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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. elenar

    elenar Deadman

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    I think I cannot give you anymore reasons than I already did. You still believe you perceive the object, while you only perceive your senses. If you realize that, you will know you don't know what is really there. I could try to explain more, but it would only complicate things.
    I think examples I already gave are clear enough if you ponder them. If you just skip them because you don't quite get them then conversation on that subject cuts there, since you don't know my point of view.
    Numbers, functions, etc, you say are human creation. So are the words. What would you think the 'tree' is if you couldn't speak ? What would you see?

    When you see something with your senses, you have concept of what you see. Thus you are not really looking at the object, but you react to concept of it. This can be pleasnat or umpleasant. I gave you example of rock changing into a tree when you close your eyes. What if it was something beautiful to you, then changed into something very scary ? The object is the same, the concept you react to is different. Since you instantly react to concept you may have no time to actually perceive the object. We just 'like' or 'dislike' the concept. But as buddhism says, there is third way, 'middle way'. Which I believe is actually looking at the concept. Once you do it, it loses any ground to exist as real, because it is not what you see with your senses, it is what you create with your mind.
    Thus, some people practice meditation, which allows relaxation and free passing of thoughts. Given enough time you stop craving thoughts, which absorbs your attention, and when flow of obscuring thoghts passes you perceive the object. In some cultures ability to perceive object is called 'third eye'.
     
  2. elenar

    elenar Deadman

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    Well, that is not my experience. I spent 2 years in India learning from Dalai Lama and Karmapa (two highest tibetan lamas). And I found lots of information that goes well along with modern science (especialy quantom physics), and I am not buddhist. More important, that it makes a lot of sense to me, as science and philosophy.
    But there is religious outlook too, then it is more accessible to some group of people.

    However, like Dalai Lama himself mentioned, there were so called 'stupid monks' back in Tibet, who used to go to villages and cause fights, didn't really practice teachings, and they even carried swords.
    So fanatics, silly ones, or corrupted happen in every religion I guess, or those who pretend they follow.
     
  3. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    If it's just awareness you're talking about rather than understanding, then surely any theist would agree with you. Most theists think that human beings can be aware of God. Indeed some think that all human beings are aware of God, even if they don't realise that it's God they are aware of. Augustine, Malebranche, and Karl Rahner all argued extensively for this, in very different ways. There are plenty of people who believe that they are aware of God; indeed I know people who say they cannot imagine not being aware of God, and for whom atheism is quite literally a conceptual impossibility.

    Personally I don't see why there couldn't be an aspect of reality of which we unaware; of which perhaps we could not even in principle be aware of. As I said before, what's so special about the couple of kilograms of squidgy stuff in our heads that it's capable of awareness of every aspect of reality? It evolved to enable us to catch things and eat them, that's all.

    I don't really understand what you're arguing here. Is this what you think theists believe? Or what you think theists are committed to if they believe in God in the first place? Because I don't see how, on either score.

    For example, it's simply false to suppose that the only reason people pray is to try to get God to do things. The Christian tradition, at least, more typically holds that the purpose of prayer is to align your own will with that of God, not vice versa.

    This isn't really relevant to the issues about theism, but the theory you describe here is known as the "sense-data" theory. There was a time when it was fashionable among philosophers, or at least when it was fashionable to discuss it (I'm not sure quite how many people actually held it). It is very much out of favour these days. The reason is that it rests upon a basically invalid inference, namely:

    (1) When I look at the table, I perceive it via photons/mental images/whatever.
    (2) Therefore, the direct object of my perception is photons/mental images/whatever.

    The slide from (1) to (2) may appear attractive but it is not a valid inference. If I look at a horse through a window, the mere fact that I see it through the window does not entail either that I do not perceive the horse or that the direct object of my perception is the window. So the fact that we perceive external objects via the mechanisms to which you allude does not entail that we do not perceive those objects.

    A better way of looking at it is to suppose the appearance of external objects is determined, in part, by the mechanisms by which we perceive them (both outside and inside the body) and by our mental equipment, conceived broadly. Thus, the horse as I perceive it is partly my own creation. However, we should not be misled into thinking that there is a "horse as I perceive it", a sort of mental object, distinct from the real horse, which somehow exists inside my brain or my mind. An object of that kind is a "sense-datum" and probably doesn't exist. For one thing, consider: if the only things we ever perceive are these sense-data, and we never perceive external objects at all, how could we know anything about the external world, including the mechanisms of photons, eyeballs, and other external objects that supposedly bring about the existence of sense-data in the first place?

    It's because westerners typically associate religion with theism. The influence of Judaism and Christianity is so immense in the west that many westerners have enormous difficulty distinguishing between religion and theism, to the extent that they cannot accept the notion of non-theistic religions; to many westerners this is simply a contradiction in terms. Just look at how often, on these very fora, "atheism" is taken as synonymous with "lack of religion". "I'm not religious, I'm an atheist" - or the number times people insist that "atheism" should be a religion in Civ IV or in mods, as a representative of a lack of religion - as if "theism" were the same thing as religion! Of course, as it happens, neither theism nor atheism is identical with religion or a lack of it. Both theism and atheism are beliefs which may or may not feature as parts of the complex sociological phenomena which are religion. Buddhism, of course, has different strands which have such beliefs to varying degrees; but even where Buddhism features gods, they are not central to the religion, and there are versions of Buddhism which are to all intents and purposes atheistic. To the western mind, that means they're not religious at all.
     
