01 May 2005

The Power of the Human Mind

Believe it or not, you can actually read this:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulacity uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phanonmeal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas thgohut slpeling was ipmornatt.

It turns out that it is merely an internet meme, and does not specifically refer to actual research, although Graham Rawlinson did a PhD thesis on a related topic. You can read the facts about it here. But the point is made. The power of the human mind to do pattern recognition is astounding. A possible explanation of how we do it has been offered by Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm Pilot and now a researcher in cognitive neuroscience.

It was the idea of whole word reading that got many educationists into so-called whole-language methods of teaching reading, which were failures. It turns out that you need to teach phonics and let the children construct their whole word reading from the bottom up.

What tripped up the educationists, is what trips us all on more occasions than we care to admit. They saw a pattern of behavior (whole word reading) and inferred a way to train and elicit this pattern, which did not work. We often see patterns, yet infer causes incorrectly. We even see patterns that are not actually there, or are there but mean nothing. It's just the way our minds work: we are continually pattern-processing everything we perceive, even before we are conscious of perceiving it.

The implication for Science is that we have to test every conclusion, over and over. The implication for Religion, which deals with things untestable, is that we need to exercise caution, and yes, skepticism. I think of a Fundamentalist friend of mine who showed me his method of Bible interpretation. To him, the Bible interprets itself. All you have to do to understand a particular word or phrase is to find all the other occurences of that word or phrase in the Bible (using a Concordance that gives the original Hebrew or Greek) and compare and contrast them. Never mind that the Bible is not a book, but a library that came together over some 1000 years. It is the record of a people's perceived encounters with God, and what they made of those encounters. During that time their culture, language, and mindset all changed. Merely comparing one portion with another without knowledge of or reference to those changes may cause one to see patterns that are not actually there, and blind one to patterns that are there.

The poverty of that kind of analysis is being impressed upon me with great force as I work my way through the massive three-volume tome, A Marginal Jew by Fr. John P. Meier. It is a minute analysis of all the extant works from the time before, during, and immediately after Christ, in search of the "historical Jesus." Specifically, Meier is after those words and deeds that can be attributed to Jesus with some degree of probability using the methods of historians. The Jesus of Christian Faith is specifically not his object. As a Catholic Priest and Professor, he is well aware that some things are accessible to Faith alone. But he is careful to distinguish those that are accessible by scholarly inquiry, and to pursue them. Not only does he read his Bible minutely in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, he also reads his Josephus in Latin, and the works of other scholars on the same quest in English, German, and French.

After about 6 months, I am about halfway through Meier's scholarly tour de force. He has covered an outline of the difficulties and methods of historical Jesus research (some of which are based on recognizing textual and literary forms and patterns), a biography that sketches only a few probable turning points in Jesus' life, and two major points of the message Jesus uniquely proclaimed. I will never be able to look at my old Bible the same way again. It has become a much richer treasure to me than I had previously imagined.

You might wonder how the Catholic church could place its imprimatur on such a book. It has to do with the Catholic Church's continuous, living tradition of passing on Christian teaching through the generations. For the Catholic Church, the Bible is the major, but not the only element of its Depositum Fidae (Deposit of Faith). This is in contrast to Protestantism, and insulates Catholicism from a narrow Bibliolatry (an idolatrous worship of the Bible instead of, or even parallel to, a true worship of God).

Meier's work stands as the most careful work of pattern processing by a religious person that I have ever seen. The attention to detail, and the level of detail sought are truly inspiring. But then, Meier had the time (and probably the graduate students to help him) to do it. For the rest of us, for most of our activities of daily living, we process patterns on autopilot. We benefit by our autopilot freeing our conscious minds up to do other things. We can lose though, when our autopilot pattern processing tricks us into prejudice.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this... for me it comes at a perfect time, after reading 'The Pagan Christ' by Tom Harpur, which in spite of huge flaws is worth reading, not to become 'converted' to the "Christianity" of a Christ who is purely mythic and which Harpur single-mindedly espouses, but to spark a deeper and richer understanding of the Christ who was prefigured in so many preceeding cultures and times. It sounds like Meier may have the discipline that Harpur does not.
Regards, Howard

doer said...

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