Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pragmatic Epistemology in a Nutshell

Maybe this is the fastest way to explain Pragmatic epistemology:

"The car is red".   Is that true independent of any minds?  First look at the word "red"- does red exist independent of minds?  And what about cars?  Does a car exist independent of minds?

You could say that the "wavelength of light which is perceived as red exists independent of minds", but that sentence and calling something a "wavelength of light" could not exist without human minds.

So whatever is "out there" cannot be spoken about independent of the human mind and whatever is "out there" cannot be known independent of the human mind.

There is definitely something "out there" - no sane person doubts it.  But what it "really is" we will never know, so it doesn't much matter.

For all we know- literally- what we see is what is "real" so the Pragmatist quits worrying about it and  talks about appearances only.  What you see is what you get!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Notes on Rorty's Idea of The Contingency of Language as Seen Through Mormon Eyes.

Rorty's view of the contingency of language as presented in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is at first glance problematic for most theists, since Rorty equates belief in God with the belief in a Cartesian reality beyond our direct experience.  And there is a further problem for Neoplatonic theists I think, implied by Rorty's position, which relates to the creation of man ex nihilo, with the whole notion of human freedom.

 If God created us ex nihilo there is no portion of "us" which is beyond God's "programming" and so we are not free, additionally, in the Platonic universe all we can know about reality is shadowy illusions or reflections of reality- not reality itself.  So for Rorty, the issue of contingency of language and the contingency of the self are related- first, language is contingent and self-referential, because words are not things, nor do they "represent" things because there is no way we can get "beyond" our experience of things to what is some how "out there" beyond our perceptions and appearances.  Secondly, what follows is that we ourselves are nothing beyond bundles of "vocabularies" put together by chance and circumstances beyond our control; we are adrift as contingent selves in a contingent world beyond our control.  The only control we can have is if we realize these facts and become a "strong poet"- one who knows that she herself is contingent but yet through through that knowledge, ironically (hence she becomes an "ironist" ) thereby gains the ability to choose her own vocabularies and define herself in her own terms- in essence creating herself in her own image, through her own metaphors.


Further, the lack of understanding of the contingency of language has given rise in the history of philosophy, to the whole discipline called "epistemology" which is what I often post about on this site: - when I say that the only reality we can know is "appearance" and if there is anything beyond it, we cannot know about it. 

As a Pragmatist, Rorty believes that the only "reality" we can know is what we can experience, and so his belief is that Pragmatism has solved the problem that religion and Platonism has created- but where does this leave theistic Pragmatists?  If we hold a Pragmatic theory of truth- can we be theists?  Would theism be viable in any form to one who thinks as Rorty does?  We know of course that William James, one of the founders of Pragmatism had  no problems with theism- but how does that relate to Rorty's view?

Rorty argues convincingly against both the idea of a transcendent God and a transcendent reality in this passage from Contingency Irony and Solidarity: (pages 20 and 21)
These sorts of arguments by philosophers of language and of science
should be seen against the background of the work of intellectual historians:
historians who, like Hans Blumenberg, have tried to trace the similarities and dissimilarities between the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason. These historians have made the point I mentioned earlier: The very idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature - one which the physicist or the poet may have glimpsed - is a remnant of the idea
that the world is a divine creation, the work of someone who had something in mind, who Himself spoke some language in which He described His own project. Only if we have some such picture in mind, some picture of the universe as either itself a person or as created by a person, can we make sense of the idea that the world has an "intrinsic nature."
For the cash value of that phrase is just that some vocabularies are better
representations of the world than others, as opposed to being better tools for dealing with the world for one or another purpose.

To drop the idea of languages as representations, and to be thoroughly
Wittgensteinian in our approach to language, would be to de-divinize the
world. Only if we do that can we fully accept the argument I offered
earlier - the argument that since truth is a property of sentences, since
sentences are dependent for their existence upon vocabularies, and since
vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths. For as long as we
think that "the world" names something we ought to respect as well as
cope with, something personlike in that it has a preferred description of
itself, we shall insist that any philosophical account of truth save the
"intuition" that truth is "out there." This institution amounts to the
vague sense that it would be hybris on our part to abandon the traditional
language of "respect for fact" and "objectivity" - that it would be risky,
and blasphemous, not to see the scientist (or the philosopher, or the
poet, or somebody) as having a priestly function, as putting us in touch
with a realm which transcends the human.

