Saturday, September 26, 2020

Objective Words

One of the odd things about language, which we normally do not notice, is that it does latch on to the physical world around us. We refer to an object. I do not wish (even if I understood it) to get into the philosophical debate over referring. Sometimes it seems only a way for philosophers of language to pretend to be a bit racy, by referring to some bits of language as copula and hence copulating. It perhaps tells us all we need to know about philosophers of language.

Anyway, it is certain that some bits of language refer, and refer to objects in the world. A sentence ‘She drives the car’ has a subject, the person doing something, a verb, the doing word, and an object, the thing to which stuff is done. Hence ‘she’ in the sentence is the subject, ‘drives’ is the verb, and ‘the car’ is the object. The sentence refers to two things in the world, the driver and the car, and the subject doing something to the object.

This is all very fine and clear, but mostly we do not talk about the world in quite this way. At least, if we did talk about the world in only this way it would be a rather boring world. We say lots of other things about objects which are not necessarily in the world. For example, we talk about the future: ‘I will see you tomorrow’ has subjects and objects and verbs but refers to the meeting in the future, that is, the meeting does not exist at the point the sentence is uttered.

We can also speak of objects which we have never observed for ourselves, for example, ‘Sydney is the capital of Australia.’ I have never been to Sydney, nor to Australia, and doubt that I will, but I can still construct the sentence and utter it. You might also have noticed that the sentence is wrong. Sydney is not the capital of Australia, but that did not stop me constructing the sentence nor you understanding what I mean. As such, of course, the sentence fails because it does not refer to an actual object correctly. I believe Sydney exists, but it is not the capital of Australia.

Language, even in these fairly simple cases, is clearly a lot trickier than we normally give it credit for. This is probably just as well, for if we spent our time wondering whether our sentences referred to the world we would be a lot slower in communicating than we are. But there are implications of these problems in both science and theology.

In science the problem is one of inferring. We have inferred the existence of electrons, for example, from a great deal of evidence. However, we have never seen an electron directly, not even with the most powerful microscopes we have, or can imagine. It is not that they are so tiny, but that the mere act of shining a light (a photon) on one will cause the electron to move and thus whatever we see will not be an electron. This is called the Compton effect, but is not the only issue at play here. There is no such thing as a ‘bare’ electron in the world according to quantum electrodynamics, it is always surrounded by a cloud of virtual particles, so even if we could get around the Compton effect we still would not be seeing an electron. But we still refer to electrons as objects in the world.

In theology, however, God is not an object in the world. If God were an object in the world the sentence ‘God is great’ would simply mean that got was a lot bigger, better, whatever we interpret ‘great’ as meaning than anything else in the world. But as atheists are keen to observe, we cannot point to God in the world and, therefore, our sentence may not refer to an object.

We have to grant something of a problem here, in that God is not open to direct observation. We speak of God through models and metaphors. We say that ‘God is my rock’ and do not expect to direct our attention to a lump of granite somewhere in the world. This is in fact similar (with differences, of course) to the electron. We can say ‘the electron hops from one energy state to another’ without being able to observe an electron doing that. It is an inference from other evidence and, at the end of the process, a model for the behavior of electrons.

Similarly, ‘God is my rock’ is a model for an aspect of God – his faithfulness to us. If we push the model too far and start speculating as to the sort of rock God is, or even most like, we land up looking and sounding extremely silly. But then if we start pushing the model of electrons hopping too far we sound similarly daft. Our models are only useful in limited regions of applicability. Part of the trickiness of both theology and science (and, for all I know other subjects) is to work out the regions of applicability of our models, and where they become invalid.

We can, then, claim that God exists, but just not as an observable object in the world. We have therefore to argue that the physical world is not all that there is. In a sense, this is a fairly easy thing to do, given what we have already said about language partially constructing the world. A marriage is not a physical object within the world, but it does not stop us talking about it, arguing and debating about its meaning, creating and dissolving marriages and so on. A marriage may not be a physical object in the world, but we cannot deny that we can refer to it. Of course, a marriage has manifestations in the physical world, but then, a theist would argue, so does God. We have concepts, models, and metaphors for both.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Language and the World

Does language actually ‘hook’ onto the world? Or does language actually make the world? There are multiple answers to these questions, naturally, and no single answer is entirely satisfactory. That language plays its part in forming the world is not debatable. We do form our concepts through and with language. It is a bit like wondering whether fish experience water or cats understand about air: it is just something which is there for them; they do not need to conceptualise it because it is a constant presence; they are immersed in it.

