06 October, 2020

Special Issue 70: Truth and Illusion

Read Special Issue 70 of the SHAPE Journal

This special edition of the journal is co-authored by science philosopher Jim Schofield and artist researcher Mick Schofield.

Art, Science and Philosophy all share the same ontological quest of approaching truth, albeit with very different methods, ideologies and results, but there are countless pitfalls along all three roads, and many of them share the same origin. All three rely on appearances and forms as their basic material. Even the most apparently unmediated of these, are still Abstractions from the material world, and can already be deceptive. And that is long before we start categorising, rationalising, manipulating and combining forms, in all the elaborate ways we have learned to do, but which ultimately push these forms further from their original contexts in reality.

We primarily rely on our senses to confirm whether forms are true or not, but many philosophers over the centuries have shown that this can be a mistake. Optical illusions are often used to demonstrate how we cannot trust our senses - that there is some barrier between us and the truth of the material world we observe. However this is a limited view - it fails to take into account the fact that most of the time our senses serve us very well, we find our immediate realities completely intelligible. They also fail to take into account a key paradoxical fact, that illusions can actually give greater access to reality, than our senses alone can offer.

Think of the mirror, for example. Until we encounter a reflection we have no idea what we look like.

A reflection is certainly an illusion however, and one we routinely trust to tell us the truth, despite the fact that it flips the entire world front-to-back. For Jacques Lacan the mirror illusion was fundamental to how we see ourselves and our relationship with the reality around us. The mirror stage is a crucial phase in the development of human infants, where the ego begins to develop as we see ourselves as an ideal image, and fundamentally separate from others for the first time. Before this, according to Lacan, we live in the Real Stage, where we are only concerned by our immediate bodily needs and a lived unity with our mothers.

Another crucial illusion we rely on to access information about ourselves and the world, are moving pictures. These are based on photography, which also makes clever use of mirrors and tricks of the light, to present authentication of how things look. The photographic illusion, while synonymous with evidence, is compounded when we use machines to play back one photograph after another. All moving images present a basic illusion of movement - a motion that is constructed from a series of stillnesses. This isn’t how motion works in reality at all - and yet, we have simulated it well enough to trick the eye with ease.

The illusions of moving images provide us with reliable evidence of things all of the time - augmenting our senses and providing access to aspects of reality we could never approach without such technological prostheses. Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin talks about this in his famous essay on The Work of Art in Age of Mechanical Reproduction, calling this new technologically-aided sense, the optical unconscious.

But there are certainly limitations to our amazing inventions. We become so reliant on them for information, we cease to notice their shortcomings and distortions of the truth. Jim Schofield’s research with Bedford Interactive into the capturing of dance on video for motion study, showed how much dynamic information is lost when we rely on a series of stills to record it. His use of Zeno’s paradoxes and dialectical reasoning in attempting to resolve the problem shows this is more than just an issue of inadequate technical solutions. The very contradiction of trying to understand motion through stillness was bound to surface sooner or later, even if this particular illusion is adequate for most purposes.

This conundrum also reminds me of Henri Bergson’s view of our cinematic view of reality - another philosopher influenced by Zeno. Bergson used the “cinematographical apparatus” as an analogy for how the intellect attempts to deal with truth - always fragmenting, abstracting, analysing phenomena into discontinuous constituent parts, and then attempting to understand the dynamic whole from these debris.

“Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially.” Bergson, 1907

The video camera is a science experiment. It takes small pieces, samples, data, and tries to understand the dynamic whole. But something is always lost. Such illusions can be very useful, the difficulty then lies in working out what isn’t translated, and the extent to which we might be kidding ourselves.

As Jim Schofield investigates in his paper on Charles Bonnet Syndrome in this issue, a form of illusion lies at the heart of vision itself. As with Bergson, this isn’t just about technology, or even scientific methods, but about the ways we think about reality, and maybe even something fundamental about how our brains work.

Mick Schofield, October 2020

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