What we see isn’t always there

One of the fundamentals of applying the scientific method is the principle that conclusions are based on empirical evidence.  Scientific proof, in other words, is supposed to be based on “facts” that we can, in some way, see, touch, feel, and ideally measure.

But it’s not that simple.  The basic problem is that what we think we see isn’t always actually what is there.  Recently, Bernie Bamford, an Englishman was studying the imaging system produced by Google Ocean and identified what looks like man-made structures at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean  just off the coast of the Canary Islands.  

This is very near the Strait of Gibraltar, where Plato talked about “Atlantis,”  a legendary city which Plato wrote had disappeared with its ancient civilization about three thousand years ago.  No one has ever found it, but if it exists, most people think it probably was covered by sea in a series of earthquakes.  (Egyptian priests said it was the because the people had stopped believing in god.)

A lot of people were excited by Bamford’s discovery.  But alas, Google says it is unlikely to be Atlantis.  Google says that what looks like man-made structures on their ocean images are artifacts.  The lines reflect the path taken by the boat as it was collecting the data about the floor of the sea below.

Now hardly anybody thinks Bamford’s lines suggest he found Atlantis.

But Bamford’s lines do illustrate why science makes two important demands of evidence that it accepts as truly scientific. 

The first is that more than one person has to be able to see it.  We humans – even normal humans not suffering from mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations – experience things all the time that nobody else can experience with us.  A great idea, physical or psychological pain, or even the taste of hot pepper on our tongue might show our our face, but nobody else feels our experience directly.  Our dreams often seem terribly real at night but not in the day.  So none of these experiences are considered scientifically verifiable, because they are private.  If somebody else can’t gather the same evidence or do the same experiment, it doesn’t count as scientific. 

That doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  It just means it’s not scientific evidence.  That’s why people who claim they lived another life before this one, or that they were captured by aliens might sincerely believe what they are saying.  Who knows?  they might not even be right.  But it’s not science.

The second scientific principle Bamford’s lines illustrates is that we should accept the simplest explanation for any phenomenon.  The explanation that the lines are a result of the data collection process is simpler than that there is a city buried there.  If someone wants to convince us of the latter, some further evidence will have to be brought forth.  The most obviously convincing evidence would be from a deep sea dive.

But I think it unlikely that anyone will mount an under water expedition any time soon to find out if those Bamford lines are matched by walls on the ocean floor.

I don’t think they are.  Do you?


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
This entry was posted in how do we know that?, in the last 10,000 years or so and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What we see isn’t always there

  1. iamnotgod says:


    ALL THAT EXISTS IS (explainable through) SCIENCE.

    if you do not believe this…. i would say you were not a scientist.

    now, I agree there is much we think we know that we do not ‘really’ know : dreams are not ‘real’ ; nobody else feels my pain with the hot pepper, but then again nobody ‘sees’ through my eyes when observing the motion of a pendulum… If a group of people with working tongues were to all taste the same pepper – there reactions would be effectively equal. Likewise, dreams can be ‘measured’ or ‘observed’ by scientists… I will concede not yet to the same degree of accuracy as the patient himself ‘measures’ or ‘observes’ .

    This would probably be accepted widely but I do not like it. The world we live in today is not really scientific. We are approaching, ever so slowly, an explained world. First, every internal occurence within the human body will be interpreted by science, ie ; thoughts, emotions, experiences etc… Second, the scientific interpretation of everything else (what we tend to call physics). The second might be a little harder to come by, but who knows…
    [all this, assuming we’re still around]

    I say this because if we accept that some things are just real WITHOUT being explainable by science then we will thus choose not to study them (in a scientific manner). This would (and has historically) lead to gaps in knowledge.
    These gaps of knowledge are paradoxically both the enemy and the suitor of science: Without them we would not create, but with them we can go no further.

    As for Bamford’s lines, I couldn’t give a sh_t

    • Dear Not God,

      What an extremely interesting comment, and the basis of what could be a stimulating and demanding dialogue. I doubt we can cover the whole range of issues that you raise, some implicitly, but let me begin with a few. For starters, those with which we are in agreement:

      First, I agree wholeheartedly that nothing we experience should be, a priori, off limits to scientific exploration. It not only leads to gaps in our knowledge, as you say, but to errors which might be huge, and which we give ourselves no opportunity to correct.

