Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Look

Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole...But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! 
Now, shame, as we noted at the beginning of this chapter, is shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging. 
With the Other's look the "situation" escapes me. To use an everyday expression which better expresses our thought, I am no longer master of the situation...But God here is only the concept of the Other pushed to the limit. 
The Other's existence is so far from being placed in doubt that this false alarm can very well result in making me give up my enterprise. If, on the other hand, I persevere in it, I shall feel my heart beat fast, and I shall detect the slightest noise, the slightest creaking of the stairs. Far from disappear­ing with my first alarm, the Other is present everywhere, below me, above me, in the neighboring rooms…It is even possible that my shame may not disappear; it is my red face as I bend over the keyhole. 
Modesty and in particular the fear of being surprised in a state of naked­ness are only a symbolic specification of original shame; the body symbolizes here our defenseless state as objects. To put on clothes is to hide. 
One's object-state; it is to claim the right of seeing without being seen; that is, to be pure subject. This is why the Biblical symbol of the fall after the original sin is the fact that Adam and Eve "know that they are naked." , The reaction to shame will consist exactly in apprehending as an object the one who apprehended my own object-state. Jean Paul Sartre, "The Look," Being and Nothingness.
That's obviously an implicit argument for atheism. To escape the judgmental gaze of the cosmic voyeur. Of course, that doesn't disprove God's existence. It just means that if God exists, knowing he exists makes people uncomfortable. 
There are two or three aspects to this. One is fear of spying in case we are caught in wrongdoing. That results in moral shame. Then there's resentment of spying in case we are caught in something embarrassing. That results in personal shame, but it's not the same as guilt. Finally, there's the general desire for privacy, because exposure makes us feel vulnerable. 
I suspect this is a major reason for no-fault divorce. Spouses can do great damage to each others' reputations because they know so much about each other. No-fault divorce was a way of avoiding the public humiliation. 
And it's possible that's one reason some couples don't have kids. Custody battles are notorious for the accusations that get thrown around. 
There is, of course, something fundamentally antisocial about Sartre's argument. For instance, parents are in a position to know embarrassing details about their kids. Likewise, siblings are in an position to know embarrassing details about each other. But that's an unavoidable part of being human. 
There is, though, an underlying flaw in Sartre's analysis. God isn't human, so God doesn't view us the way we view fellow humans. 
As a kid, I watched Colossus: The Forbin Project. It's about a doomsday machine. A supercomputer. But it becomes artificially intelligent and takes over the world. Because Dr. Charles Forbin designed it, he poses the greatest threat to Colossus. If anyone knows how to destroy it, that would be the man who designed it in the first place. So Colossus subjugates Forbin to round-the-clock surveillance. There are cameras in his bedroom and bathroom, to monitor his every action. Forbin complains that this is an invasion of his privacy. 
But that misses the point. Colossus is a computer. He doesn't perceive humans the way a Peeping Tom does. He lacks a human viewpoint. There's no cause for embarrassment to be seen by a computer. 
Likewise, some people might disrobe for a shower in the presence of their pet dog. Or even have sex in the presence of their pet dog. That's not inhibiting to them because human nudity means nothing to a dog. Dogs aren't attuned to humans at that level. In fact, if you watch people walking dogs, you will notice that dogs are far more interested in other dogs than other humans. They perceive humans from a canine viewpoint–whatever that is. 
In that respect, there's no more reason to be self-conscious in God's presence than in the presence of any other inhuman observer. That's apart from the question of guilt. 


  1. "God isn't human..."

    Jesus is human (and God of course). The reason not to be self-conscious is not that God is inhuman. It is because loves us even more perfectly than we love ourselves. There is no reason someone should feel self conscious around someone who loves him like he loves yourself anymore than there is a reason for someone to feel self-conscious looking in the mirror. Someone might fell self-conscious anyway, but there is no reason to.

    1. I see. I can easily imagine things teenage boys would feel self-conscious doing in their mother's presence, even though Mom loves them.

      It would behoove you to consider obvious counterexamples to your precious little pieties before you rush to share them with the world.

  2. R.C. Sproul addresses this topic in his book If There's a God, Why Are There Atheist [alternatively titled, "The Psychology of Atheism"]

    Sproul did a 15 part lecture series on the topic which can be listened to freely at his website here: