YUBA CITY, CALIFORNIA. — Yuba City, California -- As a writer who would like to approximate verisimilitude in his writing, I was brainstorming subjects the other day that I thought I had fair knowledge of. In quick order, I had composed a pretty extensive list.
Then I examined it, and a disheartening question punched me painfully in the cerebrum. How much of what I know do I really know? First-hand, that is.
Watching TV and reading the newspaper, I learn that Demi Moore -- a lady I have never met in person, had a baby girl she has named Scout. James Baker is busy rounding up support for the Middle East peace talks. Saddam Hussein is secretly and naughtily building an atomic bomb. Statistics about SAT scores, AIDS, crack babies, flights of the space shuttle bombard me. Science writers explain to me in the language of Mumbo-Jumbo that there are tiny little whatchamacallits in all the thingamajigs I have around the house that make them work. Microprocessors. Has anyone ever actually seen one? Of course not. Oh, people have seen their shells, but the actual working components are invisible to the human eye. So, we put them under these devices with lights and disks of glass, hooked up to image-enhancing computers -- or in some cases, electron emitters, and believe that what we see is really a microprocessor.
Sure. And it was the tooth fairy who left me dimes under the pillow all those years.
The justification that we use for believing in trips to the moon, VCRs and Demi Moore is that the world behaves in such a way as to allow for, if not actually verify, their existence. If a microprocessor does what a scientist says a microprocessor is supposed to do, then it must contain all the stuff he says it does, and work for the reasons he says it does. I see some light on a screen that looks like a person who is called Demi Moore. Newspapers and TV programs talk about this person. People I have never met say she exists, even though most of them have never met her.
I want to stoutly aver before God (Whom I have never seen), that I am not currently, nor ever have been, a member of the Flat Earth Society. I am not one of a surprisingly large number of people who don't believe we ever went to the moon. I am simply a middle-aged, university-educated humanities teacher who is suddenly caught by the immensity of the knowledge he possesses that he cannot verify by his own experience.
It seems that acquiring information through smell, taste, touch, sight and sound is no longer viable. Where would Mendel and his peas, or Archimedes and his bathtub, be now? How could a child from Manhattan conclude that milk comes from a cudchewer in a pasture somewhere when experience tells you it comes from a supermarket shelf? Cud? Pasture? Cow? Get real!
I can look at the word ''dog'' and picture a dog. Or I can look at a picture of a dog and imagine the same thing. I can look at dancing light on the wall and convince my mind that it is two attractive people fashioning a clay pot. They quickly make a mess, but ultimately don't care, and neither do I. They're both married to different people, but don't care, and neither do I. Neither does the Catholic Church. Nature did not intend for me to fly, yet I do so without fear, held aloft by scientific principles I cannot see, or touch, or hear, or smell or taste. But here I am at 30,000 feet, sipping whiskey and watching two people commit adultery, so those principles must be real.
And, in an amazing perversion of all that is holy, if I cannot convince myself that it is OK to fly, I must go through analysis in order to determine what is wrong with me!
I wasn't meant to fall off high structures and survive -- my fear of falling assures me of that -- yet I purposely get inside a cage called The Edge, rise a hundred feet or so, then plummet out of control to within a crushed body or so of the ground and call the panic and fear I feel fun.
The human brain is indeed marvelous. But I am beginning to wonder if it isn't called upon to do too much. It lives in a sensory cage, a network designed to provide it with the information necessary to understand and survive in a world which is mere arm's lengths away. ''Watch that step.'' ''Don't eat that, it's spoiled.'' ''Someone is behind you.''
Could it just possibly be part of the responsibility for our problems today might be our reliance on things we do not, cannot, directly comprehend? Our minds have become so accustomed to operating on the dispassionate, soul-less level of abstraction that we have forgotten how to touch, smell, taste, hear and see for ourselves. When, for example, dancing lights do our sensing for us, how real are the resulting images in our minds? Is a kiss as sweet, a death as poignant, or a rape as violent, painful and obscene?