Is Seeing Believing?

Isn’t it interesting that some of us can look at a forest and miss the wind riffling through the leaves, while others see the moon as a ‘ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas’? What determines what we see? Does it have to relate to something we’ve seen before -patterns that we recognize? Is our apprehension of reality an expectation? A sorting through the chaos and discarding what we don’t understand -the noise– until something more familiar emerges? Why do we not all see the same thing?

If patterns are what we are evolved to see, if they are what we use to make sense of the world, are there always patterns everywhere? These are things I wonder about, now that I have time to wonder. Now that I am retired, I suppose I can wade more thoughtfully into the turbulence I once found swirling about my days. Clarity is certainly not a common property of old age, but occasionally it descends as softly as a gossamer thread, and then as quickly drifts away leaving only traces of its presence. Doubts about its visit.

Are these mere hints of what the gifted see? Is peering beyond the horizon just a gift, or is it fleeting and unstable unless learned? There was an interesting essay in Aeon, an online offering that touched on the subject of insightful examination, by Gene Tracy, the founding director of the Center for the Liberal Arts at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia:

‘When Galileo looked at the Moon through his new telescope in early 1610, he immediately grasped that the shifting patterns of light and dark were caused by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays on a rough surface. He described mountain ranges ‘ablaze with the splendour of his beams’, and deep craters in shadow as ‘the hollows of the Earth’. […] Six months before, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot had also turned the viewfinder of his telescope towards the Moon. But where Galileo saw a new world to explore, Harriot’s sketch from July 1609 suggests that he saw a dimpled cow pie.’ And so, the question must be asked, ‘Why was Galileo’s mind so receptive to what lay before his eyes, while Harriot’s vision deserves its mere footnote in history?’ But, as the author notes, ‘Learning to see is not an innate gift; it is an iterative process, always in flux and constituted by the culture in which we find ourselves and the tools we have to hand. […] the historian Samuel Y Edgerton has argued that Harriot’s initial (and literal) lack of vision had more to do with his ignorance of chiaroscuro – a technique from the visual arts first brought to full development by Italian artists in the late 15th century. By Galileo’s time, the Florentines were masters of perspective, using shapes and shadings on a two-dimensional canvas to evoke three-dimensional bodies in space. […] Harriot, on the other hand, lived in England, where general knowledge of these representational techniques hadn’t yet arrived. The first book on the mathematics of perspective in English – The Art of Shadows by John Wells – appeared only in 1635.’

But is it really as fortuitous as that? As temporally serendipitous? Tracy makes the point that, at least in the case of Science, observations are ‘often complex, contingent and distributed.’ And, ‘By exploring vision as a metaphor for scientific observation, and scientific observation as a kind of seeing, we might ask: how does prior knowledge about the world affect what we observe? If prior patterns are essential for making sense of things, how can we avoid falling into well-worn channels of perception? And most importantly, how can we learn to see in genuinely new ways?

‘Scientific objectivity is the achievement of a shared perspective. It requires what the historian of science Lorraine Daston and her colleagues call ‘idealisation’: the creation of some simplified essence or model of what is to be seen, such as the dendrite in neuroscience, the leaf of a species of plant in botany, or the tuning-fork diagram of galaxies in astronomy. Even today, scientific textbooks often use drawings rather than photographs to illustrate categories for students, because individual examples are almost always idiosyncratic; too large, or too small, or not of a typical colouration. The world is profligate in its variability, and the development of stable scientific categories requires much of that visual richness to be simplified and tamed. […] So, crucially, some understanding of the expected signal usually exists prior to its detection: to be able to see, we must know what it is we’re looking for, and predict its appearance, which in turn influences the visual experience itself.’

‘If the brain is a taxonomising engine, anxious to map the things and people we experience into familiar categories, then true learning must always be disorienting. […]Because of the complexity of both visual experience and scientific observation, it is clear that while seeing might be believing, it is also true that believing affects our understanding of what we see. The filter we bring to sensory experience is commonly known as cognitive bias, but in the context of a scientific observation it is called prior knowledge. […] If we make no prior assumptions, then we have no ground to stand on.’

In his opinion, there is a thrust and parry between learning to see, and seeing to learn. I have no trouble with that, but I have to say that Science is only one Magisterium in a world of several. Science is neither omniscient, nor omnispective.

I happened across a friend standing transfixed in the middle of a trail in the woods the other day. A gentle breeze was coaxing her hair across her face, but her eyes were closed and she was smiling as if she had just been awarded an epiphany.

At first I wondered if I should try to pass her unannounced, but I suppose she heard my approach and glanced at me before I had made up my mind. Her eyes fluttered briefly over my face for a moment, like birds investigating a place to perch, then landed as softly as a whisper on my cheek.

“I… I’m sorry, Mira,” I stammered, as surprised by her eyes as her expression. “You looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disturb you…”

Her smile remained almost beatific, rapturous, but she recalled her eyes to brief them for a moment before returning them to me. “I was just listening to that bird,” she said and glanced into the thick green spaces between the trees to show me where, “when I felt the breeze…” I have to say, I hadn’t noticed anything -I hadn’t even heard the bird. “…And it touched my forehead like a kiss,” she said, and blushed for describing it like that. She closed her eyes and thought about it for a moment. “I can’t think of another word,” she added, and slowly walked away from me with a wink, onto a nearby path.

