Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Meaning of Meaning

I haven't read any Herodotus in years. I took a course on him in graduate school, and of course he was on my reading list for the PhD in classics, but I confess that, when it came to getting him under my belt, I did the bare minimum that was required. It's a shame, not only because I seem to have lacked that intellectual curiosity that I so bemoan the absence of in my own students, but also because I was depriving myself of some great reading:
Once the whole Persion army had crossed over into Europe, they were just setting off on their journey when a really extraordinary thing happened: a horse gave birth to a hare. Xerxes dismissed it as insignificant, though its meaning was transparent. It meant that although Xerxes would walk tall and proud on his way to attack Greece, he would return to his starting point running for his life. (7.57; translated by Robin Waterfield)

When it comes to insightful analysis, it just doesn't get any better than that, not even in The Nation or Mother Jones. In particular, I like the idea that the "meaning" of this event "was transparent." That foolish old Xerxes! What a moron! Why, anybody could see what that meant!

We no longer live in a culture that finds that sort of meaning in the apparently random events of daily life. (We don't see horses giving birth to hares, either--or at least I've never seen it happen. But if I did, at least now I would know what it meant.) We chuckle at passages like this because we view the natural world in a completely different way. The forces of nature are governed by regularities that are themselves part of nature, that is, the world operates in a strictly naturalistic way. We no longer have any room for the supernatural. In some potted courses on the history of philosophy and science, one is often told that this is precisely what constitutes the line of demarcation between proto-science or proto-philosophy and the non-scientific and non-philosophical literature that preceded it: reductionistic and naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, explanations of natural events. Herodotus was born in 485 B.C., well after the rise of naturalism in the sixth century, but of course it can take a while for these things to catch on. After all, there are still folks who read their horoscope every day. I know I do.

Our view of what's natural, however, has been shaped by forces that are not always benign. We've all heard the pseudo-distinction between what's "natural" and what's "man-made", as though human beings are not themselves a part of nature. A man-made object is no less "natural" than a bird-made object like a nest, but we like to forget about that when we want to either (a) congratulate ourselves on how much smarter we are than birds or (b) complain about how human beings are messing up an environment that really belongs to birds, or that they somehow aren't really a part of at all, or are taking up too much of, or something equally incoherent. So on one misuse of the concept of "the natural" human beings are excluded in a bizarre and arbitrary way from the natural order. Going in the other direction we're told (as I've discussed in many other posts) that everything in nature--including human beings, this time--is reducible to nothing other than the material building blocks of the natural world. That is, on this misuse of "nature" we are required to be materialists and, if we are materialists, the only sensible epistemology to adopt is an empiricist one.

According to both of these misuses of "nature" there can be no real "meaning" in anything "natural". In the first case, where human beings are somehow not really a part of the rest of nature, there can be no real meaning because all meaning is nothing more than human convention, and anything that looks like meaning in nature is nothing more than the projection of human sentimentality onto otherwise meaningless objects. In the second, reductionistis case, there can be no meaning in nature because there's no real meaning anywhere--even human beings are ultimately deterministically driven automatons who enjoy only an illusion of free will.

There are, of course, variations on these themes, and one finds all sorts of positions staked out in between the extremes that I've limned. One position that is less well-staked out than it might be is a roughly Aristotelian one, where "the natural" is understood to include anything and everything that has "a nature." Unlike the full-blown materialistic naturalism of the sciences, on this view not everything in nature need be understood to have a nature. The particular members of a natural kind may be so understood on two grounds. First, they develop in certain predictable ways, growing from early to later forms in accordance with well-understood principles of ontology. Second, they are able to produce new instantiations of their own kind in a way that mere artifacts and other "natural" material entities cannot. If I take a few skin cells from my arm and clone them up, I will get a new Mini Me, but sadly I cannot scrape some paint from my colleague's BMW and try to grow myself a nice new car in my garage. In Aristotle's lingo, there is something of my form that is literally present in my matter in a way that is quite different from the way in which a BMW, or a television set, or a desk, has a kind of form in its matter.

