The government of our imagination (converting Richard Dawkins part 2)

Last time out I talked about poetry and the different ways in which language could be used. I want in this article to convey something about how language structures our existence. To do that, I need to talk about imagination and government.

Look around where you are right now – look up from the page in which you are reading these words and see all the different things there are that are close by. Is there anything that wasn’t first born in the imagination of some particular person? If you are in a room then that room was first designed by a human being; the paint on the walls and the features hanging there came from a person’s imagination; similarly, the furniture, the carpet, the cup of tea by your elbow – all these were first formed in someone’s imagination. If there are plants, it is highly unlikely that they are in a ‘natural’ state – no, these too have been formed by the human imagination. Possibly the best case for something around you that wasn’t first born in the imagination is if there is another human being nearby – but that’s worth a more thorough conversation at another time.

My point is simply that so much of the physical space that we inhabit is typically mediated by our imaginations – what we imagine is the parent of what has come to be. Our imaginations, therefore, are tremendously powerful and impactful upon our world. Which means that we need to play close attention to what we do with them.

Which brings me to the question of government. Is the government real? Most would say so. If someone didn’t believe that the government was real – as in, they truly were committed to that proposition – then they would cease to pay their taxes. There would then ensue certain consequences, up to and including the imprisonment of such a person. That wouldn’t necessarily convince that person themselves that the government existed, but it would persuade most onlookers to at least act as if the government were real.

Yet in what way can we call the government real? It is not a material ‘thing’. There is no object that we might touch and say ‘this is the government’, nor is there any person we might touch – not even our most gracious sovereign lady. We cannot walk up to 10 Downing Street and ask for the government, nor Whitehall – not even Town Hall in Colchester.

My point is simply that there are many things that we are normally quite happy to accept as real which do not qualify as material objects. In other words, there are realities in our lives that are not susceptible to scientific investigation, at least in the form that this has historically taken. We might suggest a spectrum of reality from things that are least involving of human beings – like the movements of planets – to those which are most involving – such as the operations of governments – and say that science is a more appropriate study of one end of that spectrum and less appropriate to the other. Adding, of course, that all parts of the spectrum are ‘real’.

The far end of the spectrum, the one that most involves human beings conducting human lives, is the realm which I am trying to point towards in this article. It is born in our imaginations and yet takes on a life of its own. There is no one person on whom our government depends. Should any person with a key role suddenly vanish out of existence, the government will carry on and simply replace that person with another who will take on the duties of the role. It is rather like an ant’s nest – if you remove any particular ant, the colony will carry on as if nothing has happened. If you stamp on the nest and then step back, the ants will simply reproduce the nest once more. The colony can be seen as having an existence separate from any of the constituent parts.

This doesn’t just apply to governments. It applies to all the various institutions and organisations that we human beings so like to form – churches, scientific bodies, golf clubs, theme parks, tribes, shopping centres – the whole glorious gamut of human endeavour. The Bible has a description for all of these things, calling them ‘principalities and powers’. The struggle with these things is the primary location for what Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’: in other words, the never ending attempt to become better people, more open to the will of God.

Now it might be argued, contrary to my ant colony example, that the government does not exist in any real sense. To use the language of my previous article, the materialist would argue that because there is no specific material correlate to the word ‘government’ then it has no ultimate reality. It is simply a construct of human thinking.

What provokes a wry smile in me when I ponder such an argument is simply that it is one that Richard Dawkins’ own work has done quite a lot to undermine. After all, it is Dawkins who coined the understanding of memes. Memes are mental constructs that exist independently of the human minds in which they operate. Dawkins argues that religions specifically are defective memes, viruses of the mind. There is a remarkable correspondence between what Dawkins has begun to describe as ‘memes’ and what the Christian tradition has considered to be the principalities and powers – they are both, using different languages, describing some of the fundamental building blocks of distinctively human life.

