How to see

forum45200In the seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke provided one of the first statements of what became an influential view of secondary qualities: colour, smell, taste, noise, etc. When you look at grass it appears green. However, grass is made up of atoms and these are colourless rather than green. But is the light reflected from these atoms is green? Not exactly – it’s not as if you see green waves of light snaking their way from the grass. The reflected light is invisible (if it wasn’t it would get in the way of what you are looking at!). Your brain interprets this light as green? Undoubtedly, but what does that mean? There is nothing going on in your brain that is green – grey and gooey maybe, but not green. The greenness of grass is a perfectly real property but seems to exist nowhere at all. That was Locke’s view of secondary properties in general. Nevertheless, we can say that the greenness of grass is, partly but crucially, a matter of what is going on in your brain.

In some recent work on vision, however, the emphasis runs the other way. Under certain conditions, we are blind to changes that occur in our visual field, even though these changes are significant and occur in full view. The most convincing explanation of this is that our visual representations give us only the general gist of what is going on: they are more like rough sketches than photographs. Of course, it doesn’t seem to us as if we see only the rough gist of what is going on. Our visual experience is rich, detailed and complex. So it is – but this stems from our ability to direct our attention at will to a world that is rich, detailed, and complex. If this is right, then properties we have attributed to our visual representations of the world – richness, complexity, and detail – are not to be found there at all.

One of the most tricky things about vision, it seems, is not working out what we see, or how we see it, but where we see it.

Mark Rowlands is author of The Philosopher and the Wolf (Granta)

  1. As an Artist, I have always wondered if we can train our brains to see in a different color. So if we were to see the sky that appears blue, our brain would tell me that the sky is red. When painting an Artist often sees the many colors in the sky that most do not see but are there.

  2. I don’t see in what way How We See can be a problem for philosophy. It is a scientific problem to be investigated by the empirical methods of science. The philosopher, the poet, the artist, are concerned with the subjective experience. The only philosophically viable answer to the question about Where We See is, in my view, that it is in the totality where brain, eye, and world are one whole. The locus of experience is he Whole, and that is what is real for the philosopher as for the poet, not atoms or quarks or light rays or neurons or whatever reductionists want to trade our mind for.
    D. R. Khashaba

  3. TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | How to see (4) - pingback on May 25, 2009 at 12:02 am

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