Seeing is Not Always Believing

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”  (Rav Shmuel in the Talmud

Is it possible to perceive things “as they are” or are all our perceptions distorted by the limitations of our senses, intellect, upbringing, etc.? ” It is a question that has vexed scientists and philosophers for generations. The question is even more difficult with more recent psychological insights into “confirmation bias” and “projection“–which essentially translate into “we see what we want to see.” 

While my inclination is to the latter–that our perceptions are necessarily limited and imprecise–I’m not so sure that is the important question for most people. Since the question is ultimately unanswerable–how can we know what we do not know? (To use just one example, the neurosurgeon Oliver Sachs in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” maintains that, through the prodding of various parts of the brain, we can be made to consciously believe we are in any number of locations at different times in history.)–it seems to me that “integrity” and “authenticity” are more of a priority than “accuracy” or “objectivity.” Put another way, we can deceive others into believing we think “x” or “y,” but we generally can know when we are being honest. 

  If we are not sure about what we “really” believe, one clue as to our status is how forcefully we struggle to convince others we are right.  After all, once we recognize that all perceptions are limited, we also recognize that the perceptions of others are also legitimate, even if erroneous—and a reflection of the needs and backgrounds of those others.  Their reality cannot be our reality simply because we are not them.  Tolerance, then, is not a matter of condescending acceptance.  Rather, tolerance is a matter of objective humility based on a recognition of our limitations.  Another clue is to look at our behavior and see if it is consistent with what we say we believe.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is worse than hypocritical; it is self deception in action. 

Spiritually speaking, Hindus and others maintain that “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek.” Similarly, Jesus’s saying that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” (Luke 17:21) is a sign that our experience of heaven, at least in this life, is contingent on our spiritual integrity.  We can repress or hide inklings of inauthenticity–often through being workaholics and engaging in any number of other addictions–but deep down inside we usually feel a restlessness that defies such efforts. The Danish existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard, refers to that restlessness as “Fear and Trembling.” We can either address these spiritual questions of meaning and authenticity directly or, by avoiding them, cultivate the kinds of anxieties and neuroses Carl Jung and others discussed at length.  

In the Bible, God challenges the Israelites: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, choose life.” (Dt. 30:19)  The choice is ours–whether we believe we have a choice to make or not. 

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