Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Archive for April, 2008

‘Irreligion,’ ‘The Stuff of Thought’ and Strangers when we meet

Posted by boakley59 on April 28, 2008

Words allow us to share, but they also reveal the unshared perspectives that divide us.

Our most emotional responses are often triggered not by the message but by our differences in perspective with the messenger. Anyone who has ever been asked an opinion on some friend or relative’s new haircut, clothes or gadget understands the danger in this. As I noted in “Thoughts and words, indeed,” all of this came home to me in example after example as I read Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought. I reflected on the times Suzy and I grate on each other’s nerves, and I realized that seldom are the facts in contention. We react to the other’s way of putting things or presumed misplaced priorities. If she reminds me to take out the garbage, say, I would not be upset or doubting that the garbage needed to be taken out again so soon. I would be bothered that it would seem my ability to remember the chore on my own was being questioned. To Suzy, the garbage is the topic of the conversation. To me, my competence is the topic.

Such disconnection is apparent when observing at a distance nearly any heated debate of our times. This, too, has been much on my mind while studying commentary on another book I read recently, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, by John Allen Paulos. One pastor (Chuck Warnock, wrote graciously thanking Paulos for making clear the ways in which atheists and theists begin with different assumptions and approaches to knowledge. He preferred to look at the book as a guide to understanding how the other fellow thinks. This perspective would help to attempt a more meaningful dialogue. I would like to hear that discussion.

But John Piippo (, who teaches logic and philosophy of religion, wrote much less graciously and found little clarity in what he saw as inappropriate commentary by someone with no standing to discuss the topic. He and Paulos are talking past each other as denizens of discordant, concurrent cultures. They stand on opposite sides of a divide that can be summed up in the notion that “if you have faith, you don’t need proof; if you want proof, you won’t have faith.” It is hard to imagine they could have a meaningful dialogue.

Piippo’s remarks are deeply disturbing to me, and as I prepared to comment I have struggled with the notion that everything I say will seem like yet more “talking past” instead of “talking to” or “talking about.” Any short response will be inadequate and subject to similar dissection in return. Unlike with my occasional differences with Suzy, here the facts do seem to be in dispute and even what “fact” itself means may be in dispute. Nevertheless, onward, however insufficiently, with the examination of this disconnection.

In one post, Piippo focused on a chapter that he found contained little of the “real Jesus.” Paulos’ chapter, “Remarks on Jesus and Other Figures,” is a digression from his main topic, the examination of the logic underlying arguments for God. If the arguments for God don’t add up, those for Jesus don’t compute, either. To Piippo, Jesus is the essence of the main topic, not subsidiary but unitary: “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Paulos used Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, and Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, as launching points for his remarks. Piippo said it wasn’t clear why modern art was used as the basis of discussion of religion. But Paulos gave a simple, straightforward explanation for the approach. Piippo plainly doesn’t accept the explanation, nor does he accept Paulos’ point that the Gospel inspirations for the two works don’t have sufficient corroborating historical evidence. Piippo concludes that Paulos must be unaware of current “Jesus-scholarship” bolstering the “historical plausibility of the resurrection” and should therefore not expound upon such matters, just as he should not presume to touch on areas in which Paulos is expert.

This strikes me as bad argumentation and worse, as bad religion. Surely, the example of Christ is a move toward inclusion — commoners, children, crooks and kings all may raise questions, doubts and fears, and “Jesus-scholarship” is not left exclusively or even preferably to priests or ivory-tower academics. Christianity itself arose from a challenge to the prevailing scholarship and authority of Judaism. The Pauline Epistles extended the new religion by reaching out to Gentiles, again counter to tradition. The Protestant Reformation rejected the entrenched authority of the pope. Granted, Paulos is making a more profound challenge, but the Christian response from authority cannot be, “You don’t know, so shut up.” I have said the example of Christ is inclusion, but the very formation of the Christian sects also shows that the historical Christian resolution of challenges to authority has simply been splintering. Religious debates are seldom settled by unification. So, perhaps Piippo is indeed giving the historical Christian response, although I suggest that the response of the Christ would be, “Suffer them to come unto me,” or like Chuck Warnock’s response, perhaps interpreted as, “Come, let us reason together.”

