Mormon LitCrit: Colors, Cats, and Perception of the Sacred

I’ve always assumed that given equivalent access to the same facts, reasonable people will tend to come to similar conclusions–perhaps differing in approach, but not in core concept. All that’s required is a desire to learn, a willingness to listen, and a modicum of goodwill.

As such, I’ve watched with dismay as public debate over topics like health care, political appointments, California’s Proposition 8, and the propriety of HBO airing dramatized excerpts from the LDS temple ceremony in its popular Big Love series have rapidly devolved into exasperated exchanges of established and well-rehearsed positions lobbed across a vast conceptual chasm with little apparent effort to trace the steps in between.

While writing my own exasperated response last year to a friend regarding Big Love–someone who just refused to see what I was saying–I began to wonder whether we were actually participating in the same discussion. We seemed to perceive the basic idea of what constitutes the sacred so differently as to beg any hope of shared understanding.

As I explored that idea, a series of my own experiences came together in my mind to recast the question–and my ideas about ways to approach an answer.

Anomalous Trichromacy, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Deuteranomaly

At the age of ten I was diagnosed with a form of color blindness (deuteranomaly, or green weakness) common to males. At first I was fascinated by the idea that there was a whole world hiding in common view that I had never considered possible and I took it as an opportunity to expand my ability to comprehend the world.

I would stare at those dot pattern tests for hours and will myself to see the hidden number (modern tests are much more subtle; back in the old days they used something called the Ishihara test that featured large dots of varying sizes, not continuous patterns like today). I analyzed dot size, shape, shade, and proximity to other dots under the hope that I might learn to see the color. My particular goal was the dot-blob that contained “27” as it was first one in the progression that I simply could not see at all–not a shape, shadow, or hint of a numeral.

Of course, I failed. The problem was not unwillingness to see, it was organic incapacity. My eyes could not physically perceive certain colors, and thus my brain could not parse the absent signal and my mind could not interpret the missing result.

What followed was a sort of panic, a sense that not seeing 27 in the dots somehow meant that my perception of the world was inadequate. I sought people who could see it and asked them to trace the digits. I asked them to explain how they were seeing it, and to put that explanation in terms that made sense to my green-weak, color blinded state.

Of course, that effort failed as well. They had no concept of what I could or couldn’t see, and no vocabulary to describe those nuances of color to someone who didn’t have a comparative reference. There was no native guide who understood both my perception and their perception to translate the concept.

Even if there had been, it probably wouldn’t have mattered–a clearer understanding of what I was not seeing still wouldn’t give me the ability to see it. Ultimately, the best I could hope for was a set of clues to help me know that an image contained color information I could not comprehend.

I was despondent. No act of will or study could cause my eyes to see the full diversity of those colors. I was inadequate. Substandard. Broken.

Despondency passed relatively quickly when I realized that my ability to function had not changed, and that expanded knowledge about color blindness had not suddenly removed something from my view. I had lost nothing; I had only gained recognition of a greater possibility. I became aware of the absolute fact of a real, yet unseen world that I could never have discovered on my own but that people all around me simply took for granted.

The realization left me necessarily sad, but also more open to the idea that my inability to see certain hues did not in any way imply their non-existence. Like infrared or ultraviolet, they were simply real spectra beyond my ken. My perception was demonstrably incomplete, a simple fact that carried no moral judgment.

The metaphor here to perception of the sacred is obvious, if necessarily incomplete. Perception of the sacred is not an organic trait, but I think for many of us the instruments for that perception either don’t exist or they remain functionally undiscovered (to the same effect).

Which begs a set of questions–

If I get along fine without a perception (of the sacred, hues of green, political ideology, or any other thing), then why should I concern myself with it? The thing will remain functionally worthless to me no matter how much insight or entertainment it provides for you. Shaking the thing in my face with a cry of “It’s right there; why can’t you see it? Just look!” is demeaning, and ultimately fruitless.

Your insistence does not magically give me the tools to see or comprehend–no matter how real it may be–and your exasperation serves only to diminish my interest in the conversation and create a social/emotional divide in addition to the perception gap between us.

Conversely, the fact that I cannot perceive a thing does not mean it doesn’t exist and that those who claim to see it are irrational, dupes of the establishment, or part of a conspiracy to mock me. That 27 is in the dots (I tested against a reasonably large and diverse sample when I ten years old). I just don’t have the visual apparatus to perceive it.

