Free Essay on Philosophy:
“We see and understand things not as they are, but as we are”
After long controversial discussions, philosophers have agreed that there are at least two kinds of knowledge – objective and subjective. Objective knowledge means that a fact remains true no matter what people think or feel about it. Objective knowledge is usually discovered and not created.
Subjective knowledge is true only under certain circumstances, at a particular time and place and for particular people. For example, global warning might still exist (objective knowledge) no matter whether we know about it or not (subjective knowledge). As it turns out, most of the knowledge we have is subjective and is created by us. (Polanyi, 2005, p.2-10)
The optical illusion on a picture below easily demonstrates the difference between objective and subjective knowledge. Most of us looking at these lines would assume that the line on the left is longer that the line on the right (our subjective knowledge), however, the lines are equal. I did a little experiment and asked several friends about the length of the lines. Even though everyone no doubt saw exactly the same picture, the answers I got were different depending on whether my friends already saw this optical illusion before. Those who saw the picture earlier told me that the lines were identical and those who saw the picture for the first time were sure that the line on the right is shorter. The former answer was based on reason – someone somewhere has obviously measured the lines with a ruler; the later answer was based purely on our visual sense. This simple example shows how irrational our subjective knowledge can be sometimes and our senses and intuition can easily deceive us.
Human beings are more complex and irrational than we might imagine. Even though one might think that we are biologically the same and see exactly the same things, even what we see, as the example above shows, may differ based on our previous experiences. Moreover, throughout our life we accumulate knowledge about various things, places, people and events. We know much more than we have even seen and tried. We know that Rome is beautiful and Prague is romantic, even though we might have never been there. Most of our knowledge comes not from direct experience, but rather from what we were told or have read. The way we see things is shaped by our education, background and previous experiences. Whether we see Prague as a romantic city depends on where we grew up and what we have read and which other romantic cities we have seen before. We will see the city in completely different light depending on whether we come there from Paris or from Huntersville, North Carolina.
Our visual senses are well developed and most people in the world see things in exactly the same way, however, interpretation of what we see that is what differs very often. Intercultural studies often stress importance of body language and knowing what different body gestures mean when visiting a foreign country. For example, an American would normally perceive a nod of head as a “yes,” while a person from Bulgaria will see it as a negative answer. Only a person aware of cultural differences and speaker’s background will understand proper meaning.
Even the way we see things is predetermined by our previous experiences. What we see as beautiful or sexy has changes throughout times and societies. What was considered a beautiful face in the Middle Ages might cause only a laugh today. The way we see things is predetermined by what is surrounding us.
Leave alone the body language, sometimes the meaning we put in our words may differ from person to person. When I come back from vacation and tell my friends that I had great time, what each one of them understands may be very different from reality. For one person having a great vacation may be having no fight with a spouse for a change, another one might immediately imagine romantic getaway or a full of adventures trip in the mountains. Even very simple words can be perceived differently.
People tend to look for evidences that reinforce their perception of the world. We do this in politics, in choosing a spouse, religious beliefs and buying a car. For example, people who believe in UFO will no doubt see it on the picture below. Our brain is so complex that we can persuade ourselves that we see something when we actually don’t. Religious people often see faces of saints on trees and glass windows. Even more simple example, when we look up on a cloud, different people might see the cloud having a different shape depending maybe on what they have been thinking recently.
Before scientists have actually figured out how Saturn and its rings look like, they came up with many possible descriptions of what they see. Galileo, for example wrote that he has “observed that the furthest planet has three bodies.” Only in 1655 Christiaan Huygens solved the mystery and described what we see when looking as Saturn – he finally explained the theory of planetary rings and how the solar system operates. He even wrote a book in which he cataloged all the mistakes that astronomers made trying to explain what they saw when looking at Saturn. As this example shows, even what we see can be loaded with cognitive biases. (Shermer, 2006)
When we are born, we don’t know exactly what is good and what is bad. We learn these things through our interaction with society. Such ethical norms differ from society to another, and while freedom of religion and speech might be seen as a good thing in one country, these freedoms might be perceived as bad in other societies.
Emotions lead us to be subjective rather than objective. Aristotle said, “Man is a rational animal.” It is human nature for a man to think logically and rationally. With a combination of previous knowledge gained, instinct, and reason, man is able to make logical, rational decisions about everyday life, decisions as simple as eating when hunger strikes or as complex as deciding a college major. Yet, human reasoning is not one of man’s strongest traits. Often, logical reasoning is overcome by the concept we named emotion. Able to take over the soul, heart, and mind, emotion can overpower reason and lead man to allow the heart control the mind, making reason a less reliable source as a Way of Knowing. Therefore, even though the evidence may seem “strong,” in such case its strength is false.
William Shakespeare wrote about human kind:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angle!
in apprehension how like a god!
(Act II, scene 2 of Hamlet)
It turns out we are not as good in knowing and apprehending as great Shakespeare once thought. Our perception and knowledge is shaped by our past experiences and previous knowledge. One of Hume’s important conclusions was that we can never know more than we have experienced, and thus are not aware of general truths. As Hume said, almost nothing can be known. (Deleuze, 1991, pp.6-7)
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