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Does Seeing = Believing?

Before you’re really sure of what you’re seeing, check out your beliefs

“Seeing is not believing, it is only seeing.” George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin, 1872.

“Doubting Thomas,” that practical, no-nonsense disciple of Jesus, would fit well in our modern world’s philosophy that “seeing is believing.” Thomas would have nothing to do with fantastical stories of a risen Jesus. No, Thomas wanted empirical proof – the proof of his senses. He wanted to see the wound in Jesus’ side and touch the scars in his pierced hands.

Current cognitive psychology, however, doesn’t hold much truck with a Thomas-like naïve trust in our senses to provide us with a “true” representation of the way the world is. More-and-more we are coming to realize that the opposite is most often the case, that is, “believing is seeing.”

Quickly read the following and report what you just saw.

Did you notice the second THE in each of these phrases? When familiar phrases like the above are flashed on a screen for an instant, almost all respondents fail to report seeing the additional THE even though this second THE falls on their retina just as assuredly as the first one. Why? It’s because they know these phrases well and because both spoken and printed English seldom have two THEs in a row. So, because we believe that two THEs in a row don’t make sense in English we don’t “see” them, or at least our brains don’t register them.

Learning to see

This is a very simple example of how preconceived understandings or beliefs have a powerful influence of what we (think) we see. This accounts, for example, for the widely divergent reports of what witnesses of the same accident claimed to have seen. If, for whatever reason, a person has a belief that Black people are more prone to violence than white people, he or she is more likely to pick out a Black person in a police line-up than a white person, even when other evidence clearly indicates that a white person committed the crime. 

I recall how, after taking a university course in glacial geology, I “saw” the mountains in Banff and Jasper national parks entirely differently than before. What used to be just mountains with ice on them now presented as a marvelous landscape of cirques, moraines and U-shaped valleys carved by flowing ice.

A blind man healed by Jesus reported “seeing” trees walking around (Mark 8:24) when he was actually looking at people. Clearly, we must learn to see. The Pharisees were blind guides whose eyes worked fine but whose hearts were blind to who Jesus was. The modern, materialist skeptic sees only molecules in motion; the Christian sees a creation filled with the grandeur of God.

Seeing/believing; believing/seeing. Such tricky concepts. Before you’re really sure of what you’re seeing, check out your beliefs. Before you think you really believe something, check out what you see.


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