Thursday, January 7, 2016

Absolute Truth, President Kimball and Alma

Recently someone emailed me asking about how one could reconcile my view of truth with an article by President Kimball about "Absolute Truth".

That article by President Kimball can be found here:

The Rorty video referenced is wonderful because it absolutely packs so much into a few minutes. Every single word and phrase is packed with meaning.
It can be found here:

I also here I make some reference to "Alma" - this can be found in the Book of Mormon, Alma 32. I intend to eventually integrate this blog with another discussion I had with this individual about Alma's "theory of truth"

I have italicized the quotes from President Kimball's article.

This was my answer:

"It is easy to get confused on these issues especially when one is just starting out.
One must speak carefully and watch closely exactly what is being said and analyze the logic of each and every sentence.

To say that "truth is relative to a context" does not mean that there is no truth, or that "truth is relative" or "there are no absolute truths"  To say that "truth" is undefinable does not mean that there is no truth or that it is unintelligible.  Watch that Rorty video again- the fact that we cannot define "true" does not mean we do not know how to use it in a sentence.  It does not mean that "truth" is not a useful concept.

Truth is a property of sentences- not "reality".  There are no "true" chairs or tables, only true or false sentences. The sentence A=A is always absolutely true.  It is a statement of identity.  It is a definition that a thing is itself.  The rules of logic will always be regarded as "true" because they are the very rules by which thought proceeds.  We cannot imagine that "A" and "Not A" can both be "true"- our brains cannot comprehend such an idea.  In a sense that could be seen as an "absolute" truth- because it always works.  We cannot think without the principle of identity.  It is true "by definition" what we MEAN by A is A.  Language and all communication requires naming and the idea that names do not change every few seconds, that what we mean by A could become B.  We don't imagine that black becomes white and up suddenly gets defined by the word "down".  Unintelligible.

Also as Pres Kimball says, and the scriptures say, truth is contexual within its "sphere".  He repeatedly says that statements about God are not speaking about science.

So what is one way of looking at a pragmatic way of looking at "truth" (this is not a full definition- but a working model- a hypothesis- a paradigm- a way of looking at the concept for a specific purpose)  One might say the "truth is what works" for a precise purpose.

In science, purposes change all the time.  The Kimball article points that out well.  Newton's "laws" become replaced by Einstein etc.  What worked before is now replaced by something that works better.

The purpose of statements about science is to make things and understand what can be said about the regularities of nature and our observations of it.  You turn the key on the car, and science can detail each reaction started by that spark and what makes the car move.

But science does not tell us anything about right and wrong, about significance or about importance.

 Science cannot tell us that murder is wrong, or how to be fulfilled as a human being.  It cannot tell us whom to marry  or how to repent, why to repent, or how to love our enemy or indeed why we even should.

It does not tell us where we came from and where we are going- and yet we all need that kind of meaning in our lives.
Science gives us bare facts which work for a while and then get changed as we learn better ways of doing things.

But what about what gives our lives meaning?   What kind of statements give our lives meaning, and tell us what is right and wrong and why?  What statements codify what we KNOW in our hearts is "true" like the golden rule?

It is self-evident that it is wrong to kill babies, but how do we know that?  How do people all over the world and in all civilizations know that?  They may differ in their definition of what constitutes a "baby".

Remember now, we are speaking about philosophy- we are not speaking as Mormons.  We are looking for secular ways to define "absolute truth" and ways we can think about a theory of truth which would at once be "pragmatic" and yet account for "absolute truth".   That viewpoint is essential to making it "philosophy" instead of "testimony" and the purpose for that is to be able to allow people with a philosophical bent to say "Hmmm- I guess that's reasonable" and allow them to investigate the gospel further.

So are there statements we can make about giving our lives significance which never change- which would allow people from all civilizations to see a pragmatic reason to understand principles which never change which give our lives significance?

I think there are.  All civilizations need peace.  All civilizations need to be based on families due to simple biology.  Our babies have huge heads and are born helpless and require the care of two or more individuals to raise them until they can be old enough to survive on their own.  So on a mere survival basis, humanity needs families just to survive.

Humanity needs rules for a civilized society.  Without rules, there is chaos.  If we all decided to drive 60 mph down a sidewalk on the left side of the street, people would die.  That is not good for society.  We need peace and calm and therefore rules.  We LDS know that commandments actually GIVE us freedom and are not "restrictions" on our freedom.  We are free of drug addiction, free of getting murdered over an adulterous relationship, etc etc.  No drunk driving etc.

But how do we define that pragmatically?   There are rules like the "golden rule" which ALWAYS WORK in a civilization.  the very existence of civilization itself requires that we regard each other as we would want to be regarded.  There must be equality before the law. etc etc.

So there are principles which always WORK in human ethics in any possible civilized society for it to be called "civilized"

The first century apocryphal work "The Didache" speaks of the "Way of Life" and the "Way of Death" and says that essentially follow the commandments leads to "life" and not following them leads to "death"

I think that is a philosophical principle we can sink our teeth into- it is an early pragmatic ethics.  Fornication leads to unwed mothers, absent fathers, no family and confused children.  No, it is not "death" but it is a less than optimal life style.

What other ideas can we think of which never change which will always "work" -  be pragmatically true- and assist in our happiness?  Remember we are thinking secularly here- what could we tell a humanist which they would relate to?
Forgiving others.  Civilization requires it. If we do something wrong, try make it better and never do it again.  Repentance. Become "more civilized" every day. Become the most "perfect" human we can.  "Be all you can be" is a slogan used in military recruitment but it is awfully close to "Fill the measure of your creation and have joy therein".

