Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Feel for the Real

I've been comparing the 90s to the 00s ("aughts"??) in my head lately. The idea that it was ten years ago that we moved into the Richmond house is just flooring me. Anyway, one thing I notice is that whereas the nonchristian opinion-making class was getting more and more interested in new agey spirituality in the 90s, now that class is being led by an aggressive move to explain things out of evolutionary biology. And when I say explain things, I mean things that are doubtfully explicable that way, like human love relationships, and things that are certainly inexplicable that way, like the coming to an understanding of two minds. Part of what I find interesting is the change from the 90s attempt to see how much of reality is stuff we make up, and the intense desire to ground beliefs in "real" reality external to us and our agendas. There are many facets here, of which perhaps I will write more anon, but atheists want something besides us to be the grounds of why we are as we are, and currently Darwinism of a certain sort is what they're trying out. And the religious want a real god with meat on his bones, so to speak. Science and religion? Science as religion, religion as science...? God

This in turn reminds me of something about how we talk about all this stuff.

One of the things that all-time weirdo-Austrian and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein contributed was a quote to the effect that we should not allow ourselves to be bewitched by our own language. One, maybe (Wittgenstein is difficult), of the things that means is something like this: that things do not have to be what we call them.

In the first instance, this means the Escape from Monolingualism. Spanish people don't know that the yellow fruit is a banana, but just perversely insist on calling it a platano (sp?) or whatever. It is what it is regardless of what, and indeed, whether, anyone calls it anything at all.

But next this means that our words do not imprison reality. Reality can shrug off our labels any time it wants. So if we have in our mind that a certain demographic term--a racial or gender term, for instance--entails other stuff, like intelligence or morals or culture of a certain kind, then guess what? We will meet someone who matches the demographic but not the associations our word has for that. Stereotypes aren't utterly groundless, usually, but they almost always fail at the individual level.

Moreover, Wittgenstein's comment means that maps are smaller than the things they map. Stephen Wright has a nice routine about a map of his city he had that the scale on it was 1:1: one inch equals one inch. He said it was very accurate, but kind of hard to carry around. So the things we have words for can be more than the words. For instance, we know that "light" is a word that applies to the electromagnetic wave spectrum; that there are parts of the spectrum that we can't see with the kinds of eyes that we have, but which can be detected and might be visible to other kinds of lifeforms with different sorts of "eyes." Same for sound, notoriously (dogs and high pitches).

But the bigger deal, here, is of course that we also have words for "realities beyond our words," and the point is that even here, the reality that these words point to doesn't have to conform to them. In talking about the gaps in our ability to explain the world, a word like "gaps" means, in this context, what we can't explain. But if we ever experience or figure out what it is that is in those gaps, it won't be a "gap," it'll be a...somethingorother. More importantly: Whoever God is, (insert correct pronoun here) doesn't have to be what we think a god is. He can be more just, or kinder, or anything at all (he) wants. The very pronoun problem itself (which some African languages don't have) is an indicator; it may not be wrong to call God "he," but what we mean by "male" can't be all we mean by God, even vis-a-vis gender, sex, and related matters. And a word like "energy"? Well, as far as I can tell that is, like "god," a throwing up of the hands and surrendering before reality. It means, roughly, "we have no idea what, exactly, but something is going on here."

The difference, linguistically, between "god" and "energy" is, in this respect, that energy is the thing utterly beyond us which we measure; God is the thing utterly beyond us that we talk to.