How Should I Be A Sceptic -- thought and imagination

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. A continually updated table of contents for all entries so far can be found here.]

People sometimes attempt to explain apparent contradictions in this fashion: "I was only being metaphorical." This does resolve the contradiction; but at the cost of retaining anything like the apparent meaning of the term or phrase thus 'metaphorized'.

If a person claims that 6 = 16, she can always later say, "I was only being metaphorical when I claimed '16'". But then, so much for '16' representing any kind of distinctive property. She really meant 6 = 6; and if she is going to play fair, she must remember that having 'explained away' 16 as a 'metaphor', she should not go back to its apparent attributes later and treat them as if they were in fact exclusively reflective of the properties of 16.

Thus I grant that this type of reductive metaphorization can be done. It can also be abused (and quite often is in discussions about religion), but if it is done fairly and the implications are kept in mind and not shuffled around for convenience, real progress can be made in hashing out the implications of an idea.

So, for instance, almost everyone except the vitalists thinks the fundamental units of Nature are blind, automatic and non-purposive; the opposite properties do not appear within Nature until a certain level of complexity is reached. Theists, atheists, dualists, all agree with this--even many (if not all) polytheists, and some pantheists might. [Footnote: specifically, some pantheists might agree that although the sum-total of Nature is really sentient, the particular units or even some complex parts are not. Our own bodies would make a handy analogy. ‘Negative’ pantheists, to give a very different example, would regard the fundamental units of Nature to be illusory; which certainly is no positive claim about their active sentience.]

Nonetheless, when discussing what these particular base-units are 'doing', we often end up talking as if we were vitalists; speaking for convenience as if muons and electrons and carbon-ring molecules were initiating actions instead of merely reacting and counterreacting purely to environmental stimulus or internal randomization.

It is very difficult to have a discussion about these entities unless we use words in this fashion. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool naturalistic atheist will occasionally (even often!) find himself speaking about the 'order' and 'design' of Nature using terms which do not fit atheism. And this isn't necessarily a bad, or incorrect, or misleading practice--unless he goes on to require as part of his theory of the origin of (for instance) sentience, that these particles really do initiate actions and have purposes after all. This would be an accident--he is an atheist, he doesn't really mean that--but the correction might have serious implications for the viability of the particular theory he was trying to build.

However, although we can and do sometimes use metaphor this way, I don't think this is the way we normally use metaphor. I think it is not only possible but also very common for us to use metaphor to stand for (or 'mean') more, not less, than what the imagery implies.

In writing this book I was inspired by the efforts of C. S. Lewis in his Miracles: A Preliminary Study. This is probably the only chapter that has a direct parallel in MaPS, though: the chapter on "Horrid Red Things".

Lewis asked us to understand three principles, all of which affect how and why and when we use metaphors. But I will be taking them out of his order of presentation, though, to better fit my own flow of discussion:

1.) "Thought is distinct from the imagination which accompanies it."

Sometimes this can be true without using metaphor, per se. For example, when I write Christian apologetics, I occasionally have background imagery in my head of cinematic fencing duels and/or epic music. When I wrote the first draft of this chapter, there were fragments of Jerry Goldsmith's score from the movie The 13th Warrior pinging around in the back of my mind. I suspect this happens because those sounds and images were stored in my memory with certain 'riders' or 'tags', so that similar emotions and cognitive thought processes would be likely to catch on those tags and 'pull them' in passing. This may be the psychological event known as 'association'; but it is not itself the event of 'building an argument'. I don't need to have associations with swashbuckling movie scores floating around in my head to cognitively analyze propositions, or to express my conclusions to myself and to you.

If I tell you about those associations, however, you can probably infer some useful and true information about the emotional and perhaps ethical quality I assign to my work. I could also choose to build sensuals like these directly into my relation of my experience, or even of my ideas: I would be expressing myself poetically, to help communicate the quality of my experience to you.

