Seeing Conditions What We Believe; Believing Conditions What We See.
Theory of Knowledge
Seeing conditions what we believe; believing conditions what we see.
Seeing conditions what we believe; believing conditions what we see. This is a true statement, although on the surface it appears paradoxical. How can one’s beliefs be affected by physical evidence if the beliefs in question affect how one sees the physical evidence? To best discuss this statement, it is necessary to examine different cases in which either side of the statement might be true. Having done this, it will become easier to resolve the aforementioned paradox.
The first statement, “Seeing conditions what we believe,” is quite true. This has been the case for thousands of years and seeing has affected beliefs spanning across the world. To better understand this concept, I shall use the word “seeing” to represent all sensory perceptions.
When the ancient Norseman saw a lightning bolt, he hypothesized that it must have been thrown by an angry god. Today when we see it, we regard it merely as an atmospheric discharge. Regardless of the levels of scientific advancement in either culture, it can easily be seen that sensory perception of the lightning bolt triggers a certain response, or belief. For the ancient Norseman, it was that Thor threw it. For the Scientific Rationalist, it is being caused by electromagnetic forces. The converse of the statement, “believing conditions what we see, 8; also works into this example; the Norseman, a rather scientifically unadvanced person, had a polytheistic belief system which made it easy for him to accept Thor and his lightning bolts. A Scientific Rationalist, more scientifically advanced than the Norseman, demands a godless explanation for lightning and thus rationalizes it with a scientific theory. Nonetheless, is quite clear that our sensory perceptions, or “seeing,” as it were, has a conditioning impact upon what we believe.
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By “seeing” or experiencing different sensory phenomena, we shape our fundamental beliefs. Therefore, “seeing conditions what we believe.”
The converse of the statement is equally as true: believing conditions what we see. To illustrate this point of belief conditioning seeing (as well as reaffirming that seeing conditions belief), imagine that two archaeologists in Israel had found what was rumored to be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Let us further suppose that one ar chaeologist is a Christian whereas the other is an atheist. Upon entering, they find no body. The Christian archaeologist could say, “Since there is no body, Jesus must have risen from the dead and therefore must be the Son of God.” The atheist archaeologist can look at the same empty tomb and conclude, “Since there is no body, Jesus never existed in the first place, his body was stolen from the tomb or he survived the crucifixion and escaped after the whole ordeal had ended.” Here, the empty tomb can be seen as either evidence for Jesus’ existence or nonexistence, depending on whose philosophical filter the information is processed through. The same would hold true if there was a body to be found in the cave. The atheist would propose, “Since Jesus’ body is here, he didn’t rise from the dead and therefore isn’t the Son of God.” The Christian would merely conclude that they had stumbled across the wrong cave. Again, the s ame physical evidence leads to vastly different perceptions, depending on the belief systems through which they were processed. Thus, when one experiences sensory phenomena, it is filtered through one’s set of morals and values (beliefs) and the end result is a perception of the sensory phenomena which agrees with the beliefs of that particular person. A rather simple way to express this is the optimist/pessimist test of the glass either being half full or half empty. Once again, a physical phenomena is interpreted in two radically different ways depending on the “moral filter” of the person who is “seeing” it.
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Having examined both sides of the statement in a few different cases, we can now begin to examine the complete statement. The first half, “Seeing conditions what we believe,” relies on physical evidence affecting beliefs. The second half, “Believing conditions what we see,” relies on beliefs affecting perception of physical evide nce. Here, we run into the rather intriguing paradox of physical evidence affecting its own interpretation. Obviously, for this pair of statements to agree, one must override the other, privileging either seeing or believing. How can this decision be made? What are the deciding factors which will swing the pendulum to either the “belief” side or the “seeing” side? Since this issue deals with human belief and perception, the answer is rather obvious: humans themselves are the ones who decide whether “seeing” or “believing” gives way to the other, depending on society’s spiritual mood at the time as well as depending upon the world view of the person who is experiencing the physical phenomena.
In primitive cultures belief conditioned what was seen. The flash of lightning , the clap of thunder and other natural phenomena were explained in terms of gods and goddesses through which everything was interpreted. In Ancient Greece and Rome, see ing began to condition belief. Myth and legend gave way to mathematical discoveries as well as discoveries in physics and other sciences. Men like Pythagoras, Aristotle and Hippocrates represent the “seeing” slant present in the Classical ages of Greece and Rome.
With the advent of Christianity, belief was again given favor over physical evidence and the Roman Catholic Church explained the whys and hows of the universe through belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible processed through a filter based on the unquestioned scientific authority of the writings of Aristotle. This world view was challenged by scientists, such as Galileo, who ushered in the Scientific Revolution. While the Church let their beliefs affect what they saw, Galileo operated on the opposite end of the spectrum, by trying to understand the natural order of the universe outside the influence of the Church. He performed experiments, such as dropping objects of different masses from a certain height to prov e that all things fell at a constant rate, and, as a result, his seeing such things occur conditioned his belief system. While Galileo, as well as Newton and Kepler, believed in God as the “First Cause,” many philosophers began to trust only in science and the scientific method, moving towards the idea of a closed system in which there is matter and nothing else, leaving no room for deities. From that time, until the present, many people adopted the code of Scientific Rationalism, expecting a logical, secular reason for everything which happened in the natural world.
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We again see the pendulum swing back towards the belief side in this present age. With the onset of postmodernism, it has been conceded that science cannot provide all of the answers, especially with issues such as death and the afterlife. Thus we see a rebirth in spirituality and a lessened enthusiasm towards scientific progress. We also see the “God as the supreme scientist” philosophy resurface, in which it is acknowledged that we live in a universe governed by scientific laws, however, those laws were created by some external force—sure, the lightning bolt is an atmospheric discharge with a scientific explanation behind it, but God may be the one who made the laws which govern the lightning bolt.
So, seeing conditions what we believe and believing conditions what we see. These two statements exist and operate on a daily basis in everyone’s lives. However, when we bring the two together and they come in conflict, one must be chosen over the other. When this happens, we tend to privilege the one that best fits the societal values of the time as well as our own personal convictions, be they based in seeing or in believing.