The Limits of Science, Philosophy, and Poetry: Opening Moves

A view of knowledge that acknowledges that the sphere of knowledge is wider than the sphere of ‘science’ seems to me to be a cultural necessity if we are to arrive at a sane and human view of ourselves or of science. (Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, 5)

There are, of course, a great many things that humans do quite naturally, e.g., acquire a mother tongue and fall in love. Just as naturally as those, there is the human need to understand the world, not just the Great Clod under our feet, but ourselves, where we are and who we are, each other and our relationships, and our relationship to the world as a whole. While we may make a distinction between understanding and knowing, the desire to understand the aforementioned things is reasonably seen as understanding through knowing. We seek to know that such and such is the case—specifically, what constitutes the world, how those “parts” relate to one another, and how we are related to those “parts.” We seek to understand via propositional knowledge.

This need to understand, to know, has been attempted through such “things” as religion, philosophy, and poetry. But perhaps the most “successful” means we have found is that of science and the scientific method. We have to be careful, however, for we need to be clear about the kind of success we are talking about. There are two main ways that science is successful, ones that are closely related, but which while still separate are easily confused or mixed together.  There is the success at discovering the truth about particular areas of inquiry, e.g., the structure of the animal cell and the atom, and there is the success of technological innovations used to solve practical problems, e.g., ways of communicating over long distance, and to provide various luxuries, e.g., air conditioning. Again, the two are obviously related, the former providing the partial means to the latter. This distinction is important to keep in mind, I believe, because its being ignored is partially responsible for the denigration of the success of philosophy and poetry as means of knowing certain truths of our world.

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Language and the Intelligibility of God

1. Introduction

In this post I want to consider a number of aspects of the question of whether and to what extent our claims about God’s nature are intelligible.  I will begin by considering the question of intelligibility on its own before applying those considerations to some of the things typically said about God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  My conclusion will be that in regard to some things we say about God, e.g., that God is outside space and time, we are forced to choose between revising those claims, embracing irrationality, or rethinking the implications of those claims.

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States of Belief

A song from Modest Mouse begins with these lyrics:  “I was in heaven – I was in hell – Believe in neither – But fear them as well.”  Subtract the claim of having been to both and just consider the claim, “I believe in neither heaven nor hell, but I fear them.”  Further, suppose someone asserts this with the utmost sincerity.  Is there anything strange about that assertion?  Is it at all like “Moore’s Paradox”:  “It’s raining but I don’t believe it.”  ?

A person sincerely making the claim about fearing heaven and hell seems to be saying that X doesn’t exist but I fear X.  Perhaps that is not strange after all, since we fear things that don’t exist yet, e.g., the last moments of life as we are dying, and things that may never exist, e.g., getting fired from our jobs, going bankrupt, etc.  But while those things are feared and do not exist, they are believed to exist in the future (or it is believed that they will exist) or believed to be possibilities.  But presumably anyone who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell doesn’t believe that they will come to exist or that they are possibilities in the same way that losing one’s job is a possibility.

Perhaps one could not believe in heaven or hell, but fear them because one fears that one is wrong about there not being either.  Insofar as one fears being wrong, one can fear that which one is wrong about.

But I wonder if we couldn’t approach it from another direction viz. looking at the ways in which one might believe in neither.  That is, we can distinguish between a mere lack of belief in X and a “positive” disbelief in X.  So a person who merely lacks belief in heaven and hell might sensibly fear them in a way that a person who holds a positive disbelief in them could not.  I may be building something out of nothing here (or perhaps nothing out of something).  But part of the joy of doing philosophy is to start wondering about something and see where it leads, even if it often leads nowhere.

Performing Mathematical Operations on Nonsense

Let us define the number i as equal to the square root of -1.  So i cannot be positive or negative, but all real numbers are positive or negative—so i is imaginary.  I am pretty much the farthest thing from a mathematician, but i strikes me as being something that we think we have some understanding of, but we really don’t, similar to saying “There is either a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.”

But the funny thing is, we can perform operations with i:

(2i)(4i) = (2 · 4)(ii), which equals (8)( i2), which equals (8)(-1), which equals -8.

So from something that doesn’t really make sense, namely “i = the square root of -1,” we get something that makes perfect sense.  How much of philosophy is like this?

Possibility and Nonsense

Before talking about the nature of arguments in my Intro to Logic class, I start off talking about inferential relationships between statements more generally.  So I ask them to consider what else must be true , e.g., if “Todd is dead” is true and if “Bob loves Jill” is true.

Two of the claims that people said followed from “Todd is dead” were:

1) There is at least one dead person.

2) There is a reason for Todd’s death.

I used this opportunity to talk about the difference between logical and causal possibility.  I take it that 1) is logically necessary in relation to “Todd is dead” and that 2) is causally necessary.  We can imagine a world in which people die for no reason, or something like that.

This led to the students’ asking about whether claims following from “Bob loves Jill” were causally or logically implied.  Someone asked whether it could be possible for someone not  to be able to love someone else and if so whether it would be causal or logical.  I said we could imagine a person having some kind of chemical imbalance or the like such that it would be causally impossible for him to love anyone.  But this led me to ask the class whether my water bottle’s not being able to love anyone is a causal or logical impossibility.  It is not so clear, is it?

This reminds me of an interesting but difficult passage in “Part II” of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, where he writes:

“A new-born child has no teeth.”—”A goose has no teeth.”—”A rose has no teeth.”—This last at any rate—one would like to say—is obviously true!  It is even surer than that a goose has none.—And yet it is none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.—Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. ((Connexion with ‘pain in someone else’s body’.))

So, we might say that it is obviously true that my water bottle cannot love anyone, but is that not more than just odd sounding?  Is it a causal impossibility that makes us say this?  We might imagine the water bottle imbued with a spirit by a magician or god mightn’t we?

What about these three statements:

A) Either it is raining or it is not raining.
B) Either there is a black unicorn or there is not a black unicorn.
C) Either there is a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.

In the context of asking about immediate inferences, we might say that you can’t infer anything about the world, so to speak, by the truth of A) and B).  But should we say the same about C)?  If the idea of a square-circle is incoherent, then what could C) possibly mean?  Is C) true?  If it is false, is it necessarily false?  Is it nonsense?