The grammar of salvation

First posted December 29 2005; reposted as it is relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation.

A post about the structural parallels between Christianity and, Peak Oil and other groups with a tendency to ‘cult-like’ behaviour.

I have been struck by the echoes of Christianity that crop up in unexpected places, and to try and explain what I mean, I need to explain something about Wittgenstein’s understanding of philosophy and language.

The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein’s view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have.

Think of the expression ‘I need some water’. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: ‘I need some water’ – where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation – ie, looking at real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

So the ‘depth grammar’ is concerned with the function that words, concepts and behaviours play in our human conversation and life. What has been striking me strongly in recent months, first from my experiences at and now from researching the Peak Oil situation, is how far there are patterns of behaviour in non-Christian environments which in fact replicate the depth grammar of Christianity. In other words, how easy it is for a particular topic to become a gospel-substitute, and how this reflects the profoundly embedded nature of Christian thought within our civilisation. As Wittgenstein once put it – a whole mythology is embedded in our language.

Consider the claim of Christianity: the world is corrupted by Sin; Jesus Christ was born to free us from that Sin; if you accept that Jesus rose from the dead and confess him to be the Messiah (ie confess Jesus as the ‘standard’) then you will be released from Sin and born again. To embrace Jesus as the Messiah is to resolve all the spiritual questions which may plague us and provide a pattern of living which leads to abundant life. There is an explicit claim of salvation – “Jesus saves!” – and the embrace of that salvation, leading to fullness of life, is what shapes the ‘grammar’ of Christianity.

Now consider, first, some of the shenanigans at The MoQ – Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality – is an account of the world, which claims to solve many of the most troubling contemporary issues. It is certainly a very useful philosophy, and one with which I have a lot of sympathy. Yet it is – inevitably – not without its flaws. What interests me is the way in which, once those flaws are pointed out, there is an exaggerated reaction, which suggests that there is something more at stake for the interlocutors than merely a dispute about philosophy. For the reaction often takes the form of ‘you haven’t understood it yet’. The MoQ is viewed like the Bible, ‘inspired’, therefore it cannot be wrong, therefore if you disagree with it there must be something wrong with you, you must still be in the grip of heretical understandings etc. Once you have understood it, then you’re free of the clutches of alternative views and it all makes sense.

As such, it’s a form of gnosticism. There is esoteric knowledge, associated with particular (pure) experiences – called Dynamic Quality in the MoQ – and once you have gained that knowledge, absorbed that insight, then you are on the inside. You share in the mysteries.

Now compare with some of the discussions that go on around Peak Oil, particularly the ‘doomers’. Instead of it being a work of metaphysics that needs to be understood, it is a combination of geology, physics and politics. Yet here there is the same tendency to describe disagreement as ‘not getting it’ and for there to be vigorous repudiation of alternative perspectives. Again, it is this emotional charge which interests me the most. With Peak Oil there is at least the possibility that lives might rest on the outcome of the debate, yet once views have been ‘scratched’ a little, it rapidly becomes apparent that the views expressed rest upon more-or-less unacknowledged presuppositions, going deeply into a particular persons view of the world. An entire weltanschaaung is in play – this is not an academic question, it is not just an existential question – these are the questions of the meaning of our life.

They are – in Christian language – ‘salvation issues’. For this is what is at stake in the discussions for the participants, this is what gives them such importance – that the resolution of a particular issue, whether it be the MoQ, Peak Oil, the virtue of Republican or Democrat perspectives, whatever – resolution of such issues takes on the penumbra of a faith. If you ‘get it’, then you are ‘saved’. Although the explicit language is starkly different, the fundamental patterns of human behaviour – the ‘depth grammar’ involved in these human conversations – seems to me to be effectively identical in each instance. This is what I mean by the ‘grammar of salvation’. An issue takes on the form of Christianity, whilst – obviously – employing a different vocabulary.

Which leads to the question of legitimacy. Christianity is explicitly talking about God, the meaning of life, the nature of our human existence. Yet the MoQ and Peak Oil make no such explicit claims – and those who are most charged to defend their perspectives are often also those who are most assertive about their rejection of Christian perspectives. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Yet it is