Similarly, humans are immersed in language. Much of the time we hardly notice it; it is simply the medium in which we live and move and have our being. We communicate using language because we do not have a huge amount of choice. While there is some non-verbal communication in all exchanges, much of what we want to put across is verbal. Language matters if we are to communicate clearly, and mostly we do if we wish to.

In part, then, language constitutes the world we live in, but it is not entirely so created. Famously Samuel Johnstone refuted Bishop George Berkeley’s theory of naive idealism by kicking a rock and declaring ‘I refute it thus!’. The world we experience is not only a mental construct – reality keeps intruding. Mostly we accept this and the match between our mental models of the world and the world are close enough for us not to notice any dissonance, and we proceed quite happily in our cross-over between the mental and physical worlds.

Occasionally there is a mismatch between the world as our mental models and experience suggest it should be and the way the world presents itself to us. These happen, perhaps most famously, in science. For example, For example, the Geiger – Marsden experiment involved shooting alpha-particles at a thin metal film. Occasionally Marsden found that the particles were deflected at large angles, rather than going straight through the film of only incurring small deflections. Lord Rutherford is reported as it feeling like someone had fired a pistol at a piece of tissue paper only to have the bullet bounce back at them.

Such experiences require us to develop our thinking, our thoughts and concepts of what the physical world is like. The answer to the Marsden experiment is in the ‘planetary’ model of the atom, where (almost) all the mass is concentrated at the centre of the atom and the rest is more or less empty space. Thus, if the alpha-particle goes close to the centre of the atom (the nucleus) it can bounce back. From the experience, we have learnt something, developed a new concept, moved things forward, even changed the language and invented new words and descriptions of the world.

Such developments are not limited to the sciences, of course. Other concepts can change and develop. This is perhaps clearest in religion. If you read the Old Testament and the New Testament separately, you might well think that they were referring to different gods. The God of the Old Testament sometimes appears as a tribal deity, only interested in the Israelites. Yet, over time, the concept of God, YHWH, extends to cover overlordship of other nations, and superiority to their gods. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this is in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, probably finally edited during the Babylonian exile, where it is observed that God created, for example, the Sun and Moon, which others worshipped as deities, as well as the sea and everything that dwelt in it, which included sea monsters worshipped as deities.

This could be interpreted as the forlorn aspirations of a defeated people, if the idea had not been taken up and become monotheism, the idea that there is but one God, and that is the God of Israel and that this God could be worshipped anywhere, by anyone. That idea was extended by Jesus and the early Christian movement within the Roman Empire, which could welcome all to worship God. But the concept of God put forward was different from that of the surrounding culture (or most of it) which still had its local gods as well as state religions (which early Christians frequently ran foul of, it seems).

A new concept requires new words. The Marsden experiment required a new language of atomic physics to accommodate the ideas put forward. A universal God, the incarnate Son of the God, requires a new language also, something which perplexed early Christians. For a century or so the language of Christianity was strictly Biblical. However, as thinking about how God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit interacted with each other and with us, a new language, borrowed from the philosophy of the surrounding culture, was rather controversially developed. For example if you search the Bible for the word ‘begotten’ (as in ‘begotten, not made’ from the Nicene Creed) you will search in vain. A new language, new concepts, new understandings had to be developed in order to describe the new insights about the nature of God.

It is often forgotten that this language is not absolute. We describe the atom or the Trinitarian God through models. No model precisely describes the object modelled – if it did it would be the object modelled, not a model of it. Our ideas of the nature of God are limited by our language and our finite minds. If we push any of the models of God that we have too far they can always be found wanting. Thus, a critic of the Christian faith can choose one model used for God, push it as far as it will go and then a little further, and then declare the model to be obviously false and therefore the whole concept of God to be false. The problem is not with God but with the extension of the finite model of God beyond what it can bear.

There is a similarity or analogy of theology here with, say, atomic physics. The models of atoms can be stretched beyond what they can cope with. Oddly, however, we do not then reject the whole idea of atoms, but refine and extend our models to accommodate the new information. That, of course, happened during the development of Christianity through history. It is, perhaps, only more recently that one over-extended model of God has been counted as decisive evidence against the whole concept. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

How does language ‘hook’ onto the world? It seems there are broadly two views, both of which can be credited to Wittgenstein, more or less. The first is the ‘picturing’ view where a statement is true if it pictures the facts of the real world. Other statements can, of course, be made, but there are true or false by virtue of other statements, and so on back to some fact or facts about the real world.

