We end this book not with a thought experiment per se, but with a philosophical stroll into perception and how we are all left holding our own boxes of beetles, in a manner of speaking. Despite our best efforts, we are necessarily limited in our perception. And though it doesn’t need to be stated again, this should inform how we approach problem-solving, decisions, relationships, and any other life situation that demands analysis.
If nothing else, the takeaway from this book should be that the more you think you know, the less you truly do. The parable of the happiness of fish wraps up this chapter and book neatly with a bow.
This parable comes courtesy of Zhuangzi, the same Taoist philosopher who posed the butterfly dream question earlier. The following is attributed to Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries by Brook Ziporyn.
Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. Such is the happiness of fish.”
Huizi said, “You are not a fish, so whence do you know the happiness of fish?”
Zhuangzi said, “You are not I, so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?”
Huizi said, “I am not you, to be sure, so I don’t know what it is to be you. But by the same token, since you are certainly not a fish, my point about your inability to know the happiness of fish stands intact.”
Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to the starting point. You said, ‘Whence do you know the happiness of fish?’ Since your question was premised on your knowing that I know it, I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River.”
This exchange between Zhuangzi and Huizi seems circular and redundant, but what is being demonstrated here?
No one can peer into the minds of others—and this is shown right from the outset in two ways. Zhuangzi first assets that he knows the happiness of the fish, but in fact, he is not presupposing to know their state of mind, only that fish are simply doing what fish do, and this is their happiness. It’s that simple. Zhuangzi knows the happiness of fish because fish do what fish do and he can see them doing it.
There is already a misunderstanding here due to different perspectives and mindsets, as Huizi won’t tolerate this line of thinking and assumes that Zhuangzi can inhabit the minds of those very fish to understand their emotional state of mind. This is the first way that we see different perspectives being pointed out in a manner that we probably erroneously employ in our everyday lives.
And second, Huizi points out that Zhuangzi is not a fish, so how could he possibly know what brings them happiness, just as the two of them cannot possibly know what the other knows or does not know. If Zhuangzi cannot know the happiness of fish because he is not a fish, then, applying the same reasoning, Huizi cannot know whether Zhuangzi knows it or not. If the first premise is correct, then this conclusion would certainly seem to logically follow.
Perhaps it all is but a dream, or a dream within a dream. Zhuangzi “knows” the happiness of fish just as any dreamer “knows” the content of his dream, and this works equally well for the dreaming or ostensibly awake. And in either case, whether dreaming or awake, it does not matter, for it is the experience which has arisen.
We don’t know what other people are really saying, because it’s always tainted with their own perspectives, and we can’t read their minds. We don’t really know what other people are thinking because we are not them. We don’t always know what we ourselves are thinking because we’re constantly influenced by the people and circumstances around us.
And in the end, maybe it’s all a dream, and we’re just a butterfly waking up from a deep nap in mid-spring.
As we end this book, we find ourselves right back where we started—with questions. Having taken your mind out to visit distant arenas of possibility, you’ve given your brain exercise, so it can engage with even bigger, subtler, more mind-boggling problems the next time round. You’ll teach yourself to watch for your assumptions, and question them often and rigorously. You’ll condition yourself to tolerate uncertainty and be OK with suspending judgment rather than accepting conclusions on incomplete information.
You’ll frequently examine not just the content of your thought, but the architecture holding it all together. You won’t care about being right—and might end up being right more often as a result! You’ll become curious about how you’re thinking, or even why.
Just as plenty of exercise makes a body robust and healthy, regularly putting your mind through the works develops robust and healthy cognitive abilities and, if you’re like Wittgenstein, it may even kindle the sentiment of life being filled with something poetic and truly ineffable. What else is your mind, after all, but an organ through which to experience wonder at being alive, here in this strange and boundless place we call the world?