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.

Religion and Scientific Evidence

My comment on a religious message board in which most believed that there was no evidence for a global flood:

It bothers me that we use "evidence" to prove there was no global flood but yet "evidence" also points to no God.

I say just forget about "evidence" for religious truths and take them for what they are- true stories that bring us closer to our Maker

It cannot ever be proven that there was or was not a global flood any more than you can prove the existence of God so alleged evidence either way becomes irrelevant.

To me, it is just a confusing position to take citing evidence in one direction and not the other.

Common Sense, Correspondence Theory, and Religion

The common sense view of how we get to know things is that there are things out there in the world which we can sense, and discover things about, and then somehow make linguistic pictures of those things which we then pass around to each other so that language is a mirror of nature and of reality.   Propositions correspond to the way things are in the world- if they correspond, they are called "true" and if they do not correspond to "reality" they are termed "false".

This is called the "correspondence theory of truth" and is extremely simple to understand- if the statement corresponds to reality, the statement is true.  This is the way the Greeks saw the world, and the way we have traditionally understood things as the "man in the street" understands them.

But there arises a problem.  Do we actually see things as they "really are" or is what we see a construction put together by our brains?

We know that light enters our eyes, for example, and that light is something like a wave and also something like a particle, which in some sense "vibrates" at a certain frequency and is reflected into our retinas, causing specific nerve cells to respond to these vibrations and then firing, and stimulating the optic nerve, which then transmits the signal to the visual cortex of our brains, and then because our brains are constructed as they are, we then experience what we in language abstract to be a "color" and we again abstract that impulse, connecting to verbal centers and we call or define that particular stimulus with the word "red".

But is that object "actually" red, or is it just reflecting light of a certain wavelength which our brain defines with the word we have learned to use which is associated with that brain state?   In other words, is that thing "out there" actually "red" or is it just a label our brain affixes to the EXPERIENCE of what is called (defined to be) "red"?

And what is the relationship between that experience called "red" and the word "red"?  Do each of us experience "red" the same or not?  Color blind people do not experience certain colors the way the rest of us do- we know that because sometimes they cannot tell the difference between different colors.  That is the only way we surmise they see things differently than we do because we have an experience, which perhaps we call "aquamarine" which they apparently do not have, since they cannot perhaps distinguish it from what we call "blue" and what we call "green"

So what is reality?  Is it what is out there or is it what we experience as out there?

This problem has been one discussed by philosophers for the last two thousand years.  Perhaps you have seen it in the form of "if a tree falls in the forest does it make a "sound"?  It is essentially the same problem.  We presume that sounds are vibrations in the air which our ears sense, and we call that process "hearing".  But the problem becomes, if a tree falls and creates such vibrations in the air, should such vibrations be defined by the word "sound"- a word which connotes that someone actually sensed those vibrations and "heard" them- or is such a use of the word inappropriate in such a case?

Well it doesn't take too long before one ends up saying "Who cares?  What difference does it make if we call it a "sound" or not? Did the tree really "fall" in a humanly understood sense, and did it make a "sound" in a humanly understood sense.  Was that even "real"?

But honestly, who cares if we call such an event as "real" or not?

Isn't that about the way you are feeling right now?

At this instant, if you are feeling that way, you are what we call an "Epistemological Pragmatist" which is a fancy way of saying that you understand that we are now quibbling about definitions and in the geneneral course of things, it really doesn't matter what one calls "real" anyway.  Is it "true" that the falling tree made a sound or not?  After all, it must be one or the other, right?

Not really.  It is a matter of definitions.  If you want to interpret the question one way, it is "true" or you can interpret it another way and it is "false".

In cases like these, truth or falsity doesn't really matter much- it just depends on how we somewhat arbitrarily decide to look at it.

I am sure you have seen pictures which you can look at and see either as, say, a rabbit or a duck, or an old lady or a young lady or a staircase going up or going down.  Such pictures are designed specifically to be perceived in an ambiguous way, and it all depends on your interpretation of what you see.

These are some of the central problems with the correspondence theory of truth.  What is "real" in this way of seeing things?  Does it matter how we define what is "real"?  How can propositions "correspond" to what is "real" if we cannot define what reality is, or what that correspondence could possibly mean if it is all a matter of our perceptions and how we define them?

These are the issues philosophers have grappled with.

The Pragmatist is one who sees all of the world differently than those who see true statements as "corresponding to reality", so they effectively avoid all the issues such a viewpoint raises.  The Pragmatist sees these issues pragmatically- true propositions do not "correspond" to a "reality" beyond what we can see feel and touch with our senses or our emotions- for all practical purposes there is no separation between what is real and what we experience- experience IS reality.

