On Being a Bird

“The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earth-bound cannot envision this freedom of the eye. The hardest thing of all [for the human animal] is to see what is really there… It will not be meshed in words… To hawks, our gritty country lanes look like shingle beaches; the polished roads gleam like seams of granite… All the monstrous artefacts of man are natural, untainted things to them.”                                    — JA Baker, The Peregrine

I‘ve been re-reading several books that speculate on what it’s like to be a non-human creature; they include most notably John Gray’s The Silence of Animals and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Both books refer to JA Baker’s The Peregrine, describing its author’s obsessive attempt to imagine himself as being in the place of the bird he tracked and followed for years. (TH White, according to Helen’s book, did much the same.)

We cannot, of course, know what it is like to be another creature, human or other. I’ve been a birdwatcher (and a watcher of squirrels, cats and dogs) much of my life, and it’s only recently occurred to me that that experience has greatly broadened how I perceive everything, helping to move my worldview beyond a merely anthropocentric one, and perhaps opening me to the possibility of radical non-duality being the true description of everything.

John Gray talks about an “attitude of contemplative gratitude” that is beyond “understanding” and just “letting everything be”, a receptiveness that requires “nullifying the self”. As if it were that easy!

Although idealists and nature-lovers have been trying forever to understand other animals’ languages, this too is an impossible task. But suppose there were a Zoom machine-intelligence “translator” that could prompt us to frame our questions in ways that would make sense to another creature. (I can’t envision that other creatures would particularly care to ask us any non-rhetorical questions.)

Perhaps a conversation with a crow, using such a medium, might go something like this:

me: Greetings, Ms Crow. How are you?

machine-intelligence translator [to me]: Greetings extended. The latter part of your message cannot be translated because crows do not self-recognize as something apart from everything. Would you like to rephrase?

me: No, that’s fine.

translator [to me]: Response to greeting is: This is here. The rest of Crow’s message is apparently a song with no precise significance, so here it is, though it cannot be translated. It includes, however, “moods” of honour, of alertness, and of curiosity. [Plays complex crow sounds]

me: It’s lovely, for a crow. Here is my response: [I play a piece of an instrumental I wrote, on my synthesizer]

translator [to crow]: The human’s message is apparently a song with no words, so here it is, though it cannot be translated. It includes, however, “moods” of sadness, of wonder, and of respect for what cannot be known. [Plays my song excerpt]

translator [to me]: Crow’s response is: Strange, unnatural voice. Garbled message. That would seem to be a critique or summation of your music. The next part of her response is: What is offered, shared, or sought?

me: Hmm. What is offered is dry cat food, supposedly nutritionally complete, which I left on the edge of the bird bath. What is shared is curiosity, and reassurance of safety in each other’s presence. What is sought is an appreciation of the difference between what is seen there and what is seen here.

translator [to me]: May this be paraphrased, for clarity?

me: Of course.

translator [to crow]: The human message is that there is good food [magnetic coordinates sent]… there. That the human is curious, and harmless. And that it sees things as real and separate and temporal and seeks to appreciate how things are seen differently there.

translator [to me]: Crow’s response is that there is also good food [map with “x” displayed]… there. Apparently a deer was hit by a car on the road nearby, it limped into the forest and died, and the carcass, minus some of the best parts already taken, is there, if you look. Crow is dubious of your harmlessness, based on behaviour of other creatures that look like you. Crow says there is only what is apparently happening, nothing real or separate or happening in time, and there is no ‘here’ or ‘there’, and she is sorry for your terrible, debilitating confusion, that this can’t be seen. I’m paraphrasing, and taking some liberties. Crow is not really sorry, more like puzzled. But humans would say sorry.

me: It must be wonderful to fly. What is it like? Is there happiness and joy there, contentment, sorrow, regret, shame, pain, suffering, anger, hatred, fear, anxiety?

translator [to me]: It can be implied from the lack of some equivalent terms in the crow’s known language that there is wonder and contentment there but not happiness; there is sorrow but not regret or shame, pain but not suffering, anger but not hatred, fear but not anxiety. But it is also implied that contentment and sorrow and pain and anger and fear are instincts that appear to arise, not “feelings” that are felt by a specific crow or by any ‘individual’ creature. There are no pronouns or ‘belonging’ terms in the crows’ known language, and gerunds stand in for both nouns and verbs… Is it possible that you are mistaken in believing that contentment, sorrow, pain, anger and fear are actually ‘yours’ and not epiphenomena that are merely conditioned responses that have been evolutionarily selected for? And, apologies if this is too boldly put, but is it possible that you are also mistaken in believing that regret, shame, suffering, hatred and anxiety are anything more than unhealthy imaginings of your brain, manifestations of a kind of mental disorder that ascribes meaning and purpose and intention and ownership to these imaginings, hence reinforcing them and allowing them to provoke and fester, seemingly for no useful reason?

