Observations on Observation

Posted on October 19, 2007. Filed under: Philosophy, Science, Spirituality |

I got into a mini discussion over on Anthony‘s blog the other day, during which the question “What is observation?” came up. I really wanted to know the answer, as science appears to base many of its theories upon observation. I would love to wholeheartedly embrace science because it is just so much fun, but my beliefs often counter its premises.

“Empirical Evidence”; “The Scientific Method“; and “Double-Blind Studies”; are all terms used by scientists to form theories. An experiment must be verifiable and reproducible if we are to trust its results.

I see “Science” and all its sub-specialties as one of the games we can play–should we choose to do so–during our time on earth. The supposed “conflicts” between scientific and spiritual theory are best left to another discussion, but what the “Scientific Methodists” believe (for the most part) about reality is that the rules made up and/or agreed to in the game translate to ultimate reality.

There is as much belief and faith involved in the practice of science as there is in the practice of religion. Again, another discussion, but I often ask myself to conceptualize a universe or reality that is “beyond the game”. Where the “rules” don’t apply. The place where we make up, or at least read, the rules before we begin the game.

A few closing words about observation. I link to a short video here. There are literally hundreds of “optical illusion” videos “out there on the web”–an ethereal concept indeed–but this one caught my interest regarding observation. I watched it about seven times, and could not talk myself into seeing the inside of the mask as concave rather than convex. So, what does that say about my “power” of observation? Granted, I’m only able to use one of my senses here. If I were in the same room with the mask, and allowed to touch it, “obviously” it would become “just a mask”.

But the striking thing in this film, for me, is that the narrator does insist we “know better” than that there is a fully formed face on the underside of the mask. The only way I would “know better” is from having had experience with handling a mask in the past, and assuming what I’m seeing on the video is in fact a similar mask. That, or I could decide that I trust this man implicitly, and he would not lie. Therefore, I am not seeing what I am seeing.

All I can “know”, at this point, is that there is something I trust more than observation to define my reality.

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11 Responses to “Observations on Observation”

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The most important thing to realise about observation is that self-defining instruments, eg human beings, are unreliable in sensing and assimilating knowledge of a phenomenon within their framework of previously acquired knowledge and preconcieved ideas.

If you change your definition of your self, you change your knowledge and ideas, and you change any observations you make.

That’s why we need engineered scientific instruments to get a uniform and measured response to specific stimuli. Machines do not have a mind of their own and so do not vary their observations based on a mindset, that is subject to change.

To put it another way, it’s why 30 people will each see the same mugging in 30 different ways and each time they recall it, their observations will be slightly different. A video camera, on the other hand, will show the same scene exactly as it captured it.

It’s also why scientists almost always disagree with each other about the results of experiments and studies.

Their engineered instruments measure specific stimuli free of distortion (leaving aside the issue of built in distortion due to human error or deliberate intent) because of the uniformity of response. But each scientist then observes the acquired data in a different way as each of them is a self-defining instrument.

And that’s why you can “know” something that an engineer instrument cannot. You have a mind that defines itself and therefore interprets your observations according to your beliefs and knowledge base.

Ultimately, that’s why some people believe in God and others don’t. It’s why some people believe in aliens and alien abduction, while others think it’s rubbish.

For me at least, understanding the nature of observation is fundamental to being more tolerant of others.

When you know that we are all unreliable, that we all shape our observations and hence our understanding of reality to suit our self-defined knowledge base and ideas, then you understand that different people behave in different ways because they observe different things in different ways and that leads to incredible complexity of belief and interaction.

Well, you certainly got me going tonight.

So, it all means that there is almost as many perceptions as realities …If this is the case then there is no absolute truth..We are all holding our own truth according to our believes, perceptions, etc..

Colourful Vision

I just watched the video…I know what u mean now..I really see it convex even if in the best of my knowledge I know that the inside is usually concave…So, is it a real illusion or a man made one…May be the camera does this special effect…

Colourful Vision

As beauty is in the eye of the beholder – all observation seems the same, but in our own specific context. A machine cannot view beauty in its ethereal form, simply through a mechanical device(s) – this is one of the many reasons humans are so scared of robots in human form, mechanical men who look like us – the observation to another machine would be that they are, indeed, human, but we would know the difference.

