Kahneman’s WYSIATI and the American Church

I’ve known WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) for many years. Recently I read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and learned a related idea – WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). Kahneman is NOT arguing that reality is limited to what we see – that if we fail to see something, well, it’s not really there. Rather, he’s referencing studies that show that we humans usually ACT as if What We See Is All There Is. We take ourselves to have accurate perceptions of reality, both in terms of detail and extent. We miss nothing of importance.

I see two consequences to this:
1. We need to learn epistemic humility. It may be natural to work on the assumption that What We See Is All There Is, but this is almost never true. We always work from limited knowledge and information. This is true whether we are working in the physical, social, or personal dimensions.
2. When we are presenting ourselves to others, whether individually or corporately, we need to remain aware that the knowledge people take themselves to have of us is always partial. It almost never matches up with our own self-knowledge or with what we think they OUGHT to know.

In yesterday’s column Ross Douthat addressed the accusation that American churches, in their all-consuming focus on culture war issues (abortion, sexuality) are neglecting the poor. He pointed to the features (money, time, personal investment) that show that this is not true. The problem for the church is that many people think it is true.

We draw our knowledge of the reality beyond our noses from the news media. The news media create what we might call “instances of knowledge creation.” Think on the analogy of a submarine’s sonar. The sonar on the submarine sends out a ping, a bit of sound. When the sound encounters something, the sound is echoed back to the sonar unit. Depending on the distance, the motion, and the composition of the object, the echo gives the sonar operator an idea of what is out there. By asking questions and telling stories based on those questions, the new media are pinging social reality. The pings tell us something – they give us a partial picture – but they aren’t the whole of the matter.

Do we have the epistemic humility to recognize that we not only lack total knowledge, but that we don’t even know everything we think we ought to know? Based on the information they receive, some take themselves to know (“We don’t think, we know!”) that President Obama is a crypto-Muslim out to ruin America. Based on the information they receive, some take themselves to know (“We don’t think, we know!”) that Republicans are out to rob from the poor and give to the rich. After all, What We See Is All There Is (and even if it’s not all there is, it is surely the case that we couldn’t every experience anything that contradicts what we currently take ourselves to know.

The church in America is being furiously pinged these days, primarily in terms of questions posed by the current culture wars. These pings give the world what it then takes to be knowledge. The content of this knowledge may be only a tiny part of what the church is about, but for at least those who take What We See To Be All There Is, that knowledge is decisive.

So what is the church to do? Play the game that assumes the politics of the culture wars are all there are? I see no happy outcomes that way. Instead, the church needs to recognize it is being pinged and pay more attention to how those pings are returned to the societal sonar operators.

Submarines aim to be as quiet as possible so as to avoid detection. Loud engines, noisy passage through water, actively pinging other objects, these are some of the ways a submarine can be passively detected. A submarine that does these things doesn’t have to be pinged for sonar operators to know it’s there: all they have to do is listen.

If Douthat is correct, and the church in America is spending far more money and hours in work with the poor than in fighting cultural wars, then the problem he sees, in terms of my metaphor, is that the church is trying to be too silent. As followers of Jesus, silence makes good sense, after all. We think we’re obeying Jesus when we don’t trumpet our good works or even let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. Refraining from making ourselves look awesome has its advantages. But, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, it also has a downside.

The church’s real failure, according to Douthat, is not that it fails to serve the poor. The failure is that we keep the poor at arms length. We serve them, but we don’t do enough to bring them in, to join them to the Body. If we truly want to win the poor to Christ, it will be their knowledge of us that matters, not the interpretations of the pings generated by the media. If I were a poor person pinging a church, I might like the idea that they were there to help meet my needs; even more, however, I would prefer that they treat me as a person, not just an object of compassion.

What about the pinging of the national media? Can or ought the church to do something about that? The best strategy I can think of is to become inscrutable, incomprehensible. Right now, the pings that come off the church make perfect sense. The church is homophobic, self-centered, ignorant, and money-hungry. That fits one preferred narrative. Saying “that narrative is wrong,” even if we shout it every day, will probably not be heard.

Submarine builders aim to make their products anechoic – made of material and in a shape that returns as little echo as possible. One way to do this is to make the skin more sound absorbent than reflective. What if the church, rather than developing a tougher skin (what we do when we get all defensive), we get a softer skin (stop trying to defend ourselves)? What if instead of fighting so hard to win the culture wars, we simply stop playing those games?

I’m not saying that the church surrender in the culture war, letting the other side win, whichever other side might be in view. Instead, what if when we hear a ping, a trumpet call summoning us to battle, we simply do nothing? What if we spend our time and voice plugging away at what Jesus set us to doing? (Yes, I know, <deep sigh>, many will say that fighting the culture war, on whichever side we find ourselves, is exactly what Jesus put us here for.)

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