Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) was not satisfied with the authoritative opinions of his time about vision. The prevalent view in 1011 A.D. was that “rays of light” were emitted from the eyes into objects. Thinkers like Aristotle, Ptolemy and Euclid lent credence and prestige to such belief. Yet, Alhazen did what few dared: he looked. To understand the world, he identified a problem, studied proposed explanations, tested the problem in controlled conditions, tested again, and then described it numerically. This is called research, which literally means to search repeatedly. He noted that “finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough.”Alhazen correctly concluded, after years of experimentation, that “the emission of visual rays is superfluous and useless,” contradicting prevalent authority. Roger Bacon, father of the scientific method, read and quoted Alhazen. Both were men of vision.
The sight of a Brazilian flag invites reflection on its slogan, “Ordem e Progresso,” Progress and Order. It derives from positivism, a philosophical tradition initiated by Auguste Compte, which posits that true knowledge comes from experimentation. Compte made two fundamental contributions to mankind: he co-invented the science of sociology, and coined the word altruism―the opposite of egoism. His unedited motto is: “Love as principle, Order as the basis, Progress as the goal.” This constitutes the application of the scientific method to the study and solution of specific societal problems. In a sense, of social engineering.
Alhazen wasn’t alien to grand-scale engineering. He was commissioned to control the waters of the Nile, but realized that this wasn’t feasible, considering available resources.
Speaking of vision, the citizens and state government of Vermont identified a problem: health care is becoming unaffordable and unfair. They asked scientists to look at existing health care systems, and identify potential solutions to be applied locally. Elected officials designed a law following recommendations of the experts, providing mechanisms to measure trends and control deviations. Vermonters conceived a single payer system for all citizens based on the best available science. They will embark on a period of testing to ensure that their plan works at least as well as other national models. Aware of Alhazen’s rough road, Vermonters understand that they could be wrong, and wish to detect signs of failure opportunely.
About four centuries ago, Michel De Montaigne asked native Brazilians about their concept of leadership. Their view was simple: a leader is he who walks ahead of everybody else, seeing things that others can’t appreciate yet; he is the first one exposed to danger.
Accustomed as we are to our petty leaders―businessmen and women who play with our fears and aspirations to increase show ratings and mass sell their own image―, we can’t but admire the wisdom of the gentle savage. His idyllic image of leadership runs opposite to those whose main concern is not an actual problem, but an ideology; those who don’t seek advice from experts, but from cronies with concocted opinions: the nihilists and champions of pseudoscience―a sounding brass, a clanging cymbal.
While some states are paralyzed and others slide backwards, Vermont marches ahead, away from reverberating noise, guided by a principle, a basis and a goal. Vermont’s view, yet unseen by the rest of us, is the shifting horizon.