Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Effing the Ineffable

All right, this is naughty of me. Ineffable means cannot be expressed, from the Latin, in- meaning not, and effor meaning to utter. The word effable – can be expressed – does exist, but is archaic. Eff doesn’t exist – at least, not in polite company. Scientists studying primates – lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans – believe they have discovered a positive relationship between the size of the groups in which a species typically lives and the size of its brain. That is, if an animal lives in small groups, it doesn’t need a very big brain, but if it lives in bands, troops or clans, it needs a larger brain, so as to keep up with who everyone is. (This operates species by species, not individual by individual. Just because you personally have a lot of friends doesn’t mean that you personally have a large brain, just that you get out a lot.)
It seems the maximum number of humans who can know each other reasonably well, interact and cooperate with each other is about a hundred and fifty. There are some companies which, if the work force expands and reaches about two hundred, will divide into two companies of about a hundred each. I know that some people reckon their ‘friends,’ such as their Facebook contacts, in hundreds or even a thousand. They don’t have larger than average brains either, just a large hard drive. They probably need to get out more; fresh air now and again would do them good.
Suffice to say that we humans (or most of us) probably have a rather effective face-recognition app somewhere in our neural networks, which allows us to know and recognise about a hundred or a hundred and fifty acquaintances. Some people can’t do this. The very well-known and well-respected neurologist, Professor Oliver Sacks, can’t recognise faces, but can identify who someone is only when they speak to him. Professor Sacks clearly has voice-recognition software, rather than face-recognition.
I heard of a man whose face was seriously injured and scarred – I forget just how. Maybe it was a road traffic accident involving glass fragments. His face was badly damaged, but was successfully put together again by highly skilled plastic surgeons. The only problem was, he said, it was a good enough face, symmetrical and well-made, but it wasn’t his face any more. He found it very difficult and depressing to wake up each morning and have to wash and shave a face which he couldn’t recognise as his own.
Here’s the thing: you know the difference between an orchestra tuning up deedle deedle dee and an orchestra actually playing music, because the music means some-thing to you, but it is extremely difficult to put into words just what the music means. In fact, this is why orchestras exist: if the meaning of music could be conveyed in words, it would be a lot easier and cheaper to write a letter or send an e-mail than to train, fund and rehearse a whole orchestra. Professional music critics find it hard to describe music in words, and when they do, many people won’t agree with them anyway.
Likewise, it is often easy enough to recognise a face (although telling identical twins apart can be challenging) but very difficult to describe someone’s face to a third party so that the third party can identify the person. This is the problem that notoriously confronts detectives who question eye witnesses when seeking to identify someone they have seen. Classically, the police end up looking for a tall, short, bearded, clean-shaven, blond, dark-haired white man of mixed race. That’s the joke, but the police will tell you that there is truth in it.
So what distinguishes one very average, middle-of-the-range face from another? We can see it when we see it, but it seems impossible to say it. One technique is to say, “He looked a bit like [name a famous actor], but a bit [thinner].” It would be good if there was a standard bank of famous faces to use as a reference. I imagine that an experienced police artist or Identikit operator is skilled in evoking the key features of a face from eye witnesses.
What is the meaning of this, the spiritual equivalent? As a Quaker, what am I on about? It’s a case of struggling to express in words what we do not have words to say, like the meaning of music or the likeness of God. Now do you see? How to eff the ineffable. We can but try.

2 comments:

Paul Newman said...

Relating the new to the familiar helps with learning and recall too. Unless we make a comparison, connection or contrast with something already known, it's easy to forget the new information. Hopefully, if we have stored up the words of life in this way, it can be given to us in the very hour what it is we should say (see Luke 12:12).

Paul Hunt said...

Thank you for this, Paul. In response to your response, I came across James Nayler (QFP 19.09): "I was commanded to go into the west, not knowing whither I should go, nor what I was to do there. But when I had been there a little while, I had given me what I was to declare. And ever since I have remained not knowing today what I was to do tomorrow."