07 January 2008

Is There a God? TED Theme, Take Two

My previous post on this theme was not successful in communicating my position, so I am going to make another effort. In a private conversation with a respected atheist I think I may have found a better way to get my point across.

This time around I shall start by considering the proposed question as a statement: “There is a god.” How do we determine the truth of this statement?

Let’s consider a less controversial statement (borrowing from Lakoff and Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh p.104-5) analyze it for it’s truth value, and then apply the insights to the original statement about god:

“Grass is green.” How do we determine the truth of this statement?

The most obvious answer is to look at grass and if it looks green then we conclude that the statement is true.

But the problem is when scientists have looked closely there is no greenness in the grass. What we perceive as the greenness of the grass under normal conditions does NOT look green under other conditions and scientists looking at the neural basis of color perception and cognitive scientists who have carefully examined exactly what we mean by the statement have concluded that, technically, the statement is false.

These two perspectives are from different levels of experience. The normal everyday perspective (called the phenomenological level) and the technical scientific level. The biggest problem for our consideration right now is that the contradiction is created by the assumption that there is a single objective Truth that can be definitively determined and expressed once and for all.

Maintaining this assumption means that we are forced to make a decision about which perspective to “believe.” If you “believe” in phenomenology then you take the statement “Grass is green.” to be self-evidently true. If, on the other hand, you “believe” in science, then you have to take the same statement to be false. Rejecting either one and promoting the other is an unsatisfactory approach as far as I am concerned.

The solution that Lakoff and Johnson arrived at was to abandon the assumption, not the facts. The facts are that we humans have long established conceptual mechanisms in our brains that generate the phenomenological level of the greenness of grass and a more recently established social mechanism, in the form of science, to generate the technical level that allows us to make useful predictions and improve the world. We are fully committed to the continued existence of both of these robust systems of understanding, so how do we reconcile the contradictory truths they generate?

We accept that when we examine phenomena we have to be precise about exactly what level of understanding we are operating from, then, also accept that when we talk about a different level then different criteria for truth may need to be applied.

To the topic at hand; “There is a god.”
1) given the discrepancy between levels of truth,
a) at the level of everyday conceptual use it may be a true statement
b) while it is untrue at the level of objective scientific proof that the metaphorical conceptions in common everyday use have correlates in the world,
2) therefore I propose that the concept be studied to find out if it has
a) a literal core phenomenological meaning that is true and
b) a discreet set of metaphoric extensions that have varying degrees of truth depending on how they are used in different contexts and at different levels of analysis.

In my review of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell I introduced my proposal for studying this. My proposal regarding the study of god is based on making a parallel argument to Lakoff and Johnson’s argument in Philosophy in the Flesh about “mind.” If you take the common definitions of mind seriously in the same way most people take common definitions of god seriously, then you have to conclude, scientifically, that there is no such thing as a mind. According to Lakoff and Johnson, cognitive linguists analyzed the way people actually use the concept of mind and found it has a literal core meaning (“The mind is that which thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills.” Philosophy in the Flesh p.266) and a variety of metaphoric extensions from that core. The literal core meaning is so skeletal and impoverished that it is severely limited in it’s use as a way of thinking and reasoning about minds. The metaphoric extensions, on the other hand, provide a great variety of rich understandings and have allowed many people to arrive at useful insights. Some of those metaphoric extensions are mutually exclusive of each other and that is where the action is in terms of deciding what is really true about minds, beyond the literal core meaning.

What I would like to see is a similar examination of the concept of “God” to test the hypothesis that there is an impoverished literal core (the unknown and unknowable) and a small set of metaphorical extensions (via assignment of two types of characteristics; personal vs impersonal and immanence vs transcendence) that explain the variety of concepts of “God” that exist.

The value in this approach is that it acknowledges the truth value of the concept of God if a given use maintains appropriate reference to the literal core conceptual domain of the forces and/or agencies that are beyond our individual and/or collective ken (assuming that this is proven to be the literal core through cognitive linguistic analysis.) When metaphorical conceptions of God are used in reference to particular circumstances in the world, then an appropriate analysis of what is known or understood to be true scientifically can be brought to bear as a way of critiquing whether the particular metaphor is apt as a broad popular conceptualization of that situation or whether a different metaphor is more appropriate. Where there is simply no scientific knowledge to be brought out, then that can be acknowledged and we can move on.

This puts an equal analytical burden on both theists and atheists to show that their metaphorical conceptions of the unknown and unknowable are appropriate to particular situations. Where there is knowledge of the causes of a particular situation that make the invocation of god inappropriate then there is a burden on those in the know to educate others to make the knowledge more widely known. Those in the know would be responsible for presenting appropriate metaphors for understanding the situation in terms that take popular misunderstanding and misconceptions into account and redirects the popular imagination in appropriate directions.

If I am right about the metaphorical categories then atheists have simply filled in a logically possible but historically absent conceptual category and brought it into public awareness. This approach might give atheists a firmer foundation for legitimacy as an equally valid approach to the same conceptual domain since they are simply assigning characteristics that are impersonal and beyond the universe.

In any case, I think having an analytical framework for debates about the proper application of “God” concepts would be a more productive avenue of public discourse than persisting in a fruitless debate about whose level of truth trumps the other.
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