I suppose that’s the very definition of faith–accepting the reality of that which cannot be seen but is nevertheless true, and directing my own actions in context of the fact of that unseen thing.

Wow, that’s hard. Those of you who can see that 27 have no idea how difficult it can be for we deuteranomates to accept your word for it, no matter how many of you claim it’s there in the dot pattern. Some days that claim is easier to take than others, and I often wonder what value there is in even talking about it when I see no reason (no pun intended) to believe that I will ever see that 27, or that upon seeing it my life will be vastly improved.

That’s the thing–you see an ephemeral thing that I don’t. You see an inability in me that I (literally) don’t recognize as anything but an unprovable assertion. Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest explanation is most likely, and it’s much, much easier to believe that you’re imagining it since I have no means to verify your claim.

In any case, I quite literally don’t know what I’m missing. As such, it’s hard for me to care much about your concerns on the issue. Not impossible, but very difficult.

Discovering Fluorescents

On a hot summer day in 1981 I met a guy in a booth in a tent-pavilion behind the tempura stand just past the cow pens at the Illinois State Fair who had a pair of glasses that he claimed would cure color blindness. Only $100.

He had a reasonable explanation. One lens was tinted red (the other was clear; both were mirrored on the front to hide the difference) to counterbalance the green deficiency of deuteranomaly. Basically, it was the same theory as those red/blue glasses they used to supply for 3D movies (before simple polarization technology improved the technique)–mask color going into one eye to force the brain to reinterpret/recalibrate the visual signal and restore effective color balance.

Okay…it couldn’t cure deuteranomaly, but rather it would simply counteract the perceptual imbalance; less brightness but more contrast. Same functional result.

When I tried them on the effect was startling. As I looked up and down the rows of booths I was especially aware of two things–green and red colors really did pop, and the orange price tags on merchandise absolutely leaped out at me. I was sold and happily plopped down the cash to buy them (after negotiating the price down to $60).

I spent the rest of the day with the glasses resting half-way down my nose so I could look through/look over the lenses to compare the different images. It was an exhilarating experience to feel the sense of limitation lifted from me. Though I had come to peace with green-deficient color blindness half a dozen years earlier, that sense that I was physically substandard had been a passive weight on my ego the whole time–just one more bit of background noise interfering with my concentration.

But the biggest surprise happened on the way home. It was twilight when I headed out for the 45-minute drive, just in that gap when all color seems to leech out the world and neither headlights nor street lamps help. I noticed it first when I looked at the traffic signal on the way out of town; the color of the lit green lamp was deeper and more vivid than I had ever seen. I figured it was an effect of twilight and didn’t think too much about it, though I thought it was kind of cool.

Night falls quickly in Illinois–when there’s nothing but flat ground between you and the horizon, sunlight winks out very suddenly when the sun drops out of sight. I automatically pulled on my headlights and nearly drove off the road from surprise at all the lights that suddenly appeared in the new night.

It turns out that the lines painted on the street glow–or more accurately, they actively sparkle with reflected light from headlights. Same with the little reflectors on the top of the steel road markers, the numbers on the mile posts, and the white text on those green road signs. I had never known that. To me they were just white or yellow paint no different than house paint (except maybe a little more durable and slightly brighter—presumably because they were painted on metal).

I was seeing fluorescents for the first time in my life at the age of 17.

I knew about fluorescent colors, but always assumed that meant colors that glowed under a black light because in normal room light a fluorescent color was no different to me than any other. The idea that a paper price tag was actually an entirely different class of color had never occurred to me; the idea that reflector tape was more than a strip of highly contrasting color (and thus white tape against a white background might still be visible) was new and startling.

When I hit the next traffic light (nearly 30 minutes later; the state fair was way out in the farm belt) I finally saw that the three colors were very distinct and different. From a distance I had always seen them as essentially the same washed out color differentiated primarily by the brightness of the lit lamp; colors didn’t appear until you got much, much closer.

For two weeks I discovered colors and contrasts and brightness, and I reveled in it. With the exception of the fluorescent thing, none of the new colors really had a meaningful impact on me, but it was really fun to see shades I had never known (it turns out I had always seen night shadows as greenish–or rather, that dull green and shadowed gray were the same color to me).

