Perception (noun): (1) the way you notice things, especially with the senses; (2) the ability to understand the true nature of something; (3) an idea, a belief, or an image you have as a result of how you see or understand something (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries).
Perception is a word that has increased in its usage around faith and science in the past eight to ten years. Social scientists have been studying our perceptions of faith and science, historians have been shining light on our misperceptions about the past, and more and more you see the word “perceived” before a reference to the conflict or war or contradiction between faith and science.
Perception is also a topic of scientific inquiry, as scientists try to understand how the senses and the brain take in sensory information and come to know the external world.
You know the images: The rabbit/duck, the horse/seal, the deceptive lines or circles, even the dress that went viral in 2015 (you might think it was blue and black, but I saw its true colors of white and gold). These images and visual tricks have been among the tools scientists have used to try to understand how the brain perceives the world.
Do our senses give us the ability to understand the true nature of something (definition 2), or do they merely give us a way to notice things (definition 1)?
I’m not sure if such a question has been settled (or if it will be anytime soon). The less technical accounts of the research provide quite a few reasons to be uncertain.
First of all, you and I may not have seen the dress the same way. There are many studies of this sort that show how we can see the same thing differently. This is at least in part to do with expectation—when so much information enters our brains through our senses, to speed the process up the brain will make approximations based on what it expects to be true about the information. So past experience and expectation influence our perceptions.
Second, we know our minds can be riddled with biases. One of those biases is called naïve realism—the belief that we see the world exactly as it is (definition 2, the true nature of things) when reality is probably closer to definition 3—an idea, a belief, or an image you have as a result of how you see or understand something.
We also have motivational biases—these can come in the form of scientists priming study participants (and thereby influencing what they think they see or hear) or they can be connected to our rooting interests (for me, to see a penalty or a foul against a Northwestern athlete, it has to be really obvious, and even then…). These biases are connected to motivated reasoning, the tendency to find arguments in favor of conclusions we want to believe in to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to be true.
Scientists are working to understand the nature of subjective experience and whether or not expectation or motivation might actually result in different representations of sensory information in our brains.
Of course, you see why this is all so troubling. Not only does it induce some sensory uncertainty, but it also means that two people of polar opposite perspectives can perceive the exact same event as reinforcing their conflicting opinions. The vast beauty of a starry nighttime sky may buttresses my own faith in an awesome God but for another it may reinforce feelings of a purposeless reality.
- Can we trust our own eyes?
- Expectations do influence, and can even speed up, our perceptions.
- Look at all the cognitive biases we must overcome.
- We considered cognitive biases in a previous newsletter.
- This sociologist is leading the effort to use data to correct our perceptions about faith and science.
- This volume will help with a number of historical misperceptions.
Moving back to the topic of science and religion, my fear is that all too often, wherever we land on the faith and science spectrum, we conflate the true nature of things (definition 2) with our personal belief about it (definition 3). This is understandable given what the science tells us about definition 1—there are many reasons we notice things that would favor personal beliefs even if they differ from the true nature of things.
So what do we do about it? I offer two suggestions—continue to educate ourselves and accept our fallibility with humility. The first takes time. At Science for the Church, we try to use this weekly newsletter to point you to good resources that can help you educate yourself on faith and science and offer a range of perspectives on how the two relate. The science is pretty clear that we can’t avoid some bias in the content we share. Moreover, none of us has grasped the true nature of the relationship between faith and science. To paraphrase Paul in Romans, “all of us only see in that mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12).
The second suggestion is about the Gospel. We know we are fallible, and we can manipulate the true nature of reality for our own self-interest. The scientific study of perception is not really telling Christians anything we don’t already know. What it is doing is showing us one of the subtle mechanisms that underlies sin.
Fortunately, Christ died for those and all of our other sins (1 Cor 15:3), and so while we may struggle to entirely rid ourselves of the sin that result from our misperceptions, it should humble us even as we remain secure in the redemptive grace that God offers us all.
And perhaps through that same redemptive grace, we can begin to identify our misperceptions and gain just a little more clarity on the true nature of reality.