Sunday, December 26, 2010

Believing Truly is Seeing

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote,

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

As I write this I think to the conversations I have and have had with fundamentalists. Frequently it is asserted that the reason that I do not accept their beliefs or see the world as they see it is that I am rebellious or willful in my desire not to accept their worldviews. "You do not believe because you do not want to." "You choose not to believe." I guess that for many my non-belief may seem to be of this stature, for indeed, I am sure, in their experiences, there is sufficient "reason" to believe. Let me explain.

The eminent psychologist of child development Jean Piaget used the concept of schema to describe a way of thinking. A schema is a category (or bucket) of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge was constructed or obtained. It should be noted that a schema can be the construal of both subjective and/or objective knowledge with the emphasis being on the personal, individual construction of this knowledge.

As one goes through life, schemas are developed to understand and explain sensory experience. A child encounters blackberries at the forest edge and is encouraged to pick and eat them. However, when the same child happens across an unknown berry, she is cautioned strongly against eating them. Hence, the child's "berry schema" is developed and expanded to include the concepts of both edible and dangerous berries. When the same child encounters another forest edible, let's say a red clover, she might very well accommodate her existing "berry schema" into a "forest-edible schema" or, she might assimilate the "berry schema" and so identify red clovers as berries. I have seen this in real life.

We all use schemas to work with the world around us. And, like the neurons in our brains, the pathways that are used the most become the strongest and the most capable of assimilating new knowledge. As a result, two people might look at the same information and come away with very different schema-based conclusions. The creationist sees in the feathered dinosaur a fraud but not a missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

When a fundamentalist approaches a holy book with schemas of inspiration and inerrancy, she will find grand patterns and sublime connections reaching and branching into more and more complex intricacies. She will "see" what she believes. Her faith will become sight as she bemoans, "Why can't others see what I see?" However, her reality is constructed and contingent—the result of her chosen schemas. When challenged with morally repulsive content or scientific and historical error in the Quran, the fundamentalist will most likely not be able to see it. Instead, she will assimilate the information into existing schemas creating a forced harmony betwixt the discordant.

The fundamentalist is bound to the prison of her schemas until she accepts a critical posture to herself and to her ways of thinking, her schemas. She must face that which is discordant and allow her schemas to be accommodated to new information. Until she does this, her world will continue to develop into an intricate balance of self-deceptive complexity and concordance. However, she will only further burry her head in the sand of her own making.

Science as a methodology relies on universalizing means—peer review and reproducibility. Science is the best methodology humans have derived to correct our schemas and to free our thinking from schematic prisons.

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