Check out the picture at Bad Astronomy.
What do you think of it? Do you see the blue and green spirals? Did you read the explanation that both spirals are really the same color – that our senses are deceived by the proximity of the other colors?
At the end of the post the author says,
“So the next time someone swears they saw Jesus, or a UFO, or a ghost, show them this picture. What you see in life is absolutely and provably not what you get.”
It is true in this case that what you see – blue and green spirals – is not what you get. Assuming, of course, that by “get” you mean something like “an accurate representation of reality,” or “what is really there.”
We have enough experience with optical (and other kinds of) illusions, that we know that sometimes our senses are fooled. But are the reports of our senses “absolutely and provably” illusory all the time? Do we never get what we see?
When my wife cooked dinner last night, the results sure looked like sausage, sauteed squash, salad and pieces of fruit. My sense of touch – through the instrument of my fork – gave further evidence supporting my sight. As I put pieces of the food into my mouth I received confirmation of what I had seen. This was indeed sausage, squash, salad, and fruit.
But perhaps that’s not the level on which I should look for an illusion. I didn’t actually see my wife cook anything. Well, I saw her stirring the squash for a moment, but I didn’t see her cut it up, apply the heat, and bring it from beginning to completion. Maybe it was only an illusion that she cooked it. Maybe it was really one of the children.
We had a surprise birthday party for my son last summer. One of his friends is named Jesus. I have seen Jesus on more than one occasion. I have spoken with Jesus on several occasions. I have seen pictures of Jesus. Am I delusional? Is he illusory? Am I not “getting” what I see when I’m in the presence of Jesus?
But then maybe he means the other Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth, the fellow born in Bethlehem, who gathered disciples, died in Jerusalem, rose from the dead, ascended to the Father. Is he suggesting that that Jesus is an illusion? Or is he claiming that any seeing of this Jesus is necessarily an illusion? Or perhaps he would limit the illusiveness of Jesus to current seeings of Jesus. Perhaps folks like Peter and Pilate really did see Jesus. But since he isn’t here now, we can’t see him now, therefore any purported seeings of Jesus are illusory.
Is the optical illusion mentioned at the Bad Astronomy site naturally occurring – or was it purposefully created to be an optical illusion? If I look at that and see an optical illusion, am I getting what I see? Is there a difference between seeing an optical illusion and seeing a picture of an optical illusion? If I look at a tortilla and see a pattern of coloration that makes me think of Jesus, am I seeing Jesus? Or am I seeing a pigmented tortilla? If I look at a canvas and see a pattern of coloration that makes me think of Jesus, am I seeing Jesus? Or am I seeing a pigmented canvas?
I reason that the optical illusion at Bad Astronomy was humanly constructed. I reason also that the article/discussion accompanying it was humanly constructed. If I see these as humanly constructed am I seeing an illusion? I certainly don’t see a person in the act of composing either, but given the effects I take them to be the work of some human, just as I took last night’s dinner to be the work of my wife. Just as I take some of the things I’ve seen in life as the work of Jesus. If I can do the former two, why can’t I do the latter?
I am part of a socio/temporal system in which I understand how internet content happens. I have seen spam and filler that is computer generated. In its form it looks real. But if I try to make sense of it, the best sense is as spam or filler. It’s not “real” content. Lots and lots of us inhabit this socio/temporal system and have no trouble sharing an assessment of these kinds of things.
Fewer people share the socio/temporal system of my household. Given the ages of my children (21, 18, 13) it would not be unreasonable to think that one of them actually cooked last night’s supper. But since I am an inhabitant of that system, I know that my wife and I cook more than 99% of the meals. Since I did not cook the supper, my inference that she cooked the meal is not shocking. Since many other people inhabit similar socio/temporal systems, I’d guess my inference is not shocking to them either.
But what about seeing Jesus? I confess that I don’t inhabit a socio/temporal systems that inclines me to see Jesus in tortillas, fried eggs or clouds. While I can imagine looking at each of these, observing patterns of coloration or shaping, and thinking, ‘That looks like Jesus,” I would take this experience as more aptly called an act of imagination than an act of seeing Jesus. Again, because of the socio/temporal systems I inhabit, if I see patterns of coloration on a canvas and say, “I see Jesus” – as opposed, for instance, to saying “I see George Washington,” or, “I see a horse,” or “I see a gently flowing river.” At the same time, depending on the context that asks me to make a report of what I see, I might be happier to say “I see a picture of Jesus,” or “I see Jesus in that picture” than “I see Jesus.”
As a follower of Jesus and as an inhabitant of the socio/temporal system we call the Christian tradition, I sometimes see Jesus. I have not (yet) to my knowledge (I have to be wary considering what Jesus says in Matthew 25) seen Jesus the person as Jesus the person. But because of the judgments and patterns of perception built into this socio/temporal system, I have no trouble saying, “I have seen Jesus,” when I speak of effects that I take to be caused by Jesus’ acts.
Can I be wrong? Or can I have absolute certainty that I have seen Jesus? I don’t think so. I have a pretty high capacity for doubt. Like Descartes, I can imagine circumstances that cause my perceptions to be inaccurate. But I can do that for just about everything. Given my socio/temporal location, I have no reason to take my assessment that the post on the Bad Astronomy site was produced by anything other than a human agent. Given my socio/temporal location, I have no reason to take my assessment that dinner last night was cooked by my wife as illusory. In the same way, viven my socio/temporal location, I have no reason to take my assessment that I have seen Jesus as illusory.
In the future I might come to judge a particular event that I took to be a seeing of Jesus (or my wife, or of a rainbow, or of a dog) as no such thing. But that would be no reason to eliminate altogether the class of all such seeings.