      We are also in agreement that some experiences are not subject to verification by the scientific method. Private experiences cannot be observed by anyone outside the individual, and so cannot be replicated or compared by other observers. In this regard, it is helpful to remember that although science depends on empirical experience, not all empirical experience provides evidence subject to potential scientific analysis.

      Where I think we might disagree is your view that the same object (for instance, a pepper), will be perceived in pretty much the same way by everybody. First there is the inconvenient fact that a pepper that is so hot as to be inedible for one person may be mildly hot and flavoursome for another. But more significantly is Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has demonstrated that even the experience of time and space is relative. It is not the same for everyone all the time, but is influenced by the position of the observer. As you a probably aware, there is scientific evidence supporting Einstein’s theory. Without using it, we wouldn’t have landed on the moon, let alone navigated around space.

      Whether the entire universe can potentially be explained (by science or any other means), as been a subject of debate among scientists for some time. Most recently, however, scientists such as Stephen Hawkings have concluded that, although what we can understand about the universe is endless, it is impossible for us to comprehend the universe totally. In other words, we cannot logically develop a Theory of Everything (TOE). His reasoning is highly mathematical and beyond my capacity to explain with any thorough coherence. But I think it must be taken seriously unless one can offer a coherent reason for rejecting it.

      Finally, I would be interested to know why you don’t give a s’it about Bamford’s observations. You will appreciate that I obviously think it is instructive. Your comment gives no reason to explain your position. “Not giving a shit,” I’m sure you will agree, is hardly a scientific argument.

      I do hope you will respond. You obviously have thought about the issues here a great deal, and I would like to hear more.
      Terry Herman Sissons

  2. iamnotgod says:

    sorry there’s meant to be a quote above “this would probably be accepted widely…” paragraph

    “That doesn’t mean it’s isn’t real. It just means it’s not scientific evidence.”

  3. iamnotgod says:


    I am grateful for your reply- you could have easily blocked my post and avoided discussion- although knowing you are a psychologist, I can see why you didn’t(!).
    I apologise for the final comment, it’s purpose was to provide comedy in what was a rather straight-faced response. I see now that it was rude and inappropriate. My only defence is that comedy cannot exist without a notion of ‘right and wrong’. Furthermore your comments concerning Bamford’s lines were clearly interesting enough to promote discussion.

    { I agree that we must always question (scientifically if possible) anything that is claimed to be a priori knowledge- I am also aware though that we would not get very far in explaining a phenomenon if we did not first accept a great number of things. When confronted with a ‘statement of truth’ I often like to play the child and incessantly ask why- thus producing a chain of why’s which quite quickly leads to something I find hard to question- however the only reason i find it hard to question is because i have insufficient knowledge. I say this because if I were to question a laymen and a scientist on a statement of fact, the scientist would have the longest chain (more often than not). }

    Your second agreement is probably the main reason why I wrote my original response. You say, “private experiences cannot be observed by anyone outside the individual…”, the problem is: what ‘experiences’ cannot be individual? As a psychologist I’m sure you’ve come across this in many forms.
    On the one hand I am ready to accept that there is a universe (or more) around me and that it does not need me to exist (for it’s own existence). However, the only qualities I can give this place (including ‘placeness’) are entirely dependent on me.
    The issue for me, is resolved by saying that ‘I’ am a product of this place- therefore the laws that came together to produce ‘me’ give ‘me’ adequate potential to ascertain the laws of this place. I would thus disagree with, “not all empirical experience provides evidence to potential scientific analysis” because ‘experience ‘= ‘evidence’, it is only when we ask ‘what produced that experience?’ that we tend to go wrong. An apt example would be that of a person hallucinating. He will believe that he is seeing something while others in the room will disagree. You would say, “what we see isn’t always there” but a learned person like yourself could scan that person’s brain and see that parts of his visual cortex were firing.
    {I will say at this point that I am a little disheartened to sense that you expect personal experiences (such as thought) to always remain personal and thus untestable. I find it hard to see how computer memory and computational power will stop before reaching a brain-like state.}

    My view on the pepper, is that our Bioligy dictates how we respond. Much like alcohol tolerance, it may be dependent on genes or experience, but I think again that a scientist should be able to explain why it affects people differently. Even if someone were able, through mind power alone, to not be affected by a hot pepper (and they had a working tongue etc.) there must be scientific reasons for it.
    You are correct in saying that space and time are relative, but what about spacetime, is that relative?

