Saturday, June 27, 2020

Model and Metaphor

Language is the medium with which we communicate, and hence, of course, how we communicate truths. But language is not as straightforward as we might think. There are the issues already mentioned, of redundancy and communication in lossy (say, noisy) environments. There are also the issues Wittgenstein raised around the use of language in specific contexts, where a word can mean different things depending on what we are trying to communicate. But there are other issues as well.

The most obvious extra issue is about how language actually works. In principle, letters are just marks on a page and sounds are just compressions and rarefactions in the air. The meaning is given to these marks by the hearer or reader. When we learn a language, we learn how these marks on a page (I will simplify, but it works the same for learning a spoken language) relate to objects, ideas, concepts and so on, in other words, what was intended by the writer.

Language evolves, and the meanings of words evolve with it. Thus, for example, the word ‘tradition’ means ‘that which is handed down’. This retains pretty much its basic meaning, but extra elements, nuances and so on, accrue as well. Tradition can be used as a word which is positive, such as ‘traditional church service’ or one which is negative, say contrasting ‘tradition’ with ‘progressive’. In many cases, of course, the use of the word is subjective, depending on whether I like a traditional service or not.

Things are never even as simple as this. Much language is folded into metaphors. Even something fairly simple, such as ‘understand’ is a metaphor – the original meaning is ‘stand under’ in the sense of knowing and agreeing with something. Much of the time, of course, such a metaphor does not trouble our thinking: the metaphor is, so to speak ‘dead’, the metaphorical content in our ordinary language is practically nil.

Other metaphors are alive, well and living in our language. Some we may not recognise: ‘The case is closed’ for example, is a metaphor related, I imagine, to packing for a holiday. The packing comes to an end, the suitcase is sealed and nothing more is to be added. The case is closed, and we get on to the next thing. The allusions of the metaphorical expression are not explicitly brought to mind when we hear it, but they are there. In context we simply understand that someone is trying to draw a line under a controversy, trying to rule out further discussion and argument.

In illustrating the original metaphor and its meaning I have, of course, just used two more. I do not, in fact, literally draw a line under a controversy. In a document, I might put a line in to separate sub-regions, but in a conversation, we understand the meaning without considering the metaphor. To rule out is a similar sort of thing. We exclude something by framing the area of discussion – and there is another metaphor, explaining the previous one which explains the original metaphor. And so on.

Metaphors can act as traps for the unwary. Often they can be read literally and metaphorically. For example, ‘God is the Father’ can be read as God being someone who has male characteristics – a beard for example. But further investigation suggests that ‘God is the Father’ is not to be read in this way – ‘God has characteristics of fatherhood’, perhaps is a better way of putting it, or maybe better ‘God has the characteristics of the very best possible human fathers, and then some’. What we gain in accuracy we lose in compactness of expression.

Religious language is of course littered with metaphors. We are trying to express the inexpressible. If God is supernatural and spiritual, it is unlikely that our ordinary language, most of which is material and experience bound, is going to manage any sort of direct expression of God. The finite struggles to express the infinite; it can only be achieved by allusion, illustration, story and model, hoping that the reader or hearer will catch on, grasp the meaning which we cannot elucidate directly.

Modern science also is riddled with the language of metaphor and model, particularly the latter. As a metaphor is an illustration of something for another to catch on to, not a direct reference, so a model is an aspect of the world, perhaps simplified, for others to grasp. A model of an atom is not a representation of how an atom ‘works’, it is an object, a mental construct, which can help us grasp how an atom behaves.

As with metaphors, if we mistake the model for the real thing, we will ultimately be led into errors, or at least surprises. So, for example, the original ‘plum pudding’ model of the atom, whereby the electrons and protons were distributed evenly in a sphere, led to Rutherford famous experiment firing alpha particles at a thin sheet. Every once in a while, one of the alpha particles bounced backwards, while the majority passed through the sheet. According to the plum pudding model this should not have happened, the atomic spheres were uniform. Something was wrong with the model, evidently.

The languages of religion, and the languages of science, are, therefore riddled with models and metaphors. These are not ‘twiddly’ bits of language which we can discard when we try to speak exactly, they are intrinsic to the process of doing theology and doing science. When we say that an atom is like the solar system, or that God is our Rock, we mean neither expression literally. God is our rock in the sense that he is the ultimate foundation of being, for example, not because he is a lump of granite in someone’s back garden. Similarly, an atom is a bit like a solar system in that it has a massive centre, like the Sun, and bits orbiting around it. But if we push these models or metaphors too far we start to say silly things. Awareness of the limits of models and metaphors is as important as knowledge of their potential.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Language and Meaning

Many years ago someone observed to me that until after the Second World War language had been presumed to be transparent. That is, that words meant what they said and said what they mean. As with most generalisations this was not quite the case, but as a broad brush it will do.

