September 14, 2011

The Room and the Light

At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., I entered an exhibit room so small and dark that an usher had to guide me. The only light was a dimly lit wall opposite my seat. Though I often reach out in faith regarding “modern art,” that faith began to waver as I sat staring at the wall. Within a few minutes the wall got brighter and, fascinatingly enough, light started to emerge from the bottom of the wall into a kind of shelf that stopped about a foot off the floor and halfway across the room.
As I sat there, still wondering what it was all about, the usher guided another man to a seat, as she had done for me. But why? There was plenty of light now.
Then it hit me: the room, to my mind, which had adjusted to the light, seemed bright enough. But to the man who had just entered, the room was so dark that he needed an usher. In other words, the reality of the room appeared one way to me and another way to him.
There was only one room and one light in it, so whose view, mine or his, of the room and the light was the true one, the one that accurately corresponded to the immediate environment around us both?
2011 1526 page17Centuries ago Immanuel Kant made the epistemological distinction between the phenomenon (the world as it appears to us) and the noumenon (the world as it actually is). This exhibit at the Hirshhorn showed how much of what’s out there comes to us interpreted by our minds, a fact that leads to the conundrum of trying to cross the divide between reality as it is filtered, distilled, modified, and maybe even polluted by our minds, and reality as it truly is, apart from our minds—what Kant called the Ding an Sich, the thing-in-itself (a concept that I’ve come to doubt is even feasible).
Besides the immediate question of how our mind’s hardware interprets reality, our software makes it even more subjective. In the seventeenth century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote about how “the tracks of a horse in the sand” will make a peasant think of farming and a soldier think of war. A century later Helvétius wrote about those who, looking at the moon through a telescope, thought it inhabited. “If I am not mistaken, said the lady, I perceive two shadows; they mutually incline toward each other: doubtless they are two happy lovers.—O fie! madam, replied the clergyman, these two shadows are the two steeples of a cathedral.”
Then, too, we struggle with how little we are able to see of the big picture, anyway. “If you are studying the general public’s interest in opera,” wrote string theorist Brian Greene, “but send your survey solely to the database collected by the journal Can’t Live Without Opera, your results won’t be accurate because the respondents are not representative of the population as a whole.” Because we’re so limited in what we perceive, it’s silly to make grand assumptions about all that we don’t, which is mostly everything, based on the little that we do.
Thus, as fallen humans seeking to understand reality, we have three strikes against us getting it right: (1) the limits that our minds place on how the world appears to us, (2) the subjectivity of how we interpret what does appear, and (3) the tiny slice of reality ever within our view.
No wonder Paul wrote, “for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight” (1 Cor. 3:19). That’s because so much of the “wisdom of this world” comes to us only through our senses, which are hardly objective, conclusive, and all-encompassing. Then we read: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
That’s why (I guess) we’re told that we must “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), because sight is not only subjective, limited, and contingent—it’s temporal as well.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article was published September 15, 2011.