A few weeks ago I listened to an episode of This American Life with an unfortunate title: Batman. The title, which really doesn’t set the right tone for the episode to follow, refers to Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself to echolocate as a child. He gets around the world relatively unaided (including, for example, riding a bike) by clicking and then listening to the echoes. This ability has made him world famous, but it really shouldn’t be so unusual.
And perhaps the most chilling thing is the fact that most blind kids will intuitively start clicking or snapping or stamping to test out their environment with sound. But they are so often discouraged that they never get the chance to develop their skill to the level Daniel did.
They are discouraged, of course, because clicking or snapping repetitively isn’t conducive with normal social expectations. Thus far the tale is sad, but it is not unusual. The idea that social conventions can be repressive isn’t unusual. But it’s not just the freedom to break with social convention that allowed Kish to develop his talent. It was also having a mother who, in ways that seem cruel or uncaring, treated Kish more or less as though he could see even though he couldn’t. Kish says:
From the fifth grade on, I walked to school almost every day. I had to cross major streets. I participated in extracurricular activities. I made my own breakfast. I made my own lunch.
His mom also let him climb trees and, as mentioned earlier, even ride a bike. This unsupervised exploration was just as dangerous as it sounds:
I used to have this game, get to the top of our road and yell, “Dive bomb!”, and I would ride insanely fast down the road. And everyone would have to scatter. Well, one day, I did the dive bomb thing, and as I was screaming down this road, bang. I just collided into a metal light pole.
There was, as he put it, “blood everywhere.” This injury was only one of many very real and very painful accidents that were all a part of Kish learning to navigate his world independently. The risks and costs that his mother allowed him to take as he grew up make you think carefully about the nature of a love. Would a more protective, conventional approach have stripped Kish of his independence? Or is it a manifestation of a greater, but less recognizable love, that is the reason that Kish can, though blind, see?
This brings me to the second revelation of this story. Later on in the episode, we are introduced to a former sociology professor named Bob Scoot who wrote a book called The Making of Blind Men in which he claimed that blindness is primarily a social construct.
And this brings us to the title of today’s post: how should we interpret a claim that seems to be unbelievable? That natural approach is to see it as symbolic: the inability to see is, of course, not a social construct but the conventions we have built up around that have created a kind of learned helplessness that is disabling above and beyond sightlessness in a way that is metaphorically like blindness. This ability to re-interpret a plain statement as symbolic or metaphorical is an important aspect of being able to communicate with other human beings: not everything is literal. Learning to correctly recognize exaggeration, sarcasm, and allegory is a part of growing up. But it’s possible to learn these lessons too well and come to a point where we so firmly associate de-literalization with maturity that we miss out on deeper, literal truths.
The deeper, literal truth in this case involves a a German neuroscientist at Durham University named Lore Thaler. Thaler, who “studies vision in the rain—literally how the images we see are constructed,” asked several echolocators like Kish to can echolocate to “look” at various objects using their echolocation. While they did this, she used microphones placed in their ears to record the precise echoes.
Next, Thaler put the participants in fMRI machines and played back the audio. When she watched the brain scans while doing this, she found that “even though for decades scientists assumed that the visual cortex goes dark when you are blind, Daniel’s was lighting up like a disco ball.”
It is at this point that we must grapple with the fact that everything we think of as vision—the light coming into eyes, interacting with rods and cones on our retina, being encoded as electrical impulses and sent to the brain—has essentially nothing to do with the subjective experience of seeing. Everything that makes up our experience of sight happens in the brain, and it really has nothing to do with the eyes at all. Or light, for that matter.
One easily understood example of this is the science of wiring video cameras directly into the brain. It’s easy for us to understand that in this case a person without eyes could see by having the video camera act instead of the eyes. After all, cameras are a lot like eyes in some sense. But there’s really no reason that a video camera would need to be restricted to the same segment of the electromagnetic spectrum as visible light. Why not go into the ultraviolet or infrared? And, once we’ve imagined departing from conventional models of vision that far, why use the electromagnetic spectrum at all? Why not, for example, using sound waves?
According to Thaler’s research, the parts of Kish’s visual cortex that are associated with motion, texture, orientation, and shape were all working. The only parts that didn’t were those associated with color and brightness. So I’m not saying that vision is identical in blind people who can echolocate very, very well. But it is close, based on the scans. And not just the scans. They did the obvious thing next: they found someone who went blind late in life and then learned to echolocate. And they asked him point-blank, does he see? Brian Bushway, who didn’t lose his vision until he was 14, replied that with his echolocation, “Things are real. I mean, it’s as real as looking at it.” In other words, “once he learned echolocation, the world around him, although blurrier and colorless, appeared again.”
It is incontestable that an attempt to read the scriptures literally will fail to grasp their intended meaning because, to use one of the simplest examples, a narrative form like a parable is not literal. But it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. Our clever ability to analyze and deconstruct texts can also be taken to extremes. If we are too quick to deliteralize, we may end up “looking beyond the mark.”
The highest guide to understanding the scriptures is to follow the same Spirit by which they were written. However, I have never found myself so awash in an abundance of spiritual insight that my own reasoning and resources were rendered superfluous. And so I augment the highest and dearest approach with every other tool available. There is value in being naive. Let us be childlike. There is value in learning and careful reading. Let us show our reverence for the scriptures with the sweat of our brow. Above all, let us be too simple, too clever, and too stubborn to be corralled into an either/or approach to the scriptures.
 Quotes in this post come from the transcript.
 Jacob 4:14