  4. elenar

    elenar Deadman

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    It is my point of view on powerless aspect of the god.

    You miss my point. Whatever you perceive with senses is not the object itself. Senses give you information in specific way, different for every sense. Their information is combined, and every sense is like another dimension you can measure the object with.

    They give combined picture (like mass of colors, sound etc). To ditsinguish anything on that picture you create concept of object you are looking at, for example horse, tree, etc. You cut whole picture to pieces, then label those pieces. You can look closer at horse and find head, tail, etc, and create another objects. Then hair, eyes.. and so on.

    The way you distinguish those objects base on senses, and these only allow you to 'meassure' these objects, every sense being another dimesion in which you receive different data. This combined information gives you knowledge of the object (which is only created concept that allows you to separate it from the whole picture).
    All that combined knowledge relates to senses, that's why everything you know about the object reflects only data recorded with senses. It is like ever looking at the outside of the object and you never know what is inside. If you cut it in two then you will look at the outside of the two halfs, and so on.

    That's why the concept, object-we-created, becomes 'alive' when we reinforce it with imagined qualities, when we believe it exists.
     
  5. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I think I understand your point. I just don't agree with it. Certainly our senses colour how we perceive external objects; the point is that it doesn't follow from this that we don't perceive external objects. Nothing you have said entails this conclusion. Your conclusion is that the direct objects of perception - the things we actually see, hear, touch, taste, and smell - do not really exist outside our heads. And your argument for this is that these direct objects of perception are somehow created by the senses in order to be sensed. But it simply doesn't follow. For one thing, the direct objects of perception certainly do exist in some way. When I open my eyes, they appear, and when I close them, they disappear. I can choose to focus my gaze upon one or another as I like. So where are these objects? You say they are not the real external objects; they must, then, be inside my head or inside my mind. When I look at a brown horse, then, does part of my brain turn brown? Surely not. So where is the brown thing if it's not out there or in my brain?

    This is the kind of absurdity you get into when you assume that - just because our perceptual equipment determines how we perceive things - our perceptions are themselves objects, distinct from their external causes. (And yes, there have been people who have bitten the bullet and concluded that parts of the brain really do turn different colours when you look at different things.) If I put on rose-tinted spectacles and look at the horse, I see a pink horse. It doesn't follow from this that a new object, an object that looks like a pink horse, has sprung into existence in addition to the real horse itself. No - all that happens is that I see the horse, the real horse, but it looks pink to me. The key point here is that you don't have to believe in special intermediary objects of perception to account for this. To put it another way, when I see the horse looking pink, there are three possible ways of understanding this:

    (1) The horse itself has really turned pink.
    (2) There is a "pink horse" object, distinct from the real horse, and it is this that I see.
    (3) I see the real horse itself, but I see it as pink.

    (1) and (2) are both extreme views that are surely implausible. (3) is surely the correct way of understanding the situation.

    Similarly, with perception in general. My perceptual equipment - by which I mean both my physical senses and my mental hard-wiring which interprets them - is like the rose-tinted spectacles. When I perceive an external object, the very nature of my perceptual equipment means that I perceive it in a certain way, just as the rose-tinted spectacles mean that the horse looks pink even though it isn't really pink. So again, I can understand this in three different ways:

    (1) The external objects really have the appearance that they seem to have.
    (2) There are "appearance" objects, distinct from the real objects, and it is these that I see.
    (3) I perceive the real objects, but I perceive them as having the appearance that they seem to have.

    (1) is known as "naive realism" and is how we normally think in an everyday kind of way. You are insisting that (2) is true, but you don't seem to have an argument for it other than the fact that (1) is false. But you're overlooking the possibility of (3), which avoids the problems of both (1) and (2) while accommodating all our knowledge of how the world works. You just don't need these internal objects of perception which (2) posits. Indeed, as I said before, if (2) were true, we wouldn't have any knowledge of how the world works. We would be trapped in a "veil of perception" and be unable to determine the nature of external objects; all we would have would be sense-data.
     
  6. elenar

    elenar Deadman

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    It is not what I am saying. I didn't say direct objects of perception are created somehow by senses in order to be sensed. My point is, there is something there, but we don't know what. Senses tell you something is there, that's why you 'sort' what you see to different objects and you label those. Thus several conceptions start to exist. But it doesn't mean what we believe is there, is actually what we believe.

    There is no horse.
    If you look at human from atom's perspective, where is the human ? If you would ask atom to point out human, it would tell you: hey, human doesn't exist, you can see we are atoms, and there is nothing else bigger, as you can see there is space between us, that human you cannot point doesn't really exists. Now you would have to explain to atom that human is some bigger relation of atoms themselves, but the atom would laugh at you: hey, human is just imagined thing. The same way you could explain to human, that there is bigger being, and human is a part of it.
    So objects we believe exist are 'real' in our minds, because what we see with senses is limited to some perspective. While they appear solid, they are actually not if you look closer, and we are composed of something else. While we take ourselves as last step in this chain, it is not valid to assume we are actually not a part of something bigger, and it goes on.. maybe planet itself is actually like an atom forming something else ? We don't know. However, from atom's point of view, atom would be last step in chain, just like we believe we are. So everything we believe in does not exist independently, or, from certain point of view, doesn't exist at all. That's why it is in our minds where things exist as real, or alive.

