Today’s post is later than usual (or is it?). It began as a musing over a radio advertisement for a remote access/monitoring system presently being broadcast in the UK. This advert is promoting the peace of mind one may have by knowing that they can check in on what is happening in their home while they are away. It uses the image of monitoring one’s dog, eating its dinner, “not raiding the bin, or leaving surprises on the floor.”
Okay, fair enough, but my musing took me into the land of skepticism. We all have seen too many heist and spy films, where the surveillance system is hacked, and a loop of innocuous images is spliced in giving a false sense of “all is well.” But, hey, why would anyone go to such extremes in my humble abode, to take such drastic measures? Good, confidence back.
Or is it? Descartes famously questioned the limits of our observational knowledge. He noted that each of our senses is fallible. We can touch something cold, and believe it is wet. Hear a car backfire and think it is a gunshot. We can see a shadow out of the corner of our eye, and hold that it is a spider. We can be tricked by our own observations. This if taken to its natural conclusion would lead us to deduce that we can be sure of nothing. So much for the quaint image on our phone that our dog is eating its dinner, and not up to mischief.
But Rene Descartes was not actually suggesting that all of our senses are being fooled all of the time, but merely that they are not totally reliable. We adjudge the world by a combination of factors. We take our observations, and then interpret them in light of our past experiences, and our logical take of the possibilities.
So we are led to trust what we see (usually). But Hans Christian Andersen has left us another dilemma – “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In this tale an unscrupulous tailor convinces an emperor, that the new fabric he had devised is so fine, and expensive, that only the truly clever can see it. While the monarch cannot see the cloth, he doesn’t want to admit he is too stupid to see it so agrees to purchase a suit made from it. The tale continues with the emperor walking down the street with nothing on, and the people all proclaiming the elegance of the suit. Until a small child says that the king is naked. Then all (including the ruler) conclude it was folly. Our logical take, says, “I don’t see it.” But our ego says “I am not stupid, it must be there.” This is what the people of the kingdom had done.
Jesus told a parable about a rich man who died, and was sent to a place of torment (Luke 16: 19-31). In it, the man calls on Father Abraham to send a warning to the man’s family not to live as he had done. He argues that if Lazarus, who has also died, returns from the dead and warns them, surely they will repent. The response is stark. They have already been warned by scripture on how to live. He insists though that “seeing one resurrected” would “be believing.”
The analogy with Jesus’ own upcoming (from their perspective) resurrection is clear. The people did see the unbelievable – a man raised from death. Yet, many did not believe. The testimony of the eye-witnesses was ignored. Why? Because “it made no sense” based on their past experience.
But, we who have looked beyond past experience, see differently. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We see by faith, not by fallible sight. Maybe Andersen was wrong. Maybe the Emperor was attired in the most elegant attire of all time, and the people in their reliance on Descartes’ flawed senses missed the true beauty. Maybe the world today in its reliance on remote monitoring gizmos “always seeking proof” fail to trust. Maybe we who have not seen, yet believe really are the ones with sight.