Shifting Perspectives and Representing The Truth

15 August 2021 in Resource Center.

In an exquisite video presentation Tricia Wang explains the benefits of perspective shifting to better represent the truths of our worlds and its peoples:

This resource will situate Wang’s powerful and important ideas in the context of our Art of Comprehensivity, our learning practices for building an ever more extensive, ever more intensive, and ever more integrated understanding of our worlds and its peoples.

Representing the Truth

Tricia Wang begins her presentation exploring the technology of linear perspective which was rediscovered and then flourished in fifteenth century Renaissance Europe. Wang explains how the hype-man of the European perspective movement, Leon Battista Alberti, presented this new technology of optical illusion:

Alberti believed that linear perspective was the highest form of art because he believed it captured reality. He said, “A painting aims to represent things seen”. Alberti thought that painters using linear perspective were giving society a shortcut to greater understanding making us better people.

Tricia Wang 16 August 2016 Presentation at The Conference

In fact, linear perspective is an illusion. Such representations are not the objects depicted and the optics of our eyes differ substantially from the optics of linear perspective. For instance, our binocular eyes have concave retinas affecting the inverted images our optic nerves “see”, our sharp fovea centralis only sees details clearly in a tiny region near the center of our field of view, the body and its eyes constantly move while the vanishing points in artworks are fixed. Moreover, perspective representations privilege one view to the exclusion of all the other possible optical views and any nonoptical models that one might otherwise use to represent the truths of a situation.

Wang tells the story of a group of Jesuit monks who starting in the sixteenth century tried to proselytize their religion by impressing the Ming dynasty Chinese with linear perspective paintings. She emphasizes how the truth of linear perspective collided with Chinese sentiments and failed to gain traction. This Chinese view was partially captured by an earlier Tang dynasty writer:

He who judges painting according to the concept of resemblance shows the understanding of a child.

— Sou Che (9th century) as quoted in “Oblique Drawing: A History of Anti-Perspective” (2012), page 348

Wang discusses the distortions in maps. Maps are another technology to represent the world. But as Wang emphasizes, the creators of paintings, maps, films, and data sets, have many choices to make in representing their subjects. Wang shows a slide that says, “By necessity, technology reduces resolution in order to render reality. The creator’s choices guide what gets lost in computation.”

Wang also observes that mirrors can be used as a technology for the representation of truth. Although mirrors probably existed long before the first polished obsidian that archeology dates to some 8,000 years ago in Anatolia (now called Turkey), eventually, Wang reports, “people interpreted this ‘realness’ of the reflection from a glass mirror as truth.” She adds, “Glass mirrors showed up in Shakespeare’s plays as this object of truth.”

Wang builds to a broader thesis that truth came to be defined as “a singular, stable, objective thing.” She infers that “we conflate what we can see with the truth” even though we know that mirrors distort left-right sense and the optics of mirrors can be engineered to produce many surprising illusions. They merely present a distorted but insightful view of an always multifaceted truth.

Virtual reality (VR) is another technology that some proponents claim gives the viewer a higher fidelity access to the truth, but Wang demonstrates that despite the hype, 360° immersion is a curated experience created by a designer, filmmaker, or curator. She illustrates her point by examining the qualitatively different user experiences in two VR films: “6×9” and “CONFINEMENT”. Francesca Panetta, the director for “6×9”, consulted prisoners who had lived in solitary confinement and by listening carefully to these real survivors, she created a more realistic and compelling VR film. The quality of the curation affects the interpretation of any representation even with virtual reality.

Photography is another technology whose seeming realism has blinded people to its illusions, distortions, and biases. She quotes the filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard: “Photography is truth.” To illustrate how insidious the biases in photography can be Wang reports on the widely read and esteemed National Geographic Magazine with its famous photography. But their photos are frequently staged and in 2018 the current editor, Susan Goldberg, admitted that past content was racist, in some cases disturbingly racist. Photography is not innocent and truthful, but reflects the biases of photographers, curators, and editors.

Although Wang only briefly mentions it, big data is another mesmerizing technology which carries powerful but illusory intonations that it reveals the truth. Another example of technology with often illusory effects is mentioned in the 1981 book “Critical Path” where Buckminster Fuller wrote, “Words are tools”. So, by Wang’s logic, language also suffers from the inherent limitations of any technological representation.

While each technology is valuable in that it can reveal new aspects of the truth, Wang emphasizes throughout that technological representations are frequently and erroneously abstracted to be the truth. She cautions us, “We still have the myth that we can see reality from a single perspective. And that that single perspective is the objective truth.” When, in fact, we actually have what Wang calls the limits of a single perspective.

Can any single technology ever represent more than a narrow, distorted glimpse of the truth? Are all representations necessarily low fidelity?

Perspective Shifting

In the stories Tricia Wang develops in her presentation, she emphasizes how the truth of one representation by a technology can collide with the values of other people. The Ming era Chinese didn’t value the seemingly realistic illusions in the art of linear perspective. The mapmaker, photographer, journalist, writer, editor, and VR film producer cannot give the armchair traveler a high fidelity experience of actually engaging with a far off place and its peoples. The vicarious experience is not the real experience; the gamer and the couch potato watching representations on a screen are not experiencing our real world.

