Sermon by Donald A. Bailey
My topic today is blind spots, physical, mental and moral. This topic came to me last year, when Marie was unexpectedly diagnosed with a torn retina, which required emergency surgery. In the course of her treatment, we found out quite a bit about the eye, probably more than we really wanted to know. For instance, we learned that there are hundreds of times more nerve endings on the surface of the cornea than there are on one's fingertip, making even a minor scratch on the cornea extremely painful.
Another thing about the eye that I learned, or remembered, because I had heard of it before, is that the optic nerve comes off the front of the retina and then dives back through the retina to connect to the brain. This sanctuary used to be filled with Boeing engineers, and we still have a few out there, and every one of them would be horrified at a design that took the output from an optical sensor off the front of the sensor and then routed it back through a hole in the receptive surface to the processing unit. Any competent engineer would take the output off the back of the sensor, eliminating the need for a hole in the sensor surface.
Some of you may remember a few years ago when I had the privilege of giving a talk from this pulpit on the relationship between evolutionary biology, Scripture, and faith. It's a particular interest of mine, thinking about the relationship of science and religion. Some of you may also remember a number of years ago when we had visiting speakers from The Discovery Institute here, promoting the notion of intelligent design. This is a doctrine that claims that biological structures, and in particular human beings, are far too complex to have evolved by mere chance. There must have been a designer to create such a wonderful mechanism as, for instance, the human eye.
I am convinced the intelligent design people are wrong. Eyes, or something similar, have evolved at least 30 different times in the last 500 million years, because the ability to see gives the animal such an evolutionary survival advantage. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And of course, there's this problem of the optic nerve. The "intelligent designer" who thought that one up failed engineering 101.
Genesis tells us we are made in "the image of God". But I personally don't believe that God's optic nerve comes off the front of his or her retina before going back through to the brain. More on that later.
But I didn't come to talk today about evolution. I came to talk about blind spots. The consequence of the optic nerve going back in through a hole in the retina is that everybody has a blind spot, where there are no receptor cells to pick up the light. You don't see it, because your eyes are constantly moving over the visual field, and the brain automatically fills in what it figures must be in the blind spot. But it's there. You can test by taking a piece of paper and draw an ex-on the left-hand margin. Then measure about 5 inches to the right and draw a dot about the size of a penny. Hold the paper at arms length and close your left eye. Keep your right eye focused on the X and slowly bring the paper towards you. You will see the dot disappear.
And just as our brains construct a model of the visual field that we are looking at, our brains also construct a model of the entire world based on our experience. Not just our visual field, but our expectations about how things work, what tools and objects do, how our relationships with other people fit together, basically everything that's part of our day to day experience goes into this gigantic model of the world in our brains. This model is a pretty good approximation of the world, and every waking minute our brains are refining it and adapting it to new information. But who knows, tiny aliens, or Angels, could be hovering right in our blind spots, and we would never know it.
In the passage from Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes us about our blind spots. He uses the metaphor of a speck in your neighbor's eye, and expands it to the log or plank in our own eye. Of course, Jesus was referring to our moral blind spots, not our optical blind spots.
Jesus saw people for who they really were, not by how society judged them, or other people assumed them to be, but how they really were in their hearts. Jesus calls on us to do the same. In this, as in so many other aspects of his ministry, Jesus was a radical. He made hard demands on his disciples, and he makes hard demands on us. And of course, the ultimate example of a moral blind spot was the failure of the Jewish authorities to really see who was standing there right in front of them, God incarnate.
Of course, it's relatively easy to say "Oh, we all have moral blind spots, and we need to be more careful to avoid them." But that's very difficult to do in the abstract. When I think about moral blind spots, and I certainly have many of my own, it helps me to think of the work of the Nobel prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He wrote a wonderful book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow". Traditional economic theory is concerned with what a hypothetical economic person would do in any given situation. Such a person is assumed to be rational, selfish, and consistent in their wants and desires. Kahneman's profound insight is that this rational economic person does not actually exist in real life. But we can understand and quantify many of the unconscious influences which govern our decisions.
Kahneman described the situation this way: our brains operate with two distinct but related systems of thought. System 1 Is the way of thinking we use everyday, all the time. It is quick, efficient, doesn't use up a lot of energy, doesn't require a lot of mental effort, and for most purposes usually produces pretty good results. It's the system you probably use to pick a tomato out of the bin at the supermarket. You think, "This one looks good," without exactly quantifying its ripeness, weight, color and other physical characteristics. System 1 is always checking your mental model of the world against new sensory input, asking "Is there a threat coming at me," or "Is there some kind of opportunity here that I should be taking advantage of?" or "All right, everything seems to be stable, no need to worry or change what I'm doing." System 1 is the part of our minds that triggers the flight or fight response.
System 2, on the other hand, is thinking that is slow, rigorous, requires a lot of effort and energy, and is completely verifiable. Where system 1 says "I have about $75 worth of groceries in my cart, and so I think I have enough money to check out," system 2 adds up all the items and comes to $82.17. System 1 uses rules of thumb and approximations. System 2 figures things out in detail. System 2 follows the rules of mathematics and logic, looks for evidence for and against any given proposition, and reasons things out in an organized way that can both be explained to another person and replicated by them. System 2 understands the workings of system 1, and can help us develop techniques to correct the errors that lazy system 1 may commit.
