Observation v. Judgment

Way back in my posting I said I’d write a post some day about judgment versus observation.  I felt that first I needed to go to the dictionary for the definitions.

Judgment – 1. God’s judgment on an individual; legal verdict; obligation resulting from a verdict; decision of a judge; opinion; estimate based on observation; act of making a statement

“In logic, the mental act of making or understanding a positive or negative proposition about something”

Observation – 1. Paying attention; 2. Observing of developments in something; 3. Record of something seen or noted; remark or comment; act of observing or obeying.

“The attentive watching of somebody or something.”

So observation is what occurs before judgment happens.    In order to make a judgment about a person or a situation one must observe.

The questions then become a) what is the purpose of the observation and b) what is the point of reference of the observer. 

If one wants to observe a person or an activity for the purpose if finding evidence to support a supposition, then their observations will be biased.  We tend to look for evidence to support our beliefs and ignore evidence that counters it.  A simple example is how nature uses camouflage to hide from being observed.  The technique relies on the bias of the observer who expects to see tree bark on a tree and not a moth.  Yet when placing one’s hand on the tree to rest a moth flitters off in the air to our surprise.  If the observer’s bias were to look for moths instead of bark, they would be more likely to see the moth.

In observing humans, someone who has a bias that people are bad will look for evidence that they are.  The bark in this case is all the bad traits that people demonstrate all around us, anger, impatience, and so on.  This person would be surprised – or suspicious – of someone who smiled at them, or held a door for them.  It would be like the moth suddenly coming to life on the tree, the goodness in people would come as a surprise.

My education gives me a point of reference that would render me incapable of making a judgment about the work of an engineer no matter how long I observed that person at their desk.  Oh, I could judge that they do not sit up straight or that they spend too much time on their breaks, but the mathematical formulas and the CAD drawings and all of that is beyond my training.  I have no foundation in engineering that would enable me to judge their work.

Someone who wishes to observe another for the purpose of judgment therefore must have some background and knowledge about what it is they wish to observe.  In religion for example, I often find that regular church going folks are rather judgmental in their views of others.  They commonly reference the Bible as their authority in making these judgments.  Observing people for the purpose of judgment in Church seems to be a principle activity of many.  Yet I would question most people’s ability to even observe the behavior of others with a bias based on at best an incomplete understanding of the Bible.

There is a reason that pastors spend years in school to learn about the Bible.  Many of them study ancient languages in order to be able to read the most ancient Biblical texts for themselves and to study the peculiarities of the language.  They study the known history of the times that the Bible was written in so they have an adequate understanding of the historical context in which the language was used.  As we all know, language changes with time or we would all be having a jolly good time quaffing pints at the pub wouldn’t we?

All of this study to build an adequate background to teach the content of the Bible is crucial in order to use the Bible as a point of reference for observation, and so to make judgments.  The funny thing is that the Bible even advises against making judgments.  Jesus says about judging others, that instead of pointing out the speck in another’s eye, we should work on getting the logs out of our own.

So can one observe without judging?  Should we all just close our eyes so we do not see?  I suppose that a good example here would be a man sitting on a beach.  He is watching the scene from atop his beach blanket with a shady umbrella overhead.  The day is beautiful and sunny, the waves are rolling in and the seagulls are calling to each other as they soar above the sea.  The man watches people walking along the shore, children splashing in the water, others digging in the sand, yet other people are lying half asleep in the sun.  He observes, he takes it in but he does not think about the appropriateness of the activities in his field of vision.

Then the man’s reverie is broken by a gang of ruffians who tumble onto the beach.  They are tattooed and loud and obviously drunk.  They run in a pack for the water and splash in wildly wrestling and yelling and two get into a scuffle the others must stop.  They are obviously drunk he thinks and they are acting like maniacs.  Someone is liable to drown or they might threaten someone on the beach.  They might knock down a child with their carelessness.  The man has moved from observation to judgment.

So observation can be tainted by fear, it can be tainted by bias, it can be tainted by lack of knowledge.  And when observation is tainted by anything then any judgment that comes from that observation may also be tainted.  At the very least, it must be examined carefully for inherent flaws.

I believe that the impossibility of human objectivity is why Jesus said there is only one judge, God.  Only He is qualified to be neutral.  Only He is qualified to observe without bias.  Jesus – God incarnate – advised men not to judge unless they wanted also to be judged.  Jesus advised that we only judge ourselves.  The funny thing is that religion can get so many things right and this key thing so wrong.  The religious drive people away by creating an atmosphere of judgment.  Many people would never enter a church because they understand that the observation begins at the door and that judgment is sure to follow close behind. 

The use of the Bible for the purpose of law making is based on observation of selected behaviors of others and rendering judgment with supposed Biblical authority. Law making based on the Bible is based on a preconceived bias toward behaviors the observer wants to regulate.  It is based on pointing out specks and ignoring logs.  It is based on placing oneself in the judgment seat of God where Jesus himself said there is only room for the One.

I believe that the crucial point in this discussion is that observation of others ultimately leads to judgment.  Conducting observations while lacking objectivity or adequate information may lead to faulty or improper judgments.  Using the Bible as a basis for judgments is a dangerous game because the very practice of doing so is in conflict with the teachings of God Himself.