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Ancient Theories of Vision and Al-Kindis Critique of Euclids Theory of Vision

Ika Putri

1 Introduction
Vision is a wide and complex subject in science. The human being had been surveying optical phenomena since the early advanced civilisation. The oldest mirrors and burning lenses which have survived were dated before 1500 B.C.. Around the same time Egyptians had listed various eye diseases on papyrus, they even underwent several optical surgeries, though the results were nowhere near successful. And ca. 400 B.C. people in China were examining the nature of radiation, shadows and reections ([5] p.1). So what were the reasons for the interest in vision already on such an early period? The eye is the most important organ of sense and nding out a way to cure an eye disease is seen as an extraordinary achievement in the history of mankind. The early phase of the history of vision is divided into three parts: The theories introduced by the ancient Greek philosophers, by the Roman and the Arabs. In the following chapters we will go into each theories in more detail.

2 The Ancient Theories


The early advanced culture we found in present-day Greece was commonly known for their religious conception. Myths and sages characterise their history. Only after 500 B.C. people began with the attempts to understand the nature rationally ([2], p.16). Therewith the time of Greek philosophy had started. It was divided into dierent disciplines such as politics or natural sciences, which the optic is assigned to. In this chapter, we will discuss chronologically several concepts dealing with the mechanism of sight.

2.1 The Atomists


In the ancient Greek, where people believed in the existence of gods and supernatural powers, the atomists were the rst who were able to deliver a neutral, non-religious considerations ([3] p.23f.). By the time, there were several theories introduced: Democritus (ca. 460 B.C. - 370 B.C.) suggested that the air between the eye and the object seen is contracted and stamped by the object itself and the observing eye ([5] p.2). The pressed air, still holding various colours of the object wanders and appears in the eye ([5] p.2).

Figure 1: Eye Construction according to Democritus ([6] p.69) Epicurus (ca. 341 B.C. - 270 B.C.) proposed that particles or atoms ow continuously from the objects body into the eye. Nevertheless the body does not shrink because other particles will replace and ll in the empty space ([5] p.2). Both theories above are based on the same principle, namely that an object can only be perceived if it directly comes into contact with the corresponding organ ([5] p.3). The last part was interpreted dierently; the essential part of vision is for Democritus the pressed air, for Epicurus the activity of particles moving along and eventually entering the eye. In addition to the intromission theory - the (particles of the) object must enter the eye in order to be visible - the atomists also studied the anatomy of the eye. According to Democritus, the eye is composed of water ([5] p.3) which is right. An eye, as shown on Figure 3, consists of uid which is covered by two coats and which can travel along the hollow optic nerve ([6] p.65). Democritus stated too that there were four basic colours: White objects are smooth, brilliant, and cast no shadows. The opposite colour is black; things of this colour are rough and irregular. The third colour is red, which symbolises heat . The last colour, green, has a solid and void attributes. The other colours are produced by mixing the basic colours together ([6] p.65f.).

2.2 Plato
Plato (ca. 427 B.C. - 347 B.C.) who lived around the same time as the atomists brought out another theory of sight. His version happens to be a combination of the intromission theory of the atomists and the extramission theory, which says that light proceeding from the eye is the cause of vision. The second concept is going to be discussed later (see Euclid). Plato claimed that a stream of light or re ([5] p.3) proceeds from the observing eye. This ray has the same property as the sunlight and even the surface of the eye. Being in such state, the eye will only let light of the same kind pass through. The inner re fuses then with the sunlight and form a homogeneous body ([5] p.5), located on a direct line with the eye. While this occurs, the targeted object lets ame particles ([5] p.6) o its body. The concept of the idea is very similar to the theory suggested by Epicurus. If the object is placed within the homogeneous body, the particles will be able to enter the eye and come in contact with the soul ([5] p.5). In contrast to the intromission theory, which aforementioned that vision occurs in the eye, Plato argued that vision should happen in a sort of mediator which passes on the motion of anything that comes to interact with the soul. In this case, the mediator is the fusion of the inner re and the external light. In Platos teaching, colours are those ame particles owing from the objects. If one compare these with the particles of the visual ray, there are three dierent kind of colours: If the size of both particles are equal, one perceives a transparent object. If the ame particles are bigger, then one senses something cold and black. If they are smaller, than a sensation of hot and white will be present ([5] p.6).