Of all God's creation, we are, as far as we know, the only creatures that think about how we think. We may someday discover that dolphins or chimpanzees think about how they are thinking, and engage in philosophical debates about their intellectual methodologies, but right now, humans are the only creatures we know who do that.
Kahneman's work illuminates many of our potential moral blind spots. When we encounter someone, system 1 immediately forms a conclusion whether this is a friend, or someone we need to be concerned about, or someone we can ignore. Certain things about the person will raise associations with past experiences that will color our immediate reaction. System 1 automatically associates together things that it encounters in an effort to create a coherent mental model of the world. If you have just heard the word "eat", and you are presented with the letters so_p, you will most likely think of the word "soup". But if you have just heard the word "wash", you will most likely think of the word "soap". There was classic experiment conducted in an office break room. There was a box next to the coffee maker where people would contribute a few coins to pay for the coffee. With no prior warning or explanation, a picture of flowers appeared above the box. In a few days, again without explanation, the picture was changed to one of human eyes. Then the pictures were switched back and forth at varying intervals. Lo and behold, contributions to the coffee fund went up significantly when the picture of eyes was posted, as opposed to the picture of flowers.
One thing that system 1 does very well is jump to conclusions. System 1 immediately comes up with an interpretation of the new situation that fits the available facts, without you even being aware that it is doing so. System 1 focuses on the existing evidence, and ignores evidence that is absent.
Often, how a question is posed will influence your answer. I just tried this one out on the confirmation class: How many animals of each type did Moses bring on the Ark? [Pause] Wait, Moses did not have an ark, Noah did. But the way the question is posed focuses our minds on the number of animals, and System 1 simply ignores the identification of Moses. For another example: Alan is described as intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious. Ben is described as envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent. When given those two descriptions, most people view Alan much more favorably than Ben, even though all the adjectives are the same and only their order has been changed. Then there is the "halo" effect, which is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person, including things you've not observed. Joan was likeable at the church picnic, so I think she will be a generous contributor to the building fund.
The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know very much about them. You trust or distrust strangers without knowing why. How and why does this happen? This is an example of system 1 being confronted with a hard question -- "What is this person really like?", And instead answering a much easier question -- "Does this person's expression make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable?" This happens all the time. And easier question, called an heuristic, is substituted for a harder question, that would require system 2 to go into action and actually evaluate the known facts about person, and perhaps investigate additional unknown aspects of the person.
When asked a question, such as, "Is John honest?", System 1 will think of instances when John behaved honestly, and take those as evidence that he is in fact honest, conveniently ignoring the instances when he may not have been so honest. The confirmation bias of system 1 leads it to seek information confirming the hypothesis presented to it, and also leads it to exaggerate the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.
In preparation for this talk, I had occasion to take an implicit bias test. You can go on the Internet and take one yourself. The one I took measured bias for or against old or young people. A series of words and pictures of faces are flashed on the screen, and you are asked to rate them as good or bad as quickly as you can. When good words were paired with young faces, it was very easy for me to make a quick answer. But when the words and faces were mixed up, I actually felt my mind slowing down and searching for the answer. System 1 couldn't answer the question, and system 2 went into action.
Behavioral economics and psychology can give us ways to understand the log in our own eyes that Jesus warned us against. System 1 leads to moral blind spots. System 2 enables us to check our conclusions and compensate for our blind spots. There's a common expression among the younger generation: "Check your privilege." Translated into the terms I am using, I think what people are saying is, "Your system 1 is leading you to unexamined assumptions that prevent you from seeing clearly the actual situation."
A number of years ago, when I had the privilege of serving on the search committee for a new pastor for MPC, interim pastor Elaine talk a lot about discernment, the process of trying to figure out God's will. As we sifted through the resumes of many qualified candidates, we sometimes got lost and modeled in our deliberations. One of our members would bring us back to task by saying, "Let's remember our mission statement. How does this candidate fit our mission?" Another of our members would bring us back to task by asking, "Are we asking the right questions? Is there other information we should be looking for?"
To me, discernment is not simply waiting for an answer to present itself. It is engaging system 2 to look at an issue in depth, from several different perspectives, with an understanding of the biases and preconceptions which may be influencing our thought processes.
System 2 has the potential to enable us to see the world more or less as Jesus saw it. Not as quickly or as comprehensively as he did, but along the same path that he walked. Which brings me back to our scripture reading from Genesis. In what way are we made "in the image of God?"
Clearly, it is not our bodies. We succumb to old age, disease, and accidents. Ultimately, to dust we return. We generally come in different genders, although God is clearly neither male nor female but transcends gender categories. And then there's that silly problem of the optic nerve. That can't be in the image of God.
I personally believe that it is in the workings of what Kahneman calls system 2, and what other philosophers have called Reason, that we imperfect humans approach the image of God. System 2 allows us to not only know, but to know how we know. It gives us the ability to see past our implicit biases, to compensate for our tendency to answer the heuristic question instead of the real question, and to check our results against the evidence.
As the apostle Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians: "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."