It turns out that the mirroring on those glasses was cheaply painted on, because it rubbed off after two weeks leaving the red lens clearly visible within a frost-like rime of mirroring around the edges. I could not find anyone to paint new mirroring on, and I refused to walk around with one red and one clear lens. It looked really dumb.

It also turns out that I still couldn’t see 27 in the dots. Ultimately, all the “new” colors I was seeing were just tricks of contrast from the colored lens–much like BluBlockers or those yellow lenses that help you find white golf balls against green grass by filtering out certain wavelengths of light.

But I had honestly seen fluorescents. And strangest of all, I kept seeing them after I stopped wearing the glasses. To this day (more than 25 years later) I can still see the difference between fluorescents and mundane colors–perhaps not as vividly as during those first two weeks, but more than at any time prior to wearing those glasses.

In other words, with the glasses as a temporary aid I learned to perceive something that I had always been capable of, but had never found reason or inclination to exercise. Having learned that there was more to see, I was able to awaken the latent faculty that was already there.

Just as interestingly, I had learned a conceptual vocabulary for describing the differences between my old perception and my new perception. I could bridge the experience gap and explain a lack of fluorescent perception to those who could already see it. Sadly, the reverse was less true; those with more expansive vision could easily imagine paleness, but those without the apparatus to perceive fluorescents could only dimly imagine what it was like to see them. Ultimately, one needed some level of direct experience to truly understand.

Still, this analogue to full color vision boosted both my willingness and my ability to believe in things that had been previously invisible. I still had to take the existence of 27 on faith, but since I now had direct experience with discovering new ways of seeing it became far easier to accept both the fact and the usefulness of seeing 27. My faith was more fully qualified than it had been before, and I became open to other possibilities as well.

Perhaps this is magical thinking (in the pejorative sense of irrational imagination). In my case, it’s founded on an accidental discovery of a new way of perceiving that has continued to inform my approach to learning. I now firmly believe that anyone can learn anything if they can find the “trick” that reveals just enough of the new idea to the old perception to draw them into a new perception where they learn to see and understand differently than before. Using old tools to reveal new ones. Ultimately, that guide may be a temporary stepping stone or even a counterfeit of the real thing; but it can still be useful as a transition to new perception.

Again, the metaphor to perception of the sacred is obvious. Even where one is inherently capable of perceiving a thing, one may never find the hook, goad, or guide that draws them down the path to actual perception. Latent unrealized ability.

Which suggests that we ought to be less concerned about how that guy over there perceives his world except as a guide to helping us perceive our own. There ought to be less moral judgment going on about who sees (or doesn’t see) what, and more attempt to simply share the insights each of us gathers for the benefit of those willing to reach out a bit and engage.

That’s why an expansive and diverse art and literature is so critical; it’s a common ground where we come specifically in order to perceive the world through someone else’s eyes, whether that world is familiar or new.

Erwin Schroedinger and his Poor, Misunderstood Cat

Before I terribly abuse the idea of Schroedinger’s cat I feel I should tell the story straight. We’re all aware of the core premise, but I know I fundamentally misunderstood Schroedinger’s intent until very, very recently. Its application to perception of the sacred requires a bit of setup, but it best illustrates my own concept of the intersection of that perception with the often confusing public discourse around it.

The fundamental intent of Schroedinger’s thought experiment was to demonstrate the silliness of the notions of quantum mechanics as proposed initially by Heisenberg and later reaffirmed by Einstein and friends.

According to Heisenberg it was impossible to know both the position and path (momentum) of a quantum (subatomic) particle. As certainty of momentary position goes up, certainty of future path goes down in direct relation–and vice versa. Thus, the famed Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

These intrinsically related factors were described as waveform potentials (a large set of values under a probability curve), and Heisenberg proposed that the best quantum physics could do was approximate a set of possibilities weighted toward either position or momentum.

The upshot was that a particle had equal probability of existing in an infinite number of locations at any given moment, and the math that described it gave each of those possible locations equal validity. In other words, the particle potentially existed everywhere (and nowhere) within a general area at the same time. In 1935 Einstein and some other physicists backed this model (the Copenhagen interpretation) for describing quantum mechanics.

