Seeing is believing - Maybe not(EDIT3)|
How our senses affect our science
An Editorial Comment
"If there is anything I know, I know what I saw..."
Quick! What did Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and René Descartes have in common? They were all Rationalists. They were what? Well might you ask. In this context, rationalism refers to the idea that knowledge about the World could be gained from reason alone.
Although the concept goes back to ancient times, think of the Greek philosophers, it was given more formal expression in the 17th Century by among others, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Descartes. René Descartes, for example, believed certain universal, self-evident truths could be discovered by means of reason alone.
From these, the remaining content of philosophy and the sciences could be deductively derived. He assumed that these self-evident truths were absolute and had nothing to do with what one might learn by using the five basic senses. In fact he was somewhat skeptical about the reliability of those senses.
The concept of rationalism was not universally accepted even in Descartes' time. It was opposed, for example by others such as British philosopher John Locke, who believed instead that all ideas are derived from the senses alone. These folks were called empiricists which meant of course "from the senses".
Living as we are, in the beginning of the 21st Century, it seems hard to believe that anyone could question the validity of what our senses tell us. If you can't believe your own eyes, what can you believe? Our modern society is based on this. "I know what I saw" we say. Court cases are won or lost because of what people say they saw or didn't see. And yet...
"Do my eyes deceive me?" we sometimes ask rhetorically. Maybe they do and because they do, many things we take for granted or accept as scientific fact may be doubtful if not entirely false. The truth is, that our senses are very easily fooled. Magicians count on this when they, time and again successfully pull the wool over our eyes.
We can see from the well-known example of the Rubin vase that the eye is easily confused. As you look at the picture you see either two faces or a single vase. This device was the brainchild of Edgar Rubin (1886-1951), Denmark's most famous psychologist. Dr. Rubin was struck by the fact that we cannot see both the vase and the faces at the same time but can only see one or the other at any given moment.
Aside from the fact that we are often fooled by these deliberate optical illusions, the issue is this. How do we see, really? Students of the scientific process and science historians continue to wrestle with this problem. It would seem that we as people can only see what we are conditioned to see?
Man, no matter how brilliant, cannot evaluate anything in isolation. We are not able to really see anything unless we have a theory in our head about it. Try it some time. There are lots of things you "see" every day that you don't really see because they don't fit into your frame of reference.
The reason birds, when scrounging for worms constantly move their head about is to help them see. Birds, it seems need to have the items they are looking at in motion else they can't see them. This gives them in effect a frame of reference. We too need a frame of reference in order to see.
In our case that frame of reference is our belief about what we are seeing, our theory if you will. Let's use a simple example. As we see the Sun travelling across the sky from sunrise to sunset we automatically apply our theory about the Universe to what we see. In our mind's eye we "see" the Earth rotating from West to East.
If like the ancients, we believed the opposite about the Universe, we could just as easily imagine the Sun revolving about the Earth. In other words even though we "see" the same thing, we could in fact "see" it one way or the other. The theories of our ancestors did fit their "facts" very nicely.
Before you write off this whole discussion as an interesting semantic exercise come with me as we examine how this might impact on our modern world. You may be surprised to learn that much of our life is governed by how we see and also how others see. For example, your health and quality of life is very much dependent on research.
A cure for cancer or some other debilitating disease relies totally on what scientists turn up in their research. Most such research is carried out within the framework of certain assumptions and presuppositions. As they hunt for that elusive cure or breakthrough, researchers are unlikely to find anything outside what they are looking for.
It makes sense really. Unless you know what you are looking for, how will you know when you have found it? To connect the dots, you need dots to connect. So that's the dilemma then. Before you can open up a new line of research you need a new idea. And those, unfortunately are few and far between.
What's more, no amount of "research" will produce one. At best, a great new idea might erupt during the process and if it isn't mislaid or ignored altogether this could lead to something. But since it is likely to be viewed as a disruption of the business at hand it may not survive at all.
Meanwhile we have no choice, given our limited skillsets as human beings, but to carry on our research using the tried and true method of sifting through endless combinations of whatever it is we are trying to find out. This isn't a bad thing really unless we are misled into believing that this is a highly productive exercise.
It's not you see and can even lead to some abuses. In medical research for instance, in the pursuit of proof for this theory or that, a large number of experiments are carried out. With a reasonably valid theory, most of the experiments will support it. There are, however, sometimes a few that don't.
This is where a crisis of conscience can occur. Being human, we might be tempted not to let a few anomalies stand in the way of a perfectly good theory. These could be explained away as contaminated specimens or whatever and filed for some future researcher to puzzle over.
In a very real sense, we are faced with a chicken and egg dilemma. What comes first, the theory or the evidence to support it? As we shall see, this problem goes beyond questions of science.
In the North American justice system, the prosecution representing the State, at some point will formulate a theory about the criminal act they are being asked to try. As soon as this happens, all evidence supporting this theory will be endorsed, polished, perhaps even embellished a little and presented as the whole case.
Any evidence that does not support the theory, will at best be overlooked and at worst, suppressed. You don't have to look too hard to find examples of how this approach can lead to some silly results not to mention serious miscarriages of justice.
So you see this is not some idle curiosity best left to philosophers to ponder. How we see affects how we learn. It affects how our children learn. How we see affects how scientists ply their craft. How we see affects how we administer justice. How we see affects our medical care. How we see, affects the way we are governed.
The process of discovery is often misunderstood. With our modern mind we assume that if we sift through enough observed data, we will come up with fresh new ideas about our world. The truth is, that most breakthroughs do not happen that way at all. If you study great discoveries, you will find that they often result from a stroke of inspiration. The experiments come later, usually only to prove or disprove the idea.
Knowing how we "see" may help us understand why so often, obviously flawed procedures, rules or ideas continue to prevail. Something to think about the next time you are convinced that this notion or that is true because you "know what you saw" or "read" or "believe". Is seeing believing? Maybe not. What do you think?
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