True Believers

Reality surrounds us, but we each see only slices of it — and not always the same slices. “Eyewitness” experiments famously show that when ten people witness an event, they will give ten different (sometimes very different) accounts of it.

Have you ever taken a snapshot and then later found it was not at all how you remembered the scene? Then you know that we see only partially as we focus our attention on some things and ignore others. Furthermore, we distort even what we do see according to our own particular language, culture, background, and experiences.

Human senses only work within very circumscribed limits. I will never forget two pictures I saw in a magazine years ago — the first showed a flat lawn with a large leafy bush in the middle of it. The second was exactly the same area, but taken with an infrared camera — the way a snake would see it. Clearly visible behind the bush was the heat form of a man.

Bats can hear sounds too high for human ears, elephants can hear sounds too low. Bees can see polarized light. Dogs and pigs can smell much better than we can, and so on. Of course, we have instruments that can extend our senses greatly, telescopes, microscopes, infrared, X-rays, etc. but in daily life we don’t often think about the world in these ways. We experience a brick wall as solid, even though science tells us that it is made of mostly empty space filled with a pattern of electrons spinning energetically around the centers of their atoms like our planets circling our sun. Sitting still, we don’t perceive ourselves on a planet spinning on its axis while simultaneously orbiting the sun, swirling in a galaxy and rushing away from the original “big bang” point of origin of the universe. Nor do we remember all that most of the time.

We each use our normal sense perceptions and our minds to fashion the best picture of reality that we can — but it will always be only a limited picture, and will differ somewhat from person to person. This is inescapable and cannot be otherwise. We adopt our version of reality from our parents, friends, teachers, reading, etc. (as best we understand it) — and then work at adapting it to our own experiences.

But there are some of us who take one extra step — that one step too far. Having adopted and adapted a vision of “how things are” these unfortunate folks — forgetting or ignoring the always partial nature of human knowledge — decide that their version of reality is reality itself.

This is called mistaking the map for the territory.

That one step too far, taken in ignorance leads to a fall into the pit of spiritual pride, into a belief that “My way is the one true way!” This is fanaticism.