One touch of nature makes the whole world kin


Touch is so important in our lives: the satin feel of moss on an old tree stump, the solidity of ground under your feet after a stormy day at sea, the soft caress of a partner’s hand on your arm -each belies the notion that we are alone, and trapped inside the prison of our skin. Indeed, one could argue that Descartes’ famous aphorism could just as easily be tango, ergo sum -which, if my high school Latin continues to suffice for the diminishing number of occasions for which it is required, means something like ‘I touch, therefore I am’.

Touch somehow reassures us of the validity of what we see -that is real. How often do we reach out and examine a smooth pebble on a beach, say, just to check that it is as unblemished as it appears: quality assurance? How often do we return to the kitchen before retiring for the night to feel the burner on the stove we used for dinner -just to make sure it’s really off? Well, okay, I do that anyway… Age has a way of validating touch -of trusting it to confirm the fading memory of merely ocular things .

Indeed, one of the early essays on my website was about Touch, and its powers of transcending, not only place, but words:

It was a lesson I learned early in my career as an Ob/Gyn: patients- no, people– require more on morning wards rounds after their surgery or accouchement than a few words bouncing off a chart, and mumbled from the head of the bed -even if it is accompanied by a brief, well-meaning smile. They require some proof of my visit: a touch.

During the time when I wrote it (and now as well, of course) there was real a concern about touching –inappropriate touching, to be sure, but nonetheless an action whose intentional boundaries were often nebulous. It felt insensitive not to reach out to take the hand of a patient who had burst into tears as she recounted the reasons for her visit, and yet it took time for me to learn when it was acceptable. When it would be appreciated.

I suppose Experience is an inevitable product that accumulates, like lint, as the years wear on, but wisdom is a gift that experience bestows only on those who are determined to learn from it. The accretion of years, alone, are insufficient -and so, even in my retirement, the struggle to understand the importance of Touch has not abated.

I found  an essay I hoped would be helpful on touch a while ago in Aeon by Ophelia Deroy, an associate director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London:

She wrote that, ‘Contrary to the proverbial expression that ‘seeing is believing’, it is touch that secures our epistemic grip on reality. Everyday situations show that touch is the ‘fact-checking’ sense… when Samuel Johnson wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of Bishop Berkeley’s idea that material objects do not exist, he kicked his foot against a large stone, and triumphantly asserted: ‘I refute it thus.’… The resistance of solid objects through touch is meant to provide us with the experience that there are things out there, independent of us and our will.’

But she goes on to assert that touch is not really the ‘reality sense’ -it, too, can be fooled. One of the fascinating examples she uses is that ‘many people are surprised to learn that the button on their phones does not really move when pressed: the impression that it does is created by a vibration, which fools the brain into inferring that something was pressed. Switch off the phone and repeat the action, and you will realise that the surface cannot be moved at all.’ And yes, ever curious, I did just that… I still think the button moves -but never mind.

Anyway, she goes on to ask ‘If touch has no general advantage over vision and is just as subject to illusion, why do we put so much faith in it? If touch does not provide us with a more direct or a more objective representation of the world, how can we explain a widespread feeling that it does?’ How indeed?

Well, one -admittedly weak- argument she offers is that ‘touching is more psychologically reassuring than seeing.’ Yes, I agree with that, but I think the job of a philosopher is to explain why that is the case. So, she cites the probably apocryphal Biblical story of Thomas who needed to touch Christ’s wounds as an example of something perhaps already hard-wired into our neurons: ‘touching to be sure’ –‘especially relevant when our other senses or beliefs create a situation of high uncertainty… Perhaps we trust touch more because we feel more active and in charge when we explore something by touch than through vision…  the fact that we move our hands over surfaces might explain why we are also more confident in what we touch: we believe that we have actively collected and sampled the evidence, rather than passively received it. Feeling that we have ‘done this ourselves’, we are more certain that it is reliable.’

I’m not sure that she has convinced me with her arguments, but I was somewhat assuaged by her final two sentences: ‘It is as if we are clinging to the world rather than seeking knowledge of it. We might think we are reaching for better information when we touch the visible objects around us, but perhaps we are simply betraying a basic need for reassurance.’

And so Touch comes, full circle again, to the idea that it is maybe the only sense that directly links us to the world outside our bodies. As I have explored in several essays, skin is not only that which separates us from everything else -the ‘not-me’-, it is also, and perhaps most importantly, that which joins us to others. And, as important as vision is for our sense of reality and community, without touch, it would be like sitting in a theatre watching a movie -forever alone in the seat.

Tango, ergo sum, for sure.


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