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ETpro's avatar

Do your eyes tell the truth?

Asked by ETpro (34552points) February 22nd, 2012

The human mind is able to make sense of things because it is designed to deal with observed data in high-level abstractions. We innately classify things. Solid, liquid, gas. Living versus non-living. This is highly useful. By classifying things and fitting them together in meaningful ways, we understand and deal with a bewilderingly complex world as if it were rather simple. It’s vital to spoken language, which itself uses abstractions to represent things and classes of things.

But is it all that’s really there? Consider a spec of sand. It is finely divided mineral matter. Much of it is a form of silicon dioxide called quartz. Let’s say our grain of sand is quartz. We would call it a solid. But in reality, most of that grain of sand is empty space between its lattice of atoms of silicon and oxygen arrayed in a crystalline network.

There are three commonly occurring isotopes of silicon, Si 28, Si 29 and Si 30. 92% of free silicon on Earth is Si 28, so that’s probably what most of our grain of sand contains, but there will be traces of the other stable isotopes and possibly a bit of the 20 know radioisotopes. Si 28 has 14 protons, 14 neutrons and 14 electrons in three electron shells. We tend to think of an atom as a solid, but in reality, it too is mostly open space. It’s electrons don’t really whiz around its nucleus like little moons, they exist in phase-space. And most of each atom is in reality empty space between the quarks that make up the atom’s inner parts, its electrons, protons and neutrons. None of the quarks can be measured and defined as being an up or down quark in a given location. Any one measurement disturbs the others so both location and spin cannot be known. And quarks that interact are quantum entangled thereafter, meaning that doing anything to one quark causes its distant quantum entangled brothers and sisters to react just as the one we are measuring does.

So the reality of one atom in one grain of sand, not our high-level abstraction of it, but the real thing, is so incredibly complex that in all the lifetimes that man has lived, we could never have defined that one atom sufficiently to describe it. Now step up to actually understanding the universe. Do our eyes tell us the truth? In lyrical form, William Crawford sings, in The Music of the Night. “Close your eyes for your eyes will only tell you the truth, and the truth isn’t what you want to see. In the dark it is easy to pretend, that the truth is what it ought to be.”

In fact, shouldn’t we be aware we are and always will be in the dark? As Isaac Asimov quipped, “The Universe isn’t stranger than we can imagine, it’s stranger than we can’t imagine.” Can’t even our eyes tell us that? Socrates said, “I know that I don’t know.” Isn’t it interesting that despite all mankind’s learning and abstraction, we are still no more correctly informed than “I know that I don’t know”?

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16 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

Truth? I don’t know what the truth is as far as physical reality is concerned. I’m sure our eyes don’t give us complete information about physical reality. But then, that’s not their job. Their job is to give us sufficient information to keep us alive and reproducing. They do a good job at that. That’s truthful enough, as far as I’m concerned.

ragingloli's avatar

Mine, yes. Yours, no.

thorninmud's avatar

There’s seeing, and then there’s the interpretation of the seeing.

The seeing is brute experience, which is about as close to truth as we can get. But the brain takes that seeing and spins it into an interpretation of the world. That interpretation will be heavily influenced by expectations and biases. In the process, objects and properties will be identified and named; associations will be made with past experience; propositional concepts will be formulated; blanks will be arbitrarily filled in. And also, somewhere in there, the idea of a see-er emerges.

The resulting interpretation is the story that the brain spins to explain the experience of seeing and to make it fit with it’s own assumptions. Like all stories, it’s incomplete. It’s a thumbnail sketch, the brain’s neurological shorthand. And many of the features of the story will just be relics of the way the human intellect parses information, but they will be taken to be actual features of the world.

What we “know”, those ideas that we hold to be true, will, to some extent, influence what we see. We eventually come to just see the world as we think it to be. That’s a far remove from the brute experience of seeing.

rojo's avatar

My eyes even lie to each other.

Pandora's avatar

Perception is what colors our world. Some are able to see between the lines of what is obviously visable.
But there isn’t anyone who can really see it all. So yes. All we can ever know for sure it that we don’t know everything for sure.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Our eyes pre-process stimuli present in the environment. For example, the retina contains assemblies of retina receptors that fire when straight lines are detected. Between the retina and the visual cortex are collections of cells that pre-interpret such information. Our visual system is very different from something like a digital camera. So often when we examine a picture we took, we notice things we did not even notice as the time we made the picture.

Our perception is also influenced by our expectations, beliefs and attitudes about things in the environment,

In other words, at no level of our sensory or cognitive systems is there any objective truth about what we perceive around us. That is why sharing perceptions with others can often improve on the subtlety of our understanding of the world, especially when those with whom we compare perceptions have different beliefs and expectations about what is going on in the environment.

GladysMensch's avatar

Don’t know about my eyes, but my hips always tell the truth.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Shakira? I didn’t reconize you there! ;)

stardust's avatar

Only when it suits me!

flutherother's avatar

The eyes create the illusion of the truth. They don’t see beyond the infra red or the ultra violet and they can’t see polarised light. Everything with eyes sees in a different way, a beetle sees a different world from a bee which sees differently from a turtle which is different again from man. Who is right?

Blondesjon's avatar

These eyes? Ohhh, these eyes.

These eyes have seen a lot of loves but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you.

Jeruba's avatar

Not to go off on a tangent, but I have to correct your attribution: that’s not an Asimov quote. I happen to have just read it last week in the Bill Bryson book about the universe, and I double-checked it with other sources.

It was the great British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane (5 November 1892 – 1 December 1964) who wrote: ”...the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta As I am going through cataract surgery currently, I am well aware of the role my eyes play in keeping me from stepping in front of a bus or walking into an open manhole.

@ragingloli Humm. I’m watching you. ;-)

@thorninmud Excellent answer. That’s the sort of issue I was thinking about in asking. Elizabeth Loftus talks about false memories. Also, our biases do play a large role in what we remember, as does stress when the memory is formed. More importantly, there’s this.

@rojo Tell me about it. I’ve got one eye with its very dense cataract removed, but the other still a bit clouded. Colors between the two, and contrast levels are WAY off. I keep wanting to clean the lenses on my reading glasses and my sunglasses, but they aren’t the problem. THe lens in my right eye is.

@Pandora Oh for the ability to see what is truly there—and beyond.

@Dr_Lawrence Excellent point. I wasn’t thinking so much about the physical structure and ability of our eyes, but you are quite right. Even at that level what we “see is only a very partial approximation of what is actually there. Almost all of what we are looking at is unseen and indeed unseeable with human eyes.

@GladysMensch That’s a hip answer! If I were free to test that, forget my lying eyes, I’d definitely taste test that statement. :-)

@SpatzieLover You went there too.

@stardust Do ya really think?

@flutherother True. Further to @Dr_Lawrence‘s thoughts.


@Jeruba Challenge accepted. I researched that quote a good bit, because I frankly had heard it worded numerous ways. My study confirms that the version I posted is, indeed, from Isaac Asimov and the originator of the idea is uncertain.

I just liked Asimov’s wording of it better than the rest, but a good guess is Sir Arthur Eddington has first dibs on the concept.

blueiiznh's avatar


ETpro's avatar

@blueiiznh Wow, that one fell right in place for you!

blueiiznh's avatar

@ETpro I guess the Aye’s have it.

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