What one is to make of this conception of form is a matter of interpretation. I have suggested in other posts that, for the Christian, there is a certain kind of interpretation that is more congenial than others--an interpretation that sees the created order as itself manifesting something of God's design in one way or another. This interpretation does not admit of clandestine messages being passed on by means of equine parturition, but it does admit of finding a deeper meaning in the structure of nature itself than the bare materialist can possibly perceive. When discussing this kind of interpretation with a non-believer one runs up against a kind of inability to see, something that is impossible to overcome simply by means of dialectic alone and, hence, something that cannot be addressed adequately by philosophy. I'm sometimes reminded, in these contexts, of a "debate" shown on Nightline many years ago between William F. Buckley, who had just written a book about sailing, and a blind man, who was going to try to circumnavigate the world on his own in a sailboat. Buckley claimed that it simply isn't possible for the blind man to experience sailing in the way that a sighted man can experience it, and the blind man objected on the grounds--quite common back then--that Buckley was somehow trying to "discriminate" against the blind. It seems that the beauty of a sunset over the ocean was not the only thing he couldn't see. So, to, when trying to put the ineffable into words one finds that a non-believer must shake his head at you, because he cannot grasp what you're talking about. Talking about God with the unbeliever is like talking about color with a man born blind. He may be able to form some sort of conceptual content that he believes can be correlated with the idea, but he will never be able to know what the believer knows. Nor can he grasp the meaning that the believer can grasp, and that is why, for him, the universe is a meaningless and purposeless place.


Apollodorus said...

I think I agree with virtually everything you've written here. At least, the metaphysical position you outline is the kind of position that I want to be able to articulate and defend. I have some questions though, and you seem to be uniquely qualified to address them, given your interests and expertise.

1. What kind of threat does nominalism pose to positions of the sort you describe? Clearly, if nominalism were true, it would be false to talk about natural kinds and species and the like as though they were significant in themselves. Question is, I suppose, what in particular do you think about the case for nominalism, both as a position in the philosophy of language and especially in the philosophy of biology?

2. To what extent do you think that your position about humans as parts of the natural world can be analyzed into two distinct propositions, i.e., 1) that human beings are neither above nature nor 'merely' natural in a reductively materialist way; 2) the supernatural exists in additon to the natural. I'm asking, I guess, to what extent you think that the supernatural needs to be invoked to explain how it is that human beings both are a part of nature but are not 'mere' nature. Do we do better to explain human beings as 'mere' nature endowed with elements of supernature, or to avoid interpreting nature as 'mere' nature in the first place?

3) Do you really think that non-believers are like people who have been born blind? Aside from the obviously shaky analogy between a faculty of sense and (a capacity for?) a (formalized?)belief, that view would suggest not simply that such people can not see what you see, but that they will never be able to see what you see. If that is really what you mean, then you seem excessively pessimistic about people's spiritual capacities and excessively anti-intellectual about the capacity of reason to communicate elements of the faith. Of course, as one who qualifies as a 'non-believer' myself (sympathetic agnostics still count as such, I suppose), I may simply have been born blind (more likely, my blindness was inflicted). But that wouldn't prevent me from being able to adequately address your reasoning about the things that you can see, even though I can not see them. After all, the blind could in fact sail, even if he couldn't experience it in the same way.

Scott Carson said...

1. I was myself very attracted to nominalism when I was in graduate school. I suppose that is the threat that it poses: it seems to be very attractive, especially if one wants to resist the ontological committment to natural kinds. I think that in the philosophy of language the case for nominalism is no better nor worse than the case for anything else--it all boils down to what one's a priori ontological committments are, and there is no particular ontological committment that one must make in order to do philosophy of language, so one simply uses the argument that is most congruent to what one already believes. The case is somewhat different in biology, I think, since it seems to me that there is a kind of prima facie case to be made for the intuition that there is a real difference of some kind between, say, a man and a dog, or between a dog and a fire hydrant. If it is possible for the human mind to conceive of such differences then it is also possible that such differences are underwritten, somehow, in the ontological structure of things. Of course that would not follow of necessity, but it is a starting point. With Aristotelian natural kinds we even have a modicum of empirical confirmation: those kinds of natural entities do seem to develop and reproduce in the manner required by his metaphysics--excluding natural selection, of course. But probably even in biology there is a fair amount of a priori supposition going on: one is generally either a materialist or a non-materialist before going into biology. To put it another way, one doesn't usually study the empirical sciences in order to discover whether materialism is true or false--rather those sciences presuppose it. Same with empiricism.

