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the
empirical
eye

Here's a thought experiment for you. Don't try this at home, please. Just try to see this in your head: take an animal, say, a cat. Bind him down so that he can't move. Take a surgeon's scapel and plunge it into the animal's flesh. Carve the animal open and see what's inside. Sound gruesome. Of course. Especially if the animal is alive and howling from the pain. Chances are it wouldn't take long for you figure out that the poor creature is hurt by your incision, and yet it might surprise you to learn that one of the Western world's most celebrated thinkers convinced himself, and a generation of other life scientists, that animals were without "mind" and therefore incapable of feeling pain. The result was centuries of dissecting animals while they were still alive. Any evidence that animals did in fact feel pain, such as screaming while being cut open, was ignored en lieu of the already established conclusion. The great thinker who contrived this premise was none other than René Descartes. He's most known for saying "I think, therefore I am." He may as well have said "Eye think, therefore eye am." Like Descartes, the eyes see what they are looking for and will ignore any evidence to the contrary. We expect this subjectivity with ordinary people but strangely forget that is also applies to the "objective" eye of science.

Everything in Western society demands empirical evidence if it is to be considered, let alone accepted. This, of course, began with the Greeks whom, we are all taught, were rigorous and unrelenting in their logical scrutiny of nature. To this day we continue to carry the baton handed forward by the Greeks, applying the scientific method to everything under the sun. Social science, at one time was experiential but now demands empirical data. Psychology, in order to be respected as a "hard science", has had to upgrade to NeuroPsychology. The stuff of thought is now thought to be actual "stuff" that can be observed in a lab. Images that show active areas of the brain are translated loosely into what a person is thinking.

Not that any of these methods of seeing are wrong; but we are so convinced that they are right that alternative ways of seeing the world are scarcely considered. Indeed, "alternative worldviews" are never considered as such but rather dismissed as such. That is to say, if these alternative views are at odds with the scientific worldview then they must be, by default, erroneous.

The Western world has spent centuries arguing down the oh-so human habit of believing in something unseen. "Spirit" and "Soul" are naive terms among the educated. The belief in either is equated with the superstitious beliefs of our primitive ancestors. To hold to these beliefs is to be somehow delusional and anachronistic. So instinctive is this habit that we've resorted to throwing sticks and stones at these ghosts, demanding that they go away.

Unlike many Eastern cultures, the Western world assigns an undisputed primacy to the material world. We are empiricists who will settle for nothing less than material evidence. We are convinced that science, our main ambassador with the physical world, is the only reasonable and reliable way of describing, understanding and seeing the reality that embodies us. We are dispatched to find material evidence that supports this view and that is exactly what is found - material evidence. The question is this: is the absence of immaterial evidence really because it isn't there or is it because we haven't been taught to see it? Or perhaps taught to not see it. To put it another way, perhaps what we see has been predetermined.

The "Mona Lisa" is a good example. People with no art history background are usually miffed by the myth that surrounds this painting. The answer that is usually given is that these people have not been taught "how to see" the painting. They don't know what they are looking at; but this answer begs the question: is such an initiation a form of enlightenment...

...or indoctrination?

Today, people are divided on the stochastic or sacred origins of our universe. People who insist that the intricacies of the universe, the earth and the body are by design can summon ample evidence to support their argument. Evolutionists too can give as good as they get as they refer to all the evidence left behind by billions of years and probability. So where is all this disparate evidence coming from? We could say that it's all in their heads, but that might imply that these theorists are falling prey to imagination. Instead of in their heads, perhaps the evidence is all in their eyes. Seeing is believing, yes. But, also, believing is seeing.

Let us consider this point hypothetically. Robots may someday be in the same position as humans. They may refer to self-assembling technology as evidence against intelligent design. They will arrive at the reasonable conclusion that their existence was a natural inevitability. Other Robots will refer to the unlikely cohesive intricacy of their designs as proof to the contrary. Whatever proof either argument demands can be supported by plenty of evidence; plenty of data; plenty of logic.

Data is raw and objective, yes; but is also malleable. It can be victimized by intellectual agendas. Like a work of art in the eyes of an art student, or a literary work in the eyes of a critic; we are as much participants as we are observers in the process of finding, producing and interpreting scientific evidence. Science, by its own nature, is perpetually tentative as it waits patiently for upgrades and downgrades to existing theories once deemed incontrovertible.

As mentioned before, logic began with those Greek philosophers who converted axioms into units of logic. For instance, Aristotle's syllogism would state that "All women are mortal; Cleopatra is a woman; therefore, Cleopatra is mortal." Aristotle's approach was a process to prove or disprove an obvious truth or falsity. However, philosophers soon learned that, with logic, any assertion that has been proved or disproved can just as quickly be reverse rationalized, resulting in intellectual paralysis.

So why is logic and data still trusted as being "empirical", when their dichotomous nature make them vulnerable to subjective perception? Maybe because that is how we've been taught to see these two instruments. They serve the appearance of objectivity.

An example of empiricism gone awry took place during the 1950s, 60s and 70s when psychologists, psychoanalysts, and doctors came to the conclusion that Autism was a result of the absence of parental involvement and maternal warmth. Each proponent of the theory provided their own specious evidence until it became a medical fact and a medical condemnation of "Refrigerator Moms" (cold mothers who engendered aloof children). Remember, these were men of science. Today we know this is false.

Yes, believing is seeing is believing... is seeing. Training the eye to see is pretty much equivalent to training the mind to think. Is this a bad thing? Well, yes, if we allow ourselves to forget that there are many other ways of looking at our world other than those empirical ways taught to us. Remove the empirical lens and we may realize that not all things in life require proof. Indeed many elements of life and our universe adamantly resist it.