In response to this post, Rowan (from Australia) wrote me this terrific letter:
I have to disagree with something you wrote. You said that in real life, the fact that people can't know intent (your mind will never truly touch another mind) is shocking and tragic. I agree that it's never possible to know another person's intent with certainty, but I don't see that as a flaw. So much of human interaction is made difficult by this fact, which leads to all the false assumptions, empty accusations and unspoken suspicions that cause pain in the world. But, like most other aspects of the world, this down side is more than made up for in the moments when the impossibility of knowing intent is surpassed, is irrelevant. I have been in situations where I have felt closer to another person than I even knew possible, and when I am experiencing a incredibly unique rush of emotion as the mundane, everyday workings of the world suddenly appear new and beautiful, in every way. It's called love, but that word gets used so much it dilutes this one particular aspect of it.
Of course, not every moment that you love someone is quite like that. There are disputes, there are irritations, there can be those assumptions and suspicions. In those rare moments though, there is something special to be found. I don't think you are knowing their intent any more than you can normally, because the same barriers are in place. But you don't need to know their intent. You don't need to have this false reinforcement of your belief because that belief, in itself, is perfect. There is something in the very fact that you cannot know if it is reciprocated that makes it better. Instead of a flawed human emotion where you need support and constantly doubt yourself, this is the one moment where you transcend that anxiety, because the sheer power of the moment takes you beyond concerns. I think a similar thing happens with very religious people, which is why any amount of argument about the lack of a God will, in the end, be futile. The moment of pure love doesn't listen to evidence or reason, or care about knowing intent. It is, in itself, perfect.
Perhaps in 20 years I'll look back and think that this is just me trying to 'flee from the truth' about intent, and that it is truly terrifying that we can't know another's intent. But until then, I'll happily see it as something that is an obstacle to human interaction, but that it can be overcome (not in the sense that you can know another's intent, but in the sense that it doesn't matter to you) in those rare and wonderful situations.
Here is my reply:
We're actually in agreement about love, but you expressed it better than I ever could. I agree that whatever shortcomings love may have, it's enough. Which really means, for all practical purposes, it doesn't have any shortcomings. Enough is enough.
My point wasn't that we can't feel connection, but rather that we're scared of not feeling connection. And that this fear causes people's knee-jerk reaction to my statements about intent. If I can't know an author's intent, then his mind isn't really touching my mind. And if his mind can't touch mine, can anyone's?
Let's not discuss whether or not we can truly connect with other minds. That opens up a gigantic philosophical can of worms. It's an interesting can, but I think there's a can on the other shelf which is much more relevant to everyday human existence: do we FEEL that we can connect with other human minds?
Well, there's no "we" when it comes to things like this. You and I might feel entirely different things, but I'd wager that the general answer -- the answer for most people -- is "yes and no" or "sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Whether it's illusory or not, we sometimes fell amazingly close to other minds. This is the feeling called "love," and it's the best feeling there is. At other times, we feel completely cut off from any mind except our own. This is called ... what?... loneliness? being alone? It's the worst feeling there is. We're not always pushed to these extremes. Often, we feel somewhat connected or somewhat alone. But we know that the extremes exist, and we fear one as much as we long for the other. Sometimes it's surprising which one we fear and which one we long for.
In a way, all stories are about these two feelings. Stories are about people striving to connect and succeeding -- or failing. Obviously, this is true about love stories, but it's true about other stories, too. Ghost stories, for instance (can we connect with the dead?). And sci-fi stories (can we connect with alien minds?). There are also stories about people trying to disconnect ("The Misanthrope"). There are stories about people who are tormented by other people's too-strong desire to connect ("Fatal Attraction").
Naturally my statements cause anger: I'm toying with the most important aspect of the human animal -- the fact that we're a social animal! I may be right (naturally, I think I am), but it doesn't matter. For me to casually say, "you can't know intent" is like someone casually saying, six million Jews died in the Holocaust. It's true, but it shouldn't be casually uttered. (And I try not to be casual about it.)
I know that in my most intimate relationship -- my relationship with my wife -- pretty much every moment is about trying to connect (and very occasionally about trying to disconnect, as in "I need some space, honey!") and terror of losing the connection. Sure, I'm terrified that my wife will die, but this terror reveals itself in more mundane ways, too. Because I'm so close with her (or feel like I am) it's horribly frustrating when we have a misunderstanding -- when I try to connect with her and fail.
The whole "battle between the sexes" is about this conflict. It's summed up in the trite saying "Can't Live With Them; can't Live without them."
So I think you're right that we can touch other minds (or that it feels so much like we can that we might as well say that we can). And I think I'm right that we can't (since it often feels this way, too). Which is the true feeling? Which one is more valid? I think those are silly questions. Or maybe they are religious questions. If there's a God, maybe we're created for a purpose and so there's some truth about the way we really are.
But I believed that we evolved through the accident of a Darwinian process. We evolved to be -- more than anything else -- social. So naturally we're going to care about other minds and fear losing connection with them. Evolution is a cold, unintelligent process. It's not trying to be fair (it's not trying to be anything). So I'd say we simply have these feelings -- for no real reason other than as a result of being what we are. And we'll always have them. There's no way to resolve them or to make one of them trump the other.