Whenever a person walks in on the middle of a film or a conversation, or
starts a new friendship, opens a book, takes a new job, or moves to a new
city, his first need is to orient himself. We all must know, in a general
way, what to expect so that we can plan and respond intelligently and feel
comfortable. And although all animals work with their senses and brains to
orient themselves, human being do something unique. We live less simply and
directly in the world than do other animals. We make a version of a world,
an interpretation of it, and then we live in that. The degree of comfort
and success that we achieve in our lives depends on how well that
interpretation suits our circumstances.
Another way to state this idea is that genetically built into people is
a special organizing mode of perception. The philosopher Susanne Langer
calls this mode transformational: we are co-creators of our own perceptions.
In the very act of physically perceiving, we interpret; we transform the raw
data gathered by our senses into complex symbolic meanings. We literally
cannot function and survive without seeing in our world evidence of order
and purpose. We take nothing at face value; we systematize, explain, weave
a large network of connected meanings.
While nonhuman animals toil for their lives, play, or lie in the sun--do
whatever is suitable for the moment--only people fret and practice and
struggle to achieve distant or abstract goals. We are the only animals who
live partly removed from our immediate physical circumstances. This
extravagance is the source of our language, art, science, music, religions,
philosophies: those things we value most. Aside from such direct physical
causes of death as hunger, exposure, old age, or disease, the one
circumstance we truly cannot survive is living in a raw, uninterpreted
place--in chaos. Each of us either finds a meaning in some traditional
religion or philosophy or patches together one of his own, or else he
panics, loses the will to live, and, in one way or another perishes.
-- Shirley Park Lowery, "Familiar Mysteries: The Truth in Myth"