See for Yourself

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen.

-- Jesus of Nazareth

Sherlock Holmes never said, "Elementary, my dear Watson" -- at least not in any of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories -- but he might just as well have.  For Holmes, who was a kind of high-functioning idiot savant, solving cases was an almost mechanical process of drawing the proper conclusions from the facts at hand.  He trained himself to notice everything, including things that weren't there but should have been, like the famous dog that didn't bark in the night.  He was a master of forensics, schooling himself in handwriting analysis, watermarks and tobacco residue, while professing complete ignorance of literature and philosophy.  "You have an extraordinary genius for minutiae," Watson told him with classic understatement.  To test Holmes' powers of observation, he handed the detective a gold pocket watch that had recently come into his possession and asked him to draw conclusions about the character and habits of its deceased owner.  From markings and scratches on the watch, Holmes correctly deduced that it had belonged to Watson's late brother, whom he had not previously known about, a man he determined to be of "untidy habits" and a drunkard. When Watson expressed astonishment at his friend's perspicacity, Holmes replied, "What seems strange to you is only so because you do not follow my train of thought or observe the small facts upon which large inferences may depend."

Habits of seeing -- or not seeing, as the case may be -- are deeply ingrained, even among those ostensibly trained in the scientific method.  As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientists are as likely as anyone else to try to fit facts to theory, rather than the theory to facts.  The tendency is to ignore or brush aside evidence that does not fall within an accepted scientific paradigm, until the weight of accumulated anomalies forces the scientific community to pay closer attention. Kuhn quoted the German physicist Max Planck, who observed that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."  Even the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes had his blind spots, particularly if they involved anything resembling normal human feelings.  In The Sign of Four, Watson commented on how attractive Holmes' new young female client was, and the detective replied, "Is she?  I did not observe."

The defenders of religious paradigms are under no constraint to fit facts to theory, or vice versa.  We are now in the realm of belief, which is seemingly impervious to such concerns.  Facts intrude nonetheless, with results that range from the lamentable to the laughable.  Galileo ran afoul of religious authorities in the 17th century for daring to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun, based in part on observations that were plainly visible in his telescope.  William Jennings Bryan made himself a laughing stock for touting the first chapter of Genesis as a biology textbook during the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial in Tennessee.  Now, nearly a century later, no one is laughing. 

Believing, not seeing, is still the hallmark of faith for a great many people.  This is curious, since religions are usually founded by those with direct experience of God.  Moses saw a burning bush while grazing his flocks on the slopes of Mount Horeb and turned aside to see.  Jesus' disciples went to his tomb and found it empty -- another case perhaps of a dog not barking in the night.  They later refused to stop preaching at the temple in Jerusalem "for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."  Paul was a notorious persecutor of Christians until he he was blinded by a light on the road to Damascus and heard Christ speaking to him.  Paul and other early Christians put great store in what they themselves had witnessed.

In contrast to the scientific method, there is no formal process by which religious paradigms can be confirmed or modified, since direct observation does not enter into it, except to fit fact to theory.  The basis for discussion is rarely one's own experience but what others have seen, long ago.  “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes,"  Emerson once lamented. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”  If God is real, then we are operating in the realm of fact, regardless of what we may believe.  There may be no fact that can be regarded as scientific, any more than love or courage can be empirically verified.  The facts of the matter may seem trifling, as such things are reckoned, requiring us to pay close attention.  The issue finally is not what we believe but what we can observe, those small facts upon which large inferences may depend.     

Exodus 3
Acts 4:19-20
Acts 9
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

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