I don’t think that what she was saying was Science, or even meant to require a proof, and yet I felt far better knowing there are people like her in my world. I think I even felt a brief nuzzle by the wind as I watched her disappear into the waiting, excited fondle of the leaves.





Places that we’ve come to trust


When I was a child, the world was an even stranger place than it is now. I knew so much less then, and the boundaries of almost every experience were unexplored and mysterious. I suppose that’s to be expected when the menu is large, and the stomach limited. So, with no internet to answer each question, and teachers who, despite their qualifications and zeal, were unable to fill in more than a decidedly modest number of the blanks, children my age migrated to the Delphic Oracle of the era: the library.

Although sometimes an imposing stone-and-pillared structure in the middle of a large city, in more modest towns it was often only a converted cottage, or a tiny building that housed the books. But however it was dressed, it was the library with all those answers on the shelves, all that magic in the musty perfume of the books. And yes, there was the reigning priestess, the keeper of the tomes, who seemed to know just how to organize our questions and then lead us directly to the shelf where the answers lay.

It was an enchanted place, the library, and one we children got to know even years before we started school. A place where we would gather each Saturday morning in a little circle on the floor to hear someone read stories to us of faeries that danced on little flowers, of kings and queens who disguised themselves as people just like us, of bears who spoke, and fawns that cavorted through the woods all day then slept in beds of moss each night.

Later, of course, we began to read things for ourselves, and to decide what made sense and what to believe. We would read a book the librarian recommended, and then another that she hadn’t -just to check. I sometimes thought I’d wandered alone and secretly through the new ideas, but then she’d smile and congratulate me on my journey when I saw her at her desk.

I suppose we’re never really on our own when we have a book, though. It is the world, or at least its a door that opens inwards. The book is the sacred space, not the shelf on which it is forced to sleep. And I have long suspected that many things are similar to that -a school, for example, or a yoga class, a police officer, or a program on the radio -they each represent an expertise we cannot all possess. A knowledge so extensive we must partition it out in little bits to make it work. It is what a civilization does; it is what constitutes a society.

I found an incredibly insightful article entitled Truth is also a place in the online magazine Aeon on the subject that helped me to set things in context:  It was written by Thomas Gieryn, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, who suggests that ‘Some places make people believe.’ He describes the aura of wisdom ascribed to the ancient Oracle at Delphi. It was in a place so remote that even getting there was a struggle, and hence no doubt augmented the reliability of whatever advice was proffered. Other places, he argues, are similarly sacred: law courts, churches, laboratories, and so forth. The very stability of their location, and their often unique and recognizable architectures, lends an almost sacred air to their functions. ‘Ordinarily, truth-spots stay put over time, and those who seek believable knowledge must travel to them – not the other way around.’

But he wonders if the reliability and permanence of the location is still really necessary to perpetuate the authority. ‘[…] is longevity in a particular location always needed in order for a place to make people believe? Some truth-spots travel: they inhabit a place only temporarily. Sometimes a portable assemblage of material objects might be enough to consecrate an otherwise mundane place as a source for legitimate understandings – but only for the time that the stuff is there, before it moves on. But if a church or lab or courtroom can be folded up like a tent and pitched someplace else, can it really sustain its persuasive powers as a source for truth?’

In the abstract, that seems like an unlikely possibility. After all, part of the solace of religion, say, is in the majesty of the venue -the comfort of the pew, the quiet place that is a refuge from the busy street outside. Or, at other times it may lie in the reverberations of the organ, or the echo of a choir singing somewhere hidden in a large cathedral.

But Gieryn illustrates his thesis with examples of how the authority, if not the venue is transportable. Travelling justices can set up a court in the most unlikely of locations -a small village in China, for example, with ducks and geese waddling past. Justice can be fairly meted out to the satisfaction of villagers who might otherwise never be able to travel to a big city courtroom. Religion, too, could be promulgated outside of the boundaries of a church so long as those ceremonial symbols seen as sacred and important, accompany the duly recognized religious official.

But I suppose these things are so common nowadays, with our internet connections and social media flurries, that the very idea of immutability has become a myth. With the possible exception of religious structures, buildings permanently dedicated to a particular purpose, seem anachronistic. Atavistic. Time itself is out of joint.

Surely we are not so shallow that we think that it is the edifice that contains the authority, so naïve that we confuse the vehicle with the driver. It’s not the library that contains the book, nor even the book itself we need -it’s the ideas, the perspectives, and the wisdom travelling in an ever-expanding ripple that we should attempt to grasp…

And yet… I’d miss the smile of that wonderful lady with the dirty glasses, who sat behind the library desk and watched with motherly pride as I carried out an armful of books for another week. Call me sentimental, or just an old man trapped in reverie, but I think there is still something sacred in a place where a person like her could sit and watch -and smile encouragingly- as we struggle past.