On Taking Another Look
Nicholas Humphrey

How often have I said to you," Sherlock Holmes observed to Dr. Watson, "that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" And how often do we need to be reminded that this is a maxim that is quite generally ignored by human beings?

Now you see it now you don't

Here is an immediate test to prove the point. Figure 1 shows a photograph of a strange object, created some years ago in the laboratory of Professor Richard Gregory. What do you see this as being a picture of? What explanation does your mind construct for the data arriving at your eyes?
You see it, presumably, as a picture of the so-called impossible triangle: that is, as a picture of a solid triangular object whose parts work perfectly in isolation from one another but whose whole refuses to add up-an object that could not possibly exist in ordinary three-dimensional space.

Yet the fact is that the object in the picture does exist in ordinary space. The picture is based on an unretouched photograph of a real object, taken from life, with no kind of optical trickery involved. Indeed, if you were to have been positioned where the camera was at the moment the shutter clicked, you would have seen the real object exactly as you are seeing it on the page.
What, then, should be your attitude to this apparent paradox? Should you perhaps (with an open mind, trusting your personal experience) believe what you unquestionably see, accept that what you always thought could not exist actually does exist, and abandon your long-standing assumptions about the structure of the "normal" world? Or, taking heed of Holmes's dictum, would you do better instead to make a principled stand against impossibility and go in search of the improbable?

The answer, of course, is that you should do the second. For the fact is that Gregory, far from creating some kind of "paranormal" object that defies the rules of 3-d space, has merely created a perfectly normal object that defies the rules of human expectation. The true shape of Gregory's "improbable triangle" is revealed from another camera position in Figure 2. It is, as it turns out, a most unusual object (there may be only a couple of such objects in existence in the universe). And it has been photographed for Figure 1 from a most unusual point of view (to get this first picture, the camera has had to be placed at the one-and-only position from which the object looks like this). But there it is. And now that you have seen the true solution, presumably you will no longer be taken in.

If only it were so! You look at Figure 2. And now you look back at Figure 1. What do you see this time around? Almost certainly, you still see exactly what you saw before: the impossibility rather than the improbability! Even when prompted in the right direction, you happily, almost casually, continue to "make sense" of the data in a nonsensical way. Your mind, it seems, cannot help choosing the attractively simple-even if mad- interpretation over the unattractively complicated-even if sane-one.
Logic and common sense are being made to play second fiddle to a perceptual ideal of wholeness and completion.

There are many examples in the wider world of human politics and culture where something similar happens, that is to say, where common sense gets overridden by some kind of seductively simple explanatory principle- ethical, political, religious, or even scientific. For, if there is one thing that human beings are amazingly prone to (perhaps we might say good at), it is in emulating the camera operator who took the photograph of Figure 1 and manoeuvring themselves into just the one ideological position from which an impossible, even absurd explanation of the "facts of life" happens to look attractively simple and robust.

This special position may be called, for example, Christianity, or Marxism, or Nationalism, or Psychoanalysis- maybe even some forms of science, or scientism. It may be an ideological position that appeals only to some of the human population some of the time or one that appeals to all of the population all of the time. But, whichever it is, to those people who, in relation to a particular problem, are currently emplaced in this position, this will almost certainly seem to be the only reasonable place there is to be. "Here I stand," in the words of Martin Luther, "I can do no other"; and the absolute rightness of the stance will seem to be confirmed by the very fact that it permits the welcome solution to the problem that it does.

Yet the telltale sign of what is happening will always be that the solution works only from this one position-and that if the observer were able to shift perspective, even slightly, the gaps in the explanation would appear. Of course, the trick-for those who want to keep faith and save appearances-is not to shift position, or to pull rapidly back if ever so tempted. The lesson is that when would-be gurus offer us final answers to any of life's puzzles, a way of looking at things that brings everything together, the last word on "How Things Are"-we should be watchful. By all means, let us say: "Thank you, it makes a pretty picture." But we should always be prepared to take another look.

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY is a theoretical psychologist who has held research and teaching posts at both Oxford and Cambridge, as well as fellowships in the United States and in Germany. His books include Consciousness Regained and The Inner Eye, as well as A History of the Mind. His interests are wide ranging: He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda; made important discoveries about the brain mechanisms underlying vision; proposed the now- celebrated theory of the "social function of human intellect"; and is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. He has been the recipient of several honours, including the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Prize in 1985.

Further Reading

Book Cover

How Things Are: A Science Toolkit for the Mind
Edited by John Brockman and Katinka Matson





Chaos Quantum Logic Cosmos Conscious Belief Elect. Art Chem. Maths

 How Things Are : Part4 File Info: Created 3/10/2000 Updated 15/6/2010 Page Address: http://members.fortunecity.com/templarser/takelook.html