And what of that scholarship? It is hard to imagine that in today’s world anyone, particularly an academic, could truly be unaware of compelling new findings supporting the details of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Given the global spread of Christianity and the great interest in scientific study of all things possibly biblical, from the Shroud of Turin to the walls of Jericho, how could any such finding not be broadcast in the most noticeable and unavoidable ways? Any discovery, from linguistics to archaeology, would be earth-shaking and more attention-grabbing than the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Paulos and Piippo no doubt differ on what would be considered compelling, but anything that stood up to cross-disciplinary scrutiny would surely be trumpeted in the news media and all over the Internet as the grand discovery of our age.

Piippo says Paulos lacks an open mind, because his admitted materialism (in the sense that the physical world is what matters) does not permit him to explore other ways of knowing. But it is Piippo suggesting those not in the know should butt out, while it is the essence of the mindset that Piippo dismisses — mathematical, probabilistic, scientific — to consider challenges from all corners. (No doubt Piippo would say that he is considering Paulos’ challenge, even though he presumes Paulos should be silent.) Paulos, I submit, would be disappointed but grateful were Piippo to ask a penetrating question that shook the foundation of some area in which he was expert.

In fact, Paulos, as a mathematician, takes it as a given that there are other ways of knowing — logicians have proven that in any formal system, statements can be made that are beyond the system. This is true not only in the trivial sense that we can use a system’s terminology to talk about impossibilities such as two people standing side by side with neither one to the right of the other, but also in the profound sense that nothing in the system allows any kind of handle on what is beyond: We can describe entities for which right and left and side by side have no meaning and for which we have no way of finding out anything about them.

This “beyond” is where Piippo and Paulos part ways. Paulos sees the notion of God as beyond our systems of logic, beyond our science and our senses. He points out flaws in attempts to put God within our system of logic, but Piippo posits a God that is beyond the box yet sees Paulos as inadequately understanding the bounds of the box.

Paulos spoke of the biological absurdities of virgin birth and resurrection. Piippo speaks of other ways of knowing and then insists on the “historical plausibility of the resurrection.” The very reason that the resurrection is an article of faith is that it is historically implausible. If it is not implausible, then it is merely something that people do, if only rarely: Some people are albinos; some rise again. It is crucial to a Christian viewpoint that the virgin birth and resurrection are biological absurdities, and attempts to give scientific or logical evidences to make them otherwise are missteps (of exactly the kind that Piippo says he should not make) onto Paulos’ turf.

The Bible is a faulty guide to history, biology and any other science, and it is the religious who must insist that it remain so, because it is part and parcel of divinity to be beyond matter. This is the very meaning of supernatural. This is the infinity separating Piippo and Paulos. Piippo accepts a supernatural Father God and then goes to great lengths trying to explain how natural that is. Paulos suggests that nothing in the physical world, not its vastness nor even its very existence, argues for the supernatural.

For what it’s worth, Paulos repeatedly mentions friends and acquaintances in the sciences who are religious and nods to “other ways of knowing” that may stand as reasons to believe in God. I wonder just what those reasons might be. The one that comes most readily to mind is that perhaps we will find that from natural to supernatural is a continuum, not a divide, and that all of “creation” participates in godliness.

Piippo’s advocacy does not draw me to his God, but I’d love to hear Warnock share his with Paulos. Warnock might develop a stronger faith and Paulos might find a greater universe, and I would learn from the differences in enlightened perspectives of one man whose questing intellect will not settle for inadequate explanations of the profoundest mysteries and another whose strong faith gives him the grace to embrace an outsider as they explore those mysteries together.

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Thoughts and words, indeed

Posted by boakley59 on April 9, 2008

Words are wonderful. They lift us above the clouds and drag us from the depths of our despair. But what are words? How do we decide, how do we know, what they mean? Do they mean for others what they mean to us? Words can make us soar or sink, but don’t our thoughts go beyond our words?

A delightful use of words in the examination of these questions is The Stuff of Thought, a book by psychologist Steven Pinker, who studies cognition and linguistics. The book examines how we form, use and think about words. It illuminates the difference between our thoughts and our words, and between our perceptions and our discussions of those perceptions.