Since experience IS reality- there is, practically speaking, no difference between appearance and reality.

Truth becomes a property of propositions and linguistic statements- it is not a property of reality because we cannot "get down" to a reality beyond our experiences of it.  We know how to use the word "true" and "false" and those meanings depend on linguistic contexts- not on any state of some un-perceivable "reality" which only exists in our imaginations.

Truth is always based on some practical use for a particular proposition.  "The car is red" is not about a state of the world, but is about our linguistic statement of some experience we have.  The car is red because we perceive it as what we call, or define as the color "red".

The practical use of such a statement might be to distinguish a red car from a green one etc.

The practical use of a scientific description would be the fact that such a statement works better in achieving a practical result than some other statement.  (Copernicus works better than Ptolemy, Einstein works better than Newton)

Such scientific understandings change from time to time in paradigm shifts which change our definitions and understandings of our collective experience.  Copernicus did not change the observational "data" just its interpretation.

Similarly, moral propositions are "true" because they work better socially- societies which do not sanction murder for example are more desirable to live in that those who might oppose those ideas.

So what does this have to do with religion? 

Like all other propositions, religious beliefs have nothing to do with some abstract "reality" we cannot see or feel- they are judged by how they function in our lives in giving our lives meaning and peace.

Statements about God, like the statements about the "red car" are about out perceptions and experiences, not about anything else.  Religious statements are subjective in the sense that the difference they make is within us- in personal experience, and are not verifiable by others.

But all of the most important decisions or ideas we have as human beings are subjective as well- we decide whom to marry, what is right or wrong, whether or not we should do something perceived as "wrong" or not, based on subjective feelings.  There is no objective scientific way to decide what is right or wrong in our lives- whether or not abortion is wrong, which political party to vote for, which church to join, whether or not the historic person Jesus was the Son of God and our redeemer, or not.

In fact, the very question of whether or not we are free or determined can be seen to be based on the difference between subjective and objective propositions, but that discussion is for another post.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

God, Man, Joseph Smith and Nietzsche

I think that sometimes science misunderstands the subjective perspective an therefore misses much of what is important to us as humans. Many scientists only accept as  "evidence" that which can be verified objectively by others, and dismiss  personal experience as "subjective" and therefore, unreliable.

God cannot possibly exist because he is not casually observable by a crowd looking into the sky and saying "There he is!"

If that is all you are going to count as "evidence" then of course there  is no "evidence" for him.  You are presuming the answer in the way you  ask the question.

"Look- up in the sky- it's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's God!"

We think in linguistic models-and many philosophers and scientists are beginning to understand that better.  Thomas Kuhn, who understood the nature of scientific models is one such writer.

But every thought anyone ever expresses is expressed in language, and language itself can be seen as a "model" of what we call "reality".  So science itself is nothing more or less than a lingusitic model for reality which changes from time to time.  And yes, that was an intentional ambiguity in that last sentence.

We have also come up with models for God and the best yet devised, in my opinion, is the Mormon model which says that God IS indeed himself a Man who organizes reality the way men do.

Some see the conflict as being between faith and science.  I think that is incorrect because indeed scientists themselves use faith in their personal lives all the time- for example they have faith that if they do an experiment today, and do the same one tomorrow, the results will be the same and that there is constancy in the universe.  That is a presumption they take on faith.  They assume that indeed there is a natural order to the way things operate, and that supernatural things do not exist.

They exercise personal faith a million times a day, believing that when they want to move their arm, that it will move; that their plans for getting that grant, for their next vacation and what they will do on the weekend will indeed come to pass.  They exercise faith that their car will start when they turn the key, they exercise faith that when they stop off for a gallon of milk, that the store will not have run out of it.

But we know that thousands daily find that they cannot move their arms or legs or find their lives cut short through circumstances they could have never forseen.  The universe is indeed a surprising place and we are forced to exercise alternative plans on virtually a daily basis. We trip over things.  We run out of eggs.  The pot boils over.  Our faith in the way things will go is continually stymied.

In fact, as organisms reacting and responding in our environments, surprise is more the rule than regularity, but that is another subject.

Is it unreasonable to exercise faith that you will live to see tomorrow?  Chances are for most of us, it is a good bet.  But the point is, it IS a bet.  None of us know what tomorrow will bring.

The classic arguments against God in most cases do not apply to the Mormon model of God and I think it is important that we think these things through.

A God who is transcendent, aloof, a "Trinity" of "essences" and outside of time is indeed a God which can only be understood as a mystery. 

