Seeing beyond sight

I was thinking today how if we focus on the parts of the body, each individually, we cannot see the larger movement that is “the body”. And if we focus on the body, we will not see the dynamics of human interaction. And if we focus on only the relationships we see, we will never comprehend the complex dynamics of society.

In order to apprehend the greater sphere, we must, in a way, see the whole beyond the parts. Engineers do this when they think about a computer system. There are too many parts to pay attention to all at once: so they think of the system as a construct, moving in and out of focus as they examine the relationships of the different parts.

In life, too, this happens. For instance, the appearance of “evil” hinges on our seeing only fragments of a larger scheme. “Evil” comes into being when we confine an infinite movement into a fixed, finite view. This idea is given in an allegorical form in the Qur’an, and in the Bahá’í Writings. The constraints of our awareness act like a horse’s blinders, which cut the overall scene into small sections, each telling a different story, and none reflecting the view as a whole.

To move from a limited view to a larger view is the role of education. For example, an engineer must learn thousands of details to understand a computer. In the beginning, it seems magical. No matter how much is learned, the relation of the countless parts is a mystery. Then, once a critical mass of understanding is achieved, the blocks of knowledge begin to fit like puzzle pieces. The principles can be abstracted from the details, and since the principles are few, the engineer is no longer defeated by the magnitude of the details.

But no engineer can overcome the limitations of his focus. He will never be able to hold in his mind a vision of all the details, all at once. However, since he possesses an understanding of the directing principles, he can visualize the computer as a whole even though he cannot see it whole. He will never see every part at once, but by his understanding he can see the computer as a whole nonetheless. The limits of his vision relate to him; the extent of the subject relates to the machine. To see the machine as it is, rather than how it appears within the confines of his eye, he must give up the way he sees things, in order to understand them despite his eyes.

In so doing, the engineer’s mind traverses from one plane – the perception of individual details – to another plane, which he cannot reach without education. It is not that the concepts are impossible, but that nature of vision cannot be expressed. It must be awakened through the process of education. (There is more on this in an earlier essay, The process of learning and mystical pursuit).

To give another example: At ground level in a city, we can see the individual people, streets, and buildings. But we are unable to see the whole city. Even with binoculars, or a high power telescope, we would no be able to see beyond the range of the horizon.

If we could soar like a bird, however, we would be able to see more: how the streets connect, how traffic flows, how the city is laid out. To gain that higher view, we must give up our sight of the smaller parts. It is not possible to see it all, because the eye is limited. We can see some of the parts, or all of the whole, but never all the parts at once.

Moving higher, we see how the cities connect – losing altogether our view of the buildings and streets. Higher still, and we see how nations are situated. Further and further out, we become aware of galaxies, clusters, even universal harmonies – by depriving ourselves of the ability to see anything in detail, at all.

But then we move back down. Having seen all we can, and how unity works even at universal scales, we return to our original city and see it with new eyes. It still has the same details – and we, the same limited vision; we can’t see beyond a city block – but now we see far more than the street and the buildings alone. We look at the street – and see the city, the nation, the world, of which that street is a part. Even though our view end at the next hill, we see the street as part of something immense beyond imagining, a nested set of interrelationships binding each bit of matter throughout the universe. We look at the parts, but see the whole.

Education thus requires that we sacrifice our knowledge of things, and how we see them. We must give up seeing the street, to see the city. Education destroys the models we’re used to. It changes the world, much as every youngster’s world is shattered when he leaves his childhood town for the first time. The world forever after is bigger, and cannot fit back into how we used to see it.

By sacrificing what we see, we come to see more: without our eyes. The engineer does not need to look at computer chips to know they are there, or how they function. He now has a sight which does not depend on sight. Even if he looks at the chips themselves, he does not see them individually, but as a function within the whole. The way he saw the world before is forever gone, replaced by a vision larger than eyes are capable of.

I think that, in this way, we are transformed but never destroyed. If our “self” is in fact the confines of our vision – the finite models we use to grasp an infinite reality – then we abandon our “selves” a little bit each time we learn. We sacrifice what our eyes see, to gain sight. We give up the limits of the subject, to embrace the unseeable dimensions of the object. We climb higher and higher on the ladders of perception, until our vision is no longer determined by our own sight, but the expanse of the realities we examine.