Seeing is Believing — Or Is It?

You don’t see a Belief, but believe what you see — but should you?

“Seeing is believing” — or is it?

“You see one — of many?”

“On my birthday I saw Humpty-Dumpty take a big fall,” says Aunt Ethel, who turned 102 yesterday.

What did she see?

She is not blind, rarely wears glasses, hears quite well. She is acute and astute. We assume that she must have seen something, but did she see what she reported? Since none of her interlocutors believe that a person or object corresponding to the description of Humpty-Dumpty exists in the “real”, palpable world — except in a much-loved story — Aunt Ethel’s perception played her a trick. Or so we conclude.

But if we are wrong, and Aunt Ethel’s sighting can be confirmed, would she be entitled to claim, “I saw a Humpty-Dumpty. Furthermore, there are more Humpty-Dumptys somewhere, in fact, I saw only one of many.”

We are all Aunt Ethels in this respect because we all tend to assume on the basis of one sighting that there are more of the same, unless the sighting has a particularizing, individuating name, or tag. The logic runs: “a class of one is still a class” — call it a sample of a class.

I saw a black swan 10 days ago — ergo, there are black swans, or black swans exist. Not only one, but some (many).

To say “I saw the only black swan 10 days ago” is a very strong hypothesis which runs as follows: “Normally there are no black swans, but I saw one and since I believe what I see, therefore I also believe that black swans exist, but perhaps only one!”

What I have done is to clarify what is meant by holding a belief – by assuming that something which is against the grain can nevertheless be incorporated with a set of expectations which I have come to share – or have unconsciously learned to share — with others.

My Aunt Ethel simply followed a widely-adopted convention when she suggested that seeing a one of something is an acceptable basis for assuming that uniqueness is not “normal” at all, but that a single case is a good and fair ground for assuming that there are more of the same somewhere, some place. Keep counting.

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