This, finally, is why religions pay very close attention to our use of language, and seek to regulate that language through things like prohibitions against blasphemy. When we speak differently we live differently. Words and names have immense power, for both good and ill – which is why Plato, the original fascist, sought to ban the poets. As language is born from our minds, so is the world in which we live structured by our imaginations. If we do not govern our imaginations well then we shall end up being governed in unimaginably bad ways.

How I would convert Richard Dawkins (part one)

It’s a bold claim to even suggest – that it would be possible to convert the most notorious atheist in the Western world. Yet I think that it would be possible, given enough time and good will. How would I do it?

To begin with, I would not engage directly with any of the arguments that Dawkins puts forward in his book ‘The God Delusion’. Instead, I would want to talk about the nature of language. After all, the arguments that are used by both sides of the debate, believer and atheist alike, are embedded in language. If we don’t have an awareness of what sort of thing language is – or, perhaps, of the many different things that language is – then we are likely to go astray.

Given the excellent nature of his writing, then, I would begin by discussing poetry with the good Professor. I would want to explore what makes for good poetry over against bad poetry. Why are some writers revered for their use of language, whilst others are reviled. What is it that gives certain words their power? Through the discussion of poetry what I would most want to achieve is a sense of how we can be creative with words, that words can be manipulated in certain ways in order to achieve certain effects.

Of course, the good Professor may not wish to accept my point here. I have had discussions with some atheists where it has become clear that they are ‘tone deaf’ when it comes to poetic language, and see it as an irrelevance to the question of atheism. At that point, if there is no meeting of minds then the discussion would be over. I’d have to accept failure in my attempt to change a mind.

However, if the point about poetry is accepted then we are away.

My next step would be to explore how we actually use language in every day life, drawing attention to the many different ways in which language does different things in different situations. Consider how the word ‘water’ is deployed in these different contexts: by someone responding to the question ‘what would you like to drink?’; by someone who has just been given a glass of water but who has been expecting a glass of champagne; by someone struggling through the desert for days and who has discovered an oasis.

In these situations we still have a fairly direct connection between ‘water’ and what is being discussed, there is simply a different emotional content being expressed in the use of the word.

Now consider the word ‘lovely’, and how that word might be used in different ways – to express both approval and disapproval, scorn or boredom.

Hopefully by this time the good Professor will be coming to see that language is a remarkably flexible instrument, and see that when we are considering questions of religious belief we need to pay attention to what is actually being done when certain language is being used.

Before talking directly about religious language, however, there is one last element of ground-clearing that would need to be done, and this is connected to the philosophy of science.

If a scientist spoke about ‘water’ it would be a reference to a substance with the chemical composition H2O – and, crucially, in our contemporary culture, this is privileged as the right way to understand the meaning of the word, with all the other ways of using the word (as discussed above) being considered as derivative.

In my discussion with the good Professor what I would most want him to understand is that this privileging of the scientific way of using a word has distinct and particular historical roots. It flows from a decision that what can be measured through instrumentation is more real than anything else, and possibly the only real thing that there is. Furthermore, this attitude is rooted in a philosophy known as materialism, and in the history of philosophy it has had a long struggle with an opposing philosophy known as idealism – the key feature of idealism being the assertion that reality is fundamentally mental and not material.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century heyday of scientific triumphalism, materialism seemed to be self-evidently true. Throughout the twentieth century, however, that confidence came to be understood as increasingly misplaced. The impact of quantum physics, which showed that the separation between the observer and the observed was not ultimately valid, was particularly dramatic. That shift in understandings, however, takes time to filter down from the scientific and academic realm into the area of popular conversations. These days, in philosophical circles, a simple embrace of materialism is regarded as a sign of ignorance – the sort of attitude that a first-year undergraduate might hold before beginning a proper study of the subject.

