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Moral Moments

Eight Years Old and Counting

by Joel Marks

Any one thing can lead us to all other things. For me at one time the ‘one thing’ was vision. As I have mentioned in a previous column about the late perception psychologists, J.J. and Eleanor Jack Gibson (Issue 42), the personal discovery that there are not only objects in the world that I see (plus me or including me) but also my seeing them, ultimately led to my becoming a philosopher. But before I had even been introduced to the field of philosophy, I was captivated by vision. Perhaps the first significant manifestation was my hobby of black and white photography in college, under the tutelage of a rooming housemate, Pat Lau. Another housemate, Chip Porter, helped me build a darkroom in a corner of my livingroom. Then came my undergraduate studies with J.J. Gibson and his graduate students, and post-college I was hired to teach courses on visual psychology at an art school, where the director, Bill Collins, had the Bauhaus on his mind. Only after all of that did I consider studying philosophy. In the interim, vision had become a passion.

I fancied myself a phenomenologist in that I cultivated visual experience per se. Perhaps a better label would be: visual naturalist – a collector and cataloguer of specimens in the visual world, which I would record in a diary of observations. And while I adored the work of the Belgian physicist, M. Minnaert, who did the same with optical phenomena, such as rainbows and halos, my quarry tended to be phenomena that could not be explained by optics alone (if at all!). A typical diary entry:

“Wearing a brown shirt ... but I noticed the very thin rim of it rising above my beige sweater looked purple. I checked the light fixture on the ceiling: it seemed to be regular incandescent/exposed bulbs. So then I performed one of those amazing, delicious life experiments (like being in a dream where you know you can fly): I pulled the sweater downward ever so slowly ... and right before my very eyes ... the purple turned to brown!!! I repeated, up and down, several times. Albers [the painter, a refugee from Hitler who studied contrast phenomena of this kind extensively]. The watched pot [i.e., I had, in effect, witnessed the magic moment of boiling, or followed the rainbow to its source].”

Optics plus physiology, you say? Perhaps. But my interest lay not so much in explanation as in implication (this being the nascent philosopher in me). I also simply indulged in the wonder of it, so in a way I positively did not want it to be explained! Over time the observations became more and more fantastic. There is magic in this mundane world of ours, if you take the time to look at it and reflect (a nicely ambiguous word under the circumstances). I hope to write about these experiences at length some day, but for now let me cut to the quick.

I found that there were two poles of visual phenomena that were instructive in opposite ways. First were those which were commonplaces of veridical recognition, my favorite being wind. As my stepson Sean had exclaimed one day when he was eight years old while looking out the window: “Look at the wind outside. Man!” It was plain to him, as it had always been so to me, that wind is visible. And yet when I entered the scientific circles of perception psychologists, I discovered that this was almost universally denied (except by gibsonians). Why? Because the prevailing dogma was that anything which is visible must have color and shape; wind having neither, its existence cannot be seen but must be inferred from other things seen which do have color and shape, such as bending branches and flying hats.

Well, why let obvious facts get in the way of a good theory, eh? Ridiculous! Thus, I was developing my first skepticism of the ‘experts’ (like a good Socratic) ... and of scientific psychologists in particular (as the psychologist Carol Gilligan was doing from her exposure to their equally ludicrous male biases). But what came as an even more startling revelation was finding that laypersons had also adopted the scientific viewpoint. There is nary an adult of my acquaintance who retains the vision of an eight year old ... and I’m not talking about physiology! This is a case of the emperor’s new clothes: “You cannot see the wind, my child. Grow up!” But it is adults who deny their own senses. Just as it is adults who tell children fairy tales and expect them to believe them, even when they become adults themselves, as I continually discover to my amazement. (I spend much of my life being amazed, as you can see – sometimes pleasantly, as by visual phenomena; other times unpleasantly, as by human stupidities.)

But I spoke of two poles: another kind of visual experience presents us with clearly illusory phenomena, such as the bent stick in water (that isn’t really bent). These too are commonplaces, but, despite sometimes giving delight (as when you shake a lead pencil in just the right way to make it appear rubbery), their philosophical ‘lesson’ is usually completely overlooked. My favorite of this type is a wire cube that I keep in my office (I am looking at it right now), which is an absolute chunk of the Twilight Zone – a true crack in the cosmic egg, to use Joseph Chilton Pearce’s evocative phrase – the looking glass I can walk through any time I please (and not just when I happen to dream of doing so). What this cube does, you see, is rotate ... except, it’s not really rotating. Instead, the turning of my head as I gaze at it in a certain way (namely, by Gestalt-shifting it like a Necker cube) is translated into the cube (analogous to the way the earth’s rotation is translated to the starry sky).

Please, do visit me some time and I shall show you, because it is boggling. But what does it all mean? What fascinates me is that this rotating cube – which is not ‘there’ – is sitting on a cabinet, which decidedly is ‘there.’ But then ... doesn’t that mean that the cabinet isn’t ‘there’ either? But then ... is all that I (or we) see just a kind of waking dream?

I think the answer is ‘Yes.’ Even though I also know that my ‘reasoning’ above is quite ‘loose’ ... that the very way I have phrased my account begs all the questions ... and that I have probably contradicted my own more ‘mature’ musings about materialism in this column (Issue 44). But I must stop: I am at the end of the page. Just don’t stop being an eight year old!


Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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