Sight and light

We normally regard seeing as intimately connected with light. But must seeing involve light? Suppose you could step into a pitch-dark room and have precisely the experiences you would have if it were fully lighted. The room would thus look to you just as it would if fully lighted, and you could find any unobscured object by looking around for it. Would this not show that you can see in the dark? If so, then the presence of light is not essential to seeing.

However, the case does not establish quite this much. For seeing is a causal relation, and for all I have said you are just vividly hallucinating precisely the right things rather than seeing them. But suppose you are not hallucinating and that if someone covered a coin you see with lead or covered your eyes, you would no longer have a visual experience of a coin. In this case, it could be that somehow the coin affects your eyes through a mechanism other than light transmission, yet requiring an unobstructed path between the object seen and your eyes. Now it begins to seem that you are seeing. You are responding visually to stimuli that causally affect your eyes. Yet their doing so does not depend on the presence of light

—Robert Audi

(This post was excerpted, with Audi’s permission, from his Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. It’s an excellent example of how it is possible to make an interesting and even important philosophical point in very few words.)

More “Constancies” in Visual Perception

Mortar and Pestle, oil on canvas mounted on board, M.G. Piety 2020

Philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists interested in the nature of visual perception long ago noticed a phenomenon that has come to be known as “size constancy.” Size constancy, according to the American Psychological Association, refers to the perception of an object “as being the same size despite the fact that the size of its retinal image varies depending on its distance from the observer.” That is, as objects approach us or recede from us their image on our retina increases or decreases in size respectively.

Size constancy is only one aspect of what the APA refers to as “perceptual constancy.” Other aspects include what they refer to as “brightness constancy,” “color constancy,” and “shape constancy.” Each of these aspects of perceptual constancy has presented a challenge to visual artists who wish to work in the realist tradition. Shape constancy is addressed in teachings on “perspective.” A building may appear square to an observer but artists need to learn that as it recedes in space the lines that comprise the outline of the receding portion move closer together.

“Brightness constancy” and “color constancy” are less well understood. In fact, these designations are arguably misnomers. “Brightness” can be correctly predicated only of objects that actually emit light, but most objects don’t do that. “Value” refers to where on a scale of darkness or lightness a color, including black, falls, hence “brightness constancy” is more properly identified as “value constancy.” “Color constancy,” by the same token, is more properly identified as “hue constancy” in that “colors,” as generally understood, can be broken down into multitudes of subcategories artists refer to as “hues.” Red, for example, can be broken down into a variety of hues, some falling under the category artists refer to as “warm” because they are closer to the yellow part of the spectrum (e.g., cadmium red and vermilion) and others under the category artists refer to as “cool” because they are closer to the blue part of the spectrum (e.g., alizarin crimson).

In fact, value and hue constancy overlap. The artist Frank Arcuri explains to his students that natural light is cool and that this means it “washes out” color, so the portion of an object on which light falls most directly will have a lower hue saturation than the surrounding area. Areas of an object that are lit directly are thus both lighter in value and different in hue. As the object turns away from the light the color saturation increases becoming first warmer and then, eventually also darker.

Objects are also always illuminated by both direct light and the light reflected off other objects. This reflected light is influenced by the color of the objects off which it bounces so even what appears to an untrained eye as a purely white object will, in fact, have portions where it is not purely white. The difficulty is that such objects will appear purely white to most observers because the brain “corrects” for these tiny variations in hue to produce a visual impression of a uniformly-colored object.

Artists have been told for generations to “paint what you see.” It should be clear now, however, that such advice is counterproductive. What the untrained eye “sees” is something like an interpretation by the brain of the information provided to the visual cortex. Visual perception is a far more complex process than is generally appreciated. This process by which the brain produces it needs to be deconstructed by those who wish to learn how to paint realistically and this is not an easy task because the brain does its “interpretations” automatically.

Determinacy and the Self

That we create ourselves over time as the result of the decisions we make is a widely accepted perception of what has come to be understood as selfhood. We become increasingly concrete over time as we age. A natural inference from this is that there is more to the selves of adults than there is to the selves of children.

And yet, there is a sense in which this increasing concretion represents a diminution of the self. Possibilities fall away like bits of marble giving way to the sculptor’s chisel. In an important sense, we become smaller as we take on a determinate shape.

That’s part of the reason, I believe, that nearly everyone is nostalgic for childhood, independently of whether their childhood was particularly happy. The self of the child is an enormous, almost limitless collection of possibilities, a vast expanse of possibilities in which the imagination of the child luxuriates in a way that the imagination of the adult cannot. Adults fantasize, of course, about becoming rich or famous, or about career changes, about becoming an artist, or musician, or dancer, but these possibilities, if they are genuine, are heavy with the weight of improbability that does not weigh down the imaginings of the child.

There is something godlike in the vastness of the self of the child. We become human, all too human as our selves take shape over time.