While recently preparing for a talk in my professional life, I came across the following video. Titled, “Seeing the world as it isn’t,” the speaker shows us a familiar optical illusion. We see a sidewalk painting that looks like a swimming pool with a woman in it, all in 3D. It appears that we could jump right in the water. We have all seen versions of this; one might look like the sidewalk opens to a depth of a two or three story building, while another might look like a staircase going down to the subway. We almost are afraid that we might fall in the deep hole, it looks so real.
Peering more closely, we chuckle in amazement to see that it is nothing more than a sidewalk with drawings and paintings carefully laid out to create an “illusion.” The speaker makes the fairly obvious deduction that we cannot always believe what we see. He goes even further and draws the conclusion that actually nothing we think we see is real; what we see is only our perceived reality. The material world might be real of itself (I assume the speaker would agree that it still hurts when we fall, even if we do not perceive that step we missed), but our understanding of that material world, our conclusions about that world, cannot be trusted as universally applicable or objectively true. The obvious moral of the story is that we should never insist that our view is the “correct” one. We cannot know objective truth, much less proclaim it dogmatically.
It’s a catchy and fun experience; however, is his underlying thesis “truly true” that this proves we cannot know universally accepted, objective truth? Extrapolating further, can we ever be sure of anything, including our religious dogmas? When we analyze the painting on the sidewalk, we see that in fact it is not what it seems. Our perceived reality here is misleading, just as the speaker demonstrates. Clearly this is a challenge to the religiously minded, particularly to Catholics who hold to absolute Truths.
Sure, sometimes we see things that are illusory, but is everything we see illusory? I contend that there is a much more revealing point demonstrated here. It is about the philosophical duel between Aristotle and Plato that divides, literally, everyone in the entire world and determines how we view our world, our beliefs, and our very nature as human beings. It is about how we philosophically seek and come to know truth, more than about truth itself, and this more important point leads to the opposite conclusion that all is not an illusion and that we can know universally binding, objective truth.
I have explained the contents of the video above; however, if you would like to watch, it is only a little over seven minutes long.
My first reaction while watching this was, “How Aristotelian!” Apparently, there is no truth; there are no “real universals” or objectively true Forms above and beyond us toward which we strive to attain perfection in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as Aristotle’s mentor Plato asserted (thus, the reason we refer to Plato’s philosophy as “ultra-realism” – Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are real objective Forms above and outside of us and are that toward which we strive in our imperfect world – later Christian NeoPlatonists such as Augustine would interpret these Forms as existing in the Mind of God). No, in Aristotle’s world, we must start with what we can know (we investigate and scrutinize the data) and syllogistically deduce from that an answer to that which we did not know (that the image we see is not really a pool). By deconstructing the image into its constituent material components and investigating the data, we have determined the true nature of the thing. We know truth only through observation, data, and deductive logic if we have the general picture, or, if not, by constructing a general picture using observation, data, and inductive logic. Our focus is the true nature of the object, its formal, material, efficient, and final cause using empirical data. Truth comes only through observation, data, and empirical testing.
It would appear here that this indeed is the correct approach and conclusion. The speaker shows us that the materials were painted as a garish, distorted image on the sidewalk. That is the physical, material data. However, when viewed from exactly the right point, this material looks like a perfect three dimensional swimming pool with a woman in it, and the painter appears to be dipping his toe in the water. However, to dive into this pool would be a big mistake. The evidence leading to the understanding of its true nature proves it.
This seems to be locked down in scientific fact. We cannot possibly refute such a demonstration. We thought we saw a real pool, but Aristotelian scientific inquiry worked deductively backward to show us what it truly is – just a distorted painting on a sidewalk. We have discovered the true nature of the image, including Aristotle’s four causes as to why it exists: the paint is the material cause, the painter is the efficient cause, the idea of a swimming pool is the formal cause, and the entertaining result is the final cause, it’s purpose. Enough said. We must be careful about drawing conclusions about what is true without empirical investigation into the four causes. So, we cannot refute the demonstration, but can we we refute the philosophical conclusions the speaker derives from it? Can we question how he seeks and comes to know from this data that everything we perceive is subjective?