After the Second World War two things happened. The first was a degree of technological innovation, the start of digital communications. This led to the development of communications theory, an effort led by Claude Shannon. This rang a bell with me, because many years before the language lecture I am referring to, I did a course on communication physics, and struggled with an object called Shannon’s theory. If you read Shannon’s original papers (in Physics Review) they are quite easy to read, but the concepts are a bit mind bending.

Shannon observed that much everyday language is redundant. That is, much of what we say or write is unnecessary to communicate what we mean. If you work it out, I seem to recall that up to 80% of a sentence in English is redundant. Y__ c_n s__ wh_t I m__n _n t__s se____ce. It might well slow you down, working out the content of the missing letters, but the context and rules of grammar actually give you most of the missing letters.

We can, therefore, produce an ‘ideal’ language of, say zeros and ones, with no redundancy and be able to say exactly what we mean. The information content is maximised, the redundancy is zero. However, problems arise when you use a ‘lossy’ medium that is one with noise or dispersion in it. Then the difference between zeros and ones can be lost and errors occur in the message received.

In order to combat the errors, checking bits are added. Thus, for each batch of ones and zeros, an extra one or zero is added to give the sum of the preceding digits (we are in binary here, so 0+1 = 1 and 1+1 = 0) so that errors in the batch can be detected. This works, of course, but adds a degree of redundancy to our otherwise ideal language.

The problems multiply, of course, as distance and noise increase, and more sophisticated error checking is needed. However, this is the basis of our modern communication networks – even in a computer network redundancy is rife because it has to be to spot errors.

The other thing that happened was what is usually known in the history of philosophy as ‘the turn to language’. This was mainly due to the influence of Wittgenstein’s late work, Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001 [1953])). In this book (which is a difficult and unusual read, by the way) Wittgenstein notes the variety of uses of language, not all of which are giving information.

The wide variety of uses of language Wittgenstein lists include giving and acting on orders, reporting an event, making up a story and reading it, translating, requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying, among many others (PI section 23). His point is that speaking a language is part of an activity, of what he calls a life form. Here we cannot get away from the fact that the way we live life, and the language we use to describe life and act within it are not separate.

The words usually used to describe this intertwining of language and life is, perhaps unfortunately in English, ‘language game’. This might lend it a slightly frivolous air especially as Wittgenstein goes on to discuss the different sorts of activities that the word ‘game’ covers. But the point is a serious one: our different activities entail the use of different sub-sets of our language.

Consider, by way of an example, a zoologist taking their toddler child to a wildlife park and looking at a giraffe. The zoologist will see things differently from the toddler. The child will see a big animal with spots and a long neck. The zoologist will see adaptation to a savanna environment, and to eating leave on trees out of reach of other herbivores. The giraffe is the same for both people, but the interpretation is different, because of their different life experiences.

The point is that while the two people might explain what they saw in different words, the differences arise from their different contexts, the different environments and experience that a toddler and a trained scientist have had. It does not mean that the truth is subjective, that they both have a different truth about giraffes. The truths they have are compatible, just not the same.

Our different language games are not, therefore, incompatible. A zoologist can understand their child’s description of the giraffe, and the child, if taken slowly and carefully through the new ideas they may be presented with, can understand the zoologist’s description. Both are being honest about what they have seen and describing it accurately. Naturally, there may be issues when the child describes a lion instead of a giraffe, or the zoologist turns out to be a creationist with a non-mainstream description of how a long neck came about. But in general language works because both sides are honest, and misunderstandings can be dealt with by mutual goodwill and explanation.

The point here is that language is not, as most of us understand, experience and use it, totally transparent. For normal purposes we do not consider how language works – we just use it. But when we stop and think about it, language gets more complex. It starts to shape the world around us because part of that world is a human construct. For example, if we start saying that a formalised homosexual relationship is marriage, and people object, what the argument is over is the meaning of marriage. Whatever else it might be, marriage is a human condition, a human construct. Its meanings are what we make of them, as individuals and as society.