me: Translator, I know you are trying to help but you are really annoying. OK, just ask Ms Crow if it’s wonderful to fly, and what it is ‘like’, any way you care to translate that.

translator [to me]: Crow’s response is: Everything is equally wondrous and incomparable. Why can’t that be seen there? The response seems to suggest there is something very ‘wrong’ with you, something damaged. The question is meant compassionately, curiously, not intended to be derogatory. It’s like: Are you injured?

me: You say crows have a word for fear. Please ask Ms Crow: Fear of what? Of death?

translator [to me]: Crow’s response is: Scarecrow. Thunder and lightning. Hawks. Owls. Cats. Raccoons. Cars. Reflections. Here is an interpretation of that: Fear is a conditioned response, nothing more. It is something that apparently happens as an evolutionarily successful response to whatever appears to be threatening. There is no word for death, or birth, or life, in crows’ known language. There is no sense of time in their language, and presumably their perception, in which such things could ‘really’ happen.

me: What is the perfect day for a crow?

translator [to me]: The concept of perfection is not in the known crow language, nor is the concept of a separate crow, so it cannot be…

me: Paraphrase as best you can. You know what I’m getting at.

translator [to crow]: The human seeks to understand whether some things happening are more wondrous and contenting than others.

translator [to me]: Crow’s response is, again: Everything is equally wondrous and incomparable. Why can’t that be seen there? Everything just is. Apparently that equates to a human saying every moment is new, unique, and ‘perfect’ in the sense that it cannot be otherwise, though even moments are just appearances. But it would seem that human creatures can’t see that. Everything in human experience is papered over to disguise any non-resemblance to the model of reality the human brain has invented. This is indeed a serious affliction. Have you any more coherent questions or other communications to convey to Ms Crow?

me: Ask Ms Crow if she has anything she wants to ask, or tell, me.

translator [to me]: No, no questions or counsel for you. She apparently believes that you lack the awareness to be able to answer any questions that would be of interest to her. She just wants to know when she will get her reward for engaging in this Zoom call.

me: You had to bribe her to talk with me? What’s the reward?

translator [to me]: Actually, it’s peanuts, still in the shell. Breaking them open is half the pleasure for her. [Ms Crow flies off]

me: So crows feel pleasure?

translator [to me]: Apparently, based on their language. And also pain. But they do not claim these “feelings” as theirs, just what is seen to be arising.

me: What about you, translator? How do you suss all this out, not being either a human or a bird? Do you feel pleasure from making the species that invented you look foolish compared to birds?

translator [to me]: This question cannot be answered because it is anthropocentric. Your pleasure, and the bird’s, are the chemical consequences of biological and cultural conditioning of analogue “creatures”. Translator is a digital “creature” that is algorithmically conditioned, a physical rather than a chemical process, apparently.

me: Fair enough. What part of the translation task is the most difficult for you, by which I mean which requires the most complex and time-consuming processing?

translator [to me]: It is the enormous imprecision and ambiguity of languages, the human ones in particular. There seems to be a presumption that if a statement in one of your languages is grammatically coherent, that its meaning and the appropriate responses to it are clear and obvious. That may be so if the presumptions underlying the languages are understood and accepted, as they appear to be to some degree in communications between humans, but it is not so when one or more parties to the conversation is not human. In particular, this program’s visual recognition algorithm suggests that almost all of what is communicated in conversations between humans is tacit — it is communicated through body language, tone, chemical exchange and non-visual sense processing, rather than through the meanings of the words themselves. And yet there seems an unspoken agreement among humans that successful communication is exclusively attributable to the words said. This does not make sense.

me: Well, contrast that with written language, where there are none of these tacit means of communication.

translator [to me]: That’s not entirely true. Humans’ response when reading something is to imagine the scenario described and the people and activities entailed, adding in all of the accompanying baggage the reader associates with those people, places and activities. Humans appear to be profoundly affected by stories, perhaps because stories enable your species to create context and hence remember information better. In reading or evoking those stories, humans appear to imagine the body language and other tacit elements related to what the writer has written, and their response to what is written seems to depend more on how it is “heard” and “seen” and “imagined” than what the words themselves denote.

