The dependency of sight on aim (and, therefore, on value—because you aim atwhat you value) was demonstrated unforgettably by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Simons more than fifteen years ago. Simons was investigating something called “sustained inattentional blindness.” He would sit his research subjects in front of a video monitor and show them, for example, a field of wheat. Then he would transform the photo slowly, secretly, while they watched. He would slowly fade in a road cutting through the wheat. He didn’t insert some little easy-to-miss footpath, either. It was a major trail, occupying a good third ofthe image. Remarkably, the observers would frequently fail to take notice.
The demonstration that made Dr. Simons famous was of the same kind, but more dramatic—even unbelievable. First, he produced a video of two teams ofthree people. One team was wearing white shirts, the other, black. (The two teams were not off in the distance, either, or in any way difficult to see. The six of them filled much of the video screen, and their facial features were closeenough to see clearly.) Each team had its own ball, which they bounced or threw to their other team members, as they moved and feinted in the small space in front of the elevators where the game was filmed. Once Dan had his video, he showed it to his study participants. He asked each of them to count the number of times the white shirts threw the ball back and forth to one another. After a few minutes, his subjects were asked to report the number of passes. Most answered “15.” That was the correct answer. Most felt pretty good about that. Ha! They passed the test! But then Dr. Simons asked, “Did you see the gorilla?”Was this a joke? What gorilla?
So, he said, “Watch the video again. But this time, don’t count.” Sure enough, a minute or so in, a man dressed in a gorilla suit waltzes right into the middle of the game for a few long seconds, stops, and then beats his chest in the manner of stereotyped gorillas everywhere. Right in the middle of the screen. Large as life. Painfully and irrefutably evident. But one out of every two of his research subjects missed it, the first time they saw the video. It gets worse. Dr. Simons did another study. This time, he showed his subjects a video of someone being served at a counter. The server dips behind the counter to retrieve something,and pops back up. So what? Most of his participants don’t detect anything amiss. But it was a different person who stood up in the original server’s place! “No way,” you think. “I’d notice.” But it’s “yes way.” There’s a high probability you wouldn’t detect the change, even if the gender or race of the person is switched at the same time. You’re blind too.
This is partly because vision is expensive—psycho physiologically expensive; neurologically expensive. Very little of your retina is high-resolution fovea—the very central, high-resolution part of the eye, used to do such things as identify faces. Each of the scarce foveal cells needs 10,000 cells in the visual cortexmerely to manage the first part of the multi-stage processing of seeing. Then each of those 10,000 requires 10,000 more just to get to stage two. If all your retina was fovea you would require the skull of a B-movie alien to house your brain. In consequence, we triage, when we see. Most of our vision is peripheral,and low resolution. We save the fovea for things of importance. We point our high-resolution capacities at the few specific things we are aiming at. And we let everything else—which is almost everything—fade, unnoticed, into thebackground.
If something you’re not attending to pops its ugly head up in a manner that directly interferes with your narrowly focused current activity, you will see it. Otherwise, it’s just not there. The ball on which Simons’s research subjects were focused was never obscured by the gorilla or by any of the six players. Because of that—because the gorilla did not interfere with the ongoing, narrowly defined task—it was indistinguishable from everything else the participants didn’t see, when they were looking at that ball. The big ape could be safely ignored. That’show you deal with the overwhelming complexity of the world: you ignore it, while you concentrate minutely on your private concerns. You see things that facilitate your movement forward, toward your desired goals. You detect obstacles, when they pop up in your path. You’re blind to everything else (and there’s a lot of everything else—so you’re very blind). And it has to be that way, because there is much more of the world than there is of you. You must shepherd your limited resources carefully. Seeing is very difficult, so you must choose what to see, and let the rest go.
There’s a profound idea in the ancient Vedic texts (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, and part of the bedrock of Indian culture): the world, as perceived, is maya —appearance or illusion. This means, in part, that people are blinded by their desires (as well as merely incapable of seeing things as they truly are). This is true, in a sense that transcends the metaphorical. Your eyes are tools. They are there to help you get what you want. The price you pay for that utility, that specific, focused direction, is blindness to everything else. This doesn’t matter so much when things are going well, and we are getting what we want (although it can be a problem, even then, because getting what we currently want can make blind us to higher callings). But all that ignored world presents a truly terrible problem when we’re in crisis, and nothing whatsoever is turning out the way we want it to. Then, there can be far too much to deal with. Happily, however, that problem contains within it the seeds of its own solution. Since you’ve ignored so much, there is plenty of possibility left where you have not yet looked.
