Every day I walk the dog. Since he came into my life, my world has largely shrunk back to an area defined by the flat we live in and the park over the road, which lets both of us stretch some of our muscles: in the dog’s case, his legs, and in my case, my imagination, which is the commodity I deal in, so while my girlfriend’s out doing something more lucrative, this arrangement works well for the two of us who are stuck at home.
My tiny four-legged companion’s called Woody. He’s a mini sausage dog, a city dog, a dog designed to fit inside a cramped London flat. Every day during our walk round the park - which is, like him, an overlap between the natural and the man-made worlds - he sniffs round the same favourite patches, runs after the same ducks, wees on the same new spring flowers, nose to the ground, sniffing his way round his world, mapping a terrain of smells and their histories, a layer of reality that’s completely unknown to me.
As Rousseau said, “My mind only works when my legs work,” and I often find our walks produce a rambling flight of ideas, a half-hour window of open-mindedness when my thoughts are not locked into the spell of the Apple Mac and its endless hall of mirrors. And in these half-hours when I get to take my mind for a walk, I often find myself wondering what’s going on behind Woody’s pretty little eyes, in that tiny little mind of his.
I can see that there’s a soul in there, but to what extent he’s thinking, I couldn’t say. If he sees food he eats it, if you’re loving towards him he wags his tail, if you shout at him he looks hurt, if we meet a Great Dane or a St Bernard he whines in unsettled incomprehension - so he’s definitely thinking on some visceral and immediate level; but the ability to reason or to imagine logical consequences seems entirely lacking.
For example, at some point during our walk, the following thing usually happens: he trots off round the back of a tree, having a sniff about, and then he pops out round the other side, eager to continue his mission, but his lead gets caught on the way round; then he strains on it, trying to break free, looking at me with eyes that seem to say, “Come on you idiot, we need to get cracking,” utterly unaware of the simple logic of what’s stopping him from moving forward ... I then try to pull him back, so he can go round the front of the tree instead, and we can be off on our merry way ... he digs his heels in, refuses to retrace his steps, not realising my intention is to detangle him so he can continue ... a battle of wills ensues, he digs in more stubbornly, and stares at me as if to say, “What the f*** do you think you’re doing? I’m not coming back over there - come on, we need to go this way instead, quick!”
I eventually get my shoes muddy having to follow him round the tree and free his lead, and we move on.
It momentarily amazes me how thick my dog is, but then I start thinking about the ‘double slit experiment,’ and the limits of my own ability to imagine an adequate picture of the world. The double slit experiment is the most famous experiment in quantum physics, because it neatly illustrates an aspect of subatomic reality that on the one hand has become so universally exploited by science it underpins all of our digital technology, but on the other hand is so utterly impossible to fathom on any rational level it has kept great scientific minds awake at night ever since the experiment was first conducted a century ago.
The experiment’s pretty straightforward: subatomic particles are fired in the vague direction of a sheet of card that has two slits cut into in it, and the ones that get through the slits then mark a piece of photographic paper behind it; to cut a lengthy and dull description short, every textbook on physics seems to agree that each particle that lands on the photographic paper has somehow simultaneously passed through both of the slits in the card on the way there. To say it went through either the left slit or the right slit is as meaningless as saying a spinning coin is either heads or tails - until it stops spinning, it’s both.
My need for either/or, logic’s need for a definite left or right slit, is not a need that seems to be shared by the universe, by subatomic particles, or by sausage dogs. But of course, as Woody and I rediscover on a daily basis, a sausage dog’s lead cannot go round both sides of a tree at the same time. Woody can’t understand why not. But then I can’t understand why this would be business as usual for a subatomic particle. There’s a logical level of reality that Woody with his world mapped out by smells cannot grasp, and there’s a deeper level of reality that my world mapped out by human reasoning is incapable of knowing. Both our maps are provisional, of limited use in describing the world. Whether one of us has a deeper grasp than the other seems moot.
The title of the Jim Carey movie ‘Dumb and Dumber’ springs to mind: that’s me and my hairy little four-legged pal, both of us confused by the universe, and the ways round the trees within it. In seeing the limits of my little dog’s mind, I’m also confronted with the limits of my own, the limits of all us creatures below the sun, going out for our daily walks on this tiny frozen spark of it.
Words by Michael Smith.
Pen and ink sketches of Woody - also by Michael Smith.