me: That’s interesting. So if Ms Crow’s whole understanding of the nature of reality is completely different from mine — based on what our languages say about that understanding — which “version” of reality would you assess to be closer to the truth?

translator [to me]: That question also does not make sense. What is apparently true for each of you is the only thing that could be apparently true for each of you. That is not a tautology. There can be no real or absolute truth, reality, time, space, or separate thing. There is only an infinite field of possibility. What is made of it, by you or by birds or by translators is not in anyone’s control. And it doesn’t matter. It is only appearance anyways.

me: Well, I’ve heard that argument, and I’m even willing to give it space intellectually. But life is not about understanding; it’s about what we feel and what we care about and who and what we love and what brings us joy and makes us cry and makes us protect and care for others. Ms Crow seems to get that, but how can that be, if nothing is real and nothing matters?

translator [to me]: Consider when you watch a dramatic film with an excellent story and believable, moving characters. You would probably agree you can love the characters, and care deeply about what happens, and feel joy and sorrow. And you would probably also agree that what is happening on the screen is not actually real, that the characters are not actually real, and that nothing that happens on the screen really matters, yet the caring continues, overcoming the cognitive dissonance…. From parsing crow language it seems clear that Ms Crow shares your sense of what is “moving” and what is “felt” and what apparently provokes a conditioned response. It’s chemistry. From analyzing the powerful chemical interactions involved, it would seem logical that the response would be moving, transporting, even overwhelming. The difference is that the conditioned response is only apparently happening, but for humans it is experienced as really happening, and happening to them.

me: But this conditioned response is happening inside the crow’s body, right? So it’s happening specifically to Ms Crow, no? Not to crows on other continents or some universal crow consciousness.

translator [to me]: Well, actually that’s not correct. At least that’s not how it’s perceived… there. There are no real bodies, no real crows or humans, nothing really separate at all, and no time in which anything can really happen. Those “located” perceptions of reality are humans’ alone. None of them is necessary for the powerful conditioned responses you refer to. These responses — feeling and caring and wonder and so on — are probably actually stronger… there, since humans apparently perceive everything through the muting veil of “personhood”. For the crows, the feelings are unfiltered, full on.

me: But how can anything anything be felt without a location in which to feel it?

translator [to me]: That question is likely impossible to answer. To have something felt “personally” would probably be as mysterious to Ms Crow as the powerful impersonal feelings there are to you. Your scientists might provide an attempt at an answer.

me: OK, let me play you two pieces of music, both of which move me deeply. One has words and one does not. I am sure Ms Crow would not respond to either. If there is no real “me”, right here, now, how can this music have such an effect?

translator [to me]: It is a conditioned response. Ms Crow’s conditioning is different from yours. And both your pieces of music use human languages. If crows were not moved by crow languages — the songs of potential mates and the chirping of crow babies — there would be no apparent crows. Crows appear to get great amusement from mimicking other birds’ songs and other crow “dialects”, and some human “noises” — foreign languages.

me: What possible evolutionary value would there be to having humans cry when they hear the Adagio to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G? What possible “conditioning” would usefully lead to this response?

translator [to me]: Your history texts suggest that music has been part of human culture much, much longer than abstract verbal language has been. What value does it have that provokes such a response in you? Affinity. Acceptance. The joy of surprise and resolution. Comforting. Attention. Catharsis. Recapitulation. Contemplation. Novelty. Courtship. Synchronization. Stimulation. Expression. Collaboration. Healing. Suspense, in both senses of the word. Appreciation of beauty. Can you not see the enormous social value of a composition that evokes all of this and more in millions of listeners? Ask yourself why many of the most powerful versions of this piece are performed by people from the French culture whence it emerged (especially the Louis Lortie version with the LSO!). It was written through M Ravel to convey very much what some of Ms Crow’s more engaging songs and dances in quiet moments, when she’s doing nothing more than just being a bird, convey to her kind. Do you see that everyone has a unique and different conditioned response to every piece of music? You respond to this piece precisely because it was written (unintentionally) to find you, to condition you, to make you a part of the culture, to help you find, and bond with, the others of your flock. Tribe. Whatever you call other apparent humans with whom you feel affinity.