2. I would say, in response to (2.1), that it is my view that human beings are "merely" natural, but I suppose that would depend on what you take "merely" to imply when conjoined to "natural." Granted, I don't think we're strictly material entities, if that's what you mean by reductively materialist, but I certainly think that we are material entities. This has some bearing on (2.2), because it seems that you are endorsing the very distinction that I'm trying to be wary of--that "natural" means only the reductively materialist, empirically discoverable world. On my view, that is not the extension of the word "natural." If we restrict "natural" to "creation" then clearly God is "outside" of nature, but nature is not outside of God and that would be the sense in which the "super" natural needs to be invoked in explanation: as a necessary first cause.

3. Metaphors are always risky. I'm pretty happy with that one, though, because a non-believer literally "doesn't get it" when it comes to belief. On my view, the capacity to believe in God is in itself a supernatural fact (a gift from God), not a natural one, so it is unsurprising to find folks who cannot make the connection. It is possible for us to have knowledge of God, because faith and reason do not conflict on this view--but the capacity for mental assent to what one knows is another matter.

But none of this is intended to suggest that the non-believe will never see or understand or believe. You're right that the metaphor fails in that sense, although I suppose one could argue that a person born blind might be able to have an operation that would restore sight. But the non-believer always has an "operation" available to him: the abandonment of self is always possible spiritually (though maybe not always easy psychologically). I say more about what I mean by that in my post Take Up Your Cross Daily.

The question about the blind man sailing "in fact" raises an interesting question. Sure, the non-believer can discuss the "intellectual" or "rational" aspects of faith with the believer, but to what extent is he really going to grasp what is going on? Maybe the blind man can form some idea of what sailing is like, but just as we cannot know what it is like for a bat to be a bat, so we cannot know what it is like for a sighted person to experience sailing.

Now, on the assumption that experiencing sailing as a sighted person experiences it is of the essence of what it is to "truly experience" sailing, then the blind man never really experiences it in its essence. Perhaps belief in God is the same: unless you can experience it from the inside, as it were, then you're still just, well, doing philosophy of language--playing language games. That was how I myself viewed religion for a long time, rather like a hobby. Here are some beliefs, here is the magisterium, here is some history, here are some texts--all are very cool, interesting, stimulating, moving even but, in the end, it's just a game. I made the move "to the inside" when I abandoned my very self to God's will (not that I ever actually do it, mind you--that's still pretty hard, maybe even beyond my capacity). There is a stage of assent that is not strictly cognitive in nature, and that is what is required before one can really "see" the "color" of religious belief.

James the Thickheaded said...


As a sailor, I remember the debate with the Buckley well. The blind man insisted he could sail by instruments - which I think furthers your analogy. Buckley, as all sailors would, insisted that the instruments would fail and the man would become a hazard to navigation. The blind man insisted he had back-ups. Buckley insisted, again, that they would fail, and the man would have to be rescued by the Coast Guard at enormous cost to the public. Somehow it became a discussion of "rights" of the disabled over the protection of society....and the right of the disabled to claim rescue. Well, the guy set out sailing, everything broke within a few miles of land, and he had to be rescued. The marine environment by definition, is hazardous.

For anyone who wants to experience a touch of the immensity of the almighty, a day on the water in the presence of a little weather, will be tremendously humbling. You can get something of the same on the plains, but on the water, the sense of vulnerability is magnified. Our disconnection from the natural environment vastly reduces this sense everywhere else and magnifies our sense of control. These factors are also more at play in the modern self defition than we realize.