Schroedinger thought this was just plain dumb. Whether we could perceive it (and thus measure it) or not, the particle had a single actual location and a specific actual momentum at any given moment in time. That neither physics nor calculus could accurately describe or predict this reality at the quantum level did not imply that the reality itself was ambiguous, only that our knowledge about it was uncertain (Heisenberg disagreed, by the way).

So Schroedinger devised a thought experiment to dramatize his point. Put a cat in an environmentally isolated box with a sealed vial of a cyanide derivative hooked up to a Geiger counter that would trip a hammer to break the vial if a certain quantum event was detected (a particle of a specific element decaying), thus killing the cat. After an hour the chances of the particle decaying (and thus triggering the hammer to break the vial of poison) were exactly 50/50; in other words, random.

According to quantum theory, just prior to opening the box the cat has equal probability of being alive or dead and so the math describes the cat as being potentially both alive and dead. Until you actually open the box (observe) and collapse the waveform possibility to a specific set of values, both conditions are equally probable and thus functionally equally real and true. Since there was no reliable way to observe the quanta we were stuck with the ambiguous, simultaneous probability.

To Erwin Schroedinger this is intuitively wrong. The cat is already either alive or dead when you open the box (in other words, the particle either has decayed or it hasn’t); the act of opening the box does not cause the reality to form, it merely reveals the reality that already exists.

The problem is that in attempting to debunk this assumption of quantum theory, Schroedinger’s example was so vivid and compelling that it ended up being adopted as the most common model for describing (and validating) the very thing he thought was stupid. Schroedinger’s cat is synonymous with the idea of indeterminate reality or infinite possibility; or in other words, being both alive and dead simultaneously.

With apologies to Schroedinger (and Heisenberg), this very ability of the same construct to illustrate incompatible possibilities seems like a nice metaphor for understanding the relative positions in the Big Love discussion.

Those who perceive the sacredness of the temple ceremony suggest that so long as observation of that ceremony remains limited to its actual participants and not outside observers, the rite itself is a living and vibrant thing with infinite possibility–in other words, so long as the box is closed the cat has the potential to be alive and that potential will remain forever. Thus the ideas of a living god and a living covenant.

(Whether the thing in the box actually is alive at any given moment can only be known by the direct participants already inside that box–aka, God and the individual making the covenant. The covenant started out alive, but it requires the fidelity of both participants to keep it alive.)

The act of publicly observing the rite causes the waveform of the living ordinance to collapse and become a dead shadow of its actual potential—in other words, opening the box (violating the covenant) invariably kills the cat. It may reveal an elegantly formed (recently dead) corpse or a putrid (long dead) corpse, but the cat will always be dead.

Thus, opening the box to public view is pointless because you see nothing of true value; only the empty, non-contextualized, and dead forms of something once living. It’s just ogling a corpse, which is fundamentally disrespectful to the strength, power, memory, and reality of the living thing. Not to mention functionally unhelpful in truly understanding the living thing.

This is intuitively wrong to those who do not perceive the sacred as real. The thing has no objective reality until it’s observed from an external perspective–it’s just vague hope, imagination, and superstition; aka, the cat was always dead no matter what fanciful story you tell because there has never been objective evidence that it was once alive. Every opened box reveals the same content; attempting to claim an indemonstrable former state for the cat is irrational.

If there was never a living cat, who cares whether you keep its corpse in a box or display it to public view? Keeping the box closed is a pointless activity that does nothing to change the fundamental nature of the cat, and it denies the rest of us potentially useful knowledge about both the cat and the box.

Ultimately, your perception of the basic sacredness of the covenant determines your frame of reference. Like color vision, perception of the sacred may be a gift that not all of us possess. In a rational world I cannot be expected to honor that which is invisible (and thus highly improbable) to me. Asking me to simply take your word for it and limit my own quest for understanding in order to protect the existence of a phantom cat seems like a very silly request; at best it’s superstition, and at worst it’s psychosis. In any case it’s irrational.

Thus the need for faith (acceptance of that which cannot be seen, but is still true), hope (a desire to pursue faith), and charity (willingness to grant that the other guy isn’t goofy for having faith and hope in the unseen–or for being unable to perceive the sacred as you do).