Similarly, associative sensory imagery can give me a means of expressing my ideas to myself--something to build on, and go beyond. If I am trying to think about the spatial relation of the Earth and the Sun to each other, I inevitably imagine what I am talking about. But I don't imagine it accurately; indeed, I cannot. No one can accurately imagine 93 million miles of space between the Earth and the Sun, much less the proper proportionate sizes of the Earth to the Sun, very much less the detailed physical description of each cosmic body. Granted, the physical description may not be important for expressing the distance and the calculated conclusions from the distance; my point is that even if my mental imagery was expressed to you in detail as my imagery stands, the resemblance to the 'real' things, in their real situations, would be extremely inaccurate.

But would that resemblance be inadequate?

It depends on what I am using the resemblance for, and the degree to which I mistakenly believe my imagery to reflect the reality. Thinking of the Earth as a blue dot instead of a blue/green/brown/white dot with all the clouds and continents and oceans and icecaps in their proper positions, does not mean my conclusions about orbital mechanics will be inaccurate. For that matter, the fact that I cannot quite get the distance/size proportion imagery correct in my head when I discuss the issue, does not mean I cannot reach proper conclusions about the subject.

Here, then, is a further principle subordinate to the first one. I cannot with total accuracy express the topic I am discussing with sensory imagery, even to myself. (It could be orbital mechanics, or genetics, or quantum physics, or psychology, or sociology, or legal theory, or any of a massive number of topics.) How much less, then, can I accurately express to you the details of what I am thinking about? Thus:

2.) "Anyone who talks about things that cannot be seen, or touched, or heard, or the like, must inevitably talk as if they could be seen or touched or heard."

I think this is correct; but I take it a bit further, along lines which Lewis himself discussed in that chapter and in other books (and which lines I think he would approve).

In principle, you could get in the right spatial position so that the lightstreams emanating from the Sun and reflecting off the Earth would each strike your optic nerves at the same time without you having to turn your head; and in principle, your eyes (or other recording instruments) might be sensitive enough to properly represent this state to your mind for processing. That is, in principle the spatial relationship of the Earth to the Sun can be 'seen'.

Nevertheless, I doubt whether an accurate attempt would succeed in giving the mental representation we might expect. Indeed there would still be some details inevitably missing: the Earth would at best be a mere white or whitish-blue pinprick of light, which misrepresents (as it stands) the complexity of its surface and atmospheric features. And in any case such a perception would by necessity ignore details on the other sides of the Sun and Earth!

Then there is the variety of appearances which might mislead without correction: if I am returning from the Moon to the Earth, I could possibly see the Sun and Earth together at the same time, and simultaneously I would be 'looking through' the 90+ million miles of space between them. But taken by itself, this image could be extremely misleading. The space certainly would not look like it is 90 million miles wide (because I would be looking along the space between the Sun and Earth, thus perceiving a foreshortened line, rather than perceiving the line in 'all its length'); the Earth would look much larger than the Sun; and the Sun would have hardly any visible detail, but would be a mere pinprick instead.

[Footnote: alternately, you yourself can go outside roughly once a month and see the full moon and the sun in the sky at the same time. Going strictly by that sensory image--especially during a solar eclipse--you might conclude they were roughly the same size; which is what some ancients did quite reasonably conclude!]

Even in the more complete sense, then, Lewis' dictum stands: we cannot even receive a fully accurate sensory impression of the relationship between things that can be 'seen' (much less what cannot be seen).

And this applies to everything in our experience. The book you are reading right now [obviously assuming I bother to publish it in print someday] presents one appearance to you; set it on the table, and it presents another appearance. The information you thus receive may be complementary by inference and conflation; but the mere presentations they make to your senses are not (taken by themselves) compatible, and may even be mutually exclusive. If I throw the book at your face, its appearance shall change once again rather drastically (a blur and a bright light in sequence) and shall be accompanied by different sensory impressions (a 'whiff' and a burst of pain-feeling, perhaps). Even when the book sits on the table without being moved around, its appearance taken by itself is misleading to the reality of the book: it does not really have three sides (the ones visible to you at any time), but six. And it is not sitting motionless on the desk. Its composite parts are in constant motion, and the book itself as a unit is hurtling through space away from the center of the universe, orbiting other galaxy clusters as part of a supercluster, orbiting other galaxies as part of a cluster, orbiting a galactic center, orbiting a star, revolving with the skin of the planet, tilting slightly as our planet's axis shifts, and drifting with our continent on a sea of magma. All these events are happening; but we cannot detect them all simultaneously and fully, nor even keep them all properly in our mind as abstract concepts!