 Language, therefore, is not as transparent as we might like to think. An awful lot of meaning is driven by the context in which the words are delivered. When we start to think about it like that, we might start to be surprised that we can make sense to each other at all.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Baber’s Trinity

Trinity Sunday is possibly one of the most feared dates in the Christian year. It is so easy to be heretical about the Trinity – to fall into polytheism, tri-theism, Sabellism, or any one of a plethora of heresies that await the unwary. And, when it comes to the Trinity, we are all unwary. On the upside, it is unlikely that we will, in our blundering around, come up with a really new heresy. There does not seem to have been a decent original one for fifteen hundred years or so.

Nevertheless, it does behove us to try. I was once told off in a systematic theology class for ‘playing the mystery card too early’. If we bunk off from the difficult questions, then the easier questions also become more difficult and we regress into an infantile religiosity. So we do need to try.

I have been reading Harriet Baber’s new(-ish) book:

Baber, H., The Trinity: A Philosophical Investigation (London: SCM, 2019).

As the title suggests, this is more a philosophical study than a theological one, although part of the point of the book is, I suspect, to show that really there is not much difference between the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Indeed, one of Baber’s targets seems to be ‘religious studies’ academics, those who study religions but who do not get involved. To such people ‘theology’ is odious, a holdover from the dark ages. Religious studies is a social science, a true academic subject, while theology is just uncritical expounding of dogma (p.3).

There is also, as again Baber notes and articulates what I have suspected, that there is an understanding that unbelievers do not need to concern themselves with theology, especially with difficult ideas such as the Trinity. Of course, the concept might not be important to them as a cornerstone of their belief system, but surely there has to be a requirement on everyone to tackle, reasonably intelligently, the past, and religion, and arguments over Christian doctrines, do form a part of that past. We neglect it at our peril.

Baber divides her argument into two – the ‘Latin’ and the ‘Greek’ questions on the Trinity. This paradigm dates back to the 1892 work of Theodore de Regnon, SJ, who characterised the Latin tradition as emphasising the unity of God while the Greek tradition emphasises the Persons as distinct centres of consciousness participating in a divine society, the so-called ‘social Trinity’ (p. 45).

The de Regnon paradigm, as it has become known, has been broadly accepted, at least by analytic philosophers interested in the Trinity (p. 46). Some scepticism is expressed, however, that there is such a clear distinction. The questions seem to be more about the language used and the meanings expressed rather than different theologies of the Trinity.

Baber suggests that the investigation of the Trinity should address the Latin and Greek questions: ‘How are the Trinitarian Persons distinguished?’ and ‘What makes them one God?’ (p. 60). Baber’s aim is to find some sorts of answers to these questions without, it seems, giving hostages to concepts of ‘Social Trinity’, particularly as it is often found (apparently) as being used as a paradigm for some sort of perfect human society in political theology.

The discussion gets undeniably technical, but the bottom line Baber draws seems clear: the Athanasian Creed declares that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God; that the Father is not the Son and the Father is not the Holy Spirit. The Persons of the Trinity are not identical, they do not have the same properties, but they are all God (p. 110). Anyone, believer or not, must see that there is some philosophical and theological work to be done here.

Baber comes to the conclusion that the Latin question elicits a Latin answer: the Trinitarian processions (of the Son and Holy Spirit) are to be understood as discerning relations, that is, they are how we distinguish one Person of the Trinity from another. The Greek question obtains a Greek answer: the processions are relations of ontological dependence, best understood as grounding relations. These answers avoid what is worst (or heretical0 in either camps, while not exactly presenting the same answer to the question posed by the doctrine of the Trinity.

Baber’s point is that we should not look backwards to some pre-existing human answers to the questions posed by the Trinity. The Fathers of the fourth century did not have special access to the divine essence to work out the Creeds; they did not, as Ian Ramsey notes, telephone CHALcedon 451 for the latest updates on the Godhead. The Scholastics were not, and did not think they were, writing definitive conclusions about God. Baber suggests that current philosophical and theological work should build on previous work but not be held to ransom by it (p.185-6). Their context was different from ours.

We should, therefore, start from current theological praxis and modern philosophy. The foundations of any investigation for Baber should be the discourse and praxis of the church, that is, what we as ordinary church-goers say and do. The liturgy, hymnody, art, customs, practices, religious objects and devotions together constitute the Christian religion and its practice. The aim of philosophical theology is to make sense of all of this and to avoid, (so far as is possible, I would add) logical incoherence (p. 186-7). This, Baber asserts, tells us all we can know about the supernatural world, and that is what religion is about.

This raises a number of questions. There are, after all, varying practices and discourses in the church, let alone among the faiths of the human race. How do we choose one to be the starting point of our reflections on the Christian religion and its practice? Most of us, most of the time, would take our practice as the starting point, but that surely begs the question. While, pace Kierkegaard, being born in a Christian country does not make you a Christian, nor does being born in a Christian family. Being thus born, however, may well inform your practices and your understanding of where you stand. It does give a solid starting point, but can we really question it?

