Eyes to See

Is seeing something that just happens when light hits your retina, or is it a mental process?  In two books I recently read, scientists describe what it’s like to see things, and they describe it as more than a simple sensory function.

For example, William Herschel, an astronomer from the late eighteenth century described his “art of seeing” like this:

“The eye is one of the most extraordinary Organs…I remember a time when I could not see with a power beyond 200, with the same instrument which now gives me 460 so distinct that in fine weather I can wish for nothing more” [1].  So visual images didn’t simply fall on the eye like an exposure on film, the eye interpreted what it saw.  He had to learn to see, and over time became more skillful at it.

His son, John Herschel also became an eminent astronomer, and after trying to show something to one of his friends commented, “An object is frequently not seen from not knowing how to see it, rather than from any deficit in the organ of vision…I will instruct you how to seem them” [2].

Another example is Barbara McClintock, a geneticist whose career spanned the 1930s to the 1980s.  She made a name for herself very early in her career for being able to see corn chromosomes under the microscope better than anyone else, her work verified the chromosomal basis for inheriting traits.

After her success with corn, a fellow scientist asked for help with the organism he was working on – Neurospora, or bread mold.  His group had success in studying the genetics of Neurospora, but their work was hindered by the fact that no one could see its chromosomes under the microscope.  So they asked McClintock to help.  She spent three days looking, but got nowhere.  So she realized she had to “do something” with herself, and went for a walk.  She sat on a bench under some eucalyptus trees at Stanford for a while, then, “Suddenly I jumped up, I couldn’t wait to get back to the laboratory.  I knew I was going to solve it – everything was going to be all right.”

And within 5 days she’d identified all seven Neurospora chromosomes and followed them through cell divisions.  How did she do it?  She said, “I found that the more I worked with [the chromosomes] the bigger and bigger they got, and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there.  I was part of the system.   I was right down there with parts of the chromosomes – actually everything was there.  It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends” [3].

I can think of other examples where knowing what you are looking for helps you see more than someone with an inexperienced eye – seeing camouflaged animals, cracking secret codes, or detecting fake pieces of art, for instance.  But people also sometimes see things that aren’t really there.  For example William Herschel was convinced he could see inhabitants on the moon, and McClintock made an even bigger mistake.  She observed that certain kinds of genes in corn are inherited in an unconventional way (they were transposable, or “jumping” genes), and became convinced that corn used these genes to control development.  She was wrong about that, but believed it to the end, even when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering transposable genes and everyone else in the field at the time had totally rejected her interpretation of them.  The Nobel Prize was in a way a repudiation of her ideas, and she knew it [4].

I guess there’s a bit of a cautionary tale here.  We have to be able use our experience and skills to interpret what we see, but it’s possible to become so confident in our abilities to perceive things correctly that we can’t tell when we’re wrong.

I think this caution applies to religious insight as well – maybe especially to religious insight.  Faith is believing in things that are true, but not seen.  We call people who are especially gifted or chosen in seeing spiritual truths “seers.”  But how do we know the things they see are true when they can’t be empirically validated?  How do we know the spiritual things we personally see are true when others come to different understandings?  These are complicated questions with many answers.  Without resorting to complete skepticism or self-doubt, I think we can trust our ability to discern spiritual truth, especially with time and experience, but should maintain a healthy dose of humility.

1. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Vintage, 2008), page 116.

2. A Feeling for the Organism: the Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller (Henry Holt and Company, 1983), page 117.

3. The Tangled Field by Nathaniel Comfort (Harvard Press, 2001), page 11.

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