We must use extremely inaccurate sensory descriptions of these things when communicating our ideas to ourselves and to other people, whether we know the extent to which we are being inaccurate or not.

And what happens, when we turn to concepts or physical events for which there cannot be, even in principle, accurate sensory information? The quantum physicists tell us that atoms are, in reality, unpictureable. Any illustration of a carbon atom is very inaccurate because photons don't interact with atoms like that. If you can understand this, then go one step further and consider how inaccurate the words 'understand' and 'one step further' are, to the mental events you are currently expressing! We never really see or hear or smell or taste or feel things in their completeness; but we must speak for convenience as if we do. We have no other way of thinking and communicating.

Some people would take this view into a complete philosophy of subjectivity or relativity. I do not take it that far; but neither do I claim that a perfectly objective thought or perception can be achieved--except perhaps by the IF (if It is Sentient). It is true that different circumstances will result in different appearances of the solar system or of my book in your environment. And it is true that taken as themselves these perceptions are not only misleading, but misleading to different degrees and in different ways in different circumstances.

But behind all of your and my subjective perceptions and expressions, are real objective realities, with their own composite properties. These realities might not be what I think they are--if atheism is true, for instance, then my experiences of being in a relationship with a supernatural God Who has a personality, must not be what they seem to me to be. But my subjective perceptions of such an event will reflect some other objective facts. An atheistic psychologist will agree with me that real objective events are occurring in my brain to produce this perception. But they cannot be the events that I think they are, if atheism is true.

On the chance that some readers have misunderstood me: I am not saying that all our perceptions and expressions are completely inaccurate; I would be refuting myself if I did, for I am expressing these thoughts to you and trying to convince you they have some sufficient accuracy! I am saying that all our perceptions and thoughts are (and must be, by our nature) inaccurate to some degree; but they may be accurate in one way while being inaccurate in another.

When I ask if you understand what I am trying to get across, I do not mean that I am asking whether you are standing in a deep ditch while I toss something above you spanning the sides of the ditch. I might mean that; but if you are familiar with the English language and can analyze contexts sufficiently, you will receive an adequate (not completely accurate) communication from me about the topic of your success at 'following' me in my 'point'.

And as you can 'see' from these last few sentences, I cannot 'jump off my own shadow'. Our languages are 'incurably' metaphorical. "We can make our language drier," says Lewis. "We cannot make it more literal." The 'literal' is in fact the 'actual'; our expressions and thoughts and imaginings (especially our imaginings) do not create the actual.

[Footnote: or at least very rarely do we create an actual that corresponds very closely with what we are talking about. If I deliver a speech on sound transmission, part of my communicated description will describe what I am in fact actualizing at that moment; but such circumstances are rare exceptions, not necessities.]

On the other hand, if there is a God, His expressions may be perfectly 'literal'. It is no accident, it seems, that in Judaism and its descendants, God speaks creation into existence. Then again, if there is such a God, and He communicates to derivative beings such as you and I, He will have to communicate in a fashion we can 'relate' to, through the Nature He designed and implemented (and still implements). And this means that what He tells us, however He might choose to do so, will be communicated in metaphor; just like what you tell me and what I tell you must be expressed in metaphors. To require that He could do otherwise would be not only to misunderstand how we already express ideas to ourselves and to others, but would probably require that we be God's equal in actuality and ability and independence. Even God (as I have argued earlier) cannot do what is self-contradictory; and it seems to me that expecting or requiring ultra-literal communications from God to us, requires contradiction.

Remember, however, that such metaphorical expressions may very well still be adequate (including in a historical sense). Indeed, if God expresses them then they will be fully adequate for whatever purposes He has in mind. But then again, we might ought to be cautious and careful about concluding what purposes He has in mind! If we believe in God, and if we believe we have communications from Him, then we can trust (given we have already established those other notions) that He is giving us true and useful information of some sort, and so we could reasonably attach great authority to the communication. But it will still be up to us to figure out what exactly is being communicated, and why, and to what degree later information may alter our perception of what is being communicated to us by God.

[Next time: an unwanted level of religious complexity?]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


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