Imagine that you’re unhappy. You’re not getting what you need. Perversely,this may be because of what you want. You are blind, because of what you desire. Perhaps what you really need is right in front of your eyes, but you cannot see it because of what you are currently aiming for. And that brings us to something else: the price that must be paid before you, or anyone, can get what they want (or, better yet, what they need). Think about it this way. You look at the world in your particular, idiosyncratic manner. You use a set of tools to screen most things out and let some things in. You have spent a lot of time building those tools. They’ve become habitual. They’re not mere abstract thoughts. They’re built right into you. They orient you in the world. They’re your deepest and often implicit and unconscious values. They’ve become part of your biological structure. They’re alive. And they don’t want to disappear, or transform, or die. But sometimes their time has come, and new things need to be born. For this reason (although not only for this reason) it is necessary to let things go during the journey uphill. If things are not going well for you—well, that might be because, as the most cynical of aphorisms has it, life sucks, and then you die. Before your crisis impels you to that hideous conclusion, however,you might consider the following: life doesn’t have the problem. You do. At least that realization leaves you with some options. If your life is not going well,perhaps it is your current knowledge that is insufficient, not life itself. Perhaps your value structure needs some serious retooling. Perhaps what you want is blinding you to what else could be. Perhaps you are holding on to your desires,in the present, so tightly that you cannot see anything else—even what you truly need.
Imagine that you are thinking, enviously, “I should have my boss’s job.” If your boss sticks to his post, stubbornly and competently, thoughts like that will lead you into in a state of irritation, unhappiness and disgust. You might realize this. You think, “I am unhappy. However, I could be cured of this unhappiness if I could just fulfill my ambition.” But then you might think further. “Wait,” you think. “Maybe I’m not unhappy because I don’t have my boss’s job. Maybe I’m unhappy because I can’t stop wanting that job.” That doesn’t mean you can just simply and magically tell yourself to stop wanting that job, and then listen and transform. You won’t—can’t, in fact—just change yourself that easily. You have to dig deeper. You must change what you are after more profoundly.
So, you might think, “I don’t know what to do about this stupid suffering. I can’t just abandon my ambitions. That would leave me nowhere to go. But my longing for a job that I can’t have isn’t working.” You might decide to take a different tack. You might ask, instead, for the revelation of a different plan: one that would fulfill your desires and gratify your ambitions in a real sense, but that would remove from your life the bitterness and resentment with which you a recurrently affected. You might think, “I will make a different plan. I will try to want whatever it is that would make my life better —whatever that might be— and I will start working on it now. If that turns out to mean something other than chasing my boss’s job, I will accept that and I will move forward.
”Now you’re on a whole different kind of trajectory. Before, what was right,desirable, and worthy of pursuit was something narrow and concrete. But youbecame stuck there, tightly jammed and unhappy. So you let go. You make thenecessary sacrifice, and allow a whole new world of possibility, hidden from youbecause of your previous ambition, to reveal itself. And there’s a lot there. Whatwould your life look like, if it were better? What would Life Itself look like?What does “better” even mean? You don’t know. And it doesn’t matter that youdon’t know, exactly, right away, because you will start to slowly see what is“better,” once you have truly decided to want it. You will start to perceive whatremained hidden from you by your presuppositions and preconceptions—by theprevious mechanisms of your vision. You will begin to learn.
This will only work, however, if you genuinely want your life to improve. Youcan’t fool your implicit perceptual structures. Not even a bit. They aim whereyou point them. To retool, to take stock, to aim somewhere better, you have tothink it through, bottom to top. You have to scour your psyche. You have toclean the damned thing up. And you must be cautious, because making your lifebetter means adopting a lot of responsibility, and that takes more effort and carethan living stupidly in pain and remaining arrogant, deceitful and resentful.
What if it was the case that the world revealed whatever goodness it containsin precise proportion to your desire for the best? What if the more yourconception of the best has been elevated, expanded and rendered sophisticated the more possibility and benefit you could perceive? This doesn’t mean that you can have what you want merely by wishing it, or that everything is interpretation, or that there is no reality. The world is still there, with its structures and limits. As you move along with it, it cooperates or objects. But you can dance with it, if your aim is to dance—and maybe you can even lead, if you have enough skill and enough grace. This is not theology. It’s not mysticism. It’s empirical knowledge. There is nothing magical here—or nothing more than the already-present magic of consciousness. We only see what we aim at. Therest of the world (and that’s most of it) is hidden. If we start aiming at something different—something like “I want my life to be better”—our minds will start presenting us with new information, derived from the previously hidden world, to aid us in that pursuit. Then we can put that information to use and move, and act, and observe, and improve. And, after doing so, after improving, we might pursue something different, or higher—something like, “I want whatever might be better than just my life being better.” And then we enter a more elevated and more complete reality.