But that is not our Mormon God.  Our God is Man.  He is The Man of Holiness. Arguments against his existence are arguments against the existence of humankind.

He is the "Ideal Man" and arguing against his existence is like arguing that we cannot conceive of what an "ideal man", or an "ideal father" would be.  Yet of course we can conceive of such an entity. And like us, the model says He exists in time.  The model says He is immanent, not transcendent.  The model says he interacts with his children as a Father would.  The model suggest possibly that indeed He himself had a Father.

We model him as our Father.  To me, pragmatically, that is identical to saying "He is our Father".  In cases like this, as also in science, there is no difference THAT WE CAN SPEAK OF between saying that "He is our Father" and saying that "We model him as our Father" because no one indeed can know the difference.

Models only exist until we know that something in the "data" is different than the model, and then the model must be changed. That happened of course with the Ptolemaic model of the universe, and the paradigm needed to be changed and it was, and it was supplanted by the Copernican model of the universe.

The idea of a transcendent unchanging God who is of a different "essence" than man ceased to be a useful model around, actually, the time that Joseph restored the gospel.  Around the same time that Brigham Young was leading the Mormons westward, a man named Nietzsche, in Europe, proclaimed that man was god and that God was dead.  In fact, though he perhaps misunderstood it himself, ironically, he was exactly right.  The sectarian god, the transcendent Platonic god indeed WAS dead! And despite his misunderstanding that what he was presenting philosophically was indeed a new model for God, Nietzsche in his own way was proclaiming much of what Joseph Smith saw in his visions and revelations.

A God who matters to humans must be human.  Man is god, but one in embryo who must be spiritually nourished and grow.

Let me give you two different lingusitic models for what I take to be substantially the same understanding of the nature of God.

The first is the Mormon model:

The God of the Restoration, as the Man of Holiness organizes worlds as we know them through the power of his Word, his Messenger, who is also our Savior.  Through his Word, he has organized or defines all that man, as gods in embryo, can know.

Now the humanistic model:

Man, who has taken the place of the transcendent Neoplatonic god, defines reality through linguistic models, comprised of words, into different scientific "paradigms" as Kuhn has shown, thereby defining all that man can know.

Can you see that these two different models for the way reality is organized are just that? That their difference is just words? Two different linguisitic models- amounting to virtually the same insight- nothing more, nothing less?

But I can hear you asking- "But does that mean that God is not 'real'- that he exists only in the minds of believers"?

No, in fact it would be more accurate to say that he exists in their "hearts".  But does that mean he is not "real"?  Of course it does not mean that.
Everything that our atheistic scientist (let's call him Bob) knows about "reality" is in Bob's mind- his brain, his heart, "wherever" it is!  All that he knows and believes are just that: What Bob knows and believes.  They are the models of reality as Bob understands it, including his (let us assume) his rejection of what he understands as "faith" for what he understands as "science" or "evidence".

We are all products to a large degree of our environment and our culture.

So is that God in our minds and hearts "real"?  Of course he is just as real as anything important to us- he is as real as the love we have for our spouses and children, he is as real as the feeling of choice we have in every choice we make in our lives, as real as knowing right from wrong, as real as the confirmation we receive of the "still small voice".  He is as real as our conception of everything that is good and true and beautiful and ideal.  He IS in some sense those Platonic forms after all, but now he dwells in our hearts and is no longer the abstract and undefinable First Cause, which hasn't "existed" since Hume demolished that model in the 17th Century.

But is he "really out there"??

What would it take to show that?  Sending a rocket into space and taking his picture?  We all know that is not going to happen.

The best we can hope for is a kind of Alma 32 (in the Book of Mormon) experimentation on the "data" found in our hearts when we try those beliefs.

After all, turning those feelings in our hearts into understanding him as "real" takes faith which is after all a "hope for things NOT seen, but true".

Language and Color

"Potentially, language can actually structure how the brain is structuring the visual world"


Imagine looking at a square table and drawing it.  Your final result will depend on your point of view.  The image of the table will not be "square" unless you are seeing it from directly above, but from that perspective it might actually be hard to recognize it as a "table" at all, because perhaps a photograph of a room from the ceiling will just show a green square and from that perspective it might not be identifiable.

If you are standing at some distance from the table, it will appear as perhaps a parallelogram and at first glance you might not know that it is "square".

Directly from the side, all you will see is the legs and the side, and and again perhaps you might not see it as a table, but you will certainly not know it is "square".  In fact, from the side, if the legs are longer than the top nothing about the image you see will be square at all.