2.3 Aristotle
The third theory of vision that became popular in the ancient Greece and later was developed by Aristotle (ca. 384 B.C. - 322 B.C.). Unlike his predecessors Aristotle relied more in his senses and had more faith in the results of his own observations ([6] p.2). Apparently during his experiments he could not prove that the earlier theories, especially the atomists and Platos theory, were right. So, he stood against them and represented his own idea. He denied the idea supposing light as a corpuscular emanation ([5] p.6) which was part of the intromission concept. Aristotle was certain that light could not be a solid body since it is neither re, nor ... an emanation from any body ([5] p.6) Then what is light? Aristotle pointed out that luminous bodies such as re cause light. So it is actually not really a body but a mere immaterial actuality of the transparency ([5] p.7) Neither the extramission nor the intromission theory was accepted by Aristotle as many other scientists who found out that both ideas do not make sense: If visual rays proceed from the eye, then one should be able to see in any circumstances while keeping the eyes open. But you cannot see anything in the dark place with your bare eyes. Besides, it is impossible for an object seen to shrink and enter the eye. Furthermore Aristotle was against the alternative idea oered by Plato because a satisfying explanation how the inner light can collide with sunlight and how both lights form a body could not be found ([5] p.6). Aristotles theory of sight can be considered very advance by his time. He believed that (sun)light is reected by an object and somehow then transmitted by a medium into the eye ([5] p.12). This is the basic knowledge for the theory we know nowadays. Here, the medium plays an important role: vision only occurs if a medium between the eye and the object exists.

Figure 2: Eye construction according to Aristotle ([6] p.70) If you bring an object directly in front of the eye, you wont see it since there is no medium in between. What could the medium possibly be? Aristotle stated that the medium should be of something transparent, so that one can see an object through them ([5] p.7). Air, water or other solid but transparent material are some examples of such medium. Colour is then what lays on the surface of the object and it sets the transparent medium in motion ([5] p.8). This way, light can be transmitted into the eye. So, colour and medium have to interact with each other in order for vision to occur. Like other scientist before him, Aristotle also studied the anatomy of the eye. He was known to have cut up animal eyes to analyse its structure. He came to a conclusion saying that an eye consists of three coats covering a humour. In his study-sketches depicted on Figure 2.3 above, the lens is not drawn. This is an indication that the eye he had dissected was already in a post-mortem state.

2.4 Euclid and Ptolemy


After the death of Alexander the Great in 322 B.C. the empire started to fall apart; people left their homeland. The Roman Empire took this opportunity and conquer the territory. The study of vision was then continued by roman philosophers. Euclid A Greco-Roman who made a great contribution to the development of the vision theory is Euclid (ca. 325 B.C. - 265 B.C.). He introduced a theory which deals only with the

geometrical aspects of vision ([5] p.12). Euclids theory is called extramission since he assumed that visual rays emanate from the eye. However, he did not explain in his works why one can perceive things at all. Euclid described the visual perspectives, which the former theories lack of. Euclids Optica is based on the seven postulates he had set ([5] p.13f). These are listed below: 1. There are far-reaching rays proceeding directly from the eye. 2. The rays form together a cone which has its apex in the eye and the base at the limits of your vision. 3. If the visual cone falls on a thing, it will be visible. 4. The bigger the angle, which the object is seen under, the bigger it will appear. 5. An object stricken by a higher visual ray will appear higher, and vice-versa. 6. The further right the visual ray that fall upon an object, the more to the right is the object seen in the observers eye. 7. Things seen under more angles, i.e. the more visual rays encounter the observed object, the clearer they are perceived. Although at a rst glance Euclid seemed to disregard all other visual aspects, we can see that the postulates above include other elements. The rst three axioms explain the concepts of visual ray that proceeds from the eye as we know it from Platos theory. Postulate 4 - 6 describe how the size and position of the object seen depend on the angle, under which an object is observed. And the last potulate deals with the clarity of the object: The further the object, the bigger the visual cone and thus the less visual rays fall upon it and the less clear it will be perceived. Conclusively Euclid did not leave out other aspects completely. Ptolemy A follower of Euclids idea happened to be the greatest optician of antiquity Claudius Ptolemy ([5] p.15). He extended Euclids theory by adding the physical, physiological and psychological aspects. Ptolemy (ca. 100 - 175) agreed with Euclids postulate saying visual rays emanate from the eye in a form of a cone with the vertex at the eye and the base on the object seen. But he did not accepted it as is; he added that a visual ray has the same nature as the external light (sunlight). The idea was adapted from Plato, who believed if both lights meet each other, a homogeneous body is formed. Thus, visual light must be a consistent body. Euclid mentioned that there are gaps between the visual rays which explains why one cannot see things clearly at some occassions. On the contrary, Ptolemy insisted that there exist only a single visual ray emanating in form of a cone, otherwise it is impossible to see an entire object at one time. Additionally he argued that rays only represent the geometry of sight, but not the reality itself, like Euclid seemed to have meant. Finally Ptolemy revived the theory of colour as Aristotle dened it. However he added that colour produces a modication (passio) in the visual cone, whereas Aristotle only stated that colour cannot inuence the visual cone. In his case it is the transparent medium without the presence and cooperation of the external light ([5] p.16). Unfortunately some of his

