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  • Writer's pictureJosh

To See Further Than Others, You Have to Build a Lens

In the 16th century, there was controversy over Geocentrism vs Heliocentrism: is the Earth was the center of the universe, or on the contrary, does it orbit the sun? (Spoilers: the latter is true.) The geocentric model had a lot going for it; the Bible, the Priests, and history were cited on what later became the losing side, but there were real arguments from observation that seemed convincing. For example, the sun does appear to be moving when we see it cross the sky on a daily basis! This, proponents said, is a knock-down argument from direct observation, and a good scientist should only reject it if there is extremely strong evidence for an alternative model. Everyone can see this with their own eyes; it's as clear as day (literally).

This might seem plausible, until you ask the key question: what would you expect to see if Geocentrism was false?

And the answer, of course, is that if Heliocentrism is true, you expect to see the sun cross the sky in precisely the same way. This so-called evidence for the Geocentric model could equally be used as evidence for Heliocentrism.

So how do you distinguish between these models? While there were many people providing many independent arguments, a key event occurred in the early 1600s with Galileo's invention of the telescope. Among other things, he observed that Venus exhibited phases like the moon, moving from small and full to large and crescent; this implied straightforwardly that Venus cannot be fully within or fully outside of the apparent orbit of the sun.

In brief, Galileo built himself a lens to see further than those around him.


If you want to be useful to the world, if you want to see what others cannot or will not, I think you have to build yourself a lens. Of course, "your lens" doesn't have to be a literal lens like Galileo's. A lens is something like (but not identical to) your point of view, honed and shaped by difficult experience or dedicated effort.

Your lens can be your field of study. I'm a physicist, and therefore I have a tendency (or at least a capability) of seeing things through a mathematical lens that others just seem to lack. I think about things in terms of perturbation theory, I look for small parameters that I can neglect as unimportant, and I can do back-of-the-envelope estimations of complicated systems; all of these contribute to a special point of view that I can apply to disparate areas of life.

But your lens might be economics, and you might have a tendency to view everything that way. Or maybe you view everything through an Evolutionary Lens. Or it might be psychology, or Platonic philosophy, or racism. The thing you know the most about tends to inform the way you see things, which can be useful or detrimental depending on the situation.

(I should note that it's extraordinarily interesting for scientists in disparate fields to view each others' work through their own lens! Physicists moving to biology have, for example, made important advances in the new field in spite of (presumably) knowing far less about it. I think part of the reason is that biologists are often using similar lenses to view their work.)

Your lens can be based on some experiences you laid out for yourself. Traveling to other countries can help you hone a kind of globalist lens, by seeing how other peoples and cultures live. Write stories, and you will see things through the lens of a story. Meditation practice hones a kind of mindful lens too (though practitioners will argue that it is instead the practice of removing all other lenses).

Your lens can also be based on a complex history or a trauma. Growing up in a war-torn country gives you a lens that is very different from those growing up in wealthy suburban neighborhoods. Abuse and abandonment can color a person's 'vision' so completely that they see everything else in life in its shadow. Nobody would sign up for this, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Nor would I say it's a net good that people have to go through this. However, given that it happens, we should try to learn from the lens such people have crafted through their pain, because they can see things we just can't see.

I think @Aella_girl is an example of someone with a really complex and interesting (and often beautiful) worldview, that just would not be the same if she hadn't experienced some of the terrible things she's had to go through. When she needs to, or when it's useful, she can see a situation in front of her in a particular way, through the lens of her trauma, and that can be really enlightening to those of us who lack such a lens. (Her recent writing on Frame Control rocked my world for sure.)

Others have a trauma lens and apply it less helpfully, leading to a lot of pain for themselves and those around them. Lenses aren't always good things.

To the extent you can control your lens, you become an asset to those around you; to the extent it becomes a part of you that you cannot part from... less so. Your lens might still be useful on some occasions, like in those movies where the kids are on an adventure and they have to go see "old man Smith" who is obsessed with some past experience that happens to be exactly what they need to know. But "old man Smith" is someone you become by accident, not someone you mold yourself into by intention. Learn to take your lens off.


People these days are fond of saying that everyone's 'lived experience' is a kind of unique lens you possess just by being you, with your unique set of priviledges and prejudices. I think the this argument basically assumes (1) that everything about us is a lens, and (2) we are looking through all our lenses all the time, without any control over them. You have a "white person lens", a "female lens", a "physicist lens", a "Michigan upbringing" lens, a "was assaulted in college" lens, a "spent a summer working with underprivileged youth at a camp" lens, etc., and you can't take them off; you just are those lenses and they're attached to your eyes at all times.

I think I disagree with these people in at least two respects.

First, I don't think everyone gets a lens for free; you have to work for it. Everyone could see the sun moving across the sky, because everyone had eyes (the original lens!), but it took a Galileo to invent the telescope and see something truly new. Living an ordinary life, within the ordinary range of experiences, does not grant you some truly new point of view that is incommensurable with everyone else's. This is more like saying everyone's eyes are unique; maybe this is true, but the variations are small enough that it almost never matters.

Second, unlike 'lived experiences', I don't consider lenses of particular types especially unique. My physics lens is likely very similar to my colleague's physics lens, as it has been shaped by the same forces (pun!). To the extent that two people grow up having the same horrible experience in a war-torn country, they will have similar lenses as a result. They won't agree on everything, of course, but the way of seeing will be similarly informed by those similar experiences.

It's possible to wear more than one lens at a given time, but as with ordinary lenses, the images become distorted in almost all cases. Trying to focus everything into both a pro-Trump and pro-Christian Values lens leads people to do and say very weird things, like Trump is the Messiah. Not everything has to be clearly visible through your preferred lens.


One implication of all this is that I advocate for fewer generalists, and more specialists. Or more precisely, I think you should try to be a specialist in at least one respect; after that, you can do whatever else you want, but you'll always have that specialist lens you honed by working hard on something specific. Go get that degree. Go have that experience. You don't get a lens for free; you have to work for it. Go hone your point of view into something worth having, that you weren't born with.

Then, once you have crafted yourself a lens, apply it broadly! Try to use it on anything and everything! Think of all you could learn by applying an economic lens to physics (or vice versa), or by applying your sales lens to your self-improvement regime, and so on. Anything is fair game! Galileo discovered all kinds of new things he wasn't even looking for, just by looking. Look!

Finally, and very importantly, practice taking your lens off. Try not viewing every issue through your trauma or racism or math or evolution. Take off your Libertarian lens and practice seeing things as though you were someone else. You won't succeed--you haven't honed a Democrat lens, unless you have--but at least try. At least, it will help you un-identify yourself with whatever lens you happen to be wearing at any given time. You are not the lens; you are wearing the lens. You can take it off.

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