Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Do Tilted Coins Look Elliptical? (Part Two)

Does a tilted coin, in some sense, "look elliptical"? Do farther-away streetlights in some sense look smaller than nearer ones? Monday, I raised some geometrical concerns for the apparently commonsensical view that they do.

Now perhaps it's just introspectively obvious and undeniable that tilted coins look elliptical, geometrical cavils aside? I've put a coin on my desk and I'm staring at it now. Does it look elliptical, in some sense -- in any sense? I confess uncertainty.

It's strange, though, in a way, to feel uncertain about such a thing. What, after all, is nearer to us than our own experience? Don't I have an immediate, privileged access to it? -- an access of the sort that many philosophers, at least since Descartes, have thought infallible or indubitable or incorrigible or at least overwhelmingly accurate? How could I go wrong about how things seem to me visually? And if I can't go wrong, then what is there to be uncertain of?

(Readers who know my work will know that much of what I've written recently is dedicated to undermining optimistic views about how well we know our own conscious experience. See especially here.)

Maybe part of what leads us to think the coin looks elliptical is that if I were to take a photograph of the scene from my perspective, or draw a painting of it, the image of the coin in that photograph or painting would be an ellipse. But we shouldn't infer straightaway from the ellipticality of the coin in a potential picture to its ellipticality in my experience. Perhaps, indeed, we only think the coin looks elliptical because we implicitly over-analogize our visual experience to pictures.

We over-analogize our experience to outward media and technology quite commonly I think. Alva Noe has argued, for example, that we often over-analogize vision to photography in taking our visual experience to have photographically rich detail deep into the periphery. I have argued that we over-analogize dreams to movies -- so much so that in the 1950s most Americans said they dreamed in black and white. Similarly, might we, in analogizing visual experience to snapshots and movies, go so far as mistakenly to attribute features of those outward technologies back into our experience?

It's interesting to note in this connection that in ancient Greece, where vision was commonly analogized to impressing a seal in wax and hardly ever analogized to painting, philosophers generally did not say that tilted coins look elliptical, that farther columns look smaller, etc. Epicurus went so far to assert positively that visual experiences have the same three-dimensional shape as the objects they are experiences of.

Of course we can tell by looking that a coin viewed obliquely would project as an ellipse upon an intervening plane -- but we can also tell by looking that it would project as a concave ellipsoid upon the surface of a sphere and that it would make a certain type of impression on wax from its current orientation. Could it only be because we implicitly think of vision as like photography that we're inclined to think of the first of these, rather than the other two, as the more adequate characterization of the experience of visual perspective?

(For fuller reflections on this topic see my essay "Do Things Look Flat?")

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