In that place, what might we focus on?
What might we see? Think about it like this. Start from the observation that we indeed desire things —even that we need them. That’s human nature. We share the experience of hunger, loneliness, thirst, sexual desire, aggression, fear and pain. Such things are elements of Being—primordial, axiomatic elements of Being. But we must sort and organize these primordial desires, because the world is a complex and obstinately real place. We can’t just get the one particular thing we especially just want now, along with everything else we usually want, because our desires can produce conflict with our other desires, as well as with other people, and with the world. Thus, we must become conscious of our desires, and articulate them, and prioritize them, and arrange them into hierarchies. That makes them sophisticated. That makes them work with each other, and with the desires of other people, and with the world. It is in that manner that our desires elevate themselves. It is in that manner that they organize themselves into values and become moral. Our values, our morality—they are indicators of our sophistication.
The philosophical study of morality—of right and wrong—is ethics. Such study can render us more sophisticated in our choices. Even older and deeper than ethics, however, is religion. Religion concerns itself not with (mere) right and wrong but with good and evil themselves—with the archetypes of right and wrong. Religion concerns itself with domain of value, ultimate value. That is not the scientific domain. It’s not the territory of empirical description. The people who wrote and edited the Bible, for example, weren’t scientists. They couldn’t have been scientists, even if they had wanted to be. The viewpoints, methods and practices of science hadn’t been formulated when the Bible was written.
Religion is instead about proper behaviour. It’s about what Plato called “the Good.” A genuine religious acolyte isn’t trying to formulate accurate ideas about the objective nature of the world (although he may be trying to do that to). He’s striving, instead, to be a “good person.” It may be the case that to him “good”means nothing but “obedient”—even blindly obedient. Hence the classic liberal Western enlightenment objection to religious belief: obedience is not enough. But it’s at least a start (and we have forgotten this):You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored. You will not know what to target, and you won’t fly straight, even if you somehow get your aim right. And then you will conclude, “There is nothing to aim for.” And then you will be lost.
It is therefore necessary and desirable for religions to have a dogmatic element. What good is a value system that does not provide a stable structure? What good is a value system that does not point the way to a higher order? And what good can you possibly be if you cannot or do not internalize that structure,or accept that order—not as a final destination, necessarily, but at least as a starting point? Without that, you’re nothing but an adult two-year-old, without the charm or the potential. That is not to say (to say it again) that obedience is sufficient. But a person capable of obedience—let’s say, instead, a properly disciplined person—is at least a well-forged tool. At least that (and that is not nothing). Of course, there must be vision, beyond discipline; beyond dogma. A tool still needs a purpose. It is for such reasons that Christ said, in the Gospel of Thomas, “The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.”
Does that mean that what we see is dependent on our religious beliefs? Yes! And what we don’t see, as well! You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’renot (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness,commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price).You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs—those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudesand surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.
It takes careful observation, and education, and reflection, and communication with others, just to scratch the surface of your beliefs. Everything you value is a product of unimaginably lengthy developmental processes, personal, cultural and biological. You don’t understand how what you want—and, therefore, what you see—is conditioned by the immense, abysmal, profound past. You simply don’tunderstand how every neural circuit through which you peer at the world has been shaped (and painfully) by the ethical aims of millions of years of human ancestors and all of the life that was lived for the billions of years before that.
You don’t understand anything.
You didn’t even know that you were blind.
Some of our knowledge of our beliefs has been documented. We have been watching ourselves act, reflecting on that watching, and telling stories distilled through that reflection, for tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.That is all part of our attempts, individual and collective, to discover and articulate what it is that we believe. Part of the knowledge so generated is what is encapsulated in the fundamental teachings of our cultures, in ancient writings such as the Tao te Ching, or the aforementioned Vedic scriptures, or the Biblical stories. The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). It’s the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension. The Bible is a library composed of many books, each written and edited by many people. It’s a truly emergent document—a selected, sequenced and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over many thousands of years. The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.