On Being Freaked Out


There’s been lots of web traffic in the past 24 hours about the colors of a certain dress. You’ve seen it, right? While it’s kind’a curious, and while its sort’a neat that my wife and I both differ on what it’s colors are, what I think is even more important to note is that so many people are so freaked out over this.

“Now I see blue and black,” says a student right outside my office, as I type this very line. “I’ve got trust issues now,” he concludes (unironically, I might add).

I can’t help but put it down to the widespread presumption that we all experience the world in some unmediated way — who needs theory? It just gets in the way. Failing to understand that the very way we perceive the world actively determines what gets to count as a world worth perceiving, many of us instead walk around thinking that we are just passive witnesses to self-evidencies.

I recall, on more than one occasion, informing a class about the blind spot that we all have in our eyeballs, where the Bundle of nerves enter/exit the eye, thereby ensuring that there can be no photoreceptors in that one region to catch the light. This blew their mind. (Click the graphic to learn more — you’ll have to cover an eye to “see” the effect if you look at the graphic while changing how close you are to the screen: look at the + and you’ll notice, through your peripheral vision, that the circle disappears and reappears as you move closer/further form the screen (about a foot away it’s gone for me); but be sure to cover one eye, since one eye compensates for the other’s blind spot when we look with both eyes.)
blindspotBut while being curious, it can only rock your world when you first assume that our bodies, our minds, even our cultures, are neutral, transparent media that perfectly convey sights and sounds and meanings to us. Lacking this assumption, I don’t think the competing answers concerning that dress’s color will be all that shocking — it’ll be more akin to a fun party trick.

My point? In my own field I’ve time and again critiqued the manner in which folk psychology and popular wisdom often are portrayed as scholarship — when we simply elevate the commonsense of our own groups and use it as if it perfectly suits the world of brute facts. My interest happens to focus on how using the category religion, defined in this or that way, to name things in the world, is a peculiar trait of just some of us, making that category a folk taxon useful in arranging the items of the world for particular purposes or effects. But persuading people of this is quite a challenge, since they just know, deeply and viscerally know, that there really are religions out there, in the world, that ought to be described, compared, explained. So accepting that there are religions because we say there are — because we make our worlds sensible and habitable by naming some of the things as religion and other things as not — requires a self-reflective leap beyond many people whom I’ve met.

It’s shocking, then, to realize that the way we see the world might not be how the world necessarily really is. But for others, things like the blind spot just make people all the more interesting to study.