 Implied in what Rorty is saying is that if God is the Neoplatonic God, we could never experience Him, nor could we ever experience "reality" for both reality and God are beyond what we can as humans experience.

All we experience is some sort of shadowy representation of a "reality" far beyond our abilities to perceive or understand, which we can see only through "appearances" and which language somehow ineffably "represents", but of course we can never step out of our world of appearances to check to see if the alleged representation actually "corresponds" to the reality beyond.

But Rorty would say this is not the case.  We do in fact experience reality- what reality IS is human experience- and therefore the supposed reality in which God lives, that ineffable transcendent reality is the illusion and therefore God is dead.  He is not and cannot be a factor in human life, because the world in which he lives is unapproachable to humanity no longer makes sense to humans.  He has become irrelevant to us.  In fact, if such a God and/or such a reality ever could exist, we could not know about it because all we can know is what humans can know.


So is Rorty's argument a good one?

If God created us ex nihilo, and is transcendent, then Rorty's argument is,  I think, a telling one - then there could be no transcendent God and no transcendent reality beyond what we can know and experience.

This is what Rorty, an atheist, is arguing.

On the other hand, if God is immanent, which he would have to be to be and our Father in any real sense,  Rorty can be correct about epistemology, AND  we, theists and especially Mormons, can be right about God-  we can know both God and reality through human experience.  If God, is immanent, he can be seen as our Father and we can, as humans, know him in some sense, and interact with him,  and we can experience his influence in our lives.

But Rorty did not understand that an immanent God was even a possibility.

In Neoplatonism there is no part of us which is uniquely "us"- there is no unique portion of the self which has existed forever independently and co-eternal with God, because God created us out of nothing, and thereby programmed our natures. Human nature is what it is like to be human, and this was totally created by God. 

This has deep ramifications which go far beyond this discussion, but one of them is that in a consistent Neoplatonic view of the world, we can never experience God or his influence because he dwells in a transcendent world far beyond our ability to experience as mere mortals in this shadowy world of illusion. Traditional Christianity has tried to resolve these issues virtually since it's beginning, but unsuccessfully.  You cannot have a Father God interacting with his children who is yet somehow Transcendent and beyond and Other than us in nature.   One need only to read Plato's allegory of the cave for a vivid image of what this world is in that conception.  The bottom line is that we could not, and do not experience "reality"- just a shadowy image of a reality which lies permanently beyond our grasp.  And we could never experience any kind of Theophany- that would be out of the question.  So it would be totally impossible for Joseph, or Stephen in the New Testament for that matter, to have seen God.

In consistent Platonism, Joseph Smith could not have seen God, nor can God speak to our spirits.  God cannot be directly experienced by humans.  A consistent Neoplatonic, transcendent God based view is just incompatible with the idea of a loving father who interacts with his children, hears and answers prayers or wants the best for us.

God cannot be both transcendent and a loving Father.

For God to be a loving father, he must be immanent. This is the revolutionary insight of Mormonism.

This turns Rorty's argument against God on its head.  In fact Rorty is correct that a transcendent God could not interact with humanity- but Rorty never considered the possibility that God could be immanent!  In other words, Rorty had no conception of a God anything like the Mormon God who is in fact a glorified and idealized, perfected human being who can be our "friend" and with whom we have what Rorty would call "solidarity"- with whom we could share a community.
Doctrine and Covenants 93:45
45 Verily, I say unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., or in other words, I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me—
This is not the God of the Neoplatonists, this is an entirely different conception of God- he is our loving Father who can be our "friend", and with whom we are together in the community of humanity, yet of course he is a perfected and idealized human, perhaps infinitely above us, yet in the final analysis, one of us. We are theomorphic men, and he is an anthropomorphic God.

This community of oneness is also described in the Bible itself.
John 17
  20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
 24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

 In a Mormon context this community is, I believe, exemplified both in the idea of exaltation- that we can become like God himself, and in the notion of the Patriarchal Order, the notion that the goal of mankind should be being sealed together into one huge family of Man, with the Man of Holiness, our Father, at its head.

Seeing God as Mormons do, squares Rorty's Pragmatic and Constructivist epistemological  views perfectly with the Mormon view of God.  We are one community tied together in cultures which are formed ultimately by languages and all we can speak about is, obviously what our language allows us to speak about.  There can be no "reality" beyond what we can experience both subjectively (incorporating there the idea of what Wittgenstein would see as "unspeakable") and objectively, in our shared world of language, and those experiences include experiencing God personally and subjectively, which experiences can be defined as "unspeakable".  Those which can be shared, are shared linguistically, those which cannot "be put into words" cannot be shared.