[…] new post about it. If you haven’t already, I invite you to read Stonehead’s comment here, then come back and we’ll […]

Stonehead, you ended your remarks with the words “Well, you certainly got me going tonight.” I’ll second that! I’d like to thank you for the terrific and detailed comment–it’s a post in itself. I appreciate your putting it on my blog and letting me collect the hits! 😉 Between your comment, and my response, there was enough material indeed to make a whole new post, so, my comment on your comment is here. Cheers!

C V, Wow, two comments on one post! Thanks–it must really have caught your attention. “…If this is the case then there is no absolute truth…” If, indeed. I don’t know if we can know for sure, but it’s certainly suggestive of that. When I watched the video, there didn’t appear to be anything going on but a man turning a mask on a stick. He seemed to indicate that there were no special effects, but we don’t know that for sure, either! I’m tempted to get my own mask to see if I can “try this at home”. Perhaps it needs to be filmed for the illusion to appear?

Ah, Will, your response is most poetic. Yes, observation is in the eye of the beholder. And the machines need us to interpret the data. And we need each other to keep beauty alive. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment.

Observation is in the eye of the beholder, because our brains run virtual reality software that translates stimuli from our senses into an image of the external world.

Contrary to some commenters on this post, I think our cognitive faculties are fairly reliable. They are not infallible and perfect, because evolution selects for a “good enough” approach; being able to perceive your surroundings accurately is invaluable to survival. There are things humans have not (nor needed to) evolved to perceive, like atoms, or x-rays etc.

The “software” running in our brain, like I say, is not infallible, which is why it can be deceived by optical illusions. For that matter, the refraction of light through water can shorten and misplace the REAL position of say, a fish, swimming below. This is a limitation of eyes that are dependent on light to see (which as far as we know is all eyes in the world). I wouldn’t say because of this that we should be skeptical about the reliability of our senses! It is reasonable to accept the truth of our senses most of the time, and that is good enough for every day living, (or at least it has been for evolved mammals such as ourselves).

Now we come to science, which allows us to extend our senses to perceive what we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. What it means in science to observe or empirically test, is to measure or detect by means of experience. By experience, that could be: see, hear, smell, scan etc. The difference with science is that the “experience” or observation, must be UNIFORM, READILY DEMONSTRATABLE, REPEATABLE, and PREDICTIVE.

That is why this statement:

There is as much belief and faith involved in the practice of science as there is in the practice of religion.

…is profoundly untrue, no offence.

Anyone is more than welcome to imagine a world beyond this one, but science studies THIS one. Perhaps this is another universe beyond THIS one, but do we need to imagine any other universe to explain anything?? I don’t think so. Isn’t it the case that whenever man has struggled to explain anything, he posits a supernatural explanation first, and THEN replaces it with the natural one later?

The only way I would “know better” is from having had experience with handling a mask in the past

Yes; experience is often a good guide in forming beliefs and making decisions. What we should be aware of however, is that our experience is filtered by our preconceptions! Which means you may ‘experience’ a ghostly chill in the room, whereas I just realise that the window has been left open.

You know what masks are and what they are like. After seeing the optical illusion above you could withhold judgment, or form a reasonable belief based on your experience and rationale.

All I can “know”, at this point, is that there is something I trust more than observation to define my reality.

If by “observation” one means: what I have personally seen with my own eyes and nothing else, I would agree with you. This is the route of dire skepticism. We are justified in believing in things we haven’t personally experienced (depending on the belief of course).

If however, by “observe” you mean that which has not been demonstrated to exist by uniform human experience, (and especially science), I would disagree with you; as here you seem to leave the realm of reasonable knowledge and appeal to faith.

