Believing in things you cannot see

There is a scene at the end of the movie Tenet, in which the main character accuses the villain of solipsism:

Protagonist: “You don’t believe in a God, or a future, or in anything outside of your own experience!”

Villain: “The rest is belief, and I don’t have it.”

In the context of the film, the line seems casually written — a generic type of pseudo-philosophical, baddie-explains-his-motives type of dialogue. But it reminded me of a connection between epistemology and ethics that seems to me important, even if basic: namely, that substantial portions of ethical life, especially in a big world, are tied crucially to the ability to believe in things you cannot see.

I. The zone

I sometimes think of everyday life as involving a kind of loosely-defined “zone,” the contents of which one is acquainted with in a fairly direct way, and which are consequently easy to treat as “real.” The size of this “zone” varies depending on person and context. In some contexts, someone might treat their experience at this particular moment as the full extent of the zone; in others, it might be their past, present and future experiences; in still others, it might include people and communities that they’re close to, or that they interact with directly, especially in actual physical spaces; and in still others, it might be much broader.

The place beyond the zone is not “present”; it’s not a part of your lived world. You might hear news about it, and get evidence about it; but you don’t “see it for yourself.” And hence, absent imaginative effort, the land beyond the zone can feel abstract, colorless, and hard to attend to.

The land in the zone, by contrast, requires very little imagination: it’s there, and naturally experienced as some combination of concrete, vivid, tactile, and colorful. At present, for example, my house’s kitchen feels like it’s inside one salient type of “zone.” It’s not that I’m always in the kitchen. But I’m often in very direct contact with it. There’s a particular feeling of what it’s like to be there; it has a particular refrigerator handle that I grab, a particular set of drawers that slide open in a particular way. And when some action has consequences that affect the kitchen — for example, the dishwasher breaks, or a wine glass shatters on the floor — these consequences really show up in my world.

One can be wrong/uncertain about things that are intuitively in the “zone,” or at least close to it. Perhaps, for example, you’re wrong/uncertain about whether there’s milk in the fridge. But you can easily go check — so easily that the milk’s presence or absence feels like it’s a part of your lived world. You can just go open the fridge, and it will be there, or it won’t.

Indeed, the zone, as I’m understanding it, bears some resemblance to the set of things one treats oneself as in a position to “observe” — that is, the realm of facts that can be taken for granted as having a kind of (context-sensitive) “direct accessibility,” from which further facts may be inferred. One way of understanding the aspiration of empiricism, broadly construed, is: to cash out one’s beliefs about the world (loosely, the place beyond the zone) in terms of their predictions about the observations one receives (loosely, the contents of the zone) — and to change one’s beliefs accordingly, as the observations come in.

A paradigmatic space “beyond” a salient zone, for me, is the world after my death. Death, in this mode, presents itself as a kind of void, beyond which all observation ceases. The world will continue after I die, but I will never see it. Indeed, I’ve found it interesting to conceptualize the parts of the present world that I cannot see using death as the paradigm. Thus, for example, Dayton, Ohio is a place where I am currently dead. The light of my zone does not shine there. It lives in the same void that the year 2500 does; the same place that dinosaurs do, and black holes.

II. A deep difference?

Ultimately, this division of things into zone vs. beyond-zone, things that you are in a position to “see” vs. things that you must infer or imagine, is not, I expect, a deep one. The most salient candidate for a deep distinction is probably something like the division between your (present?) “sense-data” or “qualia” — that is, the pixels of your Cartesian screen, to which you have, it is sometimes thought, some kind of distinctly direct and accurate access — and everything else. I’m skeptical, though, that this division, especially as naively conceived, will survive scrutiny. 

Zone vs. beyond-zone is closely related to a different distinction, between what we might call one’s “vivid world” vs. one’s “non-vivid world.” I think of this latter distinction as pointing to the fact that parts of the one’s maps/models of the world can differ notably in levels of detail, and hence, I expect, in the extent to which they seem concrete, real, and engaging of the rest of one’s motivational and cognitive faculties, vs. hazy, abstract, and hence, often, less engaging. (See also near mode vs. far mode. There may also be related distinctions between the parts of your epistemology that you use, centrally, for making predictions, vs. the parts used centrally for more social purposes).

The zone is vivid by default, but I’m not thinking of it as defined by its vividness. Rather, I’m thinking of it as defined by some loose sense of epistemic accessibility or “presence”; as seen, vs. imagined. Things that are not present, and which can only be imagined, can still be vivid — indeed, as I’ll discuss later, I think we should try, where possible, to make them so. That said, I don’t expect distinction between one’s zone vs. one’s vivid world to end up particularly clear-cut, either.

III. Patterns of attention

It’s common for people to devote most of their practical attention to things that fall within some fairly limited zone of presence and accessibility. Often, this is centrally their own lives and experiences, along with the lives and experiences of their friends and loved ones, and the dynamics of specific, often local communities (national politics seems to me a somewhat complicated case). Events and consequences in distant countries, or the distant future, or in nearby places you do not go/cannot see, or communities you are not involved with, receive much less attention.

