Savoring What We Cannot Know


Bees are in the news a lot lately. Most of the reports have focused on honey bees. Startling declines in honey bee populations have been recorded in recent years. Scientists are searching for the causes of the decline.

I like honey. Honey bees are certainly an interesting social insect. I can’t say the alarms about honey bees have moved me emotionally, however.

In mid-June, there were reports that 50,000 bumble bees had died, poisoned by a pesticide in Oregon. The very idea wrenched my gut! Bumble bees! I love them!

Now why bumble bees?, I wondered. I looked around the internet to see what others might have to say about bumble bees. At the University of Minnesota Extension page I came across a listing for a publication called “Befriending Bumble Bees.” This web site explained, “Bumblebees are among the most charismatic of insects. Their robust frame and fuzziness combined with their charming habit of buzzing dutifully from flower to flower have brought joy to many of their onlookers.”

I can’t say I had ever thought of insects as being charismatic. But with bumble bees it seems to be true. Honey bees are rather drab and uninteresting in comparison. But bumble bees are large, colorful, and, well, fuzzy!

And they “dutifully” fly from flower to flower. Dutifully? Perhaps, busily? Or maybe, happily? Even, lazily?

What are they actually doing? Are they going about their business or are they enjoying their day? A bee’s jaunty flight from blossom to blossom may fire one’s imagination. And then the human mind fills in the blanks of what it is like to be a bee.

We really don’t know what, from the bee’s perspective, is going on while the bee is pollinating flowers and collecting nectar. This very not-knowing is part of what is so engaging about watching a bee. Or a butterfly. Or a bird. The very separateness of other living organisms is intriguing. That they are not determined by human design or desire breathes a freshness into our world.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper entitled, “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel’s purpose was to explore questions about reductionism and physicalism but his basic assertion, that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat, is interesting in and of itself.

Science may bristle at the very thought that we cannot know. In fact, ornithologist Tim Birkhead, in defiance of Nagel, subtitled his book Bird Sense “What it’s like to be a bird.” Bird Sense details an immense amount of fascinating research into bird’s ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.

Scientists have been able to determine much about how birds use their senses to navigate the world, to find food, avoid predators, mate and raise young. Yet with all this information we do not know what it is like to be a bird. As Nagel puts it, “the fact that an organism has consciousness at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism….something it is like for the organism.” We can never know first-hand the experience of a bat, the feeling of moving through the world by sonar. We can imagine it, but Nagel says, imagining “tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.” When I imagine myself as a bat or a bird, I still do it from a human perspective.

This is, as Nagel names it, “the subjective character of experience.” Birkhead is forced to acknowledge that this is true even as he rushes off to explain all the science that tells us so much, objectively, about birds’ senses. But he simply dismisses Nagel’s claim as unimportant, calling it “subtle and pedantic.”

But, really, is it? Or is the very fact that other organisms have their own subjective natures something that immensely enriches our experience of the world? We can watch a bee and imagine what it is like buzzing about a field of flowers yet we know that it is something private to the bees. It is something beyond us, separate, apart. The world is alive with bee-ness! It seems to me that this unknown is something for us to savor. The world is one where there is bee-ness, bird-ness, fish-ness, and so on. In our humanness, we can appreciate observing but not knowing.

As for the bumble bees, I don’t suppose they are more engaging in this way than honey bees. But when we don’t know something, our human imagination goes to work. So the fuzzy bumble bees become charismatic in our eyes and we imagine the meanings of their comings and goings in whatever way we fancy. And that is another of the joys of nature watching!

I’m reminded of Wordsworth:

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trail’d its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopp’d and play’d,
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made
It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.

–Vicki Linton

Photo by Vicki Linton


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3 responses to “Savoring What We Cannot Know”

  1. Frederick says :

    Thanks now I want to know where those bumble bees go with their nectar and pollen? I can visualize a honey bee hive but I have never seen any video of a bumble bee’s home base have you?

    • Vicki Linton says :

      No I didn’t know what their nests were like so I looked it up. I think they nest in the ground like yellow jackets but I’ve never come across a bumble bee nest!

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