Hello evanescent, and welcome. The thought and time you put into this comment is much appreciated. I know posts like this one push at parameters, and I welcome the differences they bring out. I’ve picked out some phrases to respond to here which interest or provoke me. (With me, these are often the same thing 🙂 )

“our brains run virtual reality software” I imagine this is metaphor, and a great one. It appeals to me, and that’s how I choose most of my beliefs, based on their appealing qualities. I can accept the software, but I wonder who programs it?

“evolution selects for a “good enough” approach” I have little knowledge of this quality of evolution, but it moves me to ask if evolutionists study why that would be? Why not shoot for excellence, here? What first occurs as a reason is efficiency. I suppose it’s more efficient to select for “good enough” if that moves the species forward, rather that spending endless time and resources on improvement.

“…experience or observation…must be UNIFORM, READILY DEMONSTRATABLE, REPEATABLE, and PREDICTIVE” –when taking the empirical approach, do you mean? Yes, indeed. I just believe there are other ways of studying phenomena. Science has its own set of rules which work well within it. I think where I differ with hard scientists–and again these are only my beliefs–is that for them its rules define ALL reality. I can’t see any way we can know this.

“…is profoundly untrue, no offence.” None taken! In fact, I thank you for pointing this out. I generally don’t like to make statements like this sound as if they were fact. They are, actually, only my opinion. This one slipped through.

“..more than welcome to imagine a world beyond this one, but science studies THIS one.” Yes, of course. I looked back at my post, and what I said was that I enjoy imagining a world beyond the GAME, not beyond this WORLD. If, as I suspect, the WORLD (which we perceive and experience through our virtual reality software) is a part of a larger game, than it’s easy for me to imagine the game being put away after playing. The game is there, sitting on a shelf in some closet, but its rules apply only during gameplay. Now I agree many would find this a ridiculous notion. On the other hand, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

“Isn’t it the case that whenever man has struggled to explain anything, he posits a supernatural explanation first, and THEN replaces it with the natural one later?” That’s a fascinating question, and I honestly don’t know whether that progression has a long and demonstrated history. You’ve certainly given me something to think about here, and I state my intention to look into it!

“…you seem to leave the realm of reasonable knowledge and appeal to faith.” I can see why you might suppose this, here. I also further surmise that this wouldn’t be a good thing in your view? Actually, I mentally run far, far away from faith-based opinion. I don’t think faith justifies anything at all, although it can be a great comfort to some. I rather base my musings upon philosophical inquiry and intuition. What I like about philosophy is that I’m allowed to play with ideas, and I can attempt to justify anything I like that way. I will grant you that this last does leave the realm of reasonable knowledge.

I will often argue with myself, but rarely with others, as I believe (here’s the intuition again) that each of us has our own unique filter through which to view our reality. I wouldn’t dream of trying to deny anyone theirs.

As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, my own purpose for “MusEditions” is totally self-indulgent. I find, in exploring ideas in this way that I learn more about what I think. I’m full of opinions, but I don’t always know why and what they are. I come away from these writings with either deeper convictions, or transformed ones. I’m thrilled when thoughtful writers such as yourself stop by to offer challenges, support, or further inquiry. Thank you so much for your expansive remarks!

Awesome post….Observation is merely the human invented filter defining, assessing, judging what we think is so. We see the world as WE are not as IT is!

to the post from Colourful Vision
October 19th, 2007:
“So, it all means that there is almost as many perceptions as realities …If this is the case then there is no absolute truth..We are all holding our own truth according to our believes, perceptions, etc..”

to Colourful Vision—-

I would say–Absolute Truth (source, God, Spirit, Consciousness–Tuth with a capital T) is all there is! We do hold or own truths and think that is real. It is merely a point-of-view. Absolute Truth is what all manifests from in our seen, heard, and felt world we walk through and experience.

Hello, seeing! Yes, many people see the Absolute in this way. I don’t disagree with that, I guess the word just strikes me as somewhat synonymous with “finite”. I don’t know if there is an ultimate reality, and I don’t know if we can know…my, how agnostic of me 🙂 I love this sentence of yours: “We see the world as WE are not as IT is!”


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