It’s the only way for these fundamentally incompatible worldviews to peacefully co-exist in the interim. And it’s the only path that can permit one to accept the unseen without requiring a break from objective reality.

Collapsing the Waveform

I want to believe that reasonable people given access to the same set of facts will tend to derive similar conclusions. But it turns out that even when shown the same view, some of us simply cannot see what others do, and as a result we cannot easily or honestly come to the same (or even substantially similar) conclusions.

In this life some of us will never see 27 in the dots, fluorescent orange price tags, or a living cat in the box. Which means some conversations will always be confusing and some conclusions will always seem irrational.

At first that realization made me very, very sad. I hate the idea of fundamental incompatibility, and I rage against the possibility that some arguments simply can’t be won. But it turns out that there is literally no way to bridge the gap between the poles on perception of the sacred—either the sacred is real and worthy of reverence, or it’s not and the symbol really is just a cigar.

As our certainty of one of those poles goes up, the ability to accommodate the other pole goes down in direct relation. Each side literally cannot accommodate the other; the cat cannot be both alive and dead. So as much as I hate the idea of fundamental incompatibilities, they are real.

And yet context does matter. I believe that the concept of eternal progression gives us time to learn to perceive many things beyond our current abilities–if we can discover and exercise the willingness or faith to pursue what is utterly alien to our current mode of understanding in the hope of gaining something valuable.

Which does not excuse us from trying to accept or understand what we cannot see. But it does take some of the fear and judgment out of a current inability to perceive some very real and important things. It’s not the current perception itself that limits us, rather it’s our openness to new potentials that determines how the waveform will collapse towards a more specific set of possibilities.

Ultimately, that’s a choice we make despite our abilities to perceive, not because of them.

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13 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Colors, Cats, and Perception of the Sacred

  1. Katya says:

    Very nice.

  2. Ed Snow says:

    Good stuff. Reminds me of Milan Kundera’s discussion of misunderstood words in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

  3. jendoop says:

    Not being familiar with Schroedinger’s cat I could be wrong, but aren’t you taking out the wild card – God? God knows our abilities, our ‘blind spots’ and can change, or bring about circumstances to change the tools we use to comprehend the sacred. In your analogy God would be the salesman of the glasses.

    Another factor in this is the rising generation who haven’t had experience to prepare them to understand (like giving a newborn the dot tests, or asking a 4th grader to explain S’s cat). They haven’t had a chance to exercise all of their gifts and abilities which could be applied to understanding the sacred. Really this could be applied to all of us, our gifts are not set like your color-blindness. We can develop gifts that we don’t currently possess that can help us comprehend truths that don’t click now. You do touch on that in your 2nd to last paragraph though.

  4. Scott,

    I like this even more now than I did on first reading it–don’t know if you’ve revised, or if the ideas have just had time to settle in the meantime. In any event, I think this includes both one of the best (and most gospel-consistent) justifications of the act of creating and reading literature (i.e., to try to see the other), and one of the best bases for a manners of criticism (i.e., don’t bash the other for seeing/not seeing what you do/don’t see).

    I think within the Church, many of our assumptions are based on a paradigm that ascribes equal possibilities to all normal human beings–despite experiences like your colorblindness that demonstrate to us that people *do* differ in their capabilities. I had recent occasion to post on an email list some speculations that (for example) some individuals may need special accommodations in order to make marriage viable for them. Should we assume that all good and righteous marriages and lives follow the same patterns? Obviously there are some points of commonality, but where do they stop? I love the idea of a Mormon literature that could help us explore such questions, and a Mormon criticism that could help us consider what we’re learning from that literature (and from other literature that we read as Mormons).

  5. Wm Morris says:

    [quote]Thus, opening the box to public view is pointless because you see nothing of true value; only the empty, non-contextualized, and dead forms of something once living. It’s just ogling a corpse, which is fundamentally disrespectful to the strength, power, memory, and reality of the living thing. Not to mention functionally unhelpful in truly understanding the living thing.[/quote]

    This is an excellent way of putting it, Scott. I would only add that such disrespect should generally be countered with bemusement or sorrow rather than outrage.