    Actually I am saying (3). However, because of this appearance, we believe it is separate object and it exists.
    Actually, we are unable to determine the nature of external objects, because we rather examine nature of objects we believe in. Thus we are investigating our creations, rather than what is really there. And even though our perceptions are not distinct from their external causes, they do not allow us to direclty perceive nature of those, we see only their reflection (bouncing photons, flow of air wave, etc). And reflectiom itself is not real: if sound is translation of air vibrations into electric impulse, then does sound exist there if there is no one to hear it (no one with ears for air vibrations to be interpreted)?

    I think it is relevant. As far as I've noticed most of religions indirectly speak of 'what is there' and how to perceive it. Prophets actually seem to to teach the way to get there. Some cultures/religions refer to 'what is there' as: suchness, energy, spirit, or god.
     
  7. burleyman

    burleyman Chieftain

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    Dear Plotinus
    I’d be grateful to hear your opinion on the subject of metaphor in religious discourse; my view is that many apparent religious problems and disagreements can be usefully seen as confusions between literal and metaphorical modes of discourse. Of course in ordinary language we continuously slip between the literal and the metaphorical (and all points in between) while normally conveying meaning accurately enough, but in religious (and philosophical) discourse we create confusion. One might also call this ‘constructive ambiguity’ which can allow people to believe propositions which would lack credibility if plainly stated.
    An obvious example is the phrase ‘Son of God’. This has a straightforward meaning which any classical-era Greek or Roman would recognize – a God took human form, had sex with a human, and produced a child which typically had mixed human and divine attributes. No particular conceptual difficulties (pun intended). The ‘inclusive’ metaphorical version also makes perfect sense – we are all the Children of God in some vague sense. The problem comes with the Christian formulation ‘fully God and fully man’ which mixes the metaphorical and literal senses, becoming both poetic and irrefutable.
    I originally wrote ‘meaningless’ instead of ‘irrefutable’ but I’m not making the logical positivist point that all this kind of discourse is meaningless. My point on the contrary is that what people find meaningful and what persuades us is not the logical but the metaphorical and the poetic – we say it ‘speaks to us a deeper level’ or that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. In this sense the metaphorical aspect of religious discourse is deliberate, useful and persuasive.
    Another example can be seen in modern Paganism. I don’t know anyone who really believes that saying ‘Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Innana’ can actually make anything happen, or that these names correspond to actual beings who can impact the world, though presumably in earlier times people did believe in the actual existence of those Goddesses. What people today do find meaningful is the vaguer point of respecting nature and fertility through some sort of maternal principle of which the above are names that have been used historically, and which sound good if chanted in the right rhythm. This kind of sentimental, earth-respecting paganism makes reasonable sense as a poetic metaphor, avoiding the tedious theological superstructure that rather gets in the way of appreciating the beauty of Christianity.
    I suspect that religion is the limiting case of Lakoff’s thesis (Metaphors we live by) that we have to use metaphorical language when we start thinking abstractly because that is the way our brains are structured. What I mean is that whereas we can (with difficulty) philosophize without metaphors, we cannot theologize without metaphors – Peace has to be a dove, Jesus has to be a lamb, God has to be a logos (insert appropriate translation) or an old man with a beard, precisely because we cannot form a clear conception of anything transcendental or possessing infinite grace or infinite power or infinite anything else.
    It’s hard to boil this down into a specific question, but I guess I’m asking whether you agree that religious language needs to be metaphorical, and that a great deal of the confusion in religious discourse comes from a failure to distinguish between metaphorical and literal language.
     
  8. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    This is interesting stuff. It's not something I've particularly studied but I hope I can add something vaguely useful to what you've said.

    Actually, of course, the biblical meaning of "Son of God" is quite different: it merely means someone whom God favours. This is the meaning it takes in the Old Testament, where it can refer on occasion to all Hebrews, and it is the meaning that it takes in the Gospels. I must admit I don't actually know if this precise phrase was ever used in a pagan context with the meaning that you give.

    Well, the Christian belief that Christ was fully human and fully divine doesn't have any historical connection to the title "Son of God" for Jesus. What I mean is that it's not like Christians inherited the title "Son of God" and misunderstood it. Rather, belief in Christ's true divinity - and in his true humanity - developed among Christians for other, more doctrinally deep reasons (in short, because they thought that if he weren't fully divine and fully human then salvation would be impossible). Now as this understanding developed, Christians did come to misunderstand the title "Son of God". By the third or fourth centuries, Christian theologians typically explained the biblical title "Son of God" as a reference to Christ's divinity and the title "Son of Man" as a reference to his humanity. But I think the doctrine drove this interpretation - not the other way around.

