20 March 2008

All the Facts, None of the Meaning

I’ve looked over my last post after doing some reading this past week, and I’m convinced I could be a bit more specific about what exactly is at stake with the “science and faith” controversy as it’s being presented in the public square. Specifically, towards the end of the post, I allude to the Regensburg address and Benedict’s insistence that the contemporary self-limitation of reason is a disastrous move. Allow me to quote briefly from the address to make clear the point to which I refer:
… [to the modern mind] only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.
In this post, I’d like to take a closer look at what this “reduction in radius” feels like in more specific terms. Over the last few days, I had a feeling that I should be able to explain just what Benedict (and countless other thinkers) mean by this self-limitation language. It was in this mindset that I came across an old favorite: Lewis’ essay on what he calls “transposition,” published in a collection of some of his best addresses entitled The Weight of Glory. Lewis managed to do in this essay exactly what I wanted to convey, so what follows is more or less a summary of this lucid little piece, with comments and reformulations of my own interspersed throughout. If what you read here is of the least interest to you, I advise you to run to the nearest bookstore and purchase a copy. It makes for fantastic (and quite relevant) reading.

The occasion of his remarks is Pentecost Sunday, and he chooses to highlight an odd theme to preach upon: the gift of speaking in tongues. It is a case that is quite difficult for the Christian to explain in supernatural terms, for while we must accept the miraculous nature of the apostles’ preaching in languages unknown to them on that day in Jerusalem so long ago, nevertheless most contemporary instances of this strike many of us as embarrassing and unrelated to the real substance of our faith. No doubt there are true movements of the Holy Spirit in this charismatic gift, but it is also likely that sometimes it is nothing more than a bad case of nervous energy being spontaneously discharged. 

At this point, the skeptic steps forward to invoke Occam’s razor. “Why,” he intones, “would it be reasonable to accept multiple explanations for one phenomenon—namely, the pronunciation of gibberish while in a state of ecstasy? Would it not be much more reasonable to say that a purely physical explanation which holds in most cases holds in all of them? Can we not dispense with the supernatural entirely?” Caught between the given of revelation and the plausible reductionism of the skeptic, the Christian may start to feel a little warm under the collar and start asking himself how important is this speaking in tongues stuff is, anyway.

Well, regardless of what you think about speaking in tongues, this difficulty can apply to any number of different things within the Christian worldview, for it is one case in a whole class of similar difficulties. Certainly the sacraments, being the use of natural signs to signify and effect supernatural realities, would be susceptible to this objection. Christian language about heaven is filled with references to purely natural, physical realities. The seven "infused" virtues have the same names and descriptions as their natural counterparts. We hear this language in other circles as well, such as among those who conjecture about the place of humanity in the cosmos: when all is said and done, isn’t human existence just a particularly refined and complex animal existence? Isn’t all this talk of a soul and of spiritual existence just a poetic and metaphorical way of describing our highly developed powers of tool making and communication, which we share with the animals?

Lewis summarizes,
Put in its most general terms, our problem is that of the obvious continuity between things which are admittedly natural and things which, it is claimed, are spiritual; the reappearance in what professes to be our supernatural life of all the same old elements which make up our natural life and (it would seem) of no others.
To refute the skeptic, Lewis seeks a case in which all would recognize that the simple explanation, which is plausible at first glance, is false. Lewis finds his case within the emotions and their physical manifestations, a realm common to the experience of all. Most would acknowledge that one and the same physical reaction may result from different emotional states: that unsettled feeling in the chest is present not only after successfully asking a girl out on a date but also after receiving a piece of horrible news about a loved one or getting caught in telling a boldfaced lie. The one physical reaction is both delightful and anguishing depending upon the emotional state that accompanies and gives rise to it.

Furthermore, the physical sensation is not merely a sign of the emotion, but is wrapped up in the emotion itself, truly becoming what it signifies. There is not only continuity between them but an overlap, a mingling. Here, then, we have a similar situation to our class of difficulties listed above in which the natural and (allegedly) supernatural are very closely tied, indeed so closely tied that it is quite reasonable to dismiss the supernatural as a figment. Yet in our present case, no one would deny that while emotional states are of a higher order than physical sensations (in the sense that the emotions are a more complex and richly varied phenomenon than the physical sensations that carry them), they are nonetheless real. What conclusions can we draw from this example?

In the emotional life, a more complex system (emotion) must be expressed through a less complex medium (the nervous system). Because there cannot be a one-to-one correspondence between elements of the two systems, linking every emotional state with its own peculiar nervous reaction in the body, multiple emotions must be associated with one and the same physical sensation. Hence, the same tight feeling in the chest I described above accompanies both delight and anguish. It is this “expression” of a more complex, “higher” system in a lower one that Lewis calls transposition.

A few examples might be of assistance here. When a language with 22 vowel sounds has only 5 vowel characters available to it, multiple sounds must be assigned to each character in order for the spoken language to be fully represented in writing. In an orchestral composition that is transposed for the piano, the notes originally played by flutes, violins, and oboes must be the notes of only one instrument in its transposed form. 

The example of drawing was especially helpful to me. In order to represent a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional piece of paper, one must use what artists call “perspective,” which means that one and the same shape must be able to represent multiple realities; a triangle must be able to represent both a dunce cap and a straight road receding into the distance. 

What if you tried to explain to someone who had never heard English spoken that each written character a, e, i, o, and u could refer to multiple sounds? There’s no reason to think otherwise based on the characters on the page. What if someone listening to a piano piece originally composed for an orchestra had never heard an instrument other than the piano, and doubted the existence of other instruments? All the talk in the world would never convince her that the performance on piano was merely a hint of the symphony it imitated. And if one could imagine a creature that existed entirely in two dimensions examining the lines of a drawing (if you’re having trouble, it was wonderfully imagined by the author of Flatland, from which this blog takes its name), even an initial openness to the idea of third dimension would soon be deflated when all the evidence for it was just the same old lines and shapes. Lewis steps into this perspective for a moment and speaks convincingly from the skeptic’s corner:
You keep telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn’t it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one?
In short, one can never understand the higher system when one approaches it from below. It is only when one understands the higher system or medium that its expressions in the lower one make sense; it is a prior acquaintance with them from the inside that renders them intelligible in their less complex expressions. It is only because we live in a three-dimensional world that two-dimensional drawings make sense to us.

Hence, the skepticism we encountered with regard to speaking in tongues makes sense, and is exactly what one would expect when approaching a supernatural reality “from below.” For confining oneself to the lower system or medium prevents one from ever moving beyond the most simplistic, reductionistic explanations from the outset.

Of course, none of this is to argue for the existence of the supernatural; the point is merely that the sorts of objections we do get from contemporary materialists are just the sort we should expect to get, for by consciously limiting themselves to the material, materialists render themselves unable to move beyond the material. We should not be surprised, then, when we hear claims (such as the one above) which insisted that humans are nothing more than highly developed beasts. For, when considering the expression of a highly complex system (the mind) in its less complex physical substrate (the brain), it will always—ALWAYS—be possible to deny that there is any real difference between the two as long as a purely naturalistic explanation is the criterion for all truth.

It is as if a man falls in love with a woman and suffers terribly after a stormy breakup. In his grief, be begins to look over the relationship and start to pick it apart. Though the love was real enough while he was in the midst of it, his examination in hindsight started to reveal her flaws and selfishness as well as his own imperfect motives. These, too, were real; yet if in order to dull the pain of his loss he chooses to ignore what was good about their love and dwell only upon what was shameful, soon enough that’s all his memories will contain, no matter what the reality of the situation might have been. His mistake is to consider the results of his analysis as truer than his experience.

Here we have the crux of the “self-limitation of reason” of which Benedict speaks. In a conscious effort to understand the world, it is possible to temporarily bracket all cumulative knowledge and start afresh with the plan to consider only what can be verified by experiment—that is, to look at reality from below, from within the framework of material existence. This is a perfectly valid way to approach the world; it is the scientific method. If, in the course of a long process of discovery that illuminates a great deal about reality, one forgets that this method is only a tool and not an end in itself, and begins insisting that there is nothing more to understand than what this method reveals, well, there isn’t much that can be done, for to him it will always be perfectly reasonable. As Lewis notes, “It is no good browbeating the critic who approaches a Transposition from below. On the evidence available to him his conclusion is the only one possible.” He has locked himself in a prison of his own making and thrown away the key. 

I will leave you with the author’s final analogy. It is a powerful one, and accurately diagnoses the impasse at which we find ourselves in the current exchanges over science versus faith. Perhaps you have tried to point out to a dog a piece of food lying out of his sight. Instead of looking where you point, he sniffs your finger. The world of the dog is all fact and no meaning, and it is precisely this habit of mind that a significant and vocal portion of the world induces upon itself. What does this mean for our continuing dialogue between faith and reason?
As long as this deliberate refusal to understand things from above, even when such understanding is possible, continues, it is idle to talk of any final victory over materialism. The critique of every experience from below, the voluntary ignoring of meaning and concentration on fact, will always have the same plausibility. There will always be evidence, and every month fresh evidence, to show that religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry.
Chesterton, too, was an articulate defender of the power of reason to plumb the depths of reality when set free from the restrictive boundaries set by modernity upon itself. Disgusted with the reductive and impoverished anthropology and cosmology that sprung from the loins of the scientific revolution, he sought to portray for the materialist the real mistakes he was making.
He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love, or fear upon the sea. (Orthodoxy)
We are very much accustomed to accepting explanations for things that are far removed from our experience. We all believe our planet is spinning at a high rate of speed and hurtling through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour despite having no perception of this motion whatsoever. Few of us understand the principles at work when we flip on a lightswitch or a computer. Daily we are offered the most preposterous and counterintuitive explanations for such ordinary, simple things as the colors in a sunset or the propulsion of a sailboat into the wind, and we swallow them whole … which is not to say that we should not. They are, after all, true, so far as they go. 

But if it is demanded that we ignore our spontaneous wonder at the beauty of the setting sun or our delight in mastering the wild air using the work of our hands, it is time to politely end the conversation and get back to placating proud mothers and savoring first love.

1 comment:

Paul Cat said...

Sorry Flatlander. I am having some difficulty remembering you. The only person I recall being from Chichagoland area was Tommy and his wife.

Also, if you look hard in the coffee aisle in your grocer you might just find a back of chicory that you can mix with your regular coffee. This is what I do up here from time to time. Though, I still lament at not having any New Orleans blend Community Coffee.