But a unicorn is easy. Imagine a strawkey, a beast that is part monkey and part strawberry. We know what a monkey is and a strawberry, but putting them together is difficult. Whether we come up with a satisfactory strawkey or say, fuck it, what a stupid thing to waste time on, for however long we riffled through a bunch of unsatisfactory images or ideas, we still used known things, monkeys and strawberries.
Unlike all our unicorns, which are pretty much alike, each of our individual strawkeys will be different. That’s true partly because an animal and a fruit are hard to combine, but also because there’s no tradition of such a beast. If there were no tradition of a unicorn, the chances are that in imagining a horned horse, most of us would come up with a beast with two horns, not one. If some folklore or some children’s book writer had come up with a strawkey that caught the popular imagination, then we would all be imagining the same strawkey.
Now – let’s try to imagine another beast: part – oh, let’s take the most beautiful beast of them all – part chicken and part something that no one has ever seen. Is it possible to imagine that beast? The chickennil? Well, no, I don’t think so. There’s no way to get a mental grip on the non-chicken part. If you do come up with an image, it won’t do, because it will be something that you have put together from your previous experience. (By “experience” I mean just about anything that has ever popped into our heads.)
Some clever trickster might say: well, no one has ever seen happiness, so I can put together a chicken with happiness and solve the problem with a smiling chicken. Sorry. That smile on the chicken? I’ve seen that smile somewhere before. No – there is absolutely no way for something outside our experience to creep into our minds.
In a way, the most exciting thing about the prospect of encountering intelligent extraterrestrial life is not whether or not it exists – my intuition is that, given an infinite universe, of course it does – but whether its perceptions will have the same parameters as ours – geometric dimensions, time, color, sound, brightness, motion, etc., etc. – or whether our two “worlds” will be so different that we will hardly know the other is there. On the answer to that question hinges one very big idea: universal truth. Off to the left of that black hole out there, does two plus two still equal four? Or does two plus two equal strawberry?