  6. scott says:

    jendoop wrote:

    [quote]Not being familiar with Schroedinger’s cat I could be wrong, but aren’t you taking out the wild card – God? God knows our abilities, our ‘blind spots’ and can change, or bring about circumstances to change the tools we use to comprehend the sacred. In your analogy God would be the salesman of the glasses.[/quote]

    I wouldn’t characterize the huckster at the state fair as God; I thought of him more as a prophet (with a small "p") or a missionary–someone who found a new way of seeing and is trying to share it with others, but who is still stuck with with his own imperfect eyes.

    In my analogy, the presence of God is assumed, but our ability to perceive is what’s flawed. We walk in this life by faith, not perfect knowledge, and part of the test is to see if we can put aside our skepticism long enough to act on the possibility that things we cannot directly observe (like quantum particles or some shades of green) are still real and should be taken into account as we make choices.

    This analogy is not intended as a grand cosmological explanation, only as an exploration of how those of us who (with apologies to Paul) see through a glass, darkly should cut each other some slack and understand that sometimes the other guy is not being obtuse, he just honestly doesn’t see or understand what you’re talking about–and may not be able to see it no matter how much you try to explain.

    Can God change that? Of course he can. But he chooses not to for the majority of us until we first act in faith (and hope) of the reality of things we cannot see and prove–faith precedes the miracle. The need for a miracle suggests the reality of the fact that not everyone sees everything. Which is what the analogy attempts to explore.

  7. jendoop says:

    Scott, Thanks for the clarification. Good stuff :)

  8. cmmalm says:

    Very well-thought-out, Scott! It is certainly easier to come to terms with behavior or beliefs that you don’t understand if you pause and consider the possibility that the other person may well be equipped with a different set of perceptive abilities than you are. Thank you for extending my perceptions a little.

  9. Jacob says:

    [quote]I want to believe that reasonable people given access to the same set of facts will tend to derive similar conclusions.[/quote]

    I tackled this recently (well, a year ago http://theruntime.com/blogs/jacob/archive/2009/02/06/professional-values.aspx ) for the field of software development, but it translates across the board, I think. What it comes down to is that "[complex] decisions break down into factors that we weight according to our experience and expectations." And I’m fond of my example using whether you consider Meg Cabot or Georgette Heyer the superior romance writer (an example better suited to an AML audience than software developers, I admit):

    "It can be argued (and I would, indeed, so argue) that they have comparable ability with characterization, prose, story, and plot. However, Meg Cabot sets her characters in modern settings and Georgette Heyer’s books are chiefly set in Regency England. Two people could easily disagree over which author is best if one has a strong weight on “historical regency setting” without either being any the less intelligent or in need of education."

    When I find that two people in full posession of the facts disagree, I start looking for how they weight the underlying factors and principles involved.

  10. Jacob,

    You have a good point, but weighting of various factors can be based in turn on perceptual differences as well.

    When I’m reading a story, I tend to hear the words in my head rather than seeing pictures or a movie as many readers describe. Perhaps as a result, I find that I tend to focus on dialogue in reading a story, and skim over (for example) description. This probably means that I tend to weight characterization higher than description in my valuation of factors in a story — but those difference in weighting seem to go back to some basic perceptual and perhaps even cognitive differences.

  11. Scott Parkin says:

    Jacob–

    I probably misspoke (mistyped) when I referred to facts there. The realms of fact and of perception are somewhat different, and that’s the crux of my comment–that it turns out the inputs aren’t actually equivalent, because the viewers may be perceiving (understanding?) entirely different things despite looking at the same sources of information.

    Not so much a question of individual preference as honest difference of perception that leads down an entirely different interpretive path.

  12. Scott, I am blown away by your post. Amazing. It attests to my level of maturity, however, that I keep wondering if you’ve ever bought another pair of those glasses.

  13. Scott Parkin says:

    I never did buy another pair, though I once went looking for the old pair in the junk drawer at my parents’ house (long since lost, alas).

    On a completely unrelated note, it’s interesting to me how some memories carry deep association that only surface when you focus on them. Oddly, there are two strong food memories associated with those glasses–tempura squash bought at that stand outside the tent pavilion at the state fair just after I bought them, and chocolate Coke made at a local fountain the next day (regular Coca Cola and chocolate syrup, lightly stirred) as the first time I wore the glasses in public in my own neighborhood.

    Completely irrelevant, but thinking about wearing those glasses again brought the food memories back. It must be time for another diet if I’m starting to have food obsessions…

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