Check Your Lenses

People who wear glasses can typically tell you about the first time they put them on—when they first could distinguish the leaves in the trees or read expressions on the faces across a room, when the world suddenly came into sharper relief through the miracle of light beams bending in friendlier ways.

Some of us can also tell you about the first time we realized we needed a second pair of glasses, one to magnify up-close objects and another to clarify distant ones. Typically, those of us in the latter bucket have reached a certain age. We can no longer take for granted what comes naturally for the younger and the luckier among us: the ability to quickly and automatically change focus.

We are reminded, moment by moment, of two things: first, that we see clearly only with assistance; and second, that the lenses that help us see better for one purpose do nothing to help for another. On the contrary, the same specialized lenses that create clarity at one level tend to worsen distortion at at a different one.

A bit of thought about the tools of scientific searching leads to a similar insight. Microscopes amplify what’s tiny in our world while telescopes see worlds lightyears away. We benefit from each and appreciate both, but we realize that you can’t study the stars through a microscope any more than you can peer into a cell through a telescope. And you shouldn’t look through either if you’re pouring a cup of coffee or trying to connect with your spouse.

Different types of seeing require different lenses, and different types of lenses produce different types of seeing.

Of course, the same basic rule applies to figurative seeing as surely as to the literal sort. Whenever we look into anything, we each start from our own unique perspectives, bring to bear our own experiences and languages for articulating them, and employ whatever conceptual models we happen to already know. We see the world through the lenses that help our brains focus as surely as through the lenses that help our eyes. And we tend not to notice where those lenses may be inadequate, much less where they actually make us blind. We’re like me before I had glasses: unable to see the leaves in the trees, and unable to conceive that anyone else could. And sometimes we’re like those lunatic astronomers I just imagined, trying to pour coffee while peering through telescopes.

In the end, there are different ways to see different aspects of reality clearly, and no single way of looking is the only right one. There is no unlimited perspective, no indisputable language, no completely objective position from which to view the world. There is also no singular scientific method, no complete dataset, no all-encompassing model or final statement of “The Truth.”

None of which is to suggest that there isn’t a stable reality beneath the different ways of looking or that some sorts of lenses aren’t manifestly better for some purposes than others. My glasses enable me to see more of the truth about the leaves on the trees than I can distinguish without them. Einstein saw further than Newton because he stood upon the shoulders of all the previous giants. And the wisest among us are not the people who claim to see without lenses (we all need lenses). Nor are they the ones who switch quickest from one focal point to another. The wisest among us are the ones who know which lenses are best for which types of looking and who recognize where their own blindspots might lie.

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