What’s A Beetle?
Perception can also be shown to be wholly unimportant in the grand scheme of things, as demonstrated by Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box thought experiment. Suppose we have a box of objects that we call beetles, and so does everyone else. The thing is, no one can ever look inside each other’s boxes, so it’s a total mystery as to what a beetle means to all of us. The analogy is obvious: the box is each individual mind, the beetle is the mysterious and ineffable contents of that mind, and the fact that other peoples’ boxes are hidden from us is the idea that we never truly have access to another being’s mind. The way we perceive a simple beetle, and extrapolating to how we see the world, is singular. We can guess, and we can assume, but our deepest experiences and perceptions are fundamentally closed off to others, and permanently private.
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Throughout this book, words and symbols have been used to evoke memories, linguistic conventions, allegories and metaphors to point to various aspects of the world, and summon a particular response in the reader—you. In a way, it’s a game of broken telephone, with the message potentially altered in each step along the chain of communication: How can the author of any book be sure that the reader truly comprehends what’s been said?
Much like the Chinese room problem, he may offer some response that looks as if he understands and comprehends the information in a certain way, but then, to perceive him doing so would entail passing his response through the lens of your own experience. At some point, we need to look at the world without symbols. Can we? And for that matter, even if we can’t, does it ultimately matter?
Wittgenstein suggested a “beetle in a box” analogy to make clear this fundamental difficulty. This thought experiment says a lot about the queries we’ve already engaged with (some of it not particularly flattering!).
Here it is: picture that everyone in the world has a box with a beetle inside it. Nobody is allowed to see into anyone else’s box, only their own. However, we’re all free to talk about what’s in our box—i.e., to use symbol and language to refer to it. People may eventually decide together that we all have a “beetle” in our box, and for all intents and purposes we would then start to assume that we all had the same thing. The word would eventually come to represent whatever-it-is-in-the-box, but we may forget that we never actually see into someone else’s box.
The analogy is obvious: the box is each individual mind, the beetle is the mysterious and ineffable contents of that mind, and the fact that other peoples’ boxes are hidden from us is the idea that we never truly have access to another being’s mind. Yes, we may have plenty of words, ideas, symbols, concepts, analogies etc. to refer to the beetle, but the fact remains: we never see it directly. Indeed, if the boxes could all be opened one day there’s no reason to expect that the same thing should jump out of everyone’s box.
It’s a staggering assumption, and one that really makes other philosophical inquiry look a bit puny: the idea that everyone else’s mind works like ours, and that their experiences are comparable to ours. The more you think about it, the more potential you can see for another being’s experience of life being so fundamentally different and alien from yours as to seem incomprehensible, even though on the surface we are sharing some common linguistic conventions to deal with each other.
Taking it further, Wittgenstein suggests that it doesn’t even really matter what’s in the box—we will never know. Does this mean, then, that “beetle” simply means “this thing I have in my box, whatever it is”? This has some subtle yet profound implications. The “mind” is then simply “what each person feels their mind to be.”
It’s a sobering thought: our deepest experiences and perceptions are fundamentally closed off to others, and permanently private. All we have recourse to is language, or the rules of language—much like we do in the Chinese room. You can see, then, the implied problem: how do we know whether someone is really intelligent, whether they’ve understood something, whether their experience of “sad” or “orange” or “totalitarian” or even “being” is the same as yours? However, a consolation should be that we are all blind to each other’s boxes, and either converge enough, or function well enough to exist in the world together without this seemingly important piece of information.
Wittgenstein had trouble conveying his message, and was frequently misunderstood himself. He claimed, for example, that we can’t necessarily know that there is a thing called a mind in the first place. Sure, we all use words like “mind,” and this word, as part of a shared language, has a meaning that we’ve all used in the real world.
However, Wittgenstein was careful to suggest that that was it—we could not make any further claims about what was in the box, i.e. what our minds actually were, since we could never measure, compare or confirm its existence.
All we can ever do is to see into our own minds (maybe?) and describe the experience in words to other people, and vice versa. This language we use necessarily has to be shared with others; you cannot have your own personal language to describe your own personal experience. If you’ve ever tried to verbalize a very personal event—a strange dream, a mystical experience, an impression, an intuition or a deep emotional sensation—you may already know how hopeless it can feel to ever capture it properly in words.
And even if you did, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the person hearing it wouldn’t misinterpret your description or add their own flavor to it. So, instead of looking closely at the beetles, at the box, at what we can learn from each other about beetles and so on, we can press a little further and become conscious of the relationship between what’s in the box and the words we use for it.
As with every other thought experiment so far, let’s give ourselves a moment to think about what Wittgenstein’s beetles-in-a-box situation tells us about ourselves, the world, language and our minds. By thinking through the paths Wittgenstein invites us down, we are training our brains, as with other thought experiments, to look not within the realms of our own cognitive and linguistic boundaries, but beyond them, and to the boundaries themselves. We learn to get comfortable asking questions about our questions, talking about our words, thinking about our thoughts. Congratulations, you’re now a philosopher!
On a very superficial level, this exercise can help us recognize instances where we have merely assumed that other people have the same definitions as us and use language in exactly the same way. How many miscommunications could be avoided in relationships or work situations if people took the time to clarify what each meant when they used certain words? For example, do both people in a relationship agree on what “cheating” refers to? Does every politician have the same idea of what “living wage” actually means?
It’s true that clarifying differences in definitions for words is merely an exercise in better aligning the language we use—we still don’t know what’s in another person’s mind. However, many people incorrectly assume as a given that we are all on the same page language-wise, and never stop to think whether disagreement or misunderstanding is not conceptual, but merely a question of unacknowledged differences, maybe due to culture, personal history or simply personality.
But Wittgenstein also makes us consider something a bit more profound. How shall we conduct ourselves knowing that there are simply realms of private experience that are never accessible to us, ever? You’ve probably heard people say things like, “Don’t judge others, you don’t know what they’ve been through.” They’re right. We can see people’s behavior, and hear the words they speak. But we will never know how much pain they are in, what love feels like from inside their heads, or indeed what they think and feel when they see you!
Perhaps understanding this is a path to real compassion for other people, and ourselves. If someone tells us about their experience, all we can ever do is believe them and trust that their account is “real.” We can never tell anyone else’s story for them—each of us is the ultimate arbiter of our own reality. In this way, people who’ve survived abuse or war or natural disaster can sometimes find empowerment by owning their own experiences; not seeing themselves through the lens of someone else’s understanding, but defining their own experience on their own terms. At the end of the day, all any of us really have is our experience, as it is, right here in our own minds.