    Putting this historical question to one side, there's the additional question whether the formulation "fully God and fully human" does mix the metaphorical with the literal as you suggest. I don't really see why one must interpret it in this way. Certainly the church fathers thought that it was quite literally true, that Christ really was literally fully divine and also literally fully human. They didn't mean it in any poetic sense, and they didn't think it was (in principle) irrefutable either, since they thought that there were many claims which, if true, would refute it. For example: Eutyches was condemned for his claim that the incarnate Christ had only a single nature, because it was believed that, if it were true that Christ had only a single nature, that would make it false that he was both fully human and fully divine. So it seems to me that the church fathers regarded this doctrine, like most doctrines, as a fairly straightforward claim about reality, which could in principle be shown to be false (although of course it could never really be shown to be false, since, they thought, it was true).

    Yes, you are right that religious discourse has non-cognitive aspects, which are part of its power. If I understand you correctly, you're suggesting that these non-cognitive aspects are associated with metaphor and poetic discourse and are inconsistent with cognitive aspects of language such as logic and propositional claims about the world. I don't think that's true. It seems to me that part of the richness and enduring power of religious discourse comes from the fact that it combines both of these elements (to varying degrees, of course). To keep the same example, when the Chalcedonian fathers laid down that Christ is fully human and fully divine, they meant that in a cognitive way - that is, they intended their statement to be read as a literal description of how things actually are. But of course they also meant it to have spiritual and imaginative power. They believed that it was true, in part, because it resonated with their own spiritual experience.

    Don Cupitt has argued for a separation of the metaphorical from the literal in a similar way to you. He uses the example of Descartes and Pascal. Descartes argued for the existence of God as a metaphysical reality, but he wasn't very religious. Pascal wasn't sure whether God existed at all, but he was passionately religious. For Cupitt, this illustrates the paradox that cognitive belief (i.e., belief that a certain proposition, such as "God exists", is true) hasn't got very much to do with religious faith, which is all about what mythological symbols such as the idea of God mean to you, and how you act in their light. But I don't think the argument really holds up. Descartes and Pascal are both extremes; most theologians have combined these two aspects. There are many figures who were just as committed as Descartes to the cognitive truth of propositions about an external God while also being just as passionate about it as Pascal.

    Actually there are plenty of people who think that chanting such things effect things in the real world; in fact I think that most neo-pagans believe this. The notion of magic as a real force is very important in modern paganism. Probably fewer pagans believe that names such as Isis or Diana denote actually existing, discrete, entities - but some do, surprising as that may seem. And I think that many, if not most, pagans today probably think that these names denote something outside the mind of the believer, even if it is not the god or goddess as traditionally conceived. They may, for example, think that they denote an aspect of God (or something like that).

    You're right though to bring up neo-paganism as an example of a religion where the emphasis is on the emotive power of religious language rather than on its cognitive meaning. The point I was just trying to make there is that it's not exclusively about the emotive power, at least not all the time. I have to say that in my view those elements of neo-paganism which focus on the emotive to the complete exclusion of the cognitive are all the weaker for it, just as those opposite forms of religion that focus on the cognitive to the complete exclusion of the emotive are all the weaker for that. The strongest and most enduring forms of any religion seem to me to be those that combine these two elements. The cognitive element gives structure to the faith, while the emotive element gives existential meaning and importance to the faith.

    Perhaps. I'm not sure. I'm also not sure if the term "metaphor" is exactly right for what you're saying. A metaphor is still cognitive. It says something that is literally true, although it does so in a veiled way. That is, if I say that X is Y, where Y is a metaphor, if Y is to have any meaning it must be possible to "cash it out" in terms of something that X is non-metaphorically. If I say that Richard is lion-hearted, that is a metaphor - but it has meaning because there is a quality that Richard and a lion both really have (i.e. courage and ferocity). A theologian would say that what you're talking about - peace as a dove, Jesus as a lamb, etc. - is not metaphor but myth. A metaphor is a statement ("X is Y") whereas myths are symbols which we may manipulate in a way that is similar to language, but we can do so without actually saying anything very clear at all.

    But I would still question whether religious discourse must work that way. That is only true if you assume that the object of religious discourse (God or whatever) is such that we can't talk about it in a non-metaphorical or non-mythological way. That may be the case, but one can't just assume it - one must give reasons for it.

    So I'd agree with the second part there but not the first - I think. But I'm willing to have my mind changed!
     
  9. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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  10. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Obviously my initial reaction to the article is that it must be a lie because it's in the Daily Mail. However it is obviously the case that religious belief, or a tendency towards religious belief, is very deeply rooted in the human psyche. Those who think that humanity is somehow heading towards a stage when all religion will cease to exist are, I think, simply deluding themselves. One thing that annoys me about futuristic space operas of the Asimov/Clarke variety is that they tend to include the claim that, in the enlightened galactic empires of tomorrow, religion will have become a historical curio. In fact there's not the slightest reason to suppose that this could ever happen.

    There's nothing new about this point either - it was the basic idea behind Schleiermacher's On religion: speeches to its cultured despisers, which obviously didn't put it in evolutionary terms but still argued that religion is a fundamental element of the way human beings perceive and engage with the world.

    I thought the bit about murderous associations was interesting. Until a couple of weeks ago we had a printer which my girlfriend got second-hand from a murderer and we weren't at all happy about having it in the house - although I didn't get around to actually replacing it until it broke down. So sometimes pragmatic considerations can override superstitious ones!
     