This view is usually associated with the ‘early’ Wittgenstein, that of Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: Cosimo, 2007 [1921]). The ‘later’ view is that language is to be seen against the backdrop of human activity and communication. On this view, there is no simple reduction of a proposition or statement to a bedrock of reality.

The logical empiricists developed the earlier view, coming to the conclusion that there are elementary propositions given by the data of sensation, and that everything else is constructed upon them. Thus, for the logical empiricist, all data and all propositions or statements are, ultimately, confirmed by experience. In general, this is entirely true. We confirm what we hear by what we see: ‘It is raining’. As a statement, is confirmed or not by looking out of the window. The connection between the real world and the world constructed by language is immediate.

The later Wittgenstein observes that most language use does not conform to this fairly simple rule. The instruction ‘give me a slab of stone’ is not, in fact, something that we can confirm by looking at the state of the world. The world is dynamic, not a static picture that can be analysed for truth or not. In fact, by our actions, we confirm or dis-confirm the statement ‘give me a slab of stone’ by our own actions in doing so or not.

This second view of language, that of Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001 [1953]), can lead to the view that the human world is totally constructed by language, and reality (whatever it may be) is shuffled off to play a bit part in our experience. What is in the foreground, in this view, is the state of the world as constructed by a human.

This second view also has something going for it. Language does construct our world. A marriage, for example, is created by the saying of certain words and the doing of certain activities. In the real world, nothing much has changed; there are still two people in a building, with a bunch of other and so on. There might be extra pieces of paper, but they only, in fact, have a meaning in the context of the human construct known as marriage. A marriage certificate only has a meaning in a context where marriage is known about and accepted in a society. We create and construct marriage in that society.

Which view is right then? Does the world determine our language or does our language determine the world? The answer, of course, is neither is totally true or false. The world has to determine what we can say about it, after all. The truth of the statement ‘The Sun is shining’ depends upon whether there are clouds in the sky, whether it is day and so on. On the other hand a statement such as ‘give me a slab of stone’ depends of a variety of factors, both within the world (do I have a slab of stone nearby?) and of human intention (would I pass you a stone if I had one?). The latter is a complex question – you might, in my view, be about to drop the slab from a bridge onto a car passing underneath, and I may not be minded to equip you to do so. In this case, the response to language use is contextual.

The danger is that we start to suspect that all language has been loosed from its bonds to the real world, that everything is merely a human construct. The extremes of postmodern thought suggest that this is possible: if we refuse to think about something it does not exist. Most people live in a slightly more sensible human construct where reality does intrude rather more. But language does affect what we can think about. In this sense, George Orwell was correct when, in 1984, he suggests that by stopping people using certain words we can stop certain thoughts. If we could remove the language of dissent from common usage, for example, no-one could dissent because they could not express what they were thinking.

Meaning and use are therefore interlinked. In human terms use defines the meaning of a word. If I use the word ‘oojimaflip’ you may well not know to what I am referring. On the other hand, if I point to a piece of complex machinery, you will probably deduce that I mean that object. Perhaps more famously, the expression ‘Fuck, the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked’ does convey some information, albeit by using the same basic word in different ways (and now the blog has a 15 certificate, as well). But meanings can also be redefined by use, and by changing the use. For example, the word ‘marriage’ used to mean a sexual relationship, publicly acknowledge, between a male and a female. Recent legal and popular events have changed it to encompass relationships, publicly acknowledged, between people of the same sex. Usage has altered meaning.

Even so, given all that, there is still an underlying reality to much of our language use. This may not be obvious, of course. The logical empiricists tried very hard to get rid of metaphysical and ethical statements, as they had no underpinning in empirical fact. Thus ‘murder is bad’ was reinterpreted as ‘I don’t like murder’ and ‘God exists’ was defined as non-sense, as in not empirically verifiable, which was quickly adjusted to mean nonsense, as in not understandable.

