Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Our hopes and expectations/Black holes and revelations

Until recently, my knowledge of even basic formal logic has been woefully inadequate; however, an interest in developing effective argumentation and reasoning skills led me to remedy that lack. In my explorations, I came across Leibniz's reduction ad absurdum and proof method. Using this method, you can essentially prove the truth-value of a contradiction (not(not-p), and once you do that, anything logically follows (thus proving the limited utility of abstract logic!).
Some readers may have noted that I have off-hand mentioned that belief in god is "just as reasonable" as non-belief. I have always maintained that I would be convinced by a revelatory experience but that, absent such experience, I must conclude there is no such entity. It seems to me that the existence of god is not logically provable or disprovable in the abstract; there remains a 50/50 split chance one is right or wrong. This, however, is applicable only to god in the abstract, as some kind of supernatural/metaphysical entity with or without consciousness, typically beyond the ken of conscious inquiry. Once you start getting down to brass tacks and trying to discuss the nature of this entity you believe in, you start getting in to a lot of trouble.

In this, Rev. Sam Norton and I essentially agree. However, where I see this as the end of discussion -- how can one remain intellectually honest and proceed past "I have this sense of the divine?" -- he sees it as an opening to run amok with the linguistic acrobatics of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's logic, which emphasizes the discovery of meaning through the context of usage in language, would seem to open logic systems to abuse of contradiction, allowing theologists to claim mind-bending logical positions, such as idolatry: god is a member of no set including the set of things which are not members of sets, thus causing the ghosts of Leibniz and Russell to disappear in puffs of logic. This, claims Sam, places god outside of definitions, such that discussing god must be done analogously if at all.

This, however, creates something of a paradox, I believe: By even analogously discussing god, theologians and the lay religious create a context to place it in, thus constraining its nature and giving it shape and form -- which should not be possible. So, in ascribing characteristics -- via scripture -- even via analogy, the religious violate the ineffableness of god by placing him within their scriptural tradition! This opens the various religions to logical systems; and it is impossible to rationally, logically arrive at any religious interpretation of god as true.

Like many amateur philosophers, I found Wittgenstein deeply stimulating and persuasive at first. So much so that I went out and bought every book of his I could find. I am no longer convinced of his superiority, though his radical views on language remain of utility. There's a tendency in us all to ascribe "all" the answers we need to one philosopher; I used to do that for Derrida, until I came to my senses (though I find some of his ideas, such as arbitrary binary pairing, retain immense utility).

I think the reason Sam, and many a theologian, is accused of being "slippery" is that they've taken Wittgenstein's emphasis on the importance of context and bastardized the sucker beyond recognition: the definition they ascribe to certain words -- i.e. god -- changes within the same context in one's dialogs with them. It's endlessly frustrating; it's like walking on ever-shifting sand. I can only speak for myself: I attempt to reason and argue within the frame of reference provided as often as possible, but find their frames changing upon the shifting needs of the debate. The "inability to define god" is ridiculous; this should lead to the ineffable conclusion, then, that all scriptural traditions are invalid because they draw certain conclusions regarding god's nature. Their own non-definition definition should, were they rigorous in their own thought, lead away from their scriptural tradition.

By engaging in linguistic prestidigitation to get away with it, they in fact personify my theory of religion as social order within a theistic framing with words like "...and it is only by attending to the practice of Christian life, most of all in the Eucharist, that Christian understandings of God can be found." [These are Sam's final words in the post linked above, emphasis mine.]

This is an immensely revealing statement about the choice inherent in adhering to scriptural traditions. It's not an argument for the truth of the Christ mythos or the Judeo-Christian god; it's an argument for the truth-value of the Christian tradition as a form of framing.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, if one is honest. But when you use the Wittgensteinian ever-shifting context argument to get around having to admit that you've basically successfully argued against the absolute truth of the Christian god, you basically create a conversation that is fundamentally dishonest. Instead, what you should have is scripture as an attempt to foster understanding of that ineffable feeling of the divine you believe you've experienced. (Again, I will leave it to neurologists and psychologists far smarter than I am to explore just where that feeling comes from; I think a good start can be found in Robert Burton's On Being Certain.) Where religion begins to fall apart, and where conflict begins, in the transposition of belief in truth from the revelation of god to the scriptural interpretation thereof.

I will explore further in future posts the utility of scriptural traditions as tools of socialization and whether or not those tools still require the presence of a god-figure (here's a hint: they don't).

[My thanks to the band Muse for the title; they're from the lyrics to the song "Starlight." Originally published at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]

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