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May 22, 2017

Sight and Insight: Why they go together and why we should care

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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In both English and my native Arabic, the words "sight" and "insight" are rooted in the verb "to see." While both words are frequently heard and used, we understand less about the latter one. Yet taken together, both are vital not only to our survival as a species, but also to the enhancement of our individual lives.

“Of all the senses, vision is the most versatile,” writes Dr. Michael F. Land in his book The Eye, a Very Short Introduction. Land, a world-renowned authority on animal vision, is Emeritus Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Sussex in the UK.

Vision “allows animals to navigate through the environment, seek out food, and detect and avoid predators,” he explains. “Good eyesight makes it possible to recognize other individuals and to communicate with them by gesture and expression. 

“Hearing, smell and touch can each fulfill some of these functions: sound is useful in communication, the chemical senses can identify food, and a rat in the dark can navigate by touch. But for many animal’s vision predominates and its loss is more devastating than the loss of any other sense.”

He adds that for humans “the eye was developed some 40 ways … and much of our brains are used to process visual information.”

For example, the human eye can resolve a one-minute arc; that is, an angle corresponding to a grate of 1 cm lines viewed at distance of 34 meters. This shows how sophisticated our optics are, even though they are made of the rather improbable materials of protein and water.

Besides producing a well-resolved image on the retina, our eyes must also provide the brain with useable information over a huge range of light levels.

While the physics of sight are the domain of the eye and brain, insight is the domain of the mind and the intangible qualities that makes us unique and self-aware beings.

Unlike animals, humans are capable of acquiring, responding to, and developing insight, for it is shaped by our culture, upbringing, education, religion, and peer interaction.

The dictionary defines insight as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing.”

In his book The Origin of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, René Guenon (1886-1951) cautioned that when humans focus their attention exclusively on the physical or material world, they lose the ability to engage with insight.

“It can be said with truth that certain aspects of reality conceal themselves from anyone who looks upon reality from a profane and materialistic point of view,” Guenon wrote. “That is why there are some things that can never be grasped by people who are materialists becoming incapable of getting out of the sensible world.”

Guenon was born in France, and after a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, he went to Paris for a degree in mathematics. Instead, he studied religion, including Islam, and was so fascinated by the faith that he became a Muslim in 1912 and was also known thereafter as ʿAbd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyá.

In 1930, he visited Egypt with the intention of touring the country for three months, but ended up staying there for the rest of his life. He became an Egyptian national just before his death in 1951.

Guenon wrote and published in his native French, but his works were translated into more than twenty languages.

His spiritual leader and friend was Dr. Abdulhalim Mahmoud, Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, who held a Ph.D. from Paris and translated many of Guenon’s books into Arabic.

Guenon drew important connections between wisdom and insight, arguing that one is not genuine without the other; thus, the ability to appreciate both the physical and metaphysical is part of a well-developed insight.

To extrapolate further, managing relationships with oneself, with God, nature, the Universe, and others is an integral part of true wisdom, along with nourishing love and suppressing the ego.

When we find beauty and can stop to enjoy it, we are engaging wisdom and enhancing our quality of life. This of course extends to taking pleasure in doing random acts of kindness, even to complete strangers. It doesn’t matter how simple the act might be; it is still essential training for our insight.

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