Tag Archives: Knowledge

Language games

Language is a game. We all play it. We can bend its rules. But if we break the rules too frequently, we are no longer playing the agreed game; we are playing a different game. Only others who are initiated into that game and familiar with its rules will be able to successfully play with you. Those who have played the card game “Mao” know something of what I’m talking about.

These are more or less the ideas of Wittgenstein anyway. And this all makes sense to me: I think it’s a fitting description of what language is: twin systems of rules (grammar) and pieces (words) that we manipulate in order to communicate meaning.

I’m starting to think of this in other ways too, now. Even my studies and the disciplines encompassing them are language games. Cynics would say that’s all they are (I entertain this cynical sentiment in Rough Day).

I write to say that I’m learning to play those games. And, actually, I think this is a good thing. Even if we’re merely spinning words that don’t affect anything outside, I’m learning what the rules of the games are and how to play them. I hope I’m even beginning to succeed, start winning.

This sounds really cynical but I don’t mean it that way. I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps helpful insight to fellow students, that one way to think of our task is that we need to become fluent in the language of our disciplines. That requires gathering all the right pieces, knowing all the rules and beginning to learn strategy, effective combinations and moves.

Who are we playing with? Our peers and future colleagues, and teachers. I can’t say there are no losers. There are. When someone destroys another’s argument, book, or opus using his own words, that is a major loss. Ouch. I don’t know what you can do after that, but fortunately that’s not for me to worry about yet. However, the objective is not necessarily to squash the competition; there can be room (somewhere…) for them and they are needed, too (to write the top review for the book jacket of your next book).

There is a comfort in knowing that (in one sense) it’s all a game as well. Playing does not require you to believe in or love the game. You just have to be good at it. Which is what I’m hoping to do. For now. And if I’m not good, if I’m not “picked”, there are other games I can play. I must take hope in this.

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The religion of Naturalism

Every worldview necessarily has presuppositions that can only be accepted by presuppositions canonical to that worldview. Jenny believes God exists because she believes the authority of Scripture and testimony of others; she believes those witnesses are trustworthy because they exalt the name of God. George believes god does not exist because he believes certain philosophers’ words on the matter; he believes those philosophers because they don’t posit anything as ridiculous as a god. These are facile examples but I really think all reasoning and argument is ultimately circular.

Naturalism itself is a kind of religion. It has…

A myth of origin: evolutionary, non-Big-Bang theory science

A definition of the human “problem”: insufficient knowledge, superstition, ignorance

A salvific event: the Enlightenment

A church: the secular academy

Prophets: the philosophes, e.g. Voltaire; other philosophers; Darwin and other scientists

A means of redemption: rejection of theism, superstition, and ignorance

A trajectory: death after life but hopefully progress and prosperity for future generations

As a skeptic, I cannot even accept a system like Naturalism except as another form of religion.

And unfortunately, skepticism has its own problematic presupposition: that nothing can be known for certain, which is self-defeating, because if nothing can be known for certain, then we can’t know for certain that nothing can be known for certain and thus that presupposition is nonsense.

What I must accept is that life is mystery. In fact, no one knows very much. And little to nothing for certain. So I’m no less able to know what the hell is going on than anyone else. And that’s OK. At least, I need to try to be okay with that ambiguity.

Intellectual Arrogance

Another problem I have been musing about is people’s intellectual arrogance.

Both Christians and atheists, and even I as an agnostic, feel they hold some special knowledge over other groups. For example, Christopher Hitchens writes in ch. 5 of god is Not Great “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on”. While many would sympathize with him and this notion, the arrogance seems painfully obvious to me. He is claiming that, as opposed to before, we actually understand our world now: the age of reason with its empiricism and naturalism has ushered in that long awaited special gnosis (knowledge) to reveal truth and falsehood. I don’t think empiricism is fundamentally flawed, but have not advances in physics revolutionized our understanding of things even in the past 100 years? And more than once, if I am right — relativity, than quark and string theories? I know so little of physics, but I know enough to appreciate that there will always be new evidence, new ways of interpreting and understanding what we observe. To think we “get it” now, or at any age in any culture, is hubris.

One need not look far for the same sentiments, about having that special knowledge, among Christians. That Christians “get it”, have the truth about reality, is a basic presupposition on which all the my faith communities of my life have operated. Were it not so, where would the compulsion to evangelize come from?

Why is this intellectual arrogance problematic? It keeps us from listening to one another. This happens to me frequently, in many topics. I think I really know what I’m talking about and thus don’t care to really listen to what the other person has to say. This belief ends up hurting me and my conversation partner because instead of speaking to them I end up speaking past them. I imagine we all have experienced or done this, certainly with strangers (emphasis on strange, right?) but even with friends and family members. Instead of being open to and receiving new insights, we preclude even their existence.

There are other problems with intellectual arrogance. I would love to hear what you think they are. In closing I would add an exhortation given by my undergrad philosophy teacher: that we strive for intellectual humility. He thought that Jesus himself possessed and demonstrated this virtue. I think whether I am religious or not I would benefit from it.

Questions: A) Do our basic beliefs (truth comes from revelation/truth comes from empirical measurements/truth might come from both) necessarily make dialogue futile? B) If not, how do people making truth claims (there is a/no god) also truly hear and engage observations, interpretations and arguments from another group, without prejudice? C) Discussing faith, how far can one concede arguments to an opponent and still maintain her basic positions?