Friday, June 5, 2020

Knowing that We Know

We all know stuff. Some of it is the obvious sort of things that we do not even think about, such as ‘If I don’t put this foot down I will fall over’. Other stuff we know we do think about; this is perhaps the things we learnt at school, such as ‘Henry VIII had six wives’ or ‘the square root of 64 is 8.’ Sometimes we have to think about it, or ransack our memories for the answer (say to the question ‘what were Henry VIII’s wives called?’).

The things that we know divide, then, into two classes, at least roughly. The things which we know automatically, such as catching a ball or riding a bicycle, and the things we have to think about. Granted, originally, we had to learn to catch a ball or ride a bike, but once we have done so, we can pretty well think of other things, so long as nothing unexpected happens.

The thing is that while many of us can ride a bike, swim or undertake a myriad of other activities, we are likely to struggle to explain how we come to do them. We can show someone how to ride a bike by riding a bike in front of them. We can explain that you pedal and hold the handlebars, and even that moving forward helps stability and steering, but we cannot explain exactly how a bike is ridden. We know how to ride a bike, but we cannot tell how to ride a bike.

A fair bit of life is like this, I suspect. We watch a TV chef rustle up a fabulous (looking, at least) dish out of a few dubious looking vegetables and the breast of a woodcock, without a recipe or, apparently, any idea of what the final product will look or taste like. They know what they are doing. This is experience, granted, but also some slightly mysterious knowledge that we cannot quite define; perhaps ‘intuition’ might be used to describe it.

The upshot of this is that, if you think about it a bit, we know far more than we can tell. This is not, by the way, original to me. The chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi observed this a fair time ago, in his book Personal Knowledge, among other works (Polanyi, M., Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962)). The critical philosophy in the sub-title refers, I think, to the ideas of Kant and his critical philosophy.

I have already given some illustrations of this principle; there are many more. In a more technical sense, there was a time when I could tell whether a vacuum system was leaking from the sound of the pumps. A pump evacuating a chamber which is leaking makes a different sound from a pump which is maintaining a vacuum at a certain low pressure. I can tell you that much, but how the sounds differ is a matter of experience: the pitch of the pump with the leaky system is lower as the pump is working harder. How much lower and how you know whether it is significant or important is a matter of practice and knowing the system and that means that you have to attend to the noises that the pump makes under various conditions, not just read off the pressure from the gauge.

My personal knowledge will differ from your personal knowledge. Our experience and what we have attended to are different, even if we grew up in the same country, trained in the same subjects and so on. That does not mean, however, that our knowledge is entirely subjective. ‘It works for me’ only goes so far. After all, murdering someone might work for me, but it certainly will not work for the other person, or for the criminal justice system. We actually have to agree on a great number of things before we hold a conversation about things we might not agree over.

One of Polanyi’s problems with the scientific world is that science (by which we mean physical science here) makes facts impersonal. The scientific world agrees, for example, that the Schrodinger equation gives a reasonable description, under many circumstances, of how the atomic-scale world works. That knowledge is held by the scientific community, somehow. It is in the courses on physics you might undertake at university, it is in the textbooks and so on.

What is often not observed, but is also true, is that the Schrodinger equation is also, and most importantly, in the mind of those physicists who use it to solve problems. It is they who write down the equation, who add the boundary conditions for the given problem they are trying to solve and attempt to obtain the answers that they want. How to do this can only be partially taught. Some of it is personal knowledge – it is why when learning a subject you have to do lots of boring exercises, to build up your personal knowledge of the subject.

One of the things it is a bit difficult to convince young researchers of is that when they come to defend their thesis, they are the world experts on the subject (or they should be). Of course, they will not feel like it, but the examiners are not strictly speaking experts. My internal examiner told be over coffee on the day of my viva that I should expect some stupid questions: ‘Not because we are trying to trick you or trap you, but because we do not know.’ I had the personal knowledge of the subject; I had done the experiments, examined the data, analysed the results and written every word of the thesis. The knowledge gained was at least partly expressed in the thesis, but only partly. I also knew what a leaky vacuum system sounded like, and this was not an explicit part of the examination.

The danger is that we then start assuming all knowledge is personal and thus everything is subjective, or relative to the individual. That is, of course, as untrue as the claim that the only things we know are publicly available facts. But that discussion is for another time.



Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...