“What history has shown is that when you are granted a perspective bigger than the one you had been harboring, you end up thinking differently about the world. For the better.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson
All I said was, “Science requires all five senses.” This gentle mentor of mine smiled indulgently, paused, then replied, “Only five?” After establishing that he was not referring to psychic abilities, within minutes I was amazed to “discover” two additional human senses. By the next day, I had three more. They were obvious. We routinely refer to them as “my sense of ___” without ever connecting them to “the five.” (I’ll let you experience the Aha! on your own. There are many.)
In that moment I felt three very different emotions all at once: I felt stupid for not seeing the obvious, wonder at what else I might be missing, and determination to find other mental blocks I might carry.
“The five senses” were described by Aristotle some 2,350 years ago. Since then, textbooks and teachers alike have simply repeated the phrase without question. Kindergarten teachers pass it on to children as self-evident. It’s conventional wisdom, and it’s wrong.
I became obsessed with uncovering other examples of cultural inertia, especially in science. Critical thinking and self-questioning are the essence of science—more essential than any concept in the curriculum. I encouraged my students to question authority, especially my authority, because only rarely can we recognize our biases without help.
Those biases get installed early in our lives. Studies of implicit bias show us that racism, sexism, and all kinds of binary thinking are deeply-ingrained habits of thought. Like “the five senses.”
When I’m lost and don’t know it, I need someone else to point out that I’m on the wrong road. When someone does this (or gently asks, “Only five?”), it can be tempting to lash out at them for exposing my ignorance or bias. But if I take a pause to self-question, it can reveal vast new vistas to me.
Then it takes humility to admit my error, and effort to get back on track. Experiencing the world clearly and openly, with all our many senses, requires vulnerability and authentic self-questioning. I think it’s a spiritual practice.
Source of all truth and clarity, bless us with companions who disrupt our inertias, curiosity to hear them out, and courage to seek the truth.