Sometimes, these patterns of attention are understood as driven fundamentally by differing levels of concern with what happens in the relevant zone vs. beyond it. Hence, for example, the discourse about the “expanding circle” of moral concern, according to which moral progress proceeds as the set of cared-about beings widens — from self, family, nation; to distant/more different others; to non-human animals; to perhaps, future people, and even more exotic possibilities. And indeed, people do, in some cases, explicitly profess to caring less about a given category.

In other cases, though, people justify devoting greater attention to some zone or other via a difference in epistemic contact rather than moral concern. The zone, here, is understood as the space in which suitably grounded, effective, and wise action is actually possible. One cares about the land beyond the zone; but, centrally because one doesn’t “live there,” and/or understand it well enough, one isn’t in a good position to help. And this sort of epistemic concern is often quite reasonable. Epistemology is in fact hard; and it gets harder quickly, the greater the “distance” (of various types) between you and the part of reality you’re trying to understand and play a positive role in.

(Other considerations are also sometimes offered — for example, considerations to do with whether and when it is ethically appropriate to intervene in some suitably distant zone, even if doing so would be helpful. And of course, there are general limits to one’s time and other resources, such that prioritizing between different possible foci of practical attention will always be necessary.)

Beyond these considerations, though, I think there’s also a sense in which something beyond the zone of what one sees and interacts with often just doesn’t feel as “real” as other things. It lives, sometimes, in a land of haziness and abstraction — the “non-vivid” world I tried to point to above. Perhaps one talks about it in certain contexts; perhaps there are a few things that one says or does not say, agrees with or disagrees with, when it comes up; perhaps one has a few images associated with it; perhaps one read an article one time. But in one’s overall map of the world, very little of the available color and energy has been devoted to this region. When you move your mind there, you are at the frayed edge of something normally more densely-woven; you’re on the outskirts of town; things feel emptier, foggier.

Often, I think, this kind of haziness is accompanied by a feeling of epistemic disempowerment — akin, perhaps, to the type of feeling one might have with respect to some technical subject matter that one doesn’t understand, and that one hopes one does not have to deal with too directly. Here I think, for example, of the experience of one’s dishwasher breaking. The outer dishwasher is bright and accessible and ready-to-hand. But the inner dishwasher lives in a land of darkness, and if requires attention, I’ll be tempted to call someone to fix it — and thereby, to leave it on the edges of my map — rather than taking much time to try to understand and fix the problem myself. (See e.g. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for related discussion).

IV. Realization vs. belief

But the epistemic disempowerment in question is not, I think, entirely captured by the idea of uncertainty about which of some set of different propositions is true, or which interventions will have what consequences. If I am uncertain about whether there is milk in the fridge, or whether leaving a note saying “Bob, get more milk?” will cause Bob to get more milk, I have a clear and vivid picture of the different scenarios. Whereas uncertainty about, say, the long-term future of artificial intelligence doesn’t feel like this. One barely knows what to imagine, especially if one hasn’t thought about it much; and the resulting mental pictures (if one has any concrete pictures) can feel thin, cartoonish, and ungrounded.

Much of futurism, in my experience, has a distinct flavor of “unreality.” The concepts — mind uploads, nanotechnology, settlement and energy capture in space — are, I think, meaningful (even if loosely defined); but at a certain point, one’s models become so abstracted and incomplete that the sense of talking about a “real thing” — even a possibly real thing — is lost. Indeed, in my experience, people discussing certain futurist-style topics that they ostensibly take seriously — e.g., what to do if they’re in a simulation, what the world would be like after a technological singularity, what it would mean if the universe contains an infinity of utopias and hell-scapes — often do so in a certain not-entirely-serious type of tone. Such discussions, for example, often involve certain types of jokes, highlighting certain ways in which the scenarios imagined are extreme or strange. The question is not, one feels, being treated as the same type of question as, e.g., what to do if your daughter is being bullied, or what it would be like if you switched jobs, or what it would mean if a recently-discovered lump were cancer.

Sometimes, this sort of “unreality” flavor stems from fairly hard epistemic barriers. There is only so much one can realistically know about the future, for example. The relevant barriers may be such that one ends up, perhaps inevitably, in something more like an “abstract fog” type of space than a “I might see milk on the shelf, I might not see milk on the shelf” type of space.

In other cases, though, I think that a feeling of “unreality” has more to do with the effort one has made, and the success one has had, in imagining/understanding/getting acquainted with the relevant domain in detailed, concrete, and emotionally visceral ways. Thus, for example, if you actually go to and interact with some part of the world where a given problem one has heard about is occurring — inside, for example, a prison, or a factory farm, or a site of extreme poverty — the vividness which one relates to that problem can change dramatically. Similar shifts can occur from watching documentaries, or taking the time to read or really think about something (even in fictionalized contexts), or listening to someone who really cares about and understands a topic talk about it. Perhaps you “believed,” before, in the relevant thing, in the sense that applies, for example, to how you would answer certain questions if asked; but you hadn’t “realized.” Here I think of an insult cited by a professor I had in college: “Sure, that guy knows a lot; but he don’t realize nothin'”.