Figure 3: Eye construction according to Galen ([6] p.73) statements remain unclear because Ptolemys rst work which contains the explanation of his ideas did not survive. Ptolemy added two geometrical assumption to Euclids concept. First, within the visual cone the clarity of the object observed might dier depending on its position within the cone. An object located over the main axis is perceived more clearly than an object placed on the periphery of the visual cone. Second, the apex of the visual cone is situated precisely at the centre of the cornea and the rotation of the ocular eye ([5] p. 17).

2.5 Galen
A scientist of the late Roman Empire who studied the optical phenomena is Galen (ca. 133 - 200). He concentrated his work in the structure of the eye. He was known to have dissect monkeys and freshly slaughtered oxen to study the anatomy ([6] p. 66). Nonetheless, psychological and physical elements are to be found in his theory. An optical spirit called pneuma travels along the hollow optic nerves connecting the eye and the brain. While being in the eye, pneuma comes in contact with the air surrounding the eye ande changes it to its nature. This way, the air has been converted into an instrument of soul and became perceptive ([5], p.9). Galen has adapted this part from the Stoics, and added his own contributions: All these take place exactly in the crystalline lens situated in the middle of the eye. As a consequence, the lens is the vital instrument of vision. Cataract had lead him to draw this conclusion. The cause of the disease lies between the lens and the cornea; if you removed it surgically you should be able to see again ([6] p. 69).

Through his studies Galen was capable of gaining a nearly exact knowledge of the eye structure. As we can see above, he was already capable of locating the lens. In addition to this, he also mentioned in one of his works the existence of retina, which had a netlike structure and enables pneuma to travel along the nerves and let the soul interact with images captured by the eye. The cornea supposed to be an outgrowth of the eye which protects the inner parts of the eye ([6] p.89).

3 Al-Kindi and his critiques against Euclids theory


Around the 5th century The Roman Empire was defeated. And so the European supremacy in science and medicine came to an end. At the same time the Arabic culture started to spread and it reached its climax by the conquest of Spain in the 7th century. Thus the centre of science was translocated to the Orient ([2] p.30). Abu Yusuf Yaqub Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi was one of the rst moslems who devoted himself in transferring ancient Greek knowledge to the arabic scholars. He translated important scientic and philosophical works of Greek philosophers ([1] p.207). In the following, only his thoughts of optic will be discussed.

3.1 Defending the extramission theory


Al-Kindi did a great contribution in optic; his work De Aspectibus is inuenced by great ancient philosophers like Aristotle, Galen and especially Euclid. He was in favour of Euclids extramission theory. He showed this by mentioning arguments speaking against the intromission and the other theories, such as described below: According to Theon of Alexandria, whose theory Al-Kindi accepted, the structure of a sense organ should comply to its function. Take the eye as an example: an eye has a globular shape and can move itself around. Apparently it is not designed to collect images as the intromission theory suggests ([5] p.22). Consequently an eye has to move and send something, namely visual rays, in order to perceive an object. The intromission as well as the Aristotelian theory assumed, as long as object particles enter the eye, the object will be seen entirely at one time. But if you take a circle as an example and take a look at it from the edge, what you see is just a line. If you ip it and have a look from the front you will recognize it as a circle ([5] p.23). As opposed to this, the extramission thory is possible to explain such phenomena - what you see is what the rays fall upon. The extramission theory can be combined easily with Galens concept, which Al-Kindi also did. He mentioned that a kind of visual spirit meets the eye and transform it, which ran along a very long distance ([5] p.31). However this does not make Al-Kindi one of Galens followers. Al-Kindi never mentioned that the air thereby become percipient as Galen had stated.