The book is by turns poetic and technical, musical and clinical. It is sometimes coarse but often subtle, with words used as scalpels and bludgeons. If you love words, you will love this book.

The Stuff of Thought explores how words have come to be as we have evolved to meet our world. It shows how our language expresses our inherent understanding of space, time and relationships, and how it allows us to rise above the holes in that understanding. Pinker takes us through experiments, some in the lab and some in thought, that show the limited built-in understanding of number (indications are we recognize mainly “one,” “two” and “more,” while all the rest may be counted as products of culture — our capacity to learn and remember) and how our language is shaped and informed by primitive, intrinsic notions of force, motion and position.

Reading on, we learn our brains are biological computers stringing together digital information into layers of meaning that enable us to come to grips with an analog world. We compile digital notions (up or down, left or right, front or back, good or bad, abcd…, 1234…, acting upon or acted upon, moving or stationary) into a valid narrative of flowing reality. This is a flexible tale that gives us balance between the real and the imaginary. We can swat a horsefly even though we don’t see a horse fly, if you know what I mean.

Pinker demonstrates how humor often hangs in the balance of such ambiguities that can distinguish an irritating insect from a levitating equine. He playfully demonstrates, too, that these ambiguities go beyond the tiny symbolic gap that creates a gulf of meaning between “horsefly” and “horse fly.” We are comfortable with a reality of clear edges and distinct borders, where it is easy to tell inside from outside or black from white, but our gray matter also works the middle ground.

We work the middle not just in shifting from “here” to “hear” but in shifting from servant to master in the tone we use when talking to our boss or the grocery clerk. The point of communication is sharing ideas, but it does not always arise from shared goals. We have contracts or treaties that are exercises in compromise by opposing forces, each seeking dominance. We have advertisements that accentuate the positive or spin the negative. We have euphemisms that allow us to talk about our maiden aunt’s new dress or haircut without hurting her feelings.

But the middle ground is quicksand, and this is where we so often fail to reach each other. If our styles differ, if our assessments of dominance or position differ, we are caught in muck. If you think your spouse or boss (does “or” signify a choice or an equivalence?) doesn’t understand you, this book will help you see how we may be wired to talk at cross purposes.

Suzy and I certainly have different styles. We have similar storehouses of knowledge and tend to come to the same conclusions, with some whopping exceptions. I have developed an ear for Suzy’s style because we share a common understanding of her intent. She returns the favor, adjusting her response to account for my style.

I tend almost always either to silence or to extensive equivocation. I think I talk too little or way too much and rarely am forceful in correcting someone or taking up opposition. I let people slide, even when I am quite certain they are wrong, no matter whether the issue is trivial or significant. This bottling up of communication leads to an outpouring of words and frustration once uncorked, and my message may be lost as listeners are overwhelmed by the emotional baggage or bored to numbness by the runaway verbiage. Suzy has an amplified sensitivity to my quiet utterings and the strength to deflect the heat or stifle the yawn from my ravings. Our cooperation has taken years of practice, so it’s easy to see how momentary judgments of status, intent or context undermine communication and keep people apart.

This may seem apparent and even trivial when it comes to spousal spats, but it is at the core of much bigger deals. Pinker notes the litigation on the insurance question of whether the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, was one “event” or two, with $3.5 billion in payments at issue. Of course, a vastly larger issue that hinges on world view underpins how we see the day: Were the hijackers crazed terrorists or new Davids battling a new Goliath at the behest of their loving God?

The bite is worse than the bark when this dog chases its tail: Our perception of the world colors our words, which shape our world. Pinker cites a Middle East peace treaty that was signed only when “territories” was left unmodified, so that one side could interpret the reference as meaning “all territories” while the other could take it to mean “some territories.” The words stopped the worst of the war, but the war of words continues, as does a somewhat lessened battle on the field.

We must watch our words and accept the uneasy peace in the gray areas so that we may survive to talk again another day. Our wonderful words can be terrible, too. They may not always be good, but if we think about it we make them good enough.

Posted in Personal, Philosophy/Life Lessons, Science/Math/Technology, Writing | 2 Comments »