Seen but not True
© 7 Jan 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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On faith, knowledge, and evidence.


A few weeks ago in church someone mis-spoke when quoting Alma 32:21, transposing the “‍not‍” to say “‍things which are seen, which are not true.‍” Conversation continued as if the passage had been quoted the way it is written, but my mind caught hold of that phrase.

One of the things that quickly becomes apparent when studying computer vision is that human vision makes a lot of assumptions about the way the world works. This is why optical illusions exist: the brain is hard-wired to sense the intersection of what is probable and what is viewed. It is also why it is possible to see quickly; a glance reveals a scene mostly because the set of “‍possible‍” scenes is so small, not because a glance contains enough information to make the scene unambiguous. You can’t get understanding without also getting illusions. Because I can understand, I can be deceived.

A few years ago I was standing on an island off of Cape Cod and one of my siblings found a horseshoe crab shell. I looked about but couldn’t see any. Soon another crab shell was found, then another and another. Then I spotted one. And another. Within minutes the shore appeared to be littered with horseshoe crabs to such an extent I was actually stunned I had not seen one before.

A few days ago I was conversationally backed into a corner. I was placed in a position where I was unable to avoid giving offense. I saw this in advance; I saw the situation arising, I contemplated every possible response I could imagine, and in each case offense seemed the inevitable result. The mindset of my conversational partner was such that my intent of not giving offense could not be recognized.

In life there are so many possible interpretations of each stimuli that we must either be adrift in confusion or we must filter our perceptions through a set of priors. These preconceived notions are both good and bad; they allow us to see beyond our senses alone but they also allow us to be deceived by illusions. Sometimes we just can’t see the horseshoe crabs all around us because our eyes see only rocks. Sometimes we cannot help but be offended because our ears will hear offense in any word.

I know in my life there are many things not seen but true, and many as well seen but not true. But how do I know which is what? How do I chose which possible set of lenses to wear? How do I know if I am seeing crabs that are there or offenses that are not?

The answer, I think, is one form of faith. We each choose what world to see, or accept the choice of others. Some of this is inborn, some learned; some is willful, some accidental. But like it or not, it is present, and it isn’t self-evident.

You have faith. You have faith in something you needn’t have faith in. And that faith colors everything you see every day. The evidences of the world around you is insufficient to know anything, so it is filtered through your faith to create “‍knowledge.‍”

To what illusions are you susceptible due to your your particular set of priors?

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