So to sum up part one, all of the discussions that I would have had so far with the good Professor – about poetry, about the use of language, about the philosophy of science – would have been with the intent to make him more aware of the presuppositions and assumptions that lie behind his other statements. My hope would be that, in becoming aware of those assumptions, he might start to recognise the intellectual integrity of alternative positions. He might not, of course – in which case I would have nothing futher to say – but in that case his arguments are not with religious believers but with the very many (frequently atheistic) philosophers of language and science who disagree with him, and I would happily leave the burden of persuasion to them!

One last point: by ‘Richard Dawkins’ I mean anyone who is aggressively committed to an atheist position, as set out in something like ‘The God Delusion’. My aim in these articles is simply to draw out significant tensions in their position, trusting that if this became clear that it would, at the least, lead to self-questioning and perhaps a less confident proclamation of atheism. The most that I might realistically hope for is an openness to further conversation. I rather doubt that any one person can ‘convert’ another – that is something that needs to be a work of the Holy Spirit if it is going to last and not simply be an exercise in power and manipulation.

It’s all about the story

story_telling

I am often asked to give reasons for believing in God. Whilst I very much honour the motivation behind the request, I feel that it is based upon a mistake and I would like to explain why.

In the 1930s the philosopher Bertrand Russell would often engage in polemical debate with representatives of the Christian churches. There was one particular debate with a Fr O’Hara that Wittgenstein listened to, after which he commented “Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm”.

For Wittgenstein, and for me, the problem with this sort of debate is that it turns religious belief into some sort of weak science. “The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words,” said Wittgenstein, “but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.” What he was very opposed to was any attempt to “elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion”.

In part, this was because Wittgenstein was very aware of the primitive roots that lie behind all our patterns of thought. In discussing James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, which was an immensely influential work at the time, he criticised Frazer for completely lacking an historical imagination, writing that “Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness”.

To imagine that religious belief is based upon some sort of intellectual exercise is a grave mistake. Moreover, it is a grave mistake not only in mischaracterising the sort of thing that religious belief is, but also in giving far more importance to a narrow sense of reason and logic than either deserve.

In an academic argument, the one who can make the most reasonable and logical points can make progress. Yet that reason and logic – all reason and logic – is based upon unstated premises. The fallacy of Modern (capital M) philosophy is that it believed that reason could provide the foundation for our knowledge. Post-Modern thought is characterised by the recognition that this was a fool’s errand from the start, for (as Wittgenstein wrote) we do not acquire our most fundamental beliefs by a process of ratiocination.

We human beings actually form our understandings, first from the patterns of life into which we are born (including the language that is our mother tongue), and then from the stories that we are told from an early age. Such stories do not have to be put into books; more often they are simply told and retold as we grow and as a community develops. Our supposedly secular society is not immune to the power of stories – we are told things about science and progress, for example, that are clearly very tall stories.

Which brings me to the point that I would like to make about what it means to believe as a Christian. Our most fundamental commitments are shaped through stories, and so, to be a Christian is to have our understandings shaped by the Christian story. The most important element of that is found in the stories around Holy Week and Easter, and perhaps I shall describe them in more depth at that time of year. For now I would like to talk about the Christmas story.

It is surely one of the most familiar tales in our culture – baby Jesus born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It is the subject of so many Christmas cards and it seems so very sweet. Yet there is much more to the story. Take, for example, the way in which Jesus is born far from home and is immediately taken to a different country as a refugee, where he has to stay for some years before his homeland is safe.

A Christian would see this as the working out of God’s providence; to put that differently, a Christian would see God as at work in, and found with, those who are refugees fleeing from political persecution. As a result of this, a Christian perspective on our present refugee crisis would suggest that God is also found there – that amongst the poor and vulnerable infants fleeing from a war zone may be found those who will be carrying out God’s will today.

When he grew up, Jesus himself said explicitly that it was not those who called him Lord who would enter the Kingdom but rather those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked – for in doing so, those who are generous will be looking after Jesus himself.