  11. burleyman

    burleyman Chieftain

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    Let me try to be clearer. I am asserting:
    1. That much confusion in religious discourse is caused by failure to distinguish clearly between literal and metaphorical/poetic language
    2. That use of metaphorical/poetic language is necessary in religious discourse because we can’t understand these ideas any other way
    3. That religion is an extreme case of our problems in understanding anything complex or conceptual without using metaphors or pictures
    4. That much of the persuasive power of religion comes precisely from its use of metaphor/poetic discourse; we believe because it is beautiful
    I think you accept the first proposition, though my examples were not very helpful (I won’t give up the day job). Perhaps a better example of the importance of looking carefully at whether literal or metaphorical language is being used is the various interpretations of ‘this is my body … this is my blood… do this in remembrance of me’. The lethal disagreements over transubstantiations and the real presence are at least at one level precisely about whether Jesus’ words are to be taken literally or as metaphor. In this case the metaphorical usage seems to make perfect sense – the bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ – and this isn’t totally different to my son wanting to play football in a Leeds United or a Real Madrid shirt. It’s symbolism and identification, with just a hint of sympathetic magic. On the other hand, the claim that the substance of the bread and wine is transformed in a way beyond human comprehension into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ is totally beyond me.
    I digress slightly, but this leads on to my second proposition. Religious language has to be metaphorical because it is talking about subjects beyond our comprehension. ‘God is a non-physical person’ – how are we supposed to understand this? ‘God sees everything’ – again, what can this mean? How does something without eyeballs see? For when we speak of God and that He sees everything, and when we kneel and pray to Him, all our terms and actions seem to be part of a great and elaborate allegory which represents Him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win, etc, etc. ...Thus in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be a simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first seemed to be a simile now seems to be mere nonsense. (Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics 1929).
    Of course this isn’t just an issue with Christianity, but of any attempt to utter true propositions about anything transcendent. ‘The other world’, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ is beyond space and time – how can we know whether propositions about it are true or false? Even metaphors don’t really work because, as you say (and Wittgenstein says, above) you have to be able to cash in a metaphor. Hence, although linguistically ‘The Lamb of Christ’ is a metaphor, it actually functions theologically, as you say, like a myth, an allegory or a picture.
    My third proposition may be a bit of an aside, because the reasons we use metaphors and pictures to describe complex reality seem to be different to the reasons why we have to use them to ‘describe’ the transcendental. Whereas it is logically impossible to describe the transcendental, in principle we can describe, say, string theory, but in practice we can’t. My friend who is a maths professor says that only the equations exist, the rest is pretty pictures. I see no reason to think that our minds can form a clear picture of even a small part of reality. We operate through pictures, allegories and rules of thumb, and there seems to be good evidence that our minds are hard-wired to reason through what I loosely called ‘metaphors’ – they are certainly so embedded in our languages as to mould the way we think.
    I think you accepted my last point, and it isn’t very controversial. However, I must pick you up on one point. You say ‘you are right that religious discourse has non-cognitive aspects, which are part of its power’. Actually I’m explicitly not describing the metaphorical and poetic parts of religious discourse as non-cognitive – my point is that they are (necessarily) part of the way we actually understand the world, how we know things, hence are very cognitive!
    I have been advised to read a book by Janet Soskice called ‘Metaphor and Religious Language’ which addresses these issues. Have you come across it?
     
  12. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

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    I asked this awhile ago, and you never answered: :cry:

    Do you see any sweeping trends or patterns in the history of religion or does it seem more like one damn divinity after another?
     
  13. Bill3000

    Bill3000 OOOH NOOOOOOO! Supporter

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    What is the scholarly opinion on the likelihood of Peter being the first Bishop of Rome?

    Or, for that matter, Apostolic succession?
     
  14. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

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    If this is so, then why am I not religious?

    If you say that I am religious or quasi-religious, then I ask when you that you say:

    What is different between my quasi-religion and what these space operas say?

    If you say I'm not religious, then why couldn't society end up beign sort of like me?
     
  15. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Yes, obviously the disagreement here is over whether the words should be understood literally or metaphorically. However, I'm not convinced by what you say about it. First, it seems to me that a literal meaning is perfectly comprehensible. I have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding the claim that, in the Mass, the bread and wine are transformed into the real body and real blood of Jesus, although their perceptible properties remain exactly the same. Of course I don't think that that actually happens, but I understand the claim that it does. Second, even if I couldn't understand the literal sense, that wouldn't in itself rule it out as the correct interpretation. Just because I can't understand something, that doesn't mean that this wasn't the original intention. Perhaps whoever formulated the doctrine understood the world in a very different way from me. In the case of the words of institution, I don't know whether there's much chance of determining - as a purely historical question - what Jesus meant by them, even assuming he said them in the first place. However, it seems plausible to me to suppose that the literal/metaphorical disjunction doesn't exhaust all the ranges of meaning available to a first-century Jew. Remember that this was said at a Passover meal (on the Synoptic timing, anyway - John thinks the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, but then he doesn't have the words of institution), where Jews believed (and, as far as I know, still do believe) that they become really identified in some more-than-purely-metaphorical but still less-than-entirely-literal way with their forefathers who participated in the Exodus. The notion of "symbol" was much richer and more real to the ancient mind than it is to the modern one. If we say that something is meant symbolically, we normally mean to draw attention to the difference between the symbol and the thing symbolised - but in antiquity, the intent would have been to draw attention to the similarity or even, in some sense, the identity.

