Theory Ladeness of Observation [phil]

Remember all the rational discussions that took place on talk shows, Facebook, family get-togethers, or the water cooler regarding health care, the presidential election, or the place of guns and violence in the wake of several shootings over the past few months?   Yeah, neither do I.  It seems the world is full of rational people who agree with me and irrational people who just can’t see the facts for what they are.  It is almost as if those other people are living in a different world.

Actually they are.

We are all living in worlds of our own construction.  That which you believe will determine much of what you perceive.  Your beliefs are the lenses through which you see.  Your beliefs determine how you read the paper, watch the news, read the Bible, and understand what people are saying or doing.

ImageIn the scientific community we call this the “theory ladeness of observation.”  When you or I observe something, say a bird singing or a star twinkling or an insect under a leaf, we have some beliefs about that thing already in our minds about why that is happening or how it is happening.  Those beliefs might be based on what we believe about similar things or the world in general.  So I see a bird singing and I “know” that birds sing to attract mates.  Therefore, everything I observe about this event is with the idea that this bird is trying to attract a mate and will be thinking of the bird’s behavior and any other birds’ behavior in response to the song in terms of mating.  When I see a female bird approach, it is because she is checking out the singer to determine if he is an appropriate mate.  When I see a male approach, it is because he is seeking to steal away the females the other is attracting or he is challenging the other for mating rights.  If someone were to say to me that bird is actually using its song as sonar to look for predators, I would laugh at them.  They might point out that the bird stops singing at the approach of a predator and takes cover.   But I would not see that; I would see that the bird must be constantly looking for predators while it sings to attract mates and that the arrival of a cat or other predator simply interrupted the process.  The other would say that the birds come to the singer because they know it is safe there.  But I would only see mating behavior.  The thought that the song is being used as sonar would never occur to me and I could not very easily see their evidences because I thought their underlying belief was wrong and I interpreted what I saw in light of my own beliefs.  And this is the reason why people are so slow to change their minds on anything.

Of course theory ladeness of observation is not limited to scientists.  Journalists, economists, politicians, pundits, your cousin, your friends, and you all have beliefs that act as lenses through which you see the world.  We create our own world to a certain extent.  We read books, watch tv shows, and talk with friends who reinforce what we already believe.  And when we interact with media or people who disagree with us, we have a constant stream of arguments going on in our heads explaining away everything they say and all their “evidences.”  When something happens, like the economy booming under Clinton we say, “See, Democrats know what is best for the economy.” or “See, Reaganomics is finally working, but that Clinton is trying to take credit for what his predecessor set up.”  When someone shoots up a school we say “if we had better mental health treatments, this would not have happened” or  “if there were less access to guns, this would not have happened” or “if official prayers were not taken out of schools, this would not have happened” or “if teachers were allowed to have guns, this would not have happened.”

The “truth” known and taught by the church is also a product of culture and theology.  The way Jesus was understood 100 years after the ascension by the church in Jerusalem is quite different from how Jesus was understood by the church in 300 AD in Rome vs. 1200AD in Rome vs. 1200AD in Constantinople vs. 1850 in Virginia vs. 1850 in Mexico vs. 2013 in Seoul vs. 2013 in Egypt vs. 2013 in Lebanon, PA.  Jesus has not changed, but the culture does and the lenses by which we read scripture and interpret our own experiences has.  And even a Baptist in 2013 Lebanon, PA will understand a particular piece of scripture differently from a Catholic or Brethren or “non-denominational” in the same place and time because of different cultures and theologies.  Again, Jesus has not changed, but we are different.

All this should lead us to a place of humility.  As we interact with one another, the world around us, scripture, and Jesus, we should be asking God to show us things with His eyes. There are things that are true and things that are false.  And there are ideas that are closer or further from the truth in some aspects but not in others. I don’t believe I will ever be able to look at anything without a lens of culture, theology, and personal experience, but I hope that God will give me the grace to hold less tightly to my lenses and put less faith in them.  Perhaps then, I can consider my neighbors’ viewpoint and perhaps change my own mind on something or at least love with more empathy.  Perhaps then, when it comes to Jesus, I can worship Him more than I worship His image I’ve created or allowed others to create for me.

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5 thoughts on “Theory Ladeness of Observation [phil]

  1. Your title reminded me of what an episode name could have been for the TV show “Community”.

    This reminds me of embedded and deliberative theology. Embedded being the glasses we wear and deliberative being the humility (and I would say bravery) to try to understand past my own lenses or through my neighbors.

  2. I quite enjoyed reading this entry. I feel that the final two paragraphs really nailed it. “Jesus has not changed, but the culture does and the lenses by which we read scripture and interpret our own experience has”. This applies to my environment in such a poignant way. I live in the Bible Belt of the Country, so there is no shortage of churches or denominations to be found. There is often discussion of ‘our way’ opposed to ‘their way’, and as you said, we should take a step back and ask God to show us things through His eyes and His way.

  3. This sentence really struck me: “Perhaps then, when it comes to Jesus, I can worship Him more than I worship His image I’ve created or allowed others to create for me.” The idea that even as we believe we are worshipping God, we can still be worshipping someone other than who He really is.

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