Conceptual Gaps in Philosophy: The Butterfly Conversation and Our Search for the Truth

Setting the Stage: Reality in the Eyes of the Butterfly
As we search for the truth (any truth, be it God, or the meaning of life, or the reality of the universe), we, Mankind, must remain humble. Why? Despite our considerable intellectual prowess, that intellect remains bounded by our temporal, three dimensional existence.
Let me illustrate that limitation through a thought experiment. We start with an Explorer in the deep jungle, where the Explorer makes an amazing discovery, finding a Butterfly that is truly unique - the Butterfly can talk.
I will skip past their introductions, and pick up the discussion as the Butterfly, realizing the far-reaching knowledge of the Explorer, seeks answers to great questions that have confounded the Butterfly.
Butterfly: "Now, another question, what do you know of the lights above us, those of the night?"
Explorer: "Ah, the lights above. We call the smaller ones stars, the larger ones planets and the largest the moon."
Butterfly: "So you have studied the lights."
Explorer: "Yes, intensely, and in detail."
Butterfly: "So you have climbed the mountains to see the lights closer?"
The Explorer smiles to himself. "Even on the mountains you can not see the lights closely. But we have sent a great machine up into the dark night."
Butterfly: "A machine?"
Explorer: "Yes, a machine, a great object of metal."
Butterfly: "Metal? I still do not understand."
The Explorer now realizes the butterfly has never seen a machine. The Explorer tries an analogy. "The machine is like an animal, like a great bird, grown to fly high."
The Butterfly pauses, looking up: "Higher than the clouds."
Explorer: "Yes,
Butterfly: "Oh, you have wonderful skill, to grow such an animal."
Explorer: "Yes, the bird was as large as the greatest tree."
Butterfly: "And how far did its wings stretch?"
Explorer: "I will tell you it did not have wings."
Butterfly stops, motionless in apparent amazement: "How did it fly?"
Explorer responds quietly: "We used fire like a volcano to make it fly."
Butterfly, bowing as a butterfly: "Let us give thanks to the god of the volcano, for this act of mercy."
Let's pause. Why does the Explorer use such a convoluted analogy for a machine (for visualization let assume the "machine" is the Hubble Telescope launched on the Space Shuttle)? The butterfly has no experience of machines. So the Butterfly has no concepts of "what a machine is like" on which the Explorer could build a description.
Why would the Explorer not draw a picture of a machine for the Butterfly? Not only does the Butterfly have no experience on which to understand machines, the Butterfly has no experience to understand the concepts on which the idea of machine rests.
Would the Butterfly understand that "steel, aluminum and titanium" were used to make the parts, that "power equipment" shaped those parts, that "electronics" allowed man to control what the machine does, that "chemical reactions" turned "oil" into "plastic" that was "molded" into other parts, and that "rocket fuel" creates "thrust" to propel the rocket.
The answer is no.
So the Explorer uses an analogy, that a machine is a big animal. The Explorer, again wisely and for similar reasons, does not correct the Butterfly's belief that a god controls the volcanoes. If the concepts for machines are not in the lexicon of the Butterfly, the concepts for the geophysics of volcanoes are probably not either.
Let's continue.
Butterfly: "I do not understand though. If the fire of the volcano makes it fly, why don't we see that volcano in the sky?"
Explorer: "Ah, yes. You are astute. You don't see the volcano, because the volcano turns off, and the great machine stays up like the stars stay up."
Butterfly: "I see. The great machine becomes part of the dome that holds the lights."
The Explorer contemplates correcting the Butterfly, with an explanation of "orbits." But the Explorer stops. Just like the Butterfly has no experience of machines and the subtending concepts, the Butterfly would have essentially no experience with "orbit." An orbit assumes a round world, and the Butterfly would almost certainly picture the world as flat. Further, "orbit" involves a concept of falling under gravity, but never hitting the ground, a concept complex for even modern man.
And the existence of "orbits" would conflict with the Butterfly concept of a great dome. Mankind itself required centuries to set that concept aside. The Explorer figured he might not live long enough to disabuse the Butterfly of a belief in a dome.
So the Explorer does not deflect the Butterfly from picturing the world as surrounded by a dome.
Let's continue further.
Butterfly: "How does the great machine talk to you about the stars?"
Explorer: "It sends us pictures."
Butterfly: "Pictures?"
Explorer, referring to an archeological site nearby: "Pictures are like paintings. Have you seen paintings on the walls of the caves to the East?"
Butterfly: "Yes, they are intriguing. So the great machine sends you paintings. How?
The Explorer thinks. He develops an analogy. "Do you know how the spider spins a web?"
Butterfly: "Yes, certainly, those webs are of great danger."
Explorer: "Do you hear how the bats emit high sounds at night?"
Butterfly: "We can detect them faintly, and we know too those sounds are danger."
Explorer: "Then this is how we receive the pictures. The great machine in the sky uses sounds like the bat to send signals to an animal like a spider, which then uses the substances in its body to paint pictures."
Okay, now we have the analogy to top all analogies. The universe of the Explorer is one of great electromagnetic waves, of boundless frequencies and energies, traveling enormous distances across billion of years. The computers of the Explorer process trillions of instructions a second, making images with millions of pixels of detail.
It is that electromagnetism and those computers that actually allow the Hubble Telescope to communicate pictures. But the Explorer realizes, as before, the conceptual limitations of the Butterfly.
Thus, the Explorer reduces electromagnetism and computers down to sound and spider webs, to accommodate the conceptual limitations of the Butterfly.
Truth Gap: Mankind as Butterfly
Now let us step up one level. Let's leave the gap between the Explorer and the Butterfly. Let us now contemplate the gap between the truth (again, about any great concept you like, be it God, or the universe, or the meaning of life) and Mankind.
How complex is the truth? We don't have any idea. We can't, since we are on a journey towards the truth, but don't know how long the journey is.
So there could be a very large gap between the truth and Mankind, a gap sufficiently large that Mankind does not now even have the intellectual or conceptual capability to grasp the truth.
Think just a few centuries ago. Calculus was unknown. Without the concepts of calculus (and other similar advanced math), Einstein could not have developed General Relativity, nor Schrodinger the physics of Quantum Mechanics. So clearly the concepts of math were needed as foundations for advanced physics.
Though General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are complex, God, the nature of consciousness, the creation of existence, and a host of other ideas are surely deeper and broader. What concepts might be needed before we can even properly discuss the ideas?
So Mankind might be like the Butterfly, thinking about the world in convoluted analogies within a limited conceptual framework. Mankind must be humble, knowing that not only might we have not found the truth; we might not even have found the concepts needed to understand the truth.
All we know may be crude analogies for what is the ultimate Truth.

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