    I don't really follow the argument. Yes, if we say God sees something, then it seems that we must be speaking metaphorically if we think that the literal meaning of "see" refers to physical vision. So almost everyone would agree that there's metaphor being used there. But because we understand what the statement means, we can rephrase it non-metaphorically - e.g. "God knows everything that happens". The very fact that the original statement has meaning allows us to cash it out in a literal statement. So I don't see how this is evidence that religious language has to be metaphorical.

    And I don't understand why the other example you give has to be understood metaphorically at all. "God is a non-physical person" seems to me to have a perfectly plain literal meaning: God is a person, that is, a rational individual, and he is not physical, that is, he is not extended in space like corporeal objects. I think I understand that perfectly well. Whether it describes a true situation is of course another matter.

    A statement can be literally true without being exhaustively true, of course. It may be that God transcends our reason and we cannot really understand anything about him, but I don't see why that in itself means we can't say anything literally true about him. We could, at the very least, say that he transcends our reason and we can't understand him, and that would be literally true. We could of course also say many things that are literally true of God if we restrict ourselves to what he isn't (e.g. "God is not a stone" is surely literally true, at least if you're not a pantheist of some kind).

    So he says anyway! But why believe this? Why suppose that there are literally no facts about things like God? It would follow from this that the statement "God exists" and "God does not exist" are actually saying exactly the same thing, and each is equally true (or untrue, or in fact, meaningless). Now Wittgenstein did think that, and so did the members of the Vienna Circle who were influenced by him, and other logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer. But these views are widely rejected by philosophers today for a number of reasons, including the fact that they lead to conclusions that are surely absurd. Surely there is a difference between saying that God exists and that God doesn't exist.

    That's a different issue, though. Whether or not we can know a statement to be true doesn't have any bearing on whether it has a literal meaning, pace the logical positivists. Moreover, I don't see how this supports the claim that all religious language is metaphorical. Let's agree that we can never know the truth value of statements about the kingdom of heaven taken literally. Well, how can we know the truth value of statements about the kingdom of heaven taken metaphorically? Indeed, if they're metaphorical, their meaning is less clear. Doesn't that make it even harder to know whether they are true or false?

    Right! So it's not a metaphor. It's a mythological symbol. That's not the same thing. That may be a niggle though - the key point is that, in my view, not all religious language is of this kind.

    Fair enough - when I say "cognitive" I mean containing some kind of intelligible content that can be expressed propositionally. That is, factual (or apparently factual) claims about how the world actually is.

    I think I've come across it but I haven't read it.

    I thought I did answer this - apologies if not. I would say that I don't know enough about the history of religion in general to answer. I think that some kinds of trends seem to repeat themselves - for example, polytheism tending to develop into some kind of monotheism, and monotheism tending to splinter into something resembling a functional polytheism - but these are only very rough generalisations. I think history is too dependent upon contingent particulars for there to be really repeatable trends, or to put it another way, any Seldon plan will inevitably founder at the hands of innumerable Mules.

    There's no good early evidence that Peter had much to do with Rome - all the New Testament references to him put his centre of activities in Jerusalem, with James. However, there is also no good evidence that he didn't go to Rome and act as a Christian leader there, and really there's no particular reason to doubt this or the tradition that he died in Rome in the mid-60s, together with Paul, during Nero's persecution.

    Whether that would make him bishop of Rome is another matter and really depends on what you mean by "bishop". The monarchical episcopate - the system in which a church in a given city was ruled by a single bishop, assisted by various priests and deacons - had not really emerged in the 60s of the first century, and only gradually developed over the following decades, at a different pace in different places. In fact there is some evidence that it developed particularly slowly in Rome, making it hard to talk about "the bishop" of Rome at any point before the end of the second century. In the late second century, for example, we are told that the modalist Noetus was examined by a panel of "presbyters" who expelled him from the church, implying that even at that late stage the Roman church was ruled by a group rather than by a single person. (The disputes between Callistus and Hippolytus a decade or two later may reflect something similar, perhaps tensions caused by the transition from a presbyterian model of leadership to an episcopal one, but that's just speculation.) So to call anyone before the end of the second century "the bishop of Rome" is probably to use the title at least in an anachronistic way. If Peter was "bishop of Rome" in any sense, it was in the sense of being a major figure in the church there - perhaps, in the absence of any other apostles in the city, the leader of the Christians there - but we shouldn't suppose that he had any special titles or anything at the time in virtue of this.

    You'll have to say more precisely what you mean by that.

    I don't know. You tell me! But why's it relevant? You're not most people, are you?