3.2 Whats wrong with Euclids visual ray?


Although Al-Kindi accepted fully Euclids opinion about the extramission theory, there are some points concerning visual rays, which he had to disapprove:

Figure 4: ([5] p.29) As stated by Euclid, visual rays are geometrical, one-dimensional lines ([5] p.24). However, one-dimensional lines do not have width and length; they hit the object only on points. Since points do not have size, it is impossible to perceive points and the targeted object will not be visible at all ([1] p.216). Therefore, Al-Kindi claimed, the visual rays must be three-dimensional. It is mentioned in Euclids work that there suppose to be gaps between the visual rays and this is the reason why the sight grows weaker as the distance between the object and the eye grows; the size of the gaps increases and so the section which should be covered. Al-Kindi once again disagreed with Euclid. If visual rays are separated by spaces, seeing an object completely is impossible; all you see are spots of your actual visual eld ([5] p.25). Thus, visual rays should be continuous to enable a complete perception.

3.3 Perception Sensitivity of visual rays


Al-Kindi also took his time observing the perception sensitivity within the visual cone. Euclid, or rather his followers, argued that it depends on the length of the ray: The shorter the ray the clearer the object will be perceived. Al-Kindi took this assumption for impossible: an object put on the axis but farther away from the eye is perceived more clearly than an object placed nearer to the eye, but at the periphery of the cone. In order to explain this phenomena Al-Kindi has thought up another theory: Consider a visual ray as candle light; two candles can lighten a room better than one ([5] p.28). Therefore, the more visual rays fall upon an object, the clearer it will be perceived. As shown in Figure 4. the circle ADGB is the part of the eyeball that sends visual rays. From A, a visual ray covers the eld TEH. The middle part B of the eyeball emits the visual ray ELZ. And from G a visual ray proceeds and lightens IZK. As can be seen, the marginal sector of the visual eld is only covered by a single ray. The further you go to the middle LB, the more visual rays that cover the eld. This way if an object is positioned nearer to the main axis LB of

the visual cone, it will be perceived more clearly ([6] p. 28). This is due to the increasing number of the rays falling upon the object seen.

4 Conclusion
Now, the theories discussed above will be reviewed. The Atomists assumed that vision occur if the object touches the sense organ. This happens either when the air between the organ and the target is compressed or if particles of the object y o and enter the eye. The second assumption was more popular; it was adopted and modied by many scientists. Plato improved the intromission theory mentioned above as following: A kind of gentle light proceeds from the eye, then hit sunlight and both lights act as a connector between the eye and the object. This way, the objects particles are able to enter the eye. Aristotle disagreed with both concepts and constructed a new one. Aristotle meant that light is reected by the observed object and then enters the eye. A medium inbetween is responsible for transmitting the motion of the colour particles. Only then visual perception is possible. However, he did not develop an entirely new idea because the colour theory was a modication of Platos interpretation. Euclid noticed that the visual perspectives were never mentioned in the former concepts. So he established the seven postulates which explain the mechanism of sight. But he eventually left other aspects out of his work, leaving others to complete the visual theory he dened. Ptolemy was the one who attempted this successfully. The last ancient theory is introduced by Galen. He mentioned of a visual spirit pneuma which travels along the optic nerve, connecting the eye and the brain in order for the soul to sense an object. Galen also did a great contribution to optic by delivering a detailed structure of the eye As one of the earliest Arabic philosophers Al-Kindi studied and translated the works of the ancient Greeks. He attempted to improve and introduce the ancient concepts to the mass. He adopted Galens theory of visual spirit and Euclids as well as Aristotelian concepts. As one can see, the understanding of eye mechanism is advancing bit by bit; at rst the theories were based on speculations. These then were extended and improved by younger philosophers whose considerations resulted more and more from objective observations. This way, the knowledge of optic has been enriched greatly through the history, until today.

References
[1] Adamson, Peter: Arabic sciences and philosophy - Vision, light and color in al-Kindi, Ptolemy and The ancient commentators, New York, 2006 [2] Ausb uttel,Frank M.;B ohning, Peter; Emer, Wolfgang: Grundwissen Geschichte, Klett 2003 [3] Brieger-Wasservogel, Lothar: Klassiker der Naturwissenschaften: Plato und Aristoteles, Leipzig, 1905 [4] Hecht, Eugene: Optik, Oldenbourg, 2005 [5] Lindberg, David C.: Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler, Chicago, 1976 [6] Wade, Nicholas J.: A Natural History of Vision, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999