Can You Believe Your Eyes?


Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. We largely accept this to be true. What we consider to be beautiful, after all, varies from person to person with our varying predispositions and subjectivities.

But would we ever consider truth to be in the eye of the beholder?

This is a question which sprung to mind after reading a chapter from N.R.Hanson’s famous 1969 work ‘Perception and Discovery’. As Hanson colourfully illustrates in the chapter (Chapter 6 – ‘Seeing and Seeing As’), we are able to see the same visual stimuli (i.e., the same constellation of lines on a page, or the same data) as very different things. For instance, look at these images below:

With regards to the latter image, what you might initially see as a duck I initially see as a rabbit. Now that I say it, you can switch up your point-of-view and come to see both. However, that cannot dispute the fact that, upon presentation, you immediately either saw one or the other.

The reason we either instantly see a duck, or instantly see a rabbit, is because of our predispositions (our preexistent knowledge or theoretical frameworks).

This isn’t interpretation. As Wittgenstein states, interpretation is an act :”To interpret is to think”. The illustration on the page isn’t merely interpreted as a duck or a rabbit; without thinking we see it as either one or the other. It simply is a duck or a rabbit. This is the point that Hanson makes.

Hanson utilises an interesting thought-experiment within the chapter. If an individual had grown up having either never seen a duck, or having  never seen a rabbit, would this mean that the individual could only see a rabbit or only see a duck in the illustration. This, Hanson claims, is almost certainly going to be the case. How can we see that which is not conceptually present in our minds?

Indeed perhaps the most important line in Hanson’s chapter is, “Goethe said that we only see what we now”.

13th century astronomers, having never known what sort of thing the sun is, saw but a great yellow-white disc when they looked up at the sky. Later, 20th century astronomers, seeing the same glowing ball in the sky, saw the sun. These observations are both true, of course, but coloured by contextual knowledge.

But how about those observations which seem antagonistic; cases in which, surely, both observations cannot simultaneously hold true? For a long time quantum mechanics has shown that light exhibits qualities of both particles and waves (wave-particle duality). Light can be seen to behave more like particles or more like a wave depending on how it is measured and mapped. The reality is that light is simply both. Indeed scientists have very recently been able to visually capture, for the first time, this dual behaviour.

The first ever photograph of light as both a particle and wave

The first ever photograph of light as both a particle and wave

So, if the same constellation of lines is simultaneously a duck and a rabbit, if light is simultaneously wave and particle, then  should we be learning to accept that there are multiple realities in nature?

Science strives for absolutes, the one truth to nature, how things really are. In science, observations are made, and theory either supported or refuted, in the aim to accurately describe nature. But perhaps we should accept that there are multiple truths to nature. And the visibility of these truths depends on, as Hanson asserts, our predispositions as derived from our intuition, experiences and reasoning.

As Tim Minchin wryly states: “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”. But perhaps a greater degree of open-mindedness in the conduct of science can bring new about discoveries, and make visible truths which we previously failed to see through our pre-coloured lenses.

My non-scientist readership might be wondering how this could apply at all to their own lives. Well, surely, would a greater degree of open-mindedness towards other individuals’ perspectives not vastly improve the general state of affairs (and even knowledge production)?

I’ll leave you all with this diagram which, while it has been liberated from Facebook (and therefore of questionable credibility), is certainly food for thought.


How context literally ‘colours’ truth:

N. Russell Hanson, Perceptions and Discovery, Chapter 6, 1969, pp. 91-110. San Francisco: Freeman. Figures included: From Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein, c. 1953.


Posted on November 1, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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