Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What I mean by "Dogma"

This is a response to another discussion I’m in, so it’s going to be me regurgitating many thoughts and ideas I’ve already laid down here, but in another way.

A couple things first:
- It’s always been my aim to expose the dogmatic nature of reason to show that the same level of faith people have towards religious language, people likewise have regarding reason.

The following statement was made to me regarding the above point, as if it's what I'm trying to suggest: (Which of course I’m not):
“In other words, the fact that you're writing about something means you've presupposed the validity of the definitions of the words you're using. And this is just as dogmatic as religious beliefs are.”
‘Of course, it's complete twaddle. Belief in the validity of the words in a dictionary presupposes only that empirical definitions are required in order to communicate. It certainly doesn't require faith in the unseen...”


The first task is; what is Dogma? Or in the very least, what do I mean by it?
Let me first quote two Buddhist sayings, as this will help set the stage:
- “You can use your finger to point at the moon, but don’t mistake the finger for the moon.”
- "The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you have the meaning you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a few words with him?"


What is Dogma:
Let me address directly the comment which was made above (in GREEN) by saying the following: There is no presupposing of the validity of definitions, but a presupposing that those definitions mirror a given phenomenon to an extent that they are somehow intertwined and/or inseparable from it; this is often looked at in an atemporal way, and as such becomes dogmatic…..
Dogma arises (I’ll argue) due to an ontological divide which exists between language and it’s referent, but where one refuses to recognize this divide; in other words, one mistakes the finger for the moon. I constantly use the example of gravity and ask the question, “Did gravity exist prior to Newton?” My answer is always a strict no; however the rational atheist always responds, “Of course it did.” This stance is an obvious dogmatic one, and arises because one is reluctant to separate the word gravity, and its underlying principles, from the phenomenon we attribute to it.

It must be seen that prior to Newton, the word gravity and it’s underlying principles did not exist, they were not in anybodies mind because there was no such thing yet; there simply wasn’t such a language. The rational atheist takes me as saying that apples didn’t fall from trees, which is hardly the case. What I’m suggesting is; no doubt apples did fall from trees, but it wasn’t because of gravity. Taking the dogmatic stance that it was, is not seeing the ontological gap between the word and the referent, it’s looking at the two as if they were somehow inseparable. Surely hundreds of years from now new science will evolve that not only makes Newtonian physics completely obsolete, but also makes it look quite silly at the same time – in much the same way we see the ancients description of the universe as silly. So what does that mean? Does it mean we were wrong? Of course it doesn’t, a pragmatic stance would see that gravity and its’ underlying principles were merely a mode of communicating about a particular phenomenon such that we could not only communicate about and understand the world, but more importantly understand ourselves. If we look at the past 2000 years of humanity we can see that (relative to what science says) the universe hasn’t changed all that much, however the way we talk about it has changed drastically and we’re constantly updating old forms of thought with new ones. So what’s happening here? Is the universe changing? Or is it simply that we’re talking about it in different ways?

Gravity, again, along with the underlying mathematics is nothing more then language, it is not a mirror to nature; the disembodied words of Newton were not just floating around in empty space since the beginning of time. As well, we cannot make the claim that it’s consistent with the way the universe operates in and of itself, because we can never know this; at best we can say that it’s consistent with a mode of thinking that we call rational. It’s consistent with an underlying mathematic, and we attribute that language of mathematic to a given referent and call it gravity, BUT THEY ARE NOT ONE IN THE SAME.

So, the bottom line:
One must learn to separate what he says from what it refers to. One must understand (refer to the second Buddhist quote above) that the words themselves are not the phenomenon itself, but a description of our experience which adds a certain meaning to it; once we have this, Newton can be discarded.

The next question that will be asked of me is, “So what, that doesn’t mean that God exists!” and I’ll respond with, “Well, not any more then gravity.” Then someone will further say that they can prove gravity by taking me to a bridge and dropping a rock and proclaim, “Look, gravity!” As if what I’m witness to at that moment is Newtonian physics, what could be more self evident? (I’m witness to words, hooray!) I don’t deny the validity of physics in talking about fallings rocks, but I also don’t deny the validity of religion in talking about the human spirit. Religion, whether Christianity or Buddhism, is a language and one should not mistake it for talking about stone or flash or old men in white robes; to understand it, one must not look to differentiate its words from an underlying reality, to connect it somehow by means of making it specific. One must dissolve the dogma into an experience of life that is not hindered by definitions. When one learns to separate words from referents, I truly believe (almost dogmatically so ; ) ) that a real experience of the divine is possible.

9 comments:

  1. Andrew,

    I think the problems with the 'gravity' issue arose because you yourself did not appear to show any awareness of the difference between the word 'gravity' and the phenomenon that we are trying to describe.

    The 'rational atheist' would, of course, admit that, prior to Newton 'Gravity' did not exist. But you'd have to use inverted commas to show that you are indeed referring to the mathematical description, the theory, rather than the underlying phenomenon that carries on operating no matter what it's called and who has described it.

    Both myself and others were under, apparently, the mistaken impression that you were not separating the word from the referent but that you thought they were one and the same. Let's face it, in some of these blogs, you can find far stranger opinions than that!

    To cut a long story short. If you'd have said, from the beginning, that your position was that the phenomenon - that we call gravity - was not dependent on the description 'gravity' that we have given it, you would have faced no opposition (at least from me).

    I am sure that in the future, people will describe falling objects as acting as a result of...some other word...which, as short-hand, better describes the motion of bodies than 'gravity' currently does.

