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.

The Collar

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
                         I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
          Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
          Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
    Before my tears did drown it.
      Is the year only lost to me?
          Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
                  All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
            And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
             Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
          And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
          Away! take heed;
          I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears;
          He that forbears
         To suit and serve his need
          Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
          At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
          And I replied My Lord.

(George Herbert – found via here)

The language of ‘should’ and ‘ought’

I think I’ve written about this before but can’t think where…

When I hear the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’ alarm bells go off. So often the language is used to reinforce social pressure to do certain things – because that is the way that the community does them, it reflects what the community expects and considers “right”.

Christians need to exercise extreme caution when dealing with such worldliness. I use this corrective: when considering an action that ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be done, try to rephrase it in terms of the great commandments, ie:
– will this action give glory to God, or
– will this action show love to a neighbour?

If the answer is ‘No’ then the Christian is free from any obligation, no matter how strenuous the efforts to say ‘you should be doing this!!’

A denatured faith

Pondering an image:

Take an egg, apply consistent heat, the ‘white’ actually becomes white, it changes from a liquid into a solid, from something with potential to something consumable. The egg remains an egg, but it is denatured.

The same can apply to a faith. Apply consistent pressure, before you know it, it has changed out of all recognition. It is still ‘faith’ – the words used might be identical – but the living content has become denatured.

Faze and phase etc

Pedant corner.

To be fazed is to be surprised, taken aback, knocked off one’s stride.
A phase refers to a period of time, part of a cycle.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are now confusing the two.

And here’s some more:

To ensure an outcome is to make certain of it.
To insure an outcome is to guard against it, seek compensation if it happens.

To elicit something is to encourage it to emerge (eg a reply).
Something is illicit if it is illegal.


Do we know more than Jerome about the Bible?

Chris referenced Jerome in the comments, and I suggested that we (as a community) now know more about ancient languages and the Bible than he did. Well, I have to confess I don’t know too much about Jerome, and I am certainly no linguist (I leave that to the good looking half of the family).

What I have in mind is this:
1) we have access to more texts than the Ancients did (eg Dead Sea scrolls and so on);
2) we have access to archaeological evidence that the Ancients didn’t have;
3) I suspect we also have a more nuanced understanding of language (although I may well be wrong on that); and
4) I’m pretty sure that we benefit from a larger and deeper pool of people studying these languages and the relevant texts (eg thousands of PhD students).

So I would want to stand by the general point, although I’m happy to be proven wrong about Jerome in particular.

I’d be very interested to know what John, Doug and Peter have to say on this, as they all know much more about it than me.

Muscles, metaphors, mysteries: on the grokking of God

This is a bit of an off-the-top-of-my-head sort of post, so doubtless I’ll say something I’ll later want to retract or amend, but I wanted to pursue the theme that Scott has been emphasising in comments, ie that atheists tend to see mystical language as ‘cobblers’. As this is pretty central to any religious tradition, it might help to set out briefly what is going on, at least as I see it.

Think of your muscles and all that you know about them; think in particular of your bicep, of how it works and how it moves. Now ponder the fact that the word ‘muscle’ is derived from the Latin musculus meaning ‘little mouse’. I found this fascinating when I first discovered it. I’d always thought ‘muscle’ was a scientific term with a very clear and distinct meaning – which it is of course – but it started out in life as a metaphor. In other words, as the language was developing and growing, and understanding was doing the same, and as people considered the parts of their bodies they remarked upon the physical resemblance between a mouse and the mass of flesh and tendon that they used to pick things up and hence: muscle.

Now this is an everyday process, especially in science. Consider the phrase ‘magnetic field’ – what is a field? It’s something that horses run around in, normally with a fence or hedgerows bordering it. It’s a confined space or area, and that is the sense in which the scientists began using the word ‘field’ to refer to the area that was influenced by magnetic force. Same with a gravitational field. In other words, in the process of exploring the nature of the material world the language that had previously been adequate needed to be developed and renewed in order to adequately account for and describe what was now being understood. Crucially, the understanding itself was developing in advance of the language. Have you ever had that experience when you wanted to say something and the word was on the tip of your tongue but you couldn’t get it out? And then the word comes and you feel release and ‘That’s what I wanted to say!’ Language itself is always catching up on the human life seeking expression, it’s a ‘static latch’ to use a MoQ term, and when it has caught up then the language is itself embedded in all the practices that humanity can invent. Language is not a transparent reflection of the world, it’s a constituent part of the world itself – but a part which is also derivative from and dependent on the human life and understanding which drives it. (I might say more about this another time – feel free to read my Wittgenstein essay here.) Which is a way of saying that poets are the most creative of human beings, and that the most creative scientists need to have some poetry in their soul.

However, that’s taking me away from my main point: our understanding drives the development of our language, and the language develops through metaphorical exploration and analogy, and the language slowly ‘hardens’ in meaning (so we know exactly what a muscle is, and for most people the thought of mice in relation to muscles never enters in). It hardens so much that people forget that once upon a time it was an image, an analogy, a metaphor. You could say that, once the language and practices associated have progressed to a certain point the poetry has vanished and the concept has been completely grokked.

What religious believers want to say about religious language is that, whilst some concepts may harden (and possibly thereby become idolatrous and harmful) the core of religious knowing can never be expressed in anything other than metaphorical language. This is mystical speech: the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Once the language has been developed and understood the creative (poetic) flow of understanding has dried up, not necessarily to bad effect, but certainly in such a way that the ongoing exploration is impeded if the language is made absolute and unchangeable. In other words, what lies at the heart of the religious sensibility is not a conceptual truth but a relationship with reality as such, which is inexpressible in words. Or, perhaps better, it can be expressed in words, so long as the words are not mistaken for what they are pointing to, so the words must be consistently negated and affirmed in turn. (This is what I have learned from Denys Turner, amongst others, and I wrote more about it here.)

In other words, whilst it might sometimes be possible to grok muscles or gravitational fields, we will never be in a position to say that we have grokked God. Religious language is always on the boundary, on the cutting edge, always provisional and open to change. Yet, in just the same way as the understanding goes out beyond existing language, so too is the understanding fully in play in the religious sphere – in fact, I would say that the understanding is exalted in the religious sphere. Mysticism is not the abnegation of reason, it is the apotheosis of reason, where it is possible to understand reason more fully than ever before – to grok it, no less.

A final thought. Most of what is of human value emerges from that understanding which is beyond language. All the most wonderful things in human life were first conceived in imagination, as a faint glimmering or stirring in the soul, before they took material form and expression. To not see this, to see religious language (and many related fields like poetry) as sentimental ‘cobblers’ requires a very thorough grounding, training and education in certain mental practices and traditions. It results in what I have called ‘asophism‘ – a form of aspect blindness, and I can’t help but conclude that it represents a severe diminution of human life and potential.


Reading an interesting article about Chinese finance here which, on page 4, has this sentence: “The opaqueness about intentions and goals is always the issue.”

Am I the only person who finds this common resort to adding -ness onto the end of a word clumsy and lazy? Why couldn’t the word ‘opacity’ be used?

Here are some other examples where I don’t think it works:

cohesiveness instead of cohesion
conciseness instead of concision
fierceness instead of ferocity
aggressiveness instead of aggression

and one where I think it’s justifiable:
attractiveness rather than attraction (because attraction has a subtly different sense and could lead to confusion)

Is this just the difference between a UK-English ear and a US-English ear? I’d be interested to know.