To be moved by the Christmas story in this way, to be affected by it and to then to live differently as a result, is to start to understand what it means to believe in God. Belief in God is not a matter of abstract propositions, as if God was simply the result of a magnificent equation. Belief in God is living differently according to different priorities, acting out our own stories in the light of a very much larger story, one that gives our own lives a particular weight and meaning.

Which is why, despite my own argumentative and belligerent tendencies, I don’t believe it actually helps anyone to grow in faith to come up with grand philosophical justifications for religious belief. There is certainly room for thinking about the faith, for loving God with our minds, for what has traditionally been called apologetics – yet to think that anyone can come to faith by the use of logic is, I believe, a tremendous mistake.

I would much rather talk about the King of the world being found in human form as a vulnerable baby, carried on a wing and a prayer out of the reach of evil tyrants and government apparatchiks who are ‘just doing their job’. I would rather say ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est – that where there is love in the world, where there is compassion and mercy, forgiveness and healing, that is where God is to be found. Such things can never be demonstrated with reason and logic. We can know, understand and believe in these things only by telling our stories.

I wish you all a peaceful, joyful and holy Christmas.

“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

santa science
I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

A few brief thoughts on Benedict’s visit

Didn’t get a chance to really share in it while it was happening, but followed at a distance and skimmed some of his speeches. I’m reasonably familiar with, and sympathetic to, his major themes. That being said, a few thoughts:

- Richard Dawkins has replaced Ian Paisley in his role as walk-on-nutter/rentaquote (see this);
- it was good to see Christians out in force, and we should do this much more often;
- I think the tide began to turn against secularism some time ago (in the academy, best part of 30 years ago) but often it takes a while for an event to crystallise understandings that have been brewing for a while. This visit may end up being seen, retrospectively, as the moment when ‘the tide turned’. He hasn’t got Gandalf’s voice, but I was reminded of this

(See also this)

And that’s all I have to say about that.
UPDATE: actually, reading this, I’m starting to think that his attitude is much more hostile than I realised. Hmmm.

A few brief thoughts on Benedict’s visit

Didn’t get a chance to really share in it while it was happening, but followed at a distance and skimmed some of his speeches. I’m reasonably familiar with, and sympathetic to, his major themes. That being said, a few thoughts:

- Richard Dawkins has replaced Ian Paisley in his role as walk-on-nutter/rentaquote (see this);
- it was good to see Christians out in force, and we should do this much more often;
- I think the tide began to turn against secularism some time ago (in the academy, best part of 30 years ago) but often it takes a while for an event to crystallise understandings that have been brewing for a while. This visit may end up being seen, retrospectively, as the moment when ‘the tide turned’. He hasn’t got Gandalf’s voice, but I was reminded of this

(See also this)

And that’s all I have to say about that.
UPDATE: actually, reading this, I’m starting to think that his attitude is much more hostile than I realised. Hmmm.

TBTM20100831

OK – I’m back, and I’m happy :o)
Here’s some things that I’ve enjoyed reading whilst on holiday:
A snatch of old song (or, why I might take up scything)
The dimensions of things (eg Pakistan flood)
Nine challenges of alternative energy
Biblical Christianity is bankrupt
How to save the music industry
Why we shouldn’t be afraid of fear
A philosophical look at penal substitution
How much is left?
Why Green Wizards will get us nowhere (or: Transition vs JMG – a good example of where there is more in common than there is separating)

That’ll do for now.

TBTM20100831

OK – I’m back, and I’m happy :o)
Here’s some things that I’ve enjoyed reading whilst on holiday:
A snatch of old song (or, why I might take up scything)
The dimensions of things (eg Pakistan flood)
Nine challenges of alternative energy
Biblical Christianity is bankrupt
How to save the music industry
Why we shouldn’t be afraid of fear
A philosophical look at penal substitution
How much is left?
Why Green Wizards will get us nowhere (or: Transition vs JMG – a good example of where there is more in common than there is separating)

That’ll do for now.