    I am also in agreement with you that, if we were able to strip aware the notation we use to label everything and anything around us, we would approach something...different. I see no reason for me to postulate what this could be - it would only be words anyway - but it gives pause for thought.

    I hope I've understood what you're saying here, because it seems like that was the problem to start with.
    Thanks,

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  2. I think this was very well stated. Earlier this week I had a discussion with my students about individual perspective on how we both see the world and understand (or misunderstand) language. I used the example of "love" to begin, asking students to tell me what it means. One student offered that it was "to care about someone and be faithful to them in a relationship". I replied "does that mean when you state that you love pasta or love playing rugby that it means that you care about them and will always be faithful to them?"

    The purpose was of the lesson was to work up to a definition of happiness. This was partly to demonstrate that we all possess personal understandings of what happiness is, as well as to get them to realise that it is difficult to find something when we don't know what that something is (I seguayed into this by asking students to "find me something" and rejected everything that they offered me saying, "no, that's not it").

    The issue with dogmatic thinking as it prescribes a universal interpretation to spirituality. The fact is, we are not generic beings. Just like there are auditory, kinesthetic and visual learners, so too are we in our moral and spiritual perspectives. It is a matter of a system of beliefs forcing life to conform to it's regulations while alienating the reality of one's situation. Ergo, when Christians speak of this omnipotent and all loving God, we are told to have "faith" for those things we do not understand such as Afghan school girls having acid thrown on them or child soldiers in Africa - the genocide perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, etc.

    Anyway, you probably get my point...

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  3. ...also, does God not exist for the theist just as God does not for the non-theist? In the end, truth can never be proven in an absolute form, but rather explained and rationalised via our experiences...

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  4. "I don’t deny the validity of physics in talking about fallings rocks, but I also don’t deny the validity of religion in talking about the human spirit. Religion, whether Christianity or Buddhism, is a language and one should not mistake it for talking about stone or flash or old men in white robes."

    Eggsackly :)

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  5. ExPat,
    You’re right, I was (perhaps egotistically) trying to draw everyone into what I was saying. On the one hand you can tell people like it is (your point of view) and it’s likely they’ll get contentious with you, on the other hand you can try and lay it out in a way where they see it for themselves and you avoid a long debate. Obviously I did a piss poor job…. I’m still learning how to flesh out my own thinking.

    The point is of course to show the temporal nature of language with respect to it’s “speaking about the world” and it’s overall inability to really capture the essence of it. It seemed to me that everyone had this somewhat absolute view of gravity (and reason itself), which is no different then ones absolute view towards Christianity.

    Dan, where-as I think he’s well intentioned and a good hearted guy, has a Christian view which is very static, dogmatic and literalist. I wanted to try and show that those on the opposite side of the fence were taking the same stance, except with reason as they’re God.

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  6. “The issue with dogmatic thinking is it prescribes a universal interpretation to spirituality. The fact is, we are not generic beings.”

    Abolutely!

    Always in discussions with atheists, I find they’re demanding a generic interpretation of everything, and there simply isn’t one.

    Since, to Sam’s agreement, we’re not talking about objective phenomenon, where do you place the label GOD?

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  7. Is there really nothing else in the world aside from that which we can point to?

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  8. ExPat,
    on anther note, and I hate to talk about Dan outside of his blog, but…:

    Dan likes to put forth an argument for God and the Bible using science and reason, which I have a bit of a problem with. Theology should leave science to its’ science and science should leave theology to it’s theology. For example, I work in an engineering environment as a Quality engineer (which essentially means I work in statistics); there has never been an occasion where the engineering department got in an argument over methodology with the accounting department. The reason is obvious, both parts of the business understand that the object of they’re work is fundamentally different and that the nature of they’re work is likewise different.

    However, in discussions between atheist and theist, there exists a mistaken notion that the object under discussion is the same, thus the contentions are over which sides language best describes the underlying object. Evolution (like gravity), for example, is clearly a scientific endeavor, a scientific question, not a theistic one. Creationism, on the other hand, is made into being a scientific question by individuals like Dan with no supporting proof of this aside from the Bible. But the Bible is not a scientific document and never was, it’s object is not “objects”. There is no reason for the theist to even talk about evolution and scientific matters as it has no bearing on the validity of religious language, just as religious language has nothing to say about science.

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  9. Playing devil's advocate on the knowing of others, honestly, how many of us truly know/understand ourselves? I'm turning 40 in a couple of weeks and I feel like I'm only beginning to get a true sense of self.

    The issue that I have with the theist and literal Biblical interpretations is that no rational person would accept something as truth, simply because it has been written down. I have been in several local headlines from my days as a Correctional Officer, Tactical team member and Crisis & Hostage Negotiator. I was in the middle of some pretty major shit when it went down, and what I read the next day in the paper, heard on the radio or saw on the TV News were very divergent in their accounts. This was of course the result of Correctional spokepeople and Media agendas distorting what had occurred, not to mention simple differences in perspective and perceptions. So, what makes the Bible any more believable? On top of that, the gospels often provide different accounts of the same event and were all written many years after the crucifixion. Add to that historical records of Papal agendas, editing, misinterpretations, etc., and we are left with a book full of inspiration, but hardly evidence of Christ being the son of God, or God even existing. I am not denying the notion of intelligent design or spirit, but let's face it! If I said that I worshipped Neptune beneath the ocean, most people would think me to be daft, yet the same people will testify that Jesus was born of an immaculate conception, walked on water, turned water into wine and rose from the dead. Jesus existed and was a great teacher, like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, but he was a man.

    In the end, notions of God are very personal, hence the flaw of dogma... in my opinion...

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