    I didn't say it couldn't, merely that it very probably won't. The reason is that that just isn't the way that people, taken collectively, work. Of course for any generalisation you make about human beings there will be exceptions. Most human beings want to have children, but some don't. Most human beings think it important to act in at least a minimally thoughtful way towards others, but some don't. Most human beings dislike pain, but some don't. And so on and so forth. Anyone who is unusual in any of these ways or any other might ask why people in general aren't like that, or what's to stop people in general from becoming like that, but it's a futile question. That's just not how people are. Now some such generalisations can change over history, of course. But I don't see any reason to think that human beings, as a whole, are becoming any less religious than they used to be, or indeed any more religious. It seems to me to have been pretty much a constant pretty much always. Of course it's hard to tell, partly because we might disagree over what counts as being "religious". One might say, for example, that in certain twentieth-century societies, ways of thinking or acting that would in the past have been expressions of religious thinking instead occurred in a secular context - for example, devotion to the Communist cause in the Soviet Union or something like that. But that would just be an argument about how to classify things. I think that if you really believed there is a good chance of people in general ceasing to be religious you'd have to come up with some very good evidence for the claim.
     
  16. burleyman

    burleyman Chieftain

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    You have demonstrated that there are some propositions with the word ‘God’ in them that can be taken literally, are meaningful and can even be said to be true eg ‘God, if he exists, is beyond our understanding’ and ‘God is not a stone’. Fine. I strongly agree with the first proposition (though I would say it is a proposition about theology, not a theological proposition) and the second is trivial; neither are exactly the meat and drink of discussion about God, substantive utterance about God. That is normally couched in terms that a linguist would call metaphorical, but which theologians apparently prefer to call symbolic or mythological. What am I trying to drive at is why that is so, and whether that tells us anything about how our limited minds try to understand such difficult topics.
    My main conclusion is that ‘meaning’ in religious matters is not really about being able to assign a truth value to a proposition, but whether the metaphor/symbol/allegory works for us ie it functions like poetry, not like physics. You ask why metaphorical statements should be easier to give a truth value to than literal ones but this is missing the point – we do not understand religious claims by assigning a truth value to them, but by ‘assimilating’ the metaphor – that is why they are easier to understand. You claim to have a clear understanding of the Real Presence and of what a non-corporeal person would be like, and you may even have a coherent conception of what infinite power might mean, but I don’t and I have never met anyone who actually believed in these concepts AND understood them – the standard answer is that given to Cardinal Newman ‘think less and pray more’. This supports my view that such religious propositions are ‘understood’ and assented to at a different level, which has more to do with aesthetics than with propositional logic.
    Incidentally I entirely accept your point that ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ are not exhaustive categories even within contemporary English discourse, let alone when referring back to what people may have meant and understood 2000 years ago in very different linguistic and cultural settings. Perhaps it was a mistake to use the word ‘metaphor’ at all, as it really doesn’t matter to my point whether a particular utterance looks today like a metaphor, a simile or a symbol (that may in any case be due to the whim of a translator). The root meaning I am after is more like ‘constructive, persuasive ambiguity’; talking about something we don’t understand in terms of something we do understand, and persuading us that the link is real. This does seem to be a feature of religious discourse. I’d better read Janet Soskice’s explanation and defense of this usage.
     
  17. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

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    Well, I'm like most people in many respects. Sure there are probably some traits of me that have led me more than others to take a nonreligious perspective, but that does not mean that under the right conditions most wouldn't have turned out like me.

    How the heck does that does that render the question futile?

    Well, when you define religion to make such things as communism fit, then why would you exclude humanist belief systems as alluded to here?
    I mean wouldn't such a humanist system depicted in these stories constitute a religion by your metric? Is it not feasible for that which we characterize as "religion" today (belief in Christian/Islamic/Hindu/etc mythology) might be in general looked upon in the same way most of us look upon Incan mythology?

    What do you find particularly irksome about the above picture? Is it just the use of the word "religion", or do you find something more deeply flawed in their vision?


    Or are you just irked that come year 3000 you'll be out of a job?
     
  18. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    Perfection, if you believe that religion is merely a social or cultural add-on that we picked up during our climb to civilization, then it could fade away, but if you believe that there is a deeper genetic or other evolutionary component to religion then it is less likely to go away; it will just change as we continue to develop our ourselves.

    The foundations of your world view always shape how you see the world and its future.
     
  19. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

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    Well, I think a lot of this boils down to the term "religion", obviously everyone is always going to have strong opinions and worldviews, deeply held beliefs, and even irrational beliefs. What I don't buy is that this constitutes religion or that some sort of atheistic humanism dominated future is particularly implausible.
     
  20. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Well then, take the Trinitarian claim that God is three persons in one substance, which certainly is more central than the claim that God is not a stone. I don't think that that is intended metaphorically at all. When philosophical theologians discuss claims of this kind, they typically take "person" to be quite literally that - a person - and "substance" to be quite literally that as well. They use these terms in the same way in which they are used in non-theological metaphysics, and they mean to say that God is quite literally three persons in quite literally one substance. Now it may be that ultimately that claim is incoherent, but that does not mean that it is not meant literally.

    All I can say to that is that you need to talk to a wider range of people then! I know plenty of people who believe these things in a perfectly literal way, and these are people from all parts of the theological spectrum. I think that the average conservative evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox believer would interpret these statements in a straightforwardly literal way. Of course there will be people who don't, but I don't think that they represent an overwhelming majority as you imply.