But reality will out. Murder is a bad thing for reasons not only to do with our instinctive aversion to it. The claim that God exists persists, despite the predictions on all sides that God is dead and irrelevant anyway. Re-interpreting statements as nonsense does not make them go away, after all.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Philosophy of History

There is a philosophy of history, in that there is not only ‘doing’ history, that is writing about what happened in history from the perspective of the writer’s own time, but there is also thinking about how history is done and how, in fact, history comes to be made. I am not a historian (although I have read a fair bit of history over the years) nor (really) a philosopher, but whoever let such strictures stop them?

What is perhaps most interesting to consider, initially, are the conditions for history being made. Why has history, as was once prophesied, not come to an end? I once heard that wherever there is conflict, there is drama; perhaps the same is true of history. That does not mean, of course, that all history is military history, but conflict, both civil and violent, constitute the stuff from which history is made. There are often winners and losers: at the present time, we could think of African Americans as being on the losing side of history. As history is often (not always) written by winners, the losers are, on the whole, silenced.

Nevertheless, there are some things which are unthinkable at the time certain events take place. It was, for example, unthinkable for a King to be put on trial for treason in the Seventeenth Century, until, of course, it happened. But until the late 1640s, it was just not on the road map. Of course, kings had been assassinated before that, but a judicial process was, more or less, unimaginable, until someone tried it. One of the interests of history is, perhaps, to explore why this might have been the case.

The project of the philosophy of history might, therefore, be the exploration of what ideas were available to people. Where did the idea of regicide come from? It did not, it seems, come from one individual, despite attempts to park the blame on Oliver Cromwell. Even the most radical of pre-war radicals shied away from such an idea. What gave it, as it were, legs?

We can easily land up in a bit of a quagmire, here. Humans exist in both a physical world, and environment made up of physical objects, and a world made up, if you will, of mental objects, such as the idea of regicide. These two interact: the production of a radio, for example, is a meeting of both physical components and ideas about how electromagnetic waves travel and can be modulated to transmit information. Both the physical and mental worlds are required.

In some cases, therefore, ideas cannot come about until the environment, both mental and physical, are ready. For example, Adolf Hitler would probably not made it as a demagogue politician without the medium of film and radio. Skilful propaganda on this relatively new technology had the effect of promoting Hitler’s image far beyond the dreams of Nineteenth-Century politicians. The problem seems to be being repeated on our own new media, ‘social’ ones.

Even the genius can only work with the materials to hand. Pythagoras could not have come up with general relativity because the mathematical tools and the ideas of physics were not available to him, even if he was more able than Einstein. Einstein had the mathematics and physics (and, incidentally, the time to think about them) available. It took a genius to come up with the idea so decisively, perhaps, but quite possibly it would have happened anyway, in time.

Lonergan argues that history can be seen as a process of progress, decline and renaissance, or restoration. Progress happens, roughly, when good ideas are implemented, decline when bad ideas are to the fore, and renaissance comes around when people change from the latter to the former. It should be noted that Lonergan was thinking about this in the late 1930s, however, when there were a lot of bad ideas around.

Nevertheless, Lonergan might have the core of an idea of how history progresses here. The problem, surely, is how we tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one. For many people, for example, the idea of the UK leaving the European Union seemed like a good idea. For many others it was a bad one. The choice was made by a more or less democratic process, but there are issues around truth and honesty in the campaigning and how much the voters actually understood about the issues. The electorate was, perhaps, not in the best place to make that decision.

I think it is Richard Feynman who observes that if someone wants to know how long the Emperor’s nose is, the best thing to do is go and measure it. Simply asking a lot of people how long they think the Emperor’s nose is and averaging the results will get you an answer, and it may be an interesting answer from some points of view, but it does not give you an answer that has anything to do with the length of the Emperor’s actual nose. You need an expert, someone who has measured the object.

Experts are not really popular people these days. As I recall the US journalist P. J. O’Rourke once conducted an experiment trying to decide whether intelligence or stupidity was better; he decided that intelligence was best because it was more intelligent (I think he compared daytime television with attending some evening classes). The point is that an expert is an expert because they know things about a relevant area of knowledge. Non-experts, such as politicians, have an obligation to listen to them, rather than have their policies dictated by opinion polls conducted among swing voters. After all, politicians are supposed, upon election, to represent and govern us all, not just their minority of supporters.

There is, of course, a lot more to the philosophy of history than I have touched on here. History is, however, important, if only for understanding how we managed to get here, and which possibilities have been opened up or closed down along the way.

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 ...