Saturday, September 20, 2008

Believing is Seeing (BIS)

A reversal of the trite cliché “Seeing is Believing”, BIS implies that far from believing only what we see, we see only what we are disposed to believe and remain blind to whatever our mind can’t - or refuses to - conceive. Hence why “truths”, once accepted, often seem so blindingly obvious that we find it difficult to understand how our anyone could ever have thought otherwise; and why, conversely, resistance to innovative discoveries can be so fierce. Learned professors who looked through Galileo’s telescope thought the stars they observed were bits of trickery cunningly lodged between the lenses, and Pope Urban VIII had Galileo arraigned for refusing to place the earth at the centre of God’s universe. Nowadays, we regard the time when people were taught that the heavens revolved round the earth as unimaginably distant and almost incomprehensible.
Klaus Steinhausen, in an entertaining essay, recalls an encounter with a group of indigenous Ecuadorians from the remote eastern slopes of the Cordillera Condorcillo who had recently arrived in the capital, Quito. Emerging onto the sidewalk of a busy street they wandered, chatting and joking, into the roaring traffic, oblivious of the danger, deaf to the screeching brakes and the furious honking of irritated drivers. They saw and heard the commotion, but absorbed only what could fit into a landscape of mountain paths, the sedate progress of pack donkeys and llama, and the occasional asthmatic bus clattering unsteadily over rough terrain en route from village to village.
Not so different, according to Steinhausen, was the mental process that allowed US and UK politicians in 2003 to conjure Iraqi chemical and nuclear warheads from grainy photographs of desert ruins and wind-swept dunes.3 They formed a mental image of what they wanted to believe, and demanded that their eyes should see it.
Far from being a frivolous catch phrase, BIS suggests that most of what we think we know is more or less wrong. Dead wrong often; sometimes maybe a little right, though there’s hardly anything useful, valuable or meaningful that won’t end up being disputed, or disproved and superseded.
Life and truth are assertions; but so are illness, death, ignorance and untruth. We can only have a partial view even of the tiny portion of reality that confronts us; which is maybe why the Canadian speech habit of turning declarations into interrogations4 makes more sense than pretending to certainty.
Descartes rejected seeing and believing as sources of knowledge altogether, largely because the first was deceptive and the second unprovable. Instead he asked himself what could be said that was absolutely irrefutable. The answer he came up with made his reputation: Cogito ergo sum5. From that simple foundation he tried to build a picture of the world based on other “irrefutable” sentences. The trouble he ran into was that the “Cogito” tells us nothing about the external world, only about ourselves; and so far no one has come up with a way of leaping from one to the other without use of the senses.
Samuel Beckett shows us just how deceptive the senses can be. His hero Watt recalls lying in a ditch listening to three frogs croaking Krak! Krek! Krik! If we had heard that sequence, as we passed in and out of earshot, we would not have known that the frogs didn’t croak one after the other, but at nine-beat, six-beat and four-beat intervals respectively, which meant they would croak 79 times before the sequence Krak! Krek! and Krik! would be heard again.6 A passer-by would probably not have reported the frogs in the same way as Watt, though both would have heard the same croaks. Our certainties, Beckett is telling us, are merely assumptions.
Not that anything discourages us from claiming to see the light. Politicians notoriously do so - their vehemence, taste for propaganda, partisanship, and general mendacity being invariably proportional to the flimsiness of the platform on which they stand. They are not alone. Philosophers, historians, neighbours, colleagues, spouses, and children arguing in the playground all proclaim the primacy of their vision and the feebleness of their opponent’s. Rival churches have always aggressively defended their own versions of the eternal verities. And today, their lieutenants still solemnly tell soldiers that in murdering other folk and destroying their homes they do but the will of god.7
Who better than scientists to demonstrate that Believing is Seeing? For they have always shown a remarkable capacity to see what they believe and, for that matter, to believe what most fits the convenience of theory. Sometimes the thrill of discovery coincides with convenience - as it did for Newton and Einstein at the height of their investigative powers. But though Newton claimed to see further because he stood on the shoulders of dead giants, like Copernicus, nothing could dissuade him from stamping on living ones, like Leibniz, who was his equal in mathematical invention8,.. . Leibniz and Newton might have become colleagues had not jealousy blinded the Englishman to the qualities of everyone other than himself.
Einstein, a kindlier figure, nevertheless refused to countenance Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle9 because it conflicted with his belief that uncertainty was not an acceptable property of the physical world: “God,” he insisted, “doesn’t play dice”10.
Arguments about novel theories are the common currency of academic discourse. Professors commonly dress up theory as fact, form cabals, and excoriate opponents. Human-induced global warming, for example, is either “scientifically proven” or “an absurd myth”, and the advocates of each view “highly-respected” or “purblind embarrassments to themselves and their profession.”
The side on which we stand depends on... well... on what we believe. Or maybe on what we want to believe; or maybe on what the person who pays our salary wants us to believe.11 In science, said Einstein, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Once we’ve seen something in our mind’s eye, we should be able, with a little effort, to find it in the street.
3 Klaus Steinhausen, “The Elusiveness of Truth”, in Transactions of the Trelew Philological Society, Vol 10. No. 9.
4 New Englanders share the habit.
5 ‘I think therefore I am’
6 Samuel Beckett, Watt, Paris 1953.
7 “Thus we have learned that one of the duties of a decent citizen is to slaughter people,” Rousseau, Discours sur L’Origine de L’Inégalité.
8 Both independently discovered Differential Calculus - a method of calculating rates of change.
9 A basic tenet of Quantum Mechanics which states that we cannot determine both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time.
10 Albert Einstein, Letter to Max Born, 4 dec, 1926. But did Einstein really imagine he knew what God got up to in His spare time?
11 The world is naturally averse
To all the truth it sees or hears,
But swallows nonsense and a lie
With greediness and gluttony.
- Samuel Butler (1612-1680), Hudibras

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