The Magic Eye: Knowing about Knowing

My blogging has slowed down this month because I just started teaching a new class, which has been very time-intensive.  The class is called “Theory of Knowledge”; it is the centerpiece of the curriculum for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (for high school).  It is an extraordinary course that aims to teach students to reflect critically on how we come to know and to think about thinking itself.  I absolutely love teaching this course and I feel very privileged to have a job where I get to engage bright teenagers in deep discussions about how we know what is true.  Since the questions raised in this course have been occupying my mind of late, I thought it would be worthwhile to share about a recent lesson I prepared.

You might remember the Magic Eye pictures that were enormously popular in the 90s.  Walking through a shopping mall you notice a small crowd of people gathered around a strange picture oohing and awwing, exclaiming “Oh, wow – I see it!”  The picture appears to be a chaotic mixture of various colors so you wonder what the big deal is.  You inquire and someone tells you that there is a hidden image of dolphins swimming in a coral reef, and proceeds to instruct you on how to open up this mystery.  Compelled by the promise of an extraordinary perceptual experience, you dutifully follow the instructions, feel frustrated momentarily that you can’t see what everyone else claims to be seeing, but resolve to persevere until you too are exclaiming “Oh, I see it now!”

Philosophy professor and author Esther Meek, in her wonderful book Longing to Know, uses the Magic Eye experience to develop a model for the knowing process that applies broadly to all acts of knowing.  She explains that there are three key factors to the knowing process:

1.  The focus – A meaningful, coherent pattern that is the goal or object of our knowing.  The hidden image is the focus of the Magic Eye puzzle.

2. Subsidiaries – These are ‘clues’ that we rely on to uncover the focus.  She calls them ‘subsidiaries’ because they themselves are not the goal of knowing but serve the focus.  She describes three kinds of clues:

  – Surface details:  These are bits of information or data that we immediately encounter when seeking knowledge and typically come to our minds through the senses:  colors, sounds, smells, words, and so on.  These include the colors, shapes, and arrangement of the picture; the details we initially see.

– Body clues:  These are the way our body feels when we are engaged in acts of knowing.  These are bodily experiences that help us discern whether we are doing something correctly or not. These include how the eyes and head feels when the image is coming into focus.

– Directions:  An authoritative guide that directs us to the focus.  We have to trust in the directions in order to follow them and achieve the focus.  Someone has to teach us how to see the human image.

We have to integrate the clues into the focus and in doing so the clues are transformed in light of the focus.

3.  Active and skilled human effort – Obviously attaining knowledge requires work on our part:  we do not passively receive it, but must actively work at it.  Doing so requires a degree of skill, and involves patience and persistence.

My student and I have found this simple model quite useful in understanding the normal processes of coming to know.  I had them choose a skill that they have mastered and apply this model to acquiring this “how to” knowledge.  Try it yourself!  How do you see each of these features involved in your coming to master this skill?

One implication of this understanding of knowing is that knowledge is more than having information or knowing where to find it.  Information is mere surface details, lacking a meaningful pattern by itself.  It is only when we can integrate information into a coherent pattern that we have knowledge.  For instance, I learned to play the guitar mostly through the use of tablature – which is a system of recording guitar music using numbers to correspond to fingering positions.  I eschewed the more difficult path of learning music theory and applying it to the guitar.  Tablature merely gives information about where my fingers should go; it does not convey patterns of musical arrangement that true musicians rely on to compose.  Consequently, I am limited in my guitar playing to just copying what other guitarists do and have little ability to compose for myself because I only learned the clues instead of using clues to see patterns.

Another implication is that we should be concerned for our children when they are merely memorizing and regurgitating information in school.  If they are just absorbing surface details and not learning to recognize meaningful patterns, then they are not really acquiring knowledge in school.

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