Perception Is Truth?

Author J.T. Wynn Published on 05/03/2018

In high school, I had an excellent history teacher who loved teaching American history. He is, to this day, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, in history class or any other class, for that matter. He even came to class dressed up as Thomas Jefferson while lecturing on the Declaration of Independence. That’s how dedicated he was to using visuals to really cement the material in our heads. And that’s why, to this day, I’ll never forget Jefferson’s famous quote on “life, liberty, and something or other.”

Despite this, he subscribed to a faulty epistemological theory of truth. One of his favorite sayings was, “Truth is not truth, perception is truth.” And this was said in the context of a history class, no less! You STR fans immediately recognize the “Suicide Tactic” from Greg Koukl’s book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. And yes, my teacher’s statement commits suicide, in that it is self-refuting. However, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of this popular “perception is truth” theme.

Years later in college, I was required to take a class that satisfied the university’s diversity requirements, something that, as an Asian immigrant, and in my cultural context, I naively thought would mean I’d get to learn more about Western Civilization.

Unfortunately, the only good things I can say about this class are 1) the professor and TAs were nice, and 2) it would provide me with much blog post material for years to come. Though this was a time before “microaggression” was popular, sadly it was a time when “micropassivity” was much in practice. They presented their ideas with confidence but shied away from responding to any of my rebuttals.

To be fair, and in their defense, I was the student the TAs greeted by ducking into the bathroom right before I approached them. I hadn’t yet fully absorbed STR’s teachings on KWC: An apologist ambassador embodies knowledge, WISDOM, and CHARACTER. I get that I came on strong in class, maybe too strong. But still, what they said was false, and it bothered me.

The one time my TA came close to a response was her comment on one of my papers, “You seem to want everything to make logical sense.” And this brings us back to perception and truth.

During one class, the professor showed us these two pictures:

“Do you see a vase, or do you see two faces?” my professor asked.

Again, she asked us, “Do you see an old woman looking down towards the left, or do you see a young woman looking away?”

I suppressed the urge to reply that I saw a young me wasting $2,000 of my tuition money.

Then the professor made the same claim I heard years earlier in high school, that we shouldn’t claim to know the Truth because truth is perspectival. She made her point by telling us of an anthropologist who studied an indigenous tribe in the dense rainforests of South America. Because the tribespeople had lived in such dense vegetation all their lives, they lacked extensive experience with depth perception.

One day, the anthropologist took a member of the tribe to the top of a hill, and they saw an animal coming towards them in the distance. The anthropologist noticed that as the animal came closer, the tribesman became increasingly agitated. The closer the animal came, the more agitated the tribesman grew, until finally, the anthropologist intervened. “What is bothering you so much?” To his surprise, the tribesman explained that he’d never seen an animal grow so large soooo quickly!

Aha! The anthropologist understood now: Since the tribesman was surrounded by densely populated rainforest vegetation all his life, he was not used to seeing vast stretches of empty distance, and from his perspective, the animal grew larger as it came closer and occupied more of his visual space. His perceptions determined what was true for him just as our perceptions determine what is true for us.

“Since we all have differing perspectives,” my professor reminded us students, “there are no True perspectives, and hence we shouldn’t force our own perspectives on others but should be tolerant and listen to everyone else’s perspectives.” The class nodded in agreement; my gut knotted in concern—and it wasn’t because I skipped lunch.

Though decades years have passed since college (not that many!), my professor’s story has stuck with me. Unfortunately, not for the reason she hoped. My concern in class that day is the same concern I have today.

Let’s assume this anecdote actually happened (which I do find hard to believe since the tribespeople’s survival and dependence on hunting wild game for their next meal would heighten their appreciation for depth perception, not diminish it). I think you can see what’s wrong with this illustration that purports to be an argument. Actually, I think it proves the opposite of what it intends.

Did the animal actually physically grow larger in that short amount of time as the tribesman believed? Or did it physically stay the same size but move closer, taking up more space in his visual field, as the anthropologist believed? Did the tribesman’s perspective turn out to correspond to reality or did the anthropologist’s perspective? It’s the latter. Thus, it seems that, at the very least, some perceptions are false, and at best, some perceptions may even be true.

If you disagree with me, professor is right...and just remember that it’s my perspective, so it must be true.