Saturday, August 09, 2008

P.1. The Validity of Religious Language

NOTE: This is some disjointed thinking here. I put it out there only so I don’t loose or forget it.

I would like to say, for the sake of discussion, that there are two ways to view religious language. It is either objectively valid, or subjectively valid; both of course, are dependent upon language.

For something to be objectively valid there has to be mutual assent. So the proposition for example, “the grass is green”, is objectively valid insofar as we assent to this being the case. Whether or not what you see as green is what I see as green is an open question; the bottom line is however, we objectively agree upon this. Furthermore of course, grass is an “object” which we can point to. To go in yet another direction, it could be said that our propositions (whether they hold true about an object or not) have a certain usefulness, which to some degree is why we propose things in the first place. It's a way of making a distinction if you will, of setting up a given characteristic (in this case color) against a backdrop of a multitude of others where we see there to be a difference. What it is we ultimately choose to call things is completely arbitrary; green after all is nothing but a symbol which represents an idea.

Objective validity, I will say, is contingent upon an assent to the material world through propositions. First through a given language we will agree with what is this and that (apples and oranges). The truth or facts about an object lie not in the object, but in what we say about the object. It would sound silly to say that an apple is true, but it makes perfect sense to say that an apple is red. Again however, it should be understood that red is merely a word that describes a relationship.

What would it mean then, for something to be subjectively valid? Let's stick to something simple, like the statement, "this tastes good." Certainly in this case the only way to be certain that what an individual is telling you is true is by way of belief. Perhaps you could argue that, well, it was the expression on they're face, or the way they said it that lead you to the truth of that statement. However there is no object for us to share in. Furthermore, how could someone prove to you that something in fact tasted good? Let's say you tried it yourself and found it horribly bad. The first thing that may come to mind is, how could someone stomach this? Eventually though, as you watched the person eat this horrible food, you'd relate in the facial expressions and affirmations you tend to make yourself and infer that, this person must really like this. So where-as you find it horrible, another finds it Good, both at the same time, and both subjectively valid.

A question might be whether things have goodness or not. Good is an attribute we assign to things relative to our own taste. In much the same way, things don’t have redness, hotness, they’re not rough, one could even question whether a thing exists. Goodness, redness and existence, is a revelation of sorts. Something is good because it's revealed to be so subjectively, something is red because it is revealed that it is differentiated from other things via our senses with respect to hue, and mutual assent is recognition of this. For example it's been said that Eskimos have several different names for the color white, where we only have one, but it's useful for them to think and see in this ways. So calling the things which reveal themselves to us in certain ways, whether it is objective or subjective, has a certain practicality.

Subjective validity deals in “goodness” and “badness” if you will, it’s a matter of quality. In the same way that objects are neither true nor false, (as it is only propositions which are true or false), they are also, in and of themselves, neither good nor bad. Unlike objective validity though, goodness (as a product of subjective experience) is not a matter of proposition, but of personal revelation.

What of religious language then? I suppose the first thing that comes to mind in grappling with this, is just what religious language deals with. Goodness on the one hand, deals in simple raw emotion. A greasy piece of New York pizza makes my mouth water just thinking about it, it makes me happy. I might not in fact be good for me, however that’s another sort of goodness all by itself. So again, (I ask myself) what are the raw components of religious experience and language? I’ll throw out some words; hope, peace, spirituality, connectedness, purpose, meaning, piece of mind, solidarity. So the next question is, whether objectively valid or not, does religious language deal with these things? Does it address the human spirit? I think, yes, of course it does.

I don’t find it at all important to think of religious language as being objectively valid. For example in Christianity; what’s true, intelligent design or evolution, did Jesus really walk on water, did he raise from the dead, did god flood the entire earth and man built a boat and filled it with animals? These to me and the countless others like it are fruitless ridiculous questions and do not deal with the goals of religion. Those who would argue that it is important that the world was created in the way Genesis says it was are missing the point. In much the same way, it isn’t important what the origin of the painting on my wall is. It’s existence isn’t to represent an historical account, it isn’t to hold to a propositional truth of something, it’s up there because I LIKE it, it makes me feel GOOD to see it there.

So the big question: is belief in God GOOD? Is it subjectively valid? Again, things are neither true nor false, right nor wrong, good nor bad, it’s WHAT WE SAY about things that have these characteristics. It seems ridiculous to believe in something you can’t prove, so an atheist may say. I say again though, prove to me that ice cream tastes good. Belief in God should not be a matter of existence or non existence, of whether or not something is objectively valid. Most if not all of the things we believe are based wholly on it’s usefulness. The key is, religion IS NOT objectively valid as folks like Ray Comfort may suggest, and this is where the waters of religion are muddied.

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