Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How Do You Know What You Don’t See?

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 12

   We perceive the world as a movie, but the reality is millions of disparate data points that we weave together.  One unfortunate side effect of this skill is that we sometimes shoehorn facts into our preexisting perception of the world.  Ever seen this video?  It is a test of your power of observation. Watch and then read on.

This is from a famous experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, that highlights the power of selective perception.  By focusing on counting passes, the viewer misses a man in a gorilla suit who walks across the screen.  What we perceive is linked to what we expect to see[i].

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the narrative fallacy as the propensity create “explanations that weave facts together” in order to make them easier to understand, and more memorable[ii].  But the explanations are often wrong, especially when we do not have all the information.  And to make things worse, if new information comes in, we try to make it fit it into what we already believe.

Now, lets add a bit of history and sociology to what we know about perceptions.  Sociologists theorize that the large number and anthropomorphic nature of gods in pre-history was an attempt by ancient man to understand and control the world.  People lived an agrarian existence, at the mercy of forces beyond their control, so they created stories about gods to explain what they were seeing, and came to believe that sacrifices could influence the gods to change the world.

To bring this back to idolatry, see how the monotheistic prophet Jeremiah not to worship the gods of the surrounding cultures

2 Don’t live like people from other nations.
Don’t be afraid of special signs in the sky.
The other nations are afraid of what they see in the sky.
But you must not be afraid of them.
The customs of other people are worth nothing.
Their idols are nothing but wood from the forest.
Their idols are made by workers with their chisels. [b]
They make their idols beautiful with silver and gold.
They use hammers and nails to fasten their idols down
so that they will not fall over.
The idols of the other nations are like
a scarecrow in a cucumber field.
They cannot walk.
They cannot talk, and the people must carry them.
So don’t be afraid of their idols.
They cannot hurt you.
And they cannot help you either[iii].

In other words, the powers that are ascribed to idols are illusions.  They are created by man, and do not have any supernatural powers.  But those cultures held their illusions as stories, just as we do today.

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[i] The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.  Broadway (2011)

[ii] The Black Swan The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Random House (2007) p. 63-64.

[iii] Jeremiah 10:2-5.  Easy to read version. of the bible.

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  1. […] And what is the problem with idolatry today?  For the religious of course, idolatry remains a mortal sin.  For the non-religious, I think of it this way.  Modern psychology is clear that lasting happiness comes from connections to other people and not from possessions.  A lifestyle of idolatry puts people second, and elevates the importance of something else which results in weaker interpersonal relationships, which in turn means less happiness.  So, for a happier life, put people first. <<Previous Next>> […]

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