But what of Rorty's notion of extending the contingency of language to the contingency of the self?

Here I think there are some problems.

I think that what Rorty misses is a kernel of "self" which indeed is beyond language- even his notion of the "ironist" implies I think, that indeed there is some such kernel which selects the vocabularies by which she chooses to define herself.  The very notion that I can select my own vocabulary to define myself still implies that there is an "I" who is doing the selecting.

So has the Cogito we thought we threw away sneaked in through the bathroom window? 

I think not.

I think Rorty took it as far as he could, and I think that his notion of a community in "solidarity" still rings true.

I think the solution to this quandary is that our community has always existed, it has just evolved and changed and progressed.  It has always been interacting and evolving.

Asking where it began is like asking where mankind itself began.  Did mankind start with the first primeval life form in some pool somewhere?  Did language start with great apes or with some first creature which could be defined as "human"?  I think the self is both contingent and non-contingent at the same time, from different perspectives.  So ultimately our Nietzschean perspectivism still reigns supreme.

All of life presumes an organism interacting with its environment. Asking which is contingent of those two and which is not, is asking to resolve two different points of view at the same time- and indeed that entire presumption is itself an anti-perspectivist stance.

So again, we are limited by our linguistic contexts.

The answers to these questions, as are the answers to all questions, cloaked in metaphor and what we sometimes call "theory".  Regardless of what you call those answers, they are shared linguistic descriptions formed in a human mind, be it God's Human Mind or someone else's human mind.  And as will all of such questions, some must remain forever unanswered.

But for my money, the best explanation I have found so far is the Mormon explanation which ensures us that indeed we are part of a community and always have been, perhaps even as what Mormons call "intelligences" even before we were God's children

God is immanent and our Father.

God organized us from intelligences, that kernel of "organism" which interacts with "environment" which intelligences were "co-eternal" with him (meaning he was "always" our leader) and we accepted his leadership voluntarily "When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7)

So we are both contingent and non-contingent, free and determined, all depending on how you look at it.

As always, it comes down finally to one's linguistic perspective.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Notes on Nagel, Religious Experience and Subjectivity


When one makes a decision based on moral values, or decides that his life goes better when he goes to church, there is no science which will verify for him that those are right decisions- for him.

After the fact, perhaps we could plug him into the "happy meter" - some scientific criteria for measuring some kind of happiness level based on defined brain states, say for example- and show that he is provably more happy as defined by the criteria.

But that doesn't help him decide.   And this also relates to the free will/determinism issue as well- no amount of scientific data about brain states will ever be able to take away the fact that I EXPERIENCE the quandary of making a choice in my life without the guidance of any possible scientific data, simply because choice is so complex and non-quantifiable, BESIDES the point that such matters are subjective to begin with and involve an entirely different point of view.

As far as subjectivity is concerned- but I think that you will find that any subjective statement, ie: any first person statement starting with the word "I" is not logically equivalent to any third person statement- a statement about other persons places or things. I take that as a fairly obvious fact, though I suppose I could be wrong.

For example the statement "I feel pain in my big toe" can be equivalent to "Bukowski says he feels pain in his big toe" but it cannot be made equivalent to the statement "The pain-o-meter shows pain impulses in Bukowski's big toe"

One is a statement about my feelings, the other is a statement about what the pain-o-meter shows.   They do not contain the same information.   They cannot be logically equivalent.

This I believe is essentially the point of Nagel's essay on "What it's like to be a Bat"

That is essentially why physicalism does not work- ie the belief that information about brain states is equivalent to subjective  information about feelings.

It just isn't!   The propositions are being made are not from the same point of view.   It is similar to making an observation from above a pyramid saying "Pyramids are square" and saying from a certain point viewing a pyramid from the side, "Pyramids are triangular".

Both are true and both are incompatible logically- because both are made from different points of view.

I make statements about my feelings from inside of me- about my subjective experience.  A scientist studying my subjective experience and brain states makes statements from outside of me by observing me.   A first person statement is not a third person statement and the information in each is not identical to each other.

For similar reasons, statements about spiritual experiences have nothing to do with statements about objectively verifiable (scientifically verifiable) experiences or states of affairs.   They are made from different points of view, similar to calling a pyramid a square from one point of view or a triangle from another.

