Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Seeing is Believing"

The first University essay I ever wrote, for open foundation at the University of Newcastle midway through 2006. Enjoy:

‘Seeing is believing’ is a commonly held opinion. This proposition represents “naive realism”, which neglects the active role of individuals in interpreting perceptions (Gal, 2002, p 529). This is akin to naïve psychology where the individual functions without grasping the mechanism behind his/her observations. It will be shown that the statement is proven fallible by a perceptual illusion that demonstrates the individual’s interpretive role in the attainment and processing of sense stimuli. The effects of these contradictions on the claim ‘seeing is believing’ will also be outlined.

The above “duck-rabbit” illusion is used to demonstrate the experience of “noticing an aspect”, the act of interpreting objects as we see them (Wittgenstein, 1953, p 193-4). The illustration can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit, depending upon how an individual focuses upon the image and how his/her “pattern filters” group the stimuli (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Hilgard, 1985, p 190). When focusing one’s eyes on the left, the picture seems to be of a duck, but from the right, a rabbit. This interpretive act affects the claim by making its absolute stance, ‘seeing “is” believing’ untenable, when we are not the passive receivers of sensory data but active participants.

The fallibility of perceptual information has led some perspectives to argue claims about the external world are dubious. Exemplified by Descartes’ demons and “hyperbolic doubt”, according to which if a source is inaccurate once, we should never entirely trust it again (Fearn, 2002, p 76). Therefore this perspective proposes that as our perceptual faculties can lead to a false proposition it would be absurd to believe them (Fearn, 2002, p77). This perspective contradicts the claim ‘seeing is believing’ as an absolute claim that all belief is reduced to external sensory information.

Another perspective on fallibility argues that particular statements about the world are found true or false “not individually but as a corporate body” (Quine, 1980, 41).Therefore a claim is not falsified as a whole by contrary information, but adjusted to incorporate new perceptual data (Quine, 1980, 43). According to this view, the duck-rabbit perceptual illusion, which can draw someone into inaccurate conclusions and beliefs (i.e. it’s a duck) does not invalidate all sensory information as it does for Descartes. This view characterised the claim that ‘seeing is believing’ as “radical reductionism”, Where the relation of seeing and belief is “direct report” (i.e. ‘I see, therefore I believe’). Quine considered this a naive and dogmatic approach to empiricism (Quine, 1980, 38).

The central claim “seeing is believing” is proven a faulty position to hold by the inconsistent results yielded by particular sensory data, as demonstrated by the duck rabbit illusion. Two possible trends which result from the fallibility of sense experience, one represented by Descartes, choose to doubt it as a source for justifiable belief (Fearn, 2002, p77). Quine on the other hand, takes a more ‘rational pragmatic’ view that seeing does not correlate to believing in particular terms but only in totality with all other observations(Quine, 1980, 43-6). In either view the claim “seeing is believing” is flawed by the philosophical naivety of its position.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Atkinson, R. L. Atkinson, R. C. Smith, E.E. Hilgard, E. R. 1985, Psychology, 9th Ed, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, USA.

Fearn, N. 2002, Zeno and the Tortoise, 1st Ed, Atlantic books, London.

Gal, O. 2002, “Constructivism for Philosophers (Be it a Remark on Realism)”, Perspectives on Science, Vol 10, no 4, pp. 523-549.

Quine, W. V. O. 1980, From a logical point of view, 2nd ed, Harvard university press, USA.

Wittgenstein, L. 1953, Philosophical Investigations, Basial Blackwell, Oxford.

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