Acts of Knowing

Acts of Knowing August 1, 2017

Esther Meek (Longing to Know) uses Magic Eye 3-D pictures to probe what it means to know. Following the instructions, you hold the picture to your face until you can see the picture past/through the surface details. For Meek, the process of seeing the dolphins in the page highlights several key features of all acts of knowing.

For starters, “we don’t leave the particulars of the picture’s surface behind; we rely on them to focus beyond them.” Instead of being the focal point of our gaze, the particulars on the surface become “clues” or “subsidiaries”: “We are aware of them, but only as we move ourselves through them and by means of them to grasp a farther focus.” The particulars take on a new appearance as they become part of a new pattern: some “now form part of the dolphins; others we now see as part of the background to the dolphins” (47).

Authoritative testimony is another element: “We rely . . . on the directions. We only attempt the effort because of the promise that the directions . . . hold forth.” Following the directions is an implicit act of trust in the people who published the puzzle and wrote the directions. We come to see the dolphins by “carefully trying to do exactly what the directions say, even when you don’t know whether you’re doing it right.” To know, we have to allow ourselves “to be taught how to see” (47).

We also rely on our body and its feelings. We focus and refocus. To follow the directions we have to follow them with our bodies: “Our body must embody them, crawl into them blindly, and then through them to an as yet unknown goal.” We can’t explain in words how this occurs. We have to embody it (47–8).

In sum, the particulars of “surface details, body activity and directions” form “domains” that we move through to focus on the picture beyond the surface. We don’t leave any of these particulars behind at any point, but we can’t focus on the particulars if we want to see the picture. Rather, these particulars have to become clues to a “coherent pattern, a unified and significant thing,” the goal of our focused knowing. The particulars are focused into a coherent pattern through a personal effort that Meek calls “integration”: “It involves two kinds of awareness: subsidiary awareness or attending from and focal awareness, or attending to” (48).

Time is a crucial factor in the process. Not everyone can see the picture in the blotchy 3-D image instantaneously. Knowers take a longer or shorter time to see the pattern in the particulars. Over time, too, we are able to see the image without thinking about the directions. Like a batter swinging, or a pianist playing, we learn what it feels like to carry out the necessary activities, and we can do it without being conscious of doing it. Self-consciousness, in fact, stalls the process. We can’t know things when we are too self-conscious about the process of knowing, just as we lose track of the piece of music when we start thinking about where to put our fingers (49–50). Acts of knowing have “the same structure as any human skill” (49).

In short, Magic Eye helps us see the threefold structure of knowing: “subsidiaries or clues, the focus we attend to through the subsidiaries, and the active and skilled human effort of integrating from the one to the other” (49).

(Esther Meek will teach a course on “Covenant Knowing” at Theopolis in August.)

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