And we need an Ideal Being upon which to model ourselves.  What are all the best characteristics of humanity we should emulate?  One might see that as something in the direction of a "pragmatic god"

Rorty himself has said that he could worship a God who was a "Friend" of mankind instead of an abstract spirit filling space.  Rorty the atheist said that he could worship a human superman who was the friend of mankind- a kind of super human being.

Know where we can find anything like that model? 

Now let's go back to the Alma stuff- what does it say is "real"?  That which is full of goodness and light.  Clearly he was not talking about chairs and tables there- he was talking about what ideas make us understand the significance of our lives better.

So now let's get back to the president Kimball talk.  Let's "translate" it into secular pragmatism and see how close we can get to President Kimball.

"This true way of life is not a matter of opinion. There are absolute truths and relative truths. "

He is talking about the truth of a WAY OF LIFE.  What does that mean? He is looking for exactly what we were discussing- statements about a lifestyle which never change.  He calls those "absolute truth".

In this context, no problem so far.  They are true and they are unchanging for all civilizations.

"There are many ideas advanced to the world that have been changed to meet the needs of the truth as it has been discovered. There are relative truths, and there are also absolute truths which are the same yesterday, today, and forever—never changing. These absolute truths are not altered by the opinions of men. "

Yes we agree scientific truth changes.  What is pragmatically true for civilization does not, because people are people and have the same needs universally. 

"We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit. These truths are “independent” in their spiritual sphere and are to be discovered spiritually, though they may be confirmed by experience and intellect. (See D&C 93:30.) The great prophet Jacob said that “the Spirit speaketh the truth. … Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.” (Jacob 4:13.) We need to be taught in order to understand life and who we really are."

We learn what works for civilized man by looking within to what we all need for peaceful survival. These spiritual truths are in their own independent sphere from scientific beliefs, and can be experienced directly through spiritual experience.
Things as they are as things as we experience them- along with what feelings and impressions we have in our heart. William James grounds the validity of these feelings in a religious context.

Both James and Rorty and many many other philosophers find that statements about the existence of God are justified by personal experience of the kind here mentioned by Pres. Kimball.

"If men are really humble, they will realize that they discover, but do not create, truth.

The Gods organized the earth of materials at hand, over which they had control and power. This truth is absolute. A million educated folk might speculate and determine in their minds that the earth came into being by chance. The truth remains. The earth was made by the Gods as was the watch by the watchmaker. Opinions do not change that."

What is truth?  Statements that work.  Can we discover statements which work as opposed to creating them?  I am not sure.  I think frankly he is speaking here of sectarian philosophy, but I do not expect him to be trained in philosophy.

I think the next paragraph may conflict with the first.  If we are in any way like the Gods, gods create truth from matter unorganized.  We also create organization intellectually.  Perhaps there are semantic problems here, perhaps not.  I do not expect prophets to be infallible on philosophical matters since it is so specialized.  I think the problem here is words, the difference between "discover" and "create".  Columbus "discovered" America, but from a pragmatic standpoint he might as well have "created" it.  What was unknown suddenly became a universe of possibilities which were not there before.  Is that creation of the possibilities or their discovery?  Semantic issue.

Did Donald Trump "create" the Trump Tower?  Did he "discover" it?  No, he caused it to be organized. He gave the order for others to go and organize matter unorganized.  Is the statement "Trump created the Trump Tower" true or false?  Is that an "Absolute Truth"?  When I get to the other side, I would love to sit down with President Kimball and discuss that. But for now I see it as a semantic issue

"Experience in one field does not automatically create expertise in another field. Expertise in religion comes from personal righteousness and from revelation. The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it.” (D&C 93:30.) A geologist who has discovered truths about the structure of the earth may be oblivious to the truths God has given us about the eternal nature of the family."

Truth is contextual and changes between fields. So now how can there be "absolute truth"?  Well we know I am just making a point- we have answered that.  Is there a conflict there between those statements?

I am not going to go paragraph by paragraph.  The church takes no position officially on evolution and there are many ways to square evolution and the gospel so I will not go there either- though he does not mention that specifically.  Different sphere with different purposes.

"This church of Jesus Christ (nicknamed Mormon) is the “only true and living church” that is fully recognized with the authority to perform for him, and the only one with a total and comprehensive and true program which will carry men to powers unbelievable and to realms incredible.

This is an absolute truth. It cannot be disproved. It is as true as the near-spherical shape of the earth, and as gravity; as true as the shining of the sun—as positive as the truth that we live. Most of the world disbelieves it; ministers attempt to disprove it; intellectuals think to rationalize it out of existence; but when all the people of the world are dead, and the ministers and priests are ashes, and the highly trained are mouldering in their graves, the truth will go forward—the Church will continue triumphant and the gospel will still be true."

Within the sphere of Mormonism of course this is an absolute truth.  One might say that Mormonism fulfills the requirements of a fully civilized church better than any other possible model.  As an ideology it works best at creating what we call a "Zion society" which is a kind of utopia ruled by an Ideal Perfect Human at its head.

Again remember we are speaking here assuming the persona of secularists, not as faithful members.

"The Lord has defined truth as being a “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24.) God’s existence is a reality. Immortality is a reality. These realities will not go away simply because we have different opinions about them. These realities will not be dissolved just because some have doubts about them."

We covered this in the Alma stuff.  What are "things as they are?"  The way we experience them- not some verbal model of what we experience.  What is "reality" in a spiritual context?  Remember Alma says "goodness and light"  God's existence can be directly experienced, and it is goodness and light.  In other words, it is "knowledge of things as they are" and "real".  It all fits!

I think the rest of the talk kind of falls into place."

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!