The Reality Enhancement Factor

Once in a while, some random messenger from heaven gives to us the gift to see as we really see.  A strong expectation is overthrown, or a prediction turns out false, or a long-held view finally breaks down under objections, and for a moment the mind’s eye focuses enough to see—a blur.

Because that’s what we actually see most of the time.  Human persons—friends, family, enemies, whatever–are the most vivid realities around us, and yet every sage who ever was said that to know oneself is the work of a lifetime, so of course our actual understanding of other people—whose thoughts we don’t think, whose feelings we don’t feel—is an even slower project.  Despite a high school grasp of science, most of us interpret the world through physical theories half a century outdated, and even the scientists at the front of their fields grasp their own theories by way of metaphors—space bends, or is made up of strings, or other phrases that have no literal meaning—and fully expect their own ideas to be outdated eventually.  We go forward in life like backpackers in a fog-shrouded valley, working by the feel of the ground, dim impressions of trees overhead, and the general direction of the light.

To see the blur as blur all the time would not only drive us crazy but nearly immobilize us.  Focused on the blurriness of the blur, we would be afraid to act and would probably underestimate how much we really know:  it is too difficult to stay exactly balanced all the time, so if we did not overestimate what we know then we would underestimate it.  Mercifully, therefore, God has made us such that we fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

For example, if I enter a dark room in which in reality I see only a few stray gleams of light, my familiarity with the room combines with my imagination to generate a view of the walls and the furniture and so on as though I really saw it all.  If someone moves the furniture or puts the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room, my familiarity with what should be in the room combines with my imagination to generate a clear view of a witch or a goblin—again, as though I really saw it!

The same thing happens in personal relations.  What we actually know of a person are a few outward actions and a few words, all of which admit of many interpretations.  But our imagination of what it would be like of we did and said those things combines with our general view of that person to generate a view of their motives and beliefs seemingly even clearer than our vision of the goblin in the dark room.

The same thing again happens in the most intellectual pursuits.  Any time I think about something that has very little being in itself, such as prime matter or electrons, I endow it with more being than it has:  prime matter surreptitiously becomes a bland, grey stuff; atoms and electrons become balls with smaller balls moving in circular orbits about them.  Being is light to the mind, and just as the imagination fills out the gaps in a dark room, so the mind fills out the gaps in being.

Taken all together, this Reality Enhancement Factor transforms the blur of our lives into a clear, sunlit meadow at noon.  It’s a blessing:  our creative guesses are in fact true enough often enough that they can be taken as at least one artist’s rendering of the truth, and in the meantime we don’t slip into the fallacy of skepticism.  But it’s also a curse:  if we truly believe our sight to be as clear as it feels most of the time, then we stubbornly cling to our unjust perceptions of a person, or we refuse honestly to consider plain evidence against our theories and dismiss as stupid or dishonest everyone who disagrees.  Recognizing the REF is crucial.  Humility without skepticism is a mark of the educated man.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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[…] a phenomenon related to what I have called the Reality Enhancement Factor.  We are built to see a dim and sketchy scene and flesh it out mentally until everything seems […]

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