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: https://aeon.co/essays/seeing-is-not-simple-you-need-to-be-both-knowing-and-naive

‘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.