Technology-enhanced representations can inform our understanding of the world, but they are always incomplete and their view of reality is always distorted. This inherent narrowness of our representations can collide with the values and understandings of other people which in turn can cause friction and conflict.

Wang defines “perspective collision” as “when the outputs of technology or the things we make end up revealing the limited perspective of their creators”. How can we avoid such perspective collisions?

Wang recommends developing the skill of “perspective shifting” which she defines as “the ability to see the world from another person’s point of view. Essentially, it’s empathy.” She further explains:

Understanding the world is not about replicating one perspective. It’s about representing multiple perspectives. This is the work … [of] perspective shifting…. Everyone needs to learn how to perspective shift. This involves skills like listening to understand instead of just asking questions about what we already know. To see greater context beyond the technology instead of just focusing on the interaction. To identify things that are very difficult to measure not just making decisions off of data sets that we already have. It’s also about asking who else do we need to invite to the table instead of just working with the default majority.

Tricia Wang 16 August 2016 Presentation at The Conference

Is perspective shifting a vital skill for working with technology, representations, and truth?

The Truth and our Comprehensivity

In the exchange after her presentation, Wang explains that seeking the truth is a terrible goal. I believe she means that seeking the truth predisposes us to converge on a single representation of our subject or situation which then blocks us from apprehending its full multiperspectival context. Wang suggests that perspective shifting should replace our search for truth as the objective for understanding.

I agree with her, but I would go further. I would place perspective shifts in the broader context of understanding as a thoroughly refined ignorance. This is one of the guiding values we have been developing for our comprehensive learning. In comprehensive learning we aspire to integrate many perspectives, to use Wang’s language. One way to think about our refined ignorance would be to identify each aspect of each perspective with the series of yes-no questions that locates it as in the game Twenty Questions. Then we can imagine other games of Twenty Questions that distinguish each perspective from the others. Finally, more such games could distinguish the different ways to integrate all of the identified perspectives into a synergetic whole. In this way our ignorance can be seen as the fabric of questions that structures our comprehensive learning.

Our thoroughly refined ignorance is based on ignorance because questions guide all inquiry and all principles can be seen as the answers to contextualized questions. It is refined because nuanced questions can distinguish different perspectives, hypotheses, and interpretations. It is thorough because our steadfast comprehensivity aspires to a comprehensive understanding of the world and its peoples. Tricia Wang’s idea of shifting perspective is an important tool in helping us to more thoroughly refine our ignorance.

In the resource on The Value of Multiple Working Hypotheses we examined the epistemic virtue of T. C. Chamberlin’s great contribution to the moral reform of science with the discriminating edges of multiple working hypotheses. How does Wang’s method of perspective shifting compare with Chamberlin’s?

I think the difference is a matter of language. A hypothesis in science assumes all the experiences and refined ignorance that went into formulating it and supporting its plausibility. All this context is, in fact, a perspective: the perspective that sees the hypothesis as reasonable. So, a perspective shift can be seen as essentially the same as considering another possible working hypothesis together with its context.

Multiple working hypotheses and perspective shifts provide the same benefit to the Explorer in Universe: to form a more thoroughly refined ignorance. Both Wang’s perspective shifts and Chamberlin’s multiple working hypotheses remind us that comprehensive thinking is broader than any one perspective or any one hypothesis. Wang’s perspective shifts are more suggestive of the language of the humanities and social sciences in highlighting context whereas Chamberlin’s multiple working hypotheses suggest the language of scientific discourse.

Now, perhaps, we are in a position to see the wisdom in Tricia Wang’s astonishing sound bite “Don’t Trust The Truth”. Truth can be seen as the coherence of a perspective or hypothesis with the experiences and beliefs that justify it. That is, every truth has a perspective. Such a perspective has limitations: it is informed by limited experience, limited assumptions, and limits of the methodology organizing its beliefs. Perspective shifting is the process of considering other contexts and points-of-view. Since life is finite, we cannot consider all possible points-of-view, all possible assumptions, all possible hypotheses, everyone’s full set of experiences, and all possible contexts. So our truths are always limited and incomplete.

In the end we see that perspective shifting, multiple working hypotheses, and engaging multiple approaches (or traditions) of inquiry and action can help us form a more thoroughly refined ignorance. This ignorance, then, is the broadest comprehensive comprehension and is the best representation of Truth we can acquire at any time. Our thoroughly refined ignorance as a truth may be one of our best tools for assessing our desires to effectively organize a design to better shape our futures. But at every moment it is incomplete and therefore never truly trustworthy. So Tricia Wang is profoundly correct when she warns us “Don’t Trust The Truth”!

How do you see the Truth in our art of comprehensivity, our art of learning ever more extensively, ever more intensively, and ever more integratedly? How trustworthy is it?

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 18 August 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 58m video from the 18 August 2021 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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