The best way to "know" the most about the table is to see it from all angles and perspectives- to see how the legs are attached, if there is a label on the bottom, casters on the legs etc.

But if you have never seen a card table with a green felt top, you might not know the function of the table even after you have examined it carefully from an "objective" perspective.

Further, suppose this is the very table at which Wild Bill Hickok was shot. (I don't even know if he was shot like that- it is just an example)

It might be worth a million dollars as an historical artifact.

So there are entire cultural dimensions to this simple table that have no bearing on what you first see.  You don't see its function, you don't see its history, you don't see its significance to a collector who will pay what seems like a ridiculous sum to you, just to own this object you at first saw as a "green square" in a shot from the ceiling.

But was it wrong to see it as a "green square"?  No, indeed it is all of these things from each perspective.  None of them was wrong- all were right from their point of view.

"But it has to be one or the other, it can't be BOTH" someone might say.  "One HAS to be True!"

But to say that seeing it from one point of view is THE "correct" one, absolutely, is just short sighted.  It's not necessarily "wrong", it just doesn't capture the full reality.  That is where dogmatism enters the view, be it in either science OR religion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Science and Religion in a Nutshell

This is the simplest explanation of my view I can come up with:

All linguistic discourse is metaphor and symbols.  We open up our mouths and make sounds or make squiggles on paper or pixels on a screen.

Squiggles and noises and pixels are not chairs tables planets or anything "real" - they are squiggles and noises which are symbols and signs.

They are metaphors.

Scientific squiggles and noises tell us about metaphors which humanity has seen useful for manipulating the world around us.

Religious squiggles and noises tell us about metaphors  which humanity has seen useful for explaining what is important to us, what we should do, what to value, and what our place is in the world in which we all interact.

We each pick which sets of squiggles and metaphors from each category help us best to put together a world view which helps us make sense of all this world we each experience.

The idea that truth is a property of sentences and sentences are just ultimately interpretations of experience really strikes people the wrong way but I think the position is unassailable.

The only way of even discussing the problem is in language, which is subject to interpretation.  There is nothing you can say to argue that in the final analysis we are not ultimately talking about words and each others interpretation of them, because the only way to make the argument is by expressing your interpretation of words.  It is inescapable.  The scientist ends up talking about and interpreting words and so does the theologian

Once you see human experience as one whole with no way to communicate it but language, then the objective and subjective become two sides of the same coin and inseparable, and just as valuable in their respective spheres.  We cannot survive without both of them.

We all live in the subjective every minute of our lives, but if we do not acknowledge the limits of the objective we cannot survive.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Galileo's Subjective Experience

I am fascinated by how subjective first person experience becomes objective science, and thinking about some of the main discoveries of science perhaps make it easier to bring this question into perspective.

For example, consider those incredibly exciting moments when Galileo first pointed his new telescope at Saturn and saw a blurry lump of light consisting of what he first thought were three spheres, and which subsequent observation, and better focus finally resolved into a single sphere with reflective rings to the sides.

For a few days or weeks, that was a subjective experience totally belonging to Galileo alone.   No one else had ever looked into a telescope at Saturn and his experience had not yet been replicated.  It was his own private experience communicated (let us suppose) to no one.

Much of science even now starts as a subjective experience of some scientist in some lab somewhere, who sees an anomaly in the data, a blip on a screen when there is not supposed to be a blip, or some outlier which his brain registers as "abnormal", which might lead to a "hunch" that if he slightly tweaked the experiment, suddenly that blip or that outlier might suddenly turn into something significant.

At that moment, he is experiencing something subjective no one else has experienced, and his idea- his "hunch"- is part of bringing order to "matter unorganized".

This is what humans do- we order our worlds around us through our perceptions, some of which we share with others, and other experiences remain subjective, intimate, and private.

Of course when he published the data in whatever form, all of that changed from a subjective experience to an objective one that anyone can verify, and that act of publication makes it part of the totality of what humanity knows, and in a sense creates that reality for others.  Indeed this is what science is- a collection of observations and experiences once private, now made publicly accessible, or what can be called "objective evidence" because we all can replicate it for ourselves.

This is the insight I wish all could see, that this is the kernel of what humans do, and which is part of our little ventures into embryonic godhood and how our activy parallel the activity of God Himself, and how what he does symbolizes what we do, and what we do symbolizes what he does, in the ongoing dance of creation.

We are created in His image, as theomorphic humans, and in turn he reveals himself to us as our Father, the anthropomorphic God.

He is the Word, the God who is man, and the Man who is God.