Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

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