defaultOne of the books I got for Christmas was called Why the toast always lands butter side down – The Science of Murphy’s Law by Richard Robinson. In it, he describes the science behind why things so often seem to go wrong and how the brain is fooled. The brain itself is a very clever piece of kit but it has to cope with a very complex world, a world which could easily overwhelm it. As a result, it rapidly learns what is important and how to ignore what is not and it also learns how to make sense of what can seem a somewhat disparate set of inputs by basing things on previous experience and memory.

There is a popular image, known as Schröder's Staircase, which demonstrates this well. Look at it one way and out of the jumble of lines your brain will see four steps. Turn it upside down and the lines will seemingly reform to make a picture with just three steps. This is because the brain only has experience of looking at stairs downwards from above. As a result, when the picture is turned upside down the brain simply cannot see the stairs as an upside down staircase, of which it has no experience. Instead, it tries to make sense of the picture in terms of what it does know and reimages it in terms of a different staircase (with a different number of stairs).

 

stairs up

stairs down

 

What this ultimately tells us is that the brain interprets the world based on what it already knows and what it thus expects to see. As well as resulting in various optical illusions and other tricks that can fool the brain, such a behaviour also raises an interesting question about matters of faith. Do people of faith see God in the world around them because that is what they expect to see? And do those of no faith not see God precisely for the same reason – that is, because they don’t expect to?

The other day I was in a hurry trying to get to a meeting. As I drove along, I was desperately hoping I would find a convenient parking place and, all of a sudden, lo and behold one appeared. Now some would say that that was God answering prayer. Personally, I don’t believe God micromanages the world in that way for my benefit. It was just my lucky day. But it all depends on how you want to interpret things. I might describe someone reaching out to help someone else in need as God at work in his world. A non-believer would say it was just someone being nice to someone else and why do I have to bring God into things all the time? Again, it all depends on your perspective. The trouble is that, if we always base things on our current understanding of the world, we never allow ourselves to be surprised and see things differently and thus miss those glimpses of God that, I believe, are there to be found. And that is true wherever we are on the “faith spectrum”.

February sees the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection leading up to Easter. Drawing on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, in which Jesus took time to consider his mission from all sides in order to tease out what God’s perspective might be, perhaps this could be a good time for us all to allow ourselves to see things from a different perspective, to think about interpreting things differently and to try and understand how others see the world. Our society, particularly through social media, is becoming increasingly polarised. People coalesce around others who think like them. But there are many ways to see the world. Of course, different perspectives of the world have different levels of truth. Not everything is valid. But neither do any of us have a monopoly on truth. We all have things we can learn from each other, whether we share a faith but understand things differently, whether we are of different faiths, whether we are someone of faith or not. And as we explore those alternative views of the world, maybe we will allow God to surprise us in ways we cannot imagine, remembering that, as we approach Easter, we find that most surprising story of all in which at the heart of death is new life.

God bless!

Jonathan