Really Seeing the Truth
Truth means knowing when the pattern you’re seeing really exists
Humans are very visual. We base our interactions with the world primarily on what we see. But there is a difference between truly seeing and merely looking.
Looking is the act of directing your eyes towards something. The image enters your eyes, hits your retina and is processed by the visual parts of your brain. However just because that physical process of vision is occurring doesn’t mean that you are taking in information about the outside world.
Seeing takes place when the data from this physical act of vision gets processed by your higher level functions. Looking starts to become seeing when you notice what you are looking at, when you begin applying your intelligence to what is coming in through your vision.
Because vision is the primary way we deal with the physical world, it is also the primary metaphor we use when we talk more generally about judgement, ie the process of taking in information about the social and interpersonal situation around us and deciding what to do about it.
For example, we talk about a leader “having a vision”, or when we want to indicate that we understand someone’s argument we say we “see” what they are saying. We even talk about different people having different points of “view”. Visual language permeates our descriptions of decision making.
We can therefore talk about “looking” vs “seeing” in the context of our judgement as well. “Looking” is again merely the gathering of data. In this case situational data about the social or interpersonal environment we find ourselves in rather than visual data of our physical environment surrounding us.
But, as with vision, we still need to bring our intellect to bear on the data we are collecting to turn that raw data into contextual information. We need to notice what is going around us interpersonally or socially not merely acknowledge the fact that it is happening.
And here’s where using seeing as an analogy for understanding becomes very useful.
When we are processing visual information, as we grow and develop from infants to adults, we begin to move from raw visual input to identification of objects. We begin to understand that a certain pattern of lines and colors is a door while another pattern is a window.
In fact, experiments have been done where kittens that were raised from birth in a room that only had vertical lines proved literally unable to see horizontal lines when they became adult cats. Their visual cortex was never trained to identify the pattern of “horizontal line” and thus it was completely missing from their world.
Looking becomes seeing, data gathering becomes understanding, when we start to apply this kind of pattern recognition. When we begin to identify structures in the visual data or social data we gather. This is how we navigate both worlds, the physical and the social.
A good example is reading. When we first learn to read, we see each letter, determine the sound and then figure out the word and then its meaning. But look at this sentence:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe
We barely pause when we read this. We don’t read each letter and puzzle out the word, we recognize the overall pattern of the word.
Pattern recognition is a way to avoid having to constantly deal with raw visual data and similarly it is an efficient way to deal with the flood of raw data in our interpersonal lives as well.
By recognizing “door” or “chair” or “tiger” in our visual data we are able to go outside, sit down, or run away. By recognizing “waiter” or “friend” or “red light” in our interpersonal data we are able to order something to eat, get to safety, or avoid an accident.
But here is where the analogy breaks down, though in a useful way.
With visual pattern recognition, the patterns that are laid down as we develop from infants are literally impossible to change. Those horizontal line raised cats can literally never see the vertical line of a chair leg. And humans are so tuned to recognize each other that we constantly see a face when we are presented with the pattern of two circles above a line.
With our physical vision system, this is all automatic. We can no more unsee a chair than we can consciously stop ourselves from breathing.
But pattern recognition is not necessarily about seeing what something is exactly, it is about determining our best guess as to what something could be, hence why we are able to read the jumbled text above. And sometimes we guess wrong. Sometimes that pattern of two circles and a line is just the front end of a car or a weird rock formation and not actually a face.
We are literally seeing something that is not there because seeing means trying to find a pattern in the data that matches one we already know of.
This means that sometimes the library of patterns we are comparing against actually prevent us from seeing what is really there. We are not actually trying to see what is there, we are trying to recognize what we are looking at. Trying to see how it matches what we already know of so we can identify what it is and what we should do about it.
The trouble is that this also holds true when it comes to our judgement. Because we are always looking for a pattern that we have seen before we find it difficult to learn anything new.
We very reasonably try and explain the current situation based on what we already know. If the situation doesn’t match, we force the data to form into a pattern by selectively editing our attention. It’s the difference between “what seems to be going on here” and “what is actually going on here”
This is okay when we are kids and don’t know a lot, because we don’t have a lot of patterns to fall back on yet. Kids are constantly learning because they don’t have any preexisting patterns to compare things to. That is why they are more open to new things: they start off with a smaller library of patterns and thus their goal is to fill it.
But even when kids start developing their library of patterns (language for example), they still make mistakes and as a result they constantly adjust those patterns. At least initially, they don’t look upon things as right or wrong but rather working or not working and as such they stay in experimental mode and test their hypothesis.
If a particular pattern seems to adequately allow them to deal with the situation, then they leave that alone. But if they learn new information, they adjust their pattern library accordingly
But even as adults we are not doomed to just go over the same ground over and over again. This is because, unlike with our visual system, we have much more control over our social and interpersonal pattern detection. We can recognize that sometimes when we see a particular pattern in the behavior of people around us, it could be that we are seeing something that isn’t there.
Instead of trying to match the data to a fixed set of pre-existing templates to see which is closest, we can take a step back and see if maybe this is a new pattern that we haven’t encountered before and thus don’t recognize.
So if things are going okay, then clearly there is no issue, no need to break that pattern. But when things are not working out for you in the way you expect, that could be because the patterns you are finding in the behavior of the humans around you don’t actually exist. So shift back into experimental kid mode. Have opinions but be willing to change them.