Perhaps so, Plato and the NeoPlatonist Ultra-Realists of the world might say. We certainly agree that this is not a “real” pool. Don’t look for us to dive in. We agree on the truth deduced from the data about this particular painting. However, we do not agree that this means we cannot know objective, universal truth in the abstract that would apply to all of humanity. Using the very same facts and not denying one single of those facts about how the painting was made, we might look at this differently.
Sure, there is a garish, distorted painting on the sidewalk. However, is it not true that the painter carefully, thoughtfully, designed the painting using geometric proportion to create a three dimensional image of a Form that we all uniformly recognize (the swimming pool with the woman inside)? Is it not true that all of us see a three dimensional swimming pool which is the more perfect Form of the garish painting? Of course we do; otherwise, why would the speaker even bother with this exercise? It is precisely because the painter used objectively exact geometric, mathematical proportion that he was able to manifest from the distorted matter the more perfect universally recognized three dimensional image of a higher Form.
In fact, the Platonist might walk around and observe other such illusions on the sidewalk, for example, the two story building or the staircase to the subway. He would realize that the very same laws of proportion apply to each of the images. The images themselves might be different, but the geometric and mathematical laws governing the illusion technique are universally the same. There is something objectively true that unifies all the images, no matter their different particular stories. He then might go to his study, pull out his ruler and calculator, and begin scratching out the geometry. Soon, he would realize that when the lines go away, he is left with pure mathematics, with numbers that alone universally explain in the abstract this phenomenon across all such images.
There is Truth, one universal, perfect Truth objectively governing the world of these images. Contrary to the Aristotelian, he would realize that he does not need to observe these illusionary paintings to know they exist and to know their true nature. He knows they exist and knows their true nature because of the universal mathematical laws governing the universe he has discovered. If he can calculate it, it must exist, even if he does not see it. The image of the particular painting becomes a distant memory. Our Platonist is now in the world of pure abstract universal truth. He is now with the objectively real, universal Forms!
This is exactly the opposite approach to seeking truth and understanding the world from that of the Aristotelian who must first understand what he sees (analyzing the data) in order to believe what is true (that this image is a mere optical illusion). The Platonist first believes as true what he cannot see (a world ordered by the universal laws of mathematics and geometric proportion) in order to understand how and why he sees what he does (by virtue of the laws of mathematics and geometric proportion, we know with certainty that there must be paintings that create illusions).
Two different philosophical perspectives, both of which rely on the same scientific data, but both of which lead to different conclusions about how to seek and come to know truth.
We do not live in a world divided by Faith and Reason, or Faith and Science. We live in a world divided by Plato and Aristotle. We observe the same facts but come to very different conclusions about how to seek and determine what is truth from those facts due to our very different philosophical orientations.
For Catholics, Plato’s ultra-realism transforms into a holy realism where God’s Truth is the universal, objectively true Form. As NeoPlatonists, we Catholics know that when Jesus says that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, He is not asking us to throw our Reason out the window. He is saying that He will lead us to true Reason if we first have Faith in Him, if “we believe that we might understand” (Anselm and Augustine). He will elevate us to supernatural Truth through our very Platonic nature, and show us how the material world is aligned to reflect His glory and how we should use Him as our true universal Form to guide us in Truth to Him who is Truth.
To the Aristotelian, God first must prove Himself before he can believe. When he looks at the data and sees distortion and apparent incongruity with the Faith, he must believe what he sees and question the Faith. The Platonist will first believe the faith and question what he sees in light of that faith. He knows that the distortions and apparent incongruities in the visible world simply are lower, imperfect representations of the perfect Form of He it is to whom all creation points.
When we first believe in truth, we have the correct starting point for understanding what is true. When we first believe, we are able to come to true Reason. Our problem is philosophy, not religion.