Sometimes art is way out ahead of science. Errol Morris has an essay, “Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One),” which speaks to the complexity of human life, the mixture of moral judgments, memory, and evidence. It is well worth a read.
He discusses the making of his documentary The Thin Blue Line, which helped to overturn a murder conviction in Dallas. His essay, in one sense, is a long meditation on who we are, who we think we are, and how to show both. His creative use of interviews, re-enactments, police evidence, audience perspective, and storytelling show how he already knew, intuitively, much of what we try to discuss here.
I’ll copy his ending here:
Perception is endlessly colored by fantasy and belief – perception of the present as well as the past. If there is a story that we wish to believe, our perceptual apparatus will usually modify or reinterpret what we see rather than the other way around. We see things that do not exist and fail to see things that are right in front of our eyes. We often remember things incorrectly and our memories change over time.
The brain is not a Reality-Recorder. There is no perfect replica of reality inside our brains. The brain elides, confabulates, conflates, denies, suppresses, evades, confuses and distorts. It has its own agenda and can even work at cross-purposes with our conscious selves. Consciously, we may think that we see all and know all, but our brains may be “blind” to much of what is going on around us.
Many people believe they have found a way around the eccentricities of the brain by substituting a camera, but this only defers the problem. It does not solve it. Even photographs have to be perceived. They have to be seen. There is no shortcut around the Cartesian riddle of separating reality from the appearance of reality. There is no shortcut to reality. The brain is all we have.