    My approach for the final question, ‘whether universal knowledge is possible’, is a historical one. Where were we and where are we now..(?)
    I propose a pair of metaphors. It relies on one falsity: that we are never incorrect – only not entirely correct (eg; I ask: Name every sport. Response : soccer, cricket, golf. Not incorrect but not entirely correct). In the metaphor, the artist = man, the clay= knowledge and time = history/future. So the question is, as the artist makes his sculpture of clay, does he first put large clumps on and then gradually use smaller and smaller pieces until after a while he is hardly putting anything on at all, or does he start small and end up with large pieces?
    The matter then is simply mathematics- is the limit convergent or divergent. To answer this, the only tool we have is scientific history. Questions like, ‘Who discovered ‘more’ on gravitation, Newton or Einstein?- ie; does most of the universe act like newtonian gravitation or general relativity (minus newtonian gravitation)?
    I have not come across Hawking’s ‘proof’ ( I will search) but even he would admit that ‘new’ maths can provide new possibilities. Godel’s incompleteness theorem is a little tricky to handle too I would add.

    Most of what I have said we could discuss ad infinitum and without really getting anywhere. Where I think this could be useful is to outline our main/fundamental viewpoints on the universe. Mine is that everything that we do, or does occur, occurs because of science (or rather occurs because of the thing that science studies)- Only that which is possible, is possible (if you like truisms).

    If your main argument is that science does not explain everything, I concede- not yet, but it can.

    Thanks for your time,

    • George,

      You have brought up many fundamental issues that you have clearly thought about in more than a superficial matter. As you say, we could enter into prolonged discussion on each of them, as they have exercised not only you and me but many great minds of philosophers and scientists.

      We both presumably do have other things to do as well as post comments here, but I would like to make several points which may carry the debate forward. I think the problem of private experience is two-fold. The first is that – yes – all experience is private. How can I know if your experience of red is the same as mine? Perhaps if one of us is color-blind, it isn’t. And it is impossible to communicate my experience directly with you. We can only look at the same object and describe to each other what we perceive. This example can be extended across all our senses and even across species. The taste of the hot pepper isn’t the same for everyone, dogs can hear sounds we can’t, etc. I might look into the sky and “see” superman” while you “see” a plane.

      Science gets around this problem by insisting on replication. If other scientists can’t reproduce an experiment, of “see” the same thing, then the evidence is in doubt and not considered scientifically sound. Obviously, this solution only works in relation to our experience of objects outside ourselves. We cannot replicate another’s private personal experience which does not have a focus outside the individual.

      The second problem relation to the privateness of experience is indeed these experiences which do not have an outside locus. This includes everything from dreams to hallucinations to feelings of boredom to love. Yes, it is amazing and exciting what brain studies are accomplishing as their capacity to locate in the brain the activity that is generated by different experiences.

      But although we can locate and even observe brain activity on a physical level, we cannot observe the content. We might say a person is angry, but we cannot observe directly what they may be angry about. We can only make an educated guess. This is the conundrum I find so engrossing – that we still have no idea at all how the activity of brain waves becomes a thought or feeling. As I see it, this unresolved question is as critical as the energy-matter conundrum that bedevilled physics until Einstein showed how matter and energy were different forms of the same thing.

      Perhaps one day another Einstein will be able to show us how mind and body (or thought and brain) are different aspects of the same thing, and we will understand how the conversion occurs. Or perhaps the dualists are right, and there is a fundamental, incompatible difference between the two.

      Whichever it is, I suspect you will agree that it’s an immensely exciting and challenging universe.

      Thank you for taking the time to post your comment. I hope it is not necessarily your last.

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