A pyramid is both a square and a triangle at the same time- and a few other possible shapes- all depending on your point of view.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Nature of Language


Every word we utter is a metaphor- words are not things, but they are symbols and signs we associate with things and situations and ideas.

On this view every idea - including those of science- are metaphors and linguistic structures.  If you want to use the word "myth" unfortunately it does have pejorative connotations that are especially offensive in a religious context and cause one to be misunderstood.

I think the idea of a "linguistic model" maybe communicates better and also can be seen to apply equally to science- as we know the paradigm shifts of science are shifts in linguistic models of how we see reality, and I think that terminology used also in religion is preferable.  It also illustrates I think the similarity between science and religion by calling them both "linguistic models" even though science indeed is an objectively verifiable linguistic model- meaning that we all can verify scientific models, whereas the model we use in religion is only "verifiable" by lending subjective meaning to a person's life.

Based on this view there is a very real sense in which religious experience- subjective as it is- is just as subjectively "real" to the individual experiencing it as science is to all of us.  One is subjectively real the other is objectively real.

Anyway, that's the way I "model" the difference, for what it's worth 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Scriptural Linguistic Constructivism?

John Chapter 1:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made


I see this in a linguistic constructivist sense, meaning that all we "know" - in the sense of sharable experiences- is only sharable by the "word" or through language.   Think about it.  We know "facts", and what are "facts"?  They are words-sentences- we regard as "true".  So all that can be confirmed by science, or all that we can share knowledge about is essentially about giving names or defining what we experience.

Science and poetry are in the same boat.  They are both linguistic models of some part of human experience.  Poetry expresses feelings and emotions probably as nearly as it is possible to express them, where science expresses a linguistic model of what we all share by verifiable experiences.   That is what science is- models of reality which change from time to time as they are refined, but those models are expressed in language- either mathematics, or natural languages like English or German, or most usually, both mathematics and a natural language.   But science uses models we all can verify and experience together, while poetry models emotions we all have felt.   Music is likewise a universal language which expresses emotion across all linguistic boundaries.

Let's look at Abraham 4- in the LDS Scriptures, found the in the Pearl of Great Price. Imagine that you are looking at chaotic matter- perhaps "snow" on a TV screen, and suddenly you start seeing regularities.  As a mini-god, it is your responsibility to try to define those regularities.  I believe this was similar to what the Gods are doing in the scriptural metaphor expressed in Abraham 4- linguistically defining what we know and speak of as the world around us.   Not oddly at all, it is also what science does.

In short, I think this is the way the Word organized all that was organized.   The Word after all, is the Messenger, the carrier of language, from God to man, the Organizer of the world, the great Jehovah.

I have added quote marks in certain places, and made some comments:

1 And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.....
5 And the Gods called the light Day, and the darkness they called Night. And it came to pass that from the evening until morning they called night; and from the morning until the evening they called day; and this was the first, or the beginning, of that which they called day and night.
6 And the Gods also said: Let there be an "expanse"
(defined-mfb) in the midst of the waters, and it shall "divide" the waters from the waters.
7 And the Gods ordered the expanse, so that it divided the waters which were "under" the expanse from the waters which were "above" the expanse; and it was so, even as they ordered.
8 And the Gods called the expanse, Heaven. And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning that they called night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that they called day; and this was the "second"
(thereby defining numbers-mfb) time that they called night and day.
9 And the Gods ordered, saying: Let the waters under the heaven be "gathered" together unto "one place", and let the earth come up "dry"; and it was so as they ordered;
10 And the Gods pronounced the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, pronounced they, "Great Waters"; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.




I interpret this account as a religious description of what I see as a linguistic constructivist way of seeing the world and how Man/God organizes matter unorganized through language.

So now we jump out of philosophical parlance and move into poetry and what is generally called "metaphysics".

I think the sentence "I am the Truth" uttered by Jesus, can be taken many ways.   First of all, Jehovah, the premortal Christ, is the great "I Am"- the self-existent one who defines all existence, for without the Organizer there would only be Chaos.  Nothing would be ordered or defined.

Secondly he is the Word- the messenger of God who gives Adam language.  It is language which enables men to become like God to organize our worlds from matter unorganized in the way God himself does, but only in a very very limited way.