    I didn't say I had a clear understanding of what a non-corporeal person would be like or indeed how transubstantiation would work, only that I understand the literal meaning of the doctrines. I know what a person is; I know what being physical is; it's therefore a simple matter to know what is meant by the term "a non-physical person". It's a person who isn't physical! That is, an entity that has thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and so on, and which perceives the world and acts upon it but without using or being tied to a particular chunk of matter. It doesn't follow from that that I can imagine it or know what such a person would really be like; it doesn't even follow that such a thing is possible at all.

    I should add that the "Real Presence" is not the same as transubstantiation - it is merely the belief that Christ is present during the Eucharist, not necessarily that the elements are transformed into him. Calvinists believe in the Real Presence but not in transubstantiation.

    Maybe they would, but again, that's not the question. The question is whether it is reasonable to suppose that these "right conditions" will ever hold for the vast majority of human beings, or even a majority at all, or indeed even a sizeable minority. They never have. They show no signs of doing so in the future. So why suppose it?

    When I said "futile" I meant of no practical value, since it's probably impossible to change. Of course that doesn't mean it's of no theoretical interest. No doubt I should have expressed myself more precisely.

    I didn't say communism counted as a religion. I only said that one might hold that ways of behaving which had once acted as expressions of religion may, in other societies, act as expressions of other beliefs or movements instead. That seems to me self-evidently true but it doesn't mean that those other beliefs or movements can be counted as religions! More importantly, though, I would say that communism, or at least some forms of it, have more in common with religion than humanist belief systems. It can take forms that revolve less around rational distributive justice and more around loyalty, reverence, even what is effectively liturgy. Just look at Juche, which is sometimes actually classified as a religion. To my mind, a future utopian humanism isn't really a religion because it lacks enough of the elements that normally make up religions. So to sum up: I wouldn't call communism a religion. However, to the extent that it resembles a religion, it does so in virtue of features that humanism doesn't have.

    But why? These are cute ideas, but don't you have anything to support them?

    A bit of both really. Consider the following, which is from Songs of distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke. Moses Kaldor, a learned scholar from Earth, explains to Mirissa, a human being who has grown up in an artificial society on a planet where religion has been carefully excluded from their knowledge, what it's all about:

    What's wrong with this picture? First, the portrayal of religion as mostly wicked or deleterious. Kaldor is prepared to accept that in prehistoric times religion might have done more good than bad, but takes it absolutely given that overall it's done far more harm than good. That just isn't borne out by any objective study of history, which I think demonstrates only that when people do something with a religious motive, they do it more energetically than when they don't - and that applies whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. Religion makes bad things worse and good things better, but ultimately human beings are either good or bad anyway, and religion doesn't change that.

    Second, the assumption that religion is all about God of one kind or another, which we've talked about enough here in the past. The idea seems to be that if you get rid of God, that's the end of religion - clearly an absurd supposition once you learn to look beyond western monotheisms.

    Third, the assumption that reason can disprove God. I suppose this is a more forgiveable assumption if we're thinking in a sci-fi context where the author can imagine that certain advances in knowledge have been made, but still there's no reason to suppose that this is ever going to happen in the real world! The arguments given are, incidentally, very weak. I've no doubt that, statistically speaking, just as many bad things happen as good, but that doesn't disprove God in the slightest, any more than the existence of bad things at all disproves God. It just means that, if God exists, he doesn't cause only good things or a preponderence of good things to occur. And, of course, theists have since antiquity had explanations for why God might allow bad things to happen; whether these explanations are any good or not, they have been enough to preserve belief in God so far, and the statistical analysis described in the book wouldn't make them any worse. The Godel argument is no better. For a being to be omniscient means only that that being knows everything that it's logically possible to know. If it is a logical impossibility to know more than a certain amount, then that amount is what an omniscient being knows. If the Godel argument shows anything it shows only what omniscience involves, not that omniscience is impossible. Plus, of course, there are plenty of theists who don't believe that God is omniscient at all.

    Fourth, and more importantly, the assumption that if philosophers did disprove God's existence, the vast majority of people would stop believing in God. To my mind this is the wildest part of the whole thing! Are we supposed to think that, at some time in the future, humanity will suddenly stop behaving irrationally and believe only what philosophers tell them is plausible? Because they certainly don't behave like that right now. The forces of unreason are marshalled as strongly throughout the world - from the nutty Bible Belters in America who think evolution is a liberal conspiracy to those countries in Africa where people are killed for witchcraft on a regular basis - and if these people aren't persuaded by philosophical or scientific arguments now, I don't see why they should be in the future.

    Now can we call the humanistic philosophy of Moses Kaldor "religion"? Well, maybe we can and maybe we can't. If you want to call it a religion then fine, the book portrays only a world in which traditional religions have been superseded by a new kind of religion. If you don't, then it portrays a world in which religion in general has passed away and been replaced by something different. What you want to call it doesn't really matter; my point is that this picture is wildly implausible. There's just no evidence that it is likely at all, for the reasons given.

    I'm a historical philosopher - it doesn't make the slightest difference to me what people believe now, because I only study what people believed in the past. Besides, I'll be out of a job in a fortnight anyway. 3000 can take care of itself.
     
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