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Natural perception

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In one of his many philosophical letters, St. Augustine answers an objection which a pagan, Volusanius, had raised against Christianity:

“Did Lord and Ruler of the world fill the womb of a virgin? ... Was He whom the universe is supposed to be scarcely able to contain concealed within the small body of a crying infant? ... Was this Governor so long an exile from His own dwelling-place, and was the care of the whole world transferred to a body of such insignificant dimensions?”

Volusanius seems to have asked his question in seriousness. Yet similar objections are raised today, albeit scoffingly, by “new atheists” such as Dawkins or Hitchens -- which serves as a reminder that our situation today is pretty similar to that of the first Christians; and that we can profitably look to St. Augustine and other great Fathers for guidance in how to make our case.

St. Augustine replies that the objection is based on the mistake of thinking that God is like a body. When a body goes to a new place, the saint explains, it must leave the place where it was. But God, who is spirit and not a body, can come to Earth without, however, leaving heaven behind.

If we find this mysterious -- and it is -- then consider (says St. Augustine) that we find a similar mystery even in something so ordinary as sight and hearing. These are not solely bodily functions but also have a spiritual aspect. In seeing and hearing, the soul acts in a distant location, while remaining in the body:

“How, then, does his soul, which lives nowhere else than in his body, perceive things which are beyond the surface of that body? Are not the stars in heaven very remote from his body? And yet does he not see the sun yonder? ... A person perceives even where he is not living -- because while he lives only in his own body, his perceptive sense is active also in those places which, outside of his body and remote from it, contain the objects with which he is in contact by sight. Do you see how great a mystery there is even in a sense so open to our observation as that which we call sight?”

Similarly, St. Augustine points out, when we say “He hears him knocking at the door,” we mean that the person who hears the knocking is, through hearing, somehow “present” at the door.

Both sight and hearing take us out of ourselves. They have as their “object” actions and events outside of us. They expand the extent of someone’s life by making him present in places where his body is not. To see and to hear, then, is to be even more alive.

Moreover, if love is self gift, then, in a sense, simply to see or to hear something is to love it -- to “show love” toward it, by giving an aspect of oneself to it -- which any subsequent desire for that thing, if it indeed follows, serves merely to amplify and to confirm.

We may wonder whether sight and hearing have these remarkable characteristics in their natural use only. By “natural” use I mean with the natural medium: what we see “directly” through air or another medium transparent to light; what we hear “directly” in sounds conveyed through air.

I count also as natural any seeing or hearing through a natural medium with an instrument, where that instruments does no more than compensate for a deficiency in an organ (eyeglasses), or assist the natural activity of the sense (a telescope).

In such cases technology “perfects” or “completes” nature -- but what about when technology “replaces” natural function? Does sight similarly take us out of ourselves when, for example, we see an event on television? One might think not, because there is no guarantee that the event is happening at all. Suppose the broadcast is pre-recorded? Even the usual seven second delay seems to imply that we are not looking at the events portrayed.

There are optical illusions in nature (e.g. mirages), and some television is “live” (more or less), which may lead us to think that the most important distinction to draw applies equally to both cases, between the “veridical” and the “deceptive.” But what if the prior and more fundamental distinction is between “natural” and “artificial” perception?

Why else do we want to see someone we love “face to face” (rather than through a webcam), or hear their voice speak our name directly (rather than through an iPhone)? Some say we favor “personal contact” precisely because of the possibility it offers of contact, that is, because bodies are then involved and can in principle touch each other (even if in fact they never do) -- because, after all, we are embodied. And yet through touch the soul never becomes present beyond the surface of the body, or hardly at all. Moreover, what we ultimately want is to see someone’s face, not touch it.

If nature is an “endowment,” that is to say, a “gift” (from God), then to favor artificial over natural perception is to slight what is offered to us in the manner of a gift.

I say all this only to invite you to wonder with me if, in putting aside family dinners, live music, walks in the woods, and glimpses of the stars, we are doing more than merely “changing the medium.”

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.

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