The nature of seeing

2007 February 13
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — On the way home from work, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a hawk zip across the road behind me. It was over in an instant, and I’d seen the entire thing in the mirror. I couldn’t have turned around and seen the bird if I’d wanted too.

In that brief moment, a question I’ve long pondered became much less hypothetical: If I saw a bird in a mirror or reflected in a body of water would I feel satisfied enough to list it? In this case, there was no life bird at stake, and I couldn’t even identify the bird I saw.

But after today’s experience, it’s not so hard to imagine a different scenario. What if in a rearview mirror I had seen a cassowary dart across a road in PNG?

I’m really intrigued by the hesitance I feel when imagining such an event. I don’t think I’d want to count the bird. After all, I only saw it in the mirror.

There’s a problem though. Binoculars and scopes don’t just bend light like magnifying glasses or contacts. When I use optics to “see” a bird, my eyes are receiving light that has been reflected several times, not just once like the image in a mirror! I’m pretty sure there are birds on my life list that I was not able to detect with the naked eye. I saw them only with the aid of optics.

So … where’s the remorse? I really don’t feel it. It appears that my feelings are contradicting themselves.

Somehow, my psychological sense of “seeing” is such that I feel I must be looking in the proper direction, even if my eyes can’t detect the bird on their own. Optics send the light directly into my eyes, and I can believe that they are an extension of my own powers of perception. I have no trouble believing that I’m looking at the bird directly.

The rearview mirror, though, is mounted in front of me, and it feeds me information my body cannot take in by itself. It doesn’t feel like an extension of my own sight. It’s external. I believe the images it shows me are true, but … it’s a mirror.

What do you think? What does it mean to see?

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5 Responses
  1. February 14, 2007

    I think the feeling of remorse has more to do with intentionality than direction. If you’re using binoculars or a scope or even just looking around, you’re being intentional about what you’re perceiving. Seeing the bird in the rearview mirror was accidental, and unlike seeing a bird accidentally when you’re out of the car, a part of you (your foot on the accelerator) was actively worsening your view of the bird.

    If, for some odd reason, you decided to sit around in a field and intentionally look for birds through a mirror, I doubt you’d feel the same remorse.

  2. February 14, 2007

    I think for me, I would be more worried about how sure I was about the identification. If I know what I saw, I would have no problem adding it to my life list. Now if someone shouted out “Gyrfalcon!” and I saw something flash past in the rearview mirror, it would not get onto my list.

  3. February 14, 2007

    I like Fjord’s image of someone sitting in a field scanning for birds through a rearview mirror. Sometimes, when I’m not getting a good look through a scope, I feel the same way.

    Just like you can’t unring a bell, you can’t unsee a bird. If my life Crested Caracara only grazed my field of vision but I was able to identify it, either through my own or someone else’s account, then I saw the bird. Maybe I didn’t see it as well as I’d have liked, but the object did make an optical impression. It makes my list, but I’ll keep angling for a better view.

    I often have similar issues when spotting the drabber member of a dimorphic pair. If you’ve only seen a female Summer Tanager, have you really seen one? Taxonomically, the answer is obviously yes, but can you be satisfied with this sighting?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. If You Spot a Life Bird Through a Rearview Mirror
  2. Seeing Until You’ve Really Seen

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