Seeing the details

Humans are very good at concepts. They’re very bad at seeing the world in a new light… You’re blinded by your expertise. You know, you do something. It’s routine. You have a way of thinking about something, and yet you’ve forgotten why. In a sense, we’re very prejudiced. —Dr. Allan Snyder, The Center for the Mind, University of Sydney, Australia

God is in the details. —Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The other night, I spent a full hour searching for a missing semi-colon. I was creating a style-sheet, the computer code behind this website that specifies the colors and fonts and type sizes you see on your screen.

Computers are frustratingly literal—they do exactly what they are instructed to do, no more, no less. They don’t draw conclusions. They don’t conceptualize. They don’t fill in the blanks. They don’t think.

And they never give you credit for being close. The absence of the tiniest iota of punctuation in a well-designed program is enough to create a disaster.

On what was expected to be the first U.S. spacecraft to do a Venus flyby, an Atlas-Agena rocket became unstable at about 90 miles up. The $18.5 million spacecraft was then blown up on command from the control center at Cape Canaveral. Subsequent analysis showed that the flight plan was missing a hyphen that was a symbol for a particular formula. —Computer-related Risks, Peter G. Neumann, ACM Press, 1995

For the lack of a hyphen, a rocket was lost. For the lack of a semi-colon, my well-designed style-sheet was printing garbage.

That was irritating enough. But even worse was the fact that I had read the corrupted line of code a dozen times without spotting the error. I read right past the the missing semi-colon time and time time again without seeing it, but thinking I had seen it. The data processing side of my brain knows where semi-colons belong in a CSS file, so it led me to believe that it had actually seen what wasn’t there. I was blinded by my prejudices; I was deceived by my preconceptions.

This happens all the time. For instance, did you notice the mistakes in the third sentence of the previous paragraph? Or, as happens with most of us, did your mind pass right over them as if they weren’t there?

Our brains are designed to favor the conceptual over the literal. We have no trouble seeing the forest—trees, bushes, blades of grass and squirrels, these are the things we miss.

Dr. Allan Snyder works with people who are severely brain damaged, especially autistic savants. Many of these people have such low IQs that they can’t take care of themselves. Yet these same severely-retarded people can demonstrate remarkable abilities in mathematics, memorization, music or the arts. Dr. Snyder’s theory is that an autistic person’s specific mental deficit frees the brain to work at its full potential in other, undamaged, areas.

Autism destroys the ability to conceptualize, generalize, and create meaning from raw data. Autistic savants live in a world that is purely literal. A “normal” mind throws away massive amounts of raw data as it filters it down to something more manageable—faces, names, concepts, ideas, generalities, categories, principles, mindsets, worldviews, etc. The autistic can’t do that sort of processing. They see the world precisely as it is. There is no meaning, only data—lots and lots of data.

Reading about Dr. Snyder’s work made me realize that I miss more than just semi-colons in life. I have a feeling that God is continually at work right under my nose, and I’m just not seeing it. My preconceptions and prejudices twist reality and blind me to the spiritual. I’m so thoroughly immersed in my culture, and so hopelessly imprisoned in this body, that it’s almost impossible for me to escape these things long enough to see the world objectively, dispassionately and literally.

Speaking with biting sarcasm, the prophet Isaiah says something similar. He hears God mocking our inability to see what is right there before our eyes:

Tell my people this: ‘You will hear my words, but you will not understand. You will see what I do, but you will not perceive the meaning.’ Harden the hearts of these people. Close their ears, and shut their eyes. That way, they will not see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn to me for healing. —Isaiah 6:9,10, NLT

Jesus often referred to the religious leaders of his time as “blind guides leading the blind.”

I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind. —John 9:39, The Message, (Jesus speaking)

Jesus didn’t stop at exposing blindness—he healed it, to the amazement of all Israel. The same God who restored sight to the man who was born blind wants to do a similar work in our lives: God wants to give us new eyes and ears, a new heart and mind. He offers to free us from the prison of our prejudices so that we can see the world as he sees it.

I’m not there yet. I still miss far too much—not only semi-colons, but whole sentences, entire paragraphs, dialogues and treatises. God is busy. God is at work in the world, not only in the smallest of details, but also in the grand sweep of human history.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. —Matthew 5:8, NLT.

He’s there. He’s at work. May God open my eyes to see him.

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