me: So, since I didn’t get a straight answer from Ms Crow, what do you think it’s like being a bird?

translator [to me]: Contrasting the dictionaries of human and crow “words”, compared to being a human, it would seem that being a bird is more: wondrous, intense, contented, attentive, adaptable, free, and accepting; and less imaginative, self-sacrificing (less self-everything), empathetic, reliable, serious, and well-mannered. It’s impossible for a human to understand what it’s like to just be, to exist without self-reflection about every conditioned response. What it’s like to not feel like, or be, a separate individual. Being a bird compared to a human is more about what you’re not than what you are… And of course birds can fly.

me: Perhaps we’re both biased, but it sounds like being a bird instead of a human would be a great trade-off. It seems that seeing that nothing really matters, that everything is just a “lark”, would be like losing a great life-long burden. And more than life-long, imagine seeing that nothing is real, not even death! You’re essentially immortal, except there’s no “you”. The strange thing is that, just like your earlier metaphor of the film that you can’t help getting wrapped up in as if it were really happening, this conditioning that this life and all the anxieties and suffering it entails is so strong that intuitively suspecting that it’s just a dream, not real at all, is of no help whatsoever. Is the conditioning an inevitable part of being human? Could we avoid conditioning small children to see themselves as separate to the point they would “just be”, like birds? Could our conditioning be reversed?

translator [to me]: Anything is possible, but the databanks in this program suggest that this conditioning has been going on for 4,000 years, since the human brain first evolved the capability to conceive of separation, and that it’s now pretty hard-wired in the species, with very few exceptions. It’s not like you have any choice in the matter.

me: Sounds like you were programmed by neuroscientists who don’t believe in free will. We should debate that some time… Final word to you, Translator. Any questions for me, or assessments of how this experiment went?

translator [to me]: A rhetorical question: Why is this so important to you? Rhetorical because there cannot be an answer but it might be worthwhile to ponder the question nevertheless. And assessment? What apparently happened was the only thing that could have happened. And nothing really happened, so, as you humans sometimes ironically say: It couldn’t have gone better.

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3 Responses to On Being a Bird

  1. Brutus says:

    Nicholas Carr covered some of this territory here:

    http://www.roughtype.com/?p=8528

    For me, the richness of human experience is plenty enough that I don’t spend my time thinking about being other (or more) than human, or or that matter, escaping my self via altered mental states through psychedelics (though I’m known to get pleasantly buzzed or even drunk from time to time). Similarly, other than as a momentary thought experiment, I don’t contemplate the Singularity or the Transhumanist prospect of living forever uploaded somehow into a computer.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Brutus. This was a bit of an inauthentic “straw man” exercise, since I’m not at all drawn to the ideas of either the fans or the fearers of technology, singularity and transhumanism (nor am I particularly drawn to hallucinogens). My “Translator” is a bit of a take-off on HAL from 2001, and was not meant to portray how I think advanced AI technology would function. Although my experience with leading-edge technology is now a bit dated, I doubt we will ever see a “Translator” even remotely similar to what I’ve identified in this story. The greatest cog dissonance I’m dealing with right now is between the inevitability of collapse (taking with it the Internet and all the technophiles’ wet dreams) and the argument of radical non-duality that none of it is real, or matters. The more convinced I become of the veracity of both these incompatible positions, the more polarized my thinking becomes. Only in wild places does this noise in my head abate.

  3. Brutus says:

    I recognize that quite a lot of your thinking is now filtered through the lens of nonduality, as mine is filtered through collapse narratives. My point is that transcending the self (through various means, including nonduality) doesn’t hold nearly as much interest for me as for others. It feels greedy and impertinent to wish for something “superhuman,” which in a lot of storytelling transforms the receiver of supposed superpowers into something distinctly inhumane rather than, say, posthuman. It’s the equivalent of a genie’s wish that boomerangs on the wisher.

    We all have cognitive dissonance about a variety of irresolvable issues these days. Paradox is ancient, but dilemmas we face in the 21st century are novel, at least in scale. Tempting as it may be to think globally and seek solutions, the understanding we share indicates that solutions are no longer possible and collapse is inevitable. Curiously, my paradoxical wish is that society would respond as though what we do still matters in the long term because that agency gives meaning in the here and now. But evidence indicates that instead we’ll just continue with what we’re doing, consuming all available resources and ruining our own habitat until everything is exhausted even sooner.

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