Thirdly, he is the Truth in the sense of being the True path which "works" for all who find it and all who order their lives according to the rules (commandments) and ordinances he has devised for us.  His way is the Way of Life (See the Didache) the ethical system which maximizes all that has been defined as good for mankind.   His truth is the truth which works best for mankind to make us all happy.

In fact, we call that plan the Plan of Happiness in our church - and that is exactly what it is.

Anyway that is the way I understand it!

My Version of Pragmatism in a Nutshell

Is religious experience the same as objectively verifiable scientific experience?  Of course not!

The view that I would endorse says that religious experience is subjective, not objective.   The difference is that many people can simultaneously verify an objective statement, whereas a subjective statement can only be "verified" or stated by the individual making the statement.

All of us can verify the boiling point of water, but only I can verify that I have a pain in my toe, or how I feel about abortion, yet in all these cases we commonly might call such beliefs "true" or "false".

What "truth" is can be complicated, obviously but I think, in a general way a pragmatic view of truth works best, and there is a reason for that.

In fact, in all cases "what works best" is a pretty good definition of truth generally speaking.  A moral principle can be said to be true because it "works best for humanity" just as a scientific principle can be said to be true if it works better than the other hypotheses.

Planes fly better with wings than without, aspirin works better for a headache than rat poison.  But if you want to kill rats, aspirin probably doesn't work at all.

All of these are objectively verifiable.   We can line up 500 rats and everyone can observe how well they live with rat poison in their systems as opposed to aspirin.   Everyone can see which works "better".

Note that in each case, we are finding what works better for a specific purpose.   Hammers are not very good for taking small nuts off of small bolts.

The test for religious views are what works best to give us what we go to religion to accomplish.  Most people turn to religion to seek solace, to give their lives meaning, to find their place in the universe, to decide if God exists, or if one should worship a higher power.

But those answers- what gives one's life meaning and peace for example, cannot be objectively verified.  I cannot see what gives YOU peace.  That is what testimony is for.   That does not mean that statements about what gives one peace cannot be "true"- just that only you can know what beliefs work best for you.

Essentially what we do as Mormons and what happens in Alma 32 is that we ask others to "taste this and see if you like it".  As it says in that scripture, if we try it and if we like it, and it becomes "sweet" to us, we will follow that path.

Obviously we know there are many reasons people do not follow up on the path, but it is our belief that though people may find something that works for them, we believe that our path works better than any other if they would just follow it and taste its results.

So I don't know if you call that "relativism' or not.   I call it "Pragmatism".  I think that the truth is found in what works best for its given purpose.

That's it in a very small nutshell!

Living Subjectively in an Objective World

It's fascinating to me that some who believe that scientific truth is the only truth, deny that our perceptions of reality are ultimately subjective, and yet while doing so, pick which arguments to agree with, which ones to disagree with, not noticing that the very fact of disagreement proves that we live in our own little subjective worlds.

Why is education valued?  Because we see the value of each individual and their potential to contribute their subjective talents to the pooled talents of humanity.   We want each to be "productive citizens", who are independent and make their own choices.   We want them to "do something with their lives".

We all have our own subjective needs,  wants, preferences, talents and were all raised with different subjective experiences, differences in parenting, birth order, differing parental skills and conditions, different inbred talents, different ethnicities, economic conditions and cultures and other differences too numerous to even conceive.

What is important to us is different and not objectively definable, we just know what works for us when we see it or feel it.   Some shop at Walmart, others wouldn't think of it.   Some are vegans, others carnivores.  We are young, old, disabled, enabled, in great shape or sickly.  We are fat, thin, wear blue jeans or would not be caught in them.  We have messy houses or are neatniks.  We have different sexual preferences and are male or female.   We are liberal or conservative.

Yet with all these differences, there is something common to all of us.  We all live in an objective world which we share and which gives us choices.

The subjective self is what makes choices, defines our preferences, agrees and disagrees, decides to do it now or do it later, and what picks what is important to us, and decides if we will be scientists or artists, police officers or judges.  It decides whom to marry, where to go for a honeymoon, what church - or no church- is right for us.   It decides if we are atheists or believers, poets or policemen.

But you cannot say that that subjective self is a figment or our imagination.  That is truly "where" each of us lives and spends our lives.

Yet we all also have a world we all share.  We all need to pick up eggs milk and bread at the corner store, or go to the big box store a little farther away and hope to save some money. 

But absolutely without question it will be up to our subjective selves to decide if it is worth the drive.