Sometimes, my partner Zack and I do not understand each other. This makes sense, given the complexity and inexact nature of language; I would go so far as to say it is part of The Human Condition. But there’s a particular misunderstanding that we have that I have also seen other people have. I call it “The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror.”
It starts innocuously enough. Person A says something, with the expectation that their conversational partner, Person B, will understand and respond in a particular manner. Person B, though, breaks from the expected response — a significant divergence from Person A’s expectations!
To Person A, Person B’s response makes no sense. Clearly, B just didn’t understand. So A repeats what they had said initially, but with more insistence, and perhaps slightly louder.
B, unsure why A is repeating themselves when B had already responded, assumes that A just didn’t understand the response. So B repeats themselves, more insistently, and slightly louder.
At this point, A is getting flustered. Why isn’t B getting it? Are they messing with A on purpose? Are they being willfully ignorant? What is going on? A repeats themselves again, perhaps rephrased, but louder and with indignation.
B hears the indignation and the raised volume and can’t figure out why A is suddenly shouting at them. B has already told them that they asked for! B shouts back some version of their original response, perplexed and frustrated.
Usually, that’s where we break the conversation off; it becomes apparent that we have misunderstood each other and need to re-assess our assumptions about whatever it was we were trying to communicate about.
I have a hypothesis about why this particular pattern shows up. I think it’s an expression of existential terror.
See, we’re all consciousnesses trapped in poorly documented flapping meat sacks. Well, I say that we all are — I can only directly experience my own consciousness. I have to infer the existence of your consciousnesses from our interactions.
The above pattern of misunderstanding occurs, I believe, when we come face to face with the horrifying realization that our inferences could be wrong. We don’t have any concrete evidence that the other flapping meat sacks have consciousnesses inside them. All of our previous communications with the other flapping meat sacks could be statistical anomalies; like a coin coming up heads thousands of times in a row. Improbable, of course, but not impossible!
The panic starts to rise. What if no one ever understands us again? What if we really are the only consciousness? What does that even mean for our lives?
My consciousness can’t even conceive of a way forward if it is the only consciousness among the flapping meat sacks. Just writing about the possibility makes me feel anxious; in the moment, staring down the fact that everything we have always assumed about the beings around us may in fact be wrong, it is difficult to make a rational plan that is not “become a gibbering mess.” Instead, we cling to the tattered foundation of our inferences. If only we say it again, the other flapping meat sack will demonstrate that it is also controlled by a consciousness! Yes, saying it again will definitely work!
Of course, the consciousness controlling the other flapping meat sack in the conversation is having a similar experience. They, too, think, that perhaps if they just say it again, you will provide evidence that validates their belief that they are not the only consciousness.
The volumes rise with the panic, until one consciousness or the other manages to convince themselves that they are just being silly. Of course there are other consciousnesses controlling the flapping meat sacks. Of course. Misunderstandings happen all the time. Surely. The terror of the prospect of being well and truly alone in the universe fades. The comforting familiarity of the shared reality shifts back into focus — no sense in peeking behind the curtains. Both flapping meat sacks take a deep breath or two. It’s going to be okay.
And it is going to be okay. Communication, though tricky, is not an impossibility. Understanding, though hard sometimes, is not out of reach. We’re not alone; you are not the only consciousness piloting a flapping meat sack.
At least, I’m pretty sure you’re not.