exceeds us. It doesn’t need to be transmitted per se because we’re all participating in it, making it just as it’s making us — or making our moods. You walk in a bar and say, Eeesh, this place has an odd mood! Mood is in the air. It’s ambient.

And it’s not subjective even if it is particular. Yes, you might find the mood delightful while I find it foul but we’re both still reacting to the mood. Just as chopped chicken liver reacts differently with my body than it does with yours, the mood of the room interacts differently with my body than with yours. That doesn’t make it subjective and unknowable. It makes it objective and perspectival.

Affect — invisible states of the world — exceeds us. And affect is not just for people. Rocks, lakes, chairs, and words are all affective. Everything is affective. Affect is strange in that it manifests particularly — differently in my body than in the rock’s — but is not immanent to a particular body. It exceeds things. Affect is invisible, more or less discrete, and moving. It doesn’t as much come from bodies as it is the very stuff of the world — along with dirt, oxygen, metal, skin, and whiskers. This life is as virtual as it is real, as physical as it is affective, as visible and it is invisible. And we sense it all; such is empiricism.

We know things not through the abstraction of fact — this quinoa ball has 14 grams of protein — but through lived experience: when I eat that quinoa ball, I’m full (or not)!  Facts are one way to make sense of things but they’re not how we know. We know because we live through the world as part of the world. (We say so-called facts to position ourselves in the social and to ourselves.)

When asked how he knew the fish were happy as they swam, Chuang Tzu replied,

I know the joy of fishes

In the river

Through my own joy, as I go walking

Along the same river.

(Thomas Merton, “The Joy of Fishes” in The Way of Chuang Tzu — a book I highly recommend)

We know the world not because we’re removed from it but because we’re enmeshed with it, because it exceeds and envelops us. We literally share experiences, even with birds.

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