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Evidence of things not seen

June 7, 2015

The title of this post is, of course, part of St. Paul’s definition of faith (Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”). It’s also something of a paradox:”evidence” comes from “evident,” whose etymology the OED gives as “ē- out + vident-em, present participle of vidēre to see.” Faith is the seeing of what you don’t, you know, actually see. It’s like a form of perception sensitive not just to physics, but to metaphysics. Call it metaperception.

We speak in such metaperceptual terms all the time. Faith is “evidence of things not seen,” and we often say that something looks, not green or large or solid, but “real.” When a proposition seems to us correct, it sounds, not loud or jarring, but “right”; it has “the ring of truth.” When a person seems to us to possess a certain spiritual excellence, he has about him “an aura of holiness,” or, as the theologians say, “the odor of sanctity,” or, in a more modern phrase, “an air of authenticity.” And, of course, our word for aesthetic sensitivity just is “taste.”

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Knowing is not really a form of looking or hearing or smelling or tasting. Nor is it an additional form of perception on top of those three. That such metaphors appeal to us tells us something, but not, perhaps, about how we know; rather, about how we wish we knew. We wish that, when Being, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty were present, they could be accompanied by some sign which, if our senses were sufficiently refined, we could infallibly detect. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, participation in the transcendentals is not accompanied by any particular look, ring, air, or other perception. There is no way of knowing beforehand which perceptions will help us judge the transcendentals’ presence or absence; we cannot proceed except through careful attention to the whole, including both the object and its context. (Nor can their presence be detected through attention to our response to that whole—it’s absurd to think we could tell if our knowledge of a proposition was certain by looking for signs that we possessed the appropriate serenity with regard to it.)

But perhaps we can still take the metaphors to tell us something, not about the genus of such metaperceptions, but about the differences between the various species. We imagine that we recognize Being through something like sight, Truth through something like hearing, Goodness through something like smell, Beauty through something like taste. I wonder, then: are these right?

That being is like something we can see: it persists, it can be regarded from different angles, it remains even if we close our eyes and minds?

That truth is like something we can hear: it lasts only for a moment, since a statement true one moment can be false the next, but for that moment, if we notice it, we are incapable of closing our ears to its force?

That goodness is like something we can smell: we might not even notice it, if we’re not looking, and will almost certainly have difficulty describing it, but it still greatly influences our approach to it?

That beauty is like something we can taste: we disagree about it constantly, and it bears no direct correspondence to what is actually good for us, but it still seems somehow important?

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This is, of course, quite ad-hoc; my list of transcendentals is non-standard (“beauty” arguably doesn’t qualify, and honestly I’m not entirely clear on the distinction between “being” and “the one”), and as is my list of senses (it’s missing “touch,” not to mention more modern notions like “proprioception”). This bothers my schematizing tendencies, and makes the rest of me suspicious of the idea that these things fall into a schema at all.

But then, I’m not speaking here about philosophy, so much as about how these metaphors influence our thoughts. If I’m right to see a pattern in our talk of things looking real, ringing true, smelling right, and tasting beautiful, then the pattern doesn’t need to be all-encompassing or even entirely consistent in order to be worth attending to, so long it is heard in the key not of Plato but of Wittgenstein.

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