The trouble with microscopes

Three biology professors walk into a bar. The first says, "What a great day! My class was arguing about the nature of penicillin, so I put a slide under the microscope and answered everyone's questions." The second one says, "I had a great day, too! I was struggling to read some fine print in the latest human genome study, so I slid it under the microscope and voila!" The third soberly orders a drink. "What's wrong?" ask the first two. "I had a terrible day. My daughter brought home a Bible and asked me to help her understand the nature of God. But something must be wrong with that book, because I slid it under the microscope and none of it made any sense!"

It occurs to me that a great deal of misunderstanding happens before any thinking even begins. People will charge into analytic thought and dialectic without pausing to ask themselves where they currently stand, or how they are mediating their understanding the world. They see a viable line of argumentation flowing directly from their a priori understanding and find obvious answers to a wide range of questions. But if those ideas are shared with others, especially those from different circumstances, they are often surprised to find that others don't even agree on their simple premises, not to mention the conclusions. How is that possible?

There are many possible explanations, but the root cause is not often a problem with the argumentation--it's with the starting point. Few people ask themselves, "How did I arrive at this understanding of the question and this particular arrangement of facts?" The idea that the real world is available at our fingertips and self-evident to interpret is attractive, but it is a recipe for disastrous misunderstanding. Rather, we should be open to the idea that the set of all possible facts is infinitely large and terribly complex, such that the combination of an individual's perspective and the lens through which they are selectively perceiving those facts will lead to very different a priori assumptions about the world and what matters.

Concert through a phone camera

In 2010 I was lucky enough to attend one of LCD Soundsystem's "last shows." They have since made a comeback, but it was a special moment to see a cherished band bidding the world adieu in their prime. As James Murphy took the stage, thousands of phone cameras shot up out of the crowd and started recording. The first thing they captured was his appeal to "put the phone down and maybe just be here."

We can interpret Murphy's message as a simple plea to, "live in the moment," and that's not wrong. But there is a deeper idea: an experience is available to those who attend to a transcendent artistic expression and connect with it as directly as possible--something essentially uncapturable, except in the faint, fleeting and poetic way that our memory is occasionally able to imprint on moments of transcendence before they slip out of reach, leaving us with a sensation not unlike remembering a dream. Such an experience is completely nullified by a phone camera, which you can prove to yourself by watching a recording of a concert (no matter how high quality the recording is) and realizing that the experience is nothing like that of the real, live concert. The idea, "I should capture this experience," actually mediates the experience, fundamentally changing what happens. In some profound sense you're no longer at the show; you're on the couch, watching someone else at a concert, even though you're physically in the middle of the crowd.

This metaphor of "living life through a phone camera" touches on the ideas of over-representation and under-presentation. That is, as Heidegger might have said, we should be more aware of the possibility of presencing—of being in the world in a way that exposes us to the unconcealed flow of experience itself. When we think in a way that reduces us to an inauthentic representation of our lives we are holding a metaphorical phone in our minds between the unmediated world and our authentic selves.

Tribal binoculars

I suspect some readers will have had the experience of trying to use a pair of binoculars fit for a wider pair of eyes. The result is a field of view composed of two separate circles and no peripheral vision whatsoever. It seems to me that this is a reasonable metaphor for our contemporary political discourse: two discrete fields of view, each with a perfectly reasonable set of facts pertaining to the real world, but none of which overlap, thus contributing to two essentially different but equally valid representations of reality.

Here's the important realization: in some sense, it feels the same to look through a telescope and to look through binoculars with one eye closed. That is, what many people think is a telescope (e.g. their partisan political beliefs) is, in fact, just one side of a pair of binoculars. Unfortunately, swapping your closed eye for your open eye doesn't reveal the true world either. The trick is to open both eyes, then focus the binoculars—or, better yet, to put down the political binoculars when they aren't helping.

Postmodern virtual reality headset

Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein recently released a podcast in which they discussed the internet and the postmodern relationship to the truth it has fostered. Weinstein frames this as a new virtual world competing with the real world for primacy. This, too, can be understood as a lens-consciousness problem: the virtual reality headset. In fact, Peterson makes a connection to a "virtual lens" in response to Weinstein's prompt:

I had a fantasy a while ago that people would start wearing glasses, like the Google glasses, that would be illegal to take off. And that you'd be mandated to see what people wanted you to see.

This is a more authoritarian vision than is necessary to make the point that the metaphorical VR headset of internet primacy prevents many members of certain groups within society from seeing the same world as those in other groups. Thus, it distorts—or entirely supersedes—reality in ways that we're starting to see in the rise of certain strains of postmodern thought that clash fundamentally with reality; e.g. the rejection of biological sex within the postmodern transgenderism; the rejection of basic mathematics within postmodern critical theory; the rejection of evidence that racism is far less common in contemporary life than postmodern critical race theory argues; etc.

Weinstein concludes:

I'm wondering if we're not in effect in a civil war between those for whom the real world has primacy and those for whom the online world has primacy... But when the power goes out, we are all reduced to our biological selves.

Perhaps we agree that there are many examples of widespread and culturally-reinforced applications of unhelpful lenses. (There's got to be a good example involving a phoropter, right?) But that doesn't answer the question: which lens should one use for any given situation?

The short answer is that it's not always obvious. To some extent, this is why we have traditions and institutions like family, religion, and higher education: to pass down through the generations the wisdom of how to bring the meaning of the world into focus. But the world is in constant flux, so the process of discovering novel ways to bring difficult ideas into focus is necessarily also in flux. So I will lean on Shelby Steele, writing in The Content of Our Character:

What one is after is the right fit of idea to reality. And reality must always have priority, accepting only those ideas that truly illuminate it.

After all, a conceptual lens is just an idea that mediates other ideas. So, borrowing from Mr. Steele, we might say that what one is after is the right fit of lens to meaning. Meaning must always have priority, accepting only those lenses that truly bring what matters into focus.

This still leaves the question of determining what matters, which we'll have to leave for another post.