Monday, July 21, 2008

Amateur astronomy and the joy of seeing

A couple of days ago, I got an 8-inch Newtonian telescope (an old Coulter Odyssey 8). I've been wanting to have a decent telescope since I was a kid. Earlier this year I had got some giant 15x70 binoculars, which gave some very nice views at dark locations, but the telescope will open new vistas. I'm still trying to find a good observing site close to home. At home there are too many trees and streetlights are very close.

Oddly enough, I don't have much of anything philosophical to say about amateur astronomy yet. Here is one remark, oddly making a connection with things I am writing in my book on love and sex—tomorrow's post will draw out the connection. Another will follow in two days.

Aristotle begins the Metaphysics with the remark that all humans desire to know, and gives as evidence the love which we have for the sense of sight, sight being the most informative of the senses. Yet the experience of amateur astronomers suggests that Aristotle is wrong. There is a joy in seeing that seems to go beyond mere knowing. After all, the average amateur astronomer, is unlikely to see anything that she couldn't find out much more about by reading astronomy textbooks or at least research articles. Yet, while the amateur astronomer may read astronomy textbooks and maybe even research articles, her paradigmatic activity as amateur astronomer, an activity into which many resources are put, is seeing.

One answer to the puzzle of why there is such an activity as amateur astronomy would be to bring in a distinction between knowing propositions and knowing what things appear like. If one has been born deaf, one may know all the scientific facts about a middle C, but have no idea what one sounds like. I don't think, however, that this is the best explanation of the existence of the amateur astronomer (or the tourist or bird-watcher[note 1]). One reason it's not, is that I am not sure I buy the distinction between knowing that and knowing what it is like. I think that a visual image can express proposition, a proposition that is distinct from those expressed in spoken words. One reason I say this is because I have a wide view of language, that includes gestures, sketches, and other things. So in seeing an object, one knows a proposition that cannot be put into words.

However, in fact, neither the story distinguishing between two kinds of knowledge, nor my liberality with propositions and language, does justice to the amateur astronomer. Two days ago I saw, I think, the Ring Nebula. That gave me some joy. But what did I see? It was not the magnificent photograph that can be seen here. It was a tiny and very faint greyish spot, which looked slightly less bright in the middle if one looked enough. (I was viewing only at 30X magnification—I need to get more eyepieces—in a light-polluted driveway, on a full-moon night, with a poorly collimated scope, a terrible combination.) Still, it was a delight to have found it. Yet if I was after information, even of the "what it is like" variety, I could have just used Google image search.

There is, then, a joy in seeing first hand, a joy that seems goes beyond the informational content. Seeing first hand, even through an instrument, has something more to it than seeing photographs. Part of it is, I think, is the activity in seeing that goes beyond contemplating. There is the taking up of a point of view. Think of people in an art gallery, looking at a picture from one distance, then stepping back or forward. There is the choosing of the right way of seeing it (glasses, microscopes, telescopes, with their various settings), the right time, the right location. And, especially for a beginner like me, there is the finding. There is a natural good in the activity of seeing, but this activity is more than just contemplating, where I use the term "contemplating" for the visual perceiving part of the activity. Contemplating is the completion of this activity, but the activity goes beyond the contemplation that results from it.

Now here is something that I think is interesting. While Aristotle is, I think, right that the value of seeing comes from the fact that seeing gives us more information than any other sense, we should not take this on at the level of individual instances or tokens. It is false that my seeing the Ring Nebula got all of its value from its informational content. Rather, it is that the activity of seeing (including here the taking up of a point of view, the screwing up of one's eyes, the finding of the object, the manipulating whether in reality or through changing filters, etc.—I am thinking here of Ian Hacking kinds of ideas) gets its value from the fact that it is an activity that has a directedness at a genuine good, the good of contemplating. But the activity then has a value even when it does not achieve the telos. This is a way in which Natural Law differs from consequentialism—instances or tokens of an activity directed at a good have a value over and beyond the relevant instance of the good. In fact, the activity is valuable even when the good that the activity is aimed at is not achieved. Thus, when I failed to find the Whirlpool Galaxy last night and the night before last, while that activity failed to achieve the contemplation that was its telos, it was valuable.

On this view, a particular engagement in an activity can gets its value from the fact that the type of activity has a value, and the type of activity can get its value from the activity's telos. The value of an activity can go beyond the value of the activity's point, even if the activity derives its value from that point. Notice that while amateur astronomy is a skilled activity, it would not have the same kind of meaning if it were not aimed in some way at truth—if, for instance, amateur astronomers put on filters that completely distorted the sky into prettier patterns.


Enigman said...

I wonder if the impact of seeing first hand (if through glasses) is greater nowadays, than in Plato's day, because of our having photographs, TV and the internet, all of which allow visual illusions very easily. I think you do get more content from seeing the greyish spot, since you are there looking at the real object, and you know you are. You can directly locate the object in the world around you (so long as you are familiar with your telescope being just lenses or whatever). It is like going to see any celebrity, as a greyish spot behind a lot of backs of heads, when a much better view is had on the TV in one's living room. (I agree with your final remarks though.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure the illusion issue is the thing. I am more confident that the radiant colorful images that Google search turns up are the Ring Nebula--especially given the fact that it turns up many of them, all of them of the same shape, and all of them ring-like--than of the fact that what I saw was the Ring Nebula. My evidence for the claim that what I saw was the Ring Nebula is that it was in the right part of the sky according to the AstroInfo program I was using on my Palm TX, and looked roughly right. So, just as in the case of pictures on the Internet, my knowledge relies on trust--trust in the folks who compiled the catalogs that went into AstroInfo, and the folks who compiled the catalogs that those folks drew on. (And then there is trust that AstroInfo is working correctly, but there the fact that it is an Open Source project, and I have actually looked at a significant part of its source code, given that I am one of the contributors, helps. But even there, there is trust, as I haven't looked at all the source code.)

Enigman said...

I think you're right, but I don't think that affects my small point. You can justifiably trust in the details of the professional images, because your trust is grounded in reality. As you say, having actually looked into the matter helps.

Similarly, being able to manipulate electrons in the laboratory makes us more likely to think of them as actual parts of reality. Being unable to do that with strings makes us justifiably more doubtful in their case. Even if our theory of electrons was weaker than string theory, we would be more likely to think of it as an imperfect theory of electrons, rather than as evidence that electrons don't exist.

Admittedly we are more likely to suffer from illusions in real life, since the scientific method works to reduce the effects of such things. So the scientific knowledge of what you are looking at, that greyish spot, is very important. Not knowing what the greyish spot was would make a huge difference to your experience of seeing it. But what you get from seeing the spot directly is an additional sense of what it is that the information is about, something that cannot be captured by that information. (That is if the spot is not an illusion, of course.)

So I was wondering if the impact of that, when seeing something in the flesh, so to speak, was particularly important nowadays. In Plato's day seeing first hand would have given one more information, but nowadays it may be more a matter of locating the subject in the real world around one. (I just mention it in case it affects how we read Plato on seeing.) It is not that TV is full of illusions, but that we are unable, by how such media are, to discriminate by how we watch it. When looking at a spot one can rub one's eyes. When looking through a telescope, you can see if the spot moves with the telescope or not. And so on.

And we may be more likely nowadays to distrust a coherent, professional story that we cannot test, even when it is told to us by our side (unless we have chosen that side for good reasons). It is not that seeing a grey spot adds to the reliability of our information about it, but that it shows us something in reality that such information is about. It adds another dimension to the information, perhaps. (Maybe that is less important in astronomy than it is in other areas, e.g. economics and physics.)