V. In praise of imagination

A good portion of ethical life, I think, is about realization, rather than belief (the same, I think, is true in other domains as well — for example, spirituality). This applies even in ethical contexts that fall within fairly local zones. If asked, one would agree that the people one sees on a day to day basis — on the subway, at parties, at work — all have richly detailed and complex inner lives, struggles, histories, perspectives; but this fact isn’t always present and vivid in one’s lived world; and when it becomes so, it can make an important difference to one’s ethical orientation, even if the propositions one assents to have not obviously changed.

But realization can get harder the further outside a localized “zone” one goes. The people on the subway are, at least, visible; you’re there with them in a physical space; you can see their expressions and postures, the lines on their faces, their movements, the objects they carry. You can talk with them. But the people affected by a policy, a disaster, a system, a donation, or an idea are often, both epistemically and physically, further away; and the causal connection between them and the relevant policy, disaster etc can be quite convoluted and uncertain. This sort of distance can quickly lead to an increase in abstraction, and a consequent loss of vividness.

But those people are just as real. The world does not become hazy and abstract and gappy where our maps do. A given part of reality does not disappear when, after a bit of consideration, we stop thinking about it, and move on to something else.

Imagination can help a lot with this. Imagination is sometimes associated with fantasy or fiction or creativity, rather than with hard facts. But the skill of imagining real things seems to me important to life in a big world, filled with things that matter, but which you cannot see directly. And its role in science is often remarked on.

Indeed, in some sense, the ability to imagine is closely continuous with the ability to model the world more generally; though in my experience, models or scenarios that are successfully imagined, as opposed to merely “described,” often feel more vivid and helpful. Indeed, I associate a certain type of imaginative aliveness with a sense that I am “actually thinking” about something; my full capacities feel more engaged; it feels more like my actual beliefs and actions may be changed by the results.

The epistemic and ethical role of imagination feels connected, to me, to a certain kind of basic aspiration: to live in the full light of what is actually going on, and what will happen as a result of different choices. Perhaps some things cannot be known, or changed; but the place where one acts is always reality in its entire. One does not, up front, impose any borders, or any limits on what could be real, or relevant. One does not make the world smaller, to better fit one’s life, or one’s mind.

Such an aspiration, though, runs headlong into the boundaries of what we can see, touch, and verify. Imagination helps us venture out further, while retaining the sense of reality that sight, touch, etc bestow. Or, put another way: imagination allows us to stretch our “vivid world” beyond our default “zone”; and hence, to encompass more of what matters. 

Of course, there are lots of issues with the imagination, too. Centrally: it might lead you astray. You imagine that some action will have certain vivid and inspiring consequences; but actually, it won’t, and will do lots of harm besides. And there are worries, as well, about biasing towards points of focus that are easier to imagine; or allowing arbitrary dynamics that determine what is emotionally accessible or charismatic to over-ride more objective and important considerations.

VI. Beyond the zone

Whether imagined or no, most of the world, and most of what matters, lies outside our zones by default. And our actions have consequences beyond those zones, even if those consequences are difficult to predict, control, and verify.

There is, I think, a complicated question about when, in virtue of this difficulty, we should abandon any efforts to play a positive role in the world beyond some particular zone. But in many cases, I think, before deciding that something isn’t worth trying to affect, we should check that we’ve made it suitably real and vivid in our minds. Otherwise, we may subtly mistake gaps in our maps for gaps in the reality — and hence, perhaps, the importance — of something we cannot, at present, see.

And if we do choose to try to play a positive role in some area beyond our direct experience, and after we have tried to expand our understanding and imagination as much as possible, we may be left, still, acting in relation to something that, in a basic way, we cannot see. You do something, perhaps, in the hopes of helping someone; of contributing to the solution to some problem; of making the future brighter; but you may never find out the result. In this sense, you pour your efforts into the void, beyond your experience, knowledge, and control. You are acting in service of an unseen world; a world that must, ultimately, be believed in.

Perhaps it will be thought that such belief is trivial. And in some sense, it is: few would deny that the world beyond what they can see exists. But it’s not always a question of what one would assert or deny; sometimes, and especially in practice, it’s also a question of what feels real in one’s heart and one’s gut. And there, I think, there’s a lot of room for variation.

(Thanks to Katja Grace for discussion of related issues over the years.)

3 thoughts on “Believing in things you cannot see”

  1. So important to keep exploring outside of one’s physical and intellectual comfort zones if only to appreciate how zoned out, myopic, and unimaginative one can at any point become. Much scientific and humanistic exploration entails imagining and testing a more encompassing model of reality, developing and exploiting technology to expand the zones of human observation and understanding, empowered by a belief that progress on all fronts is always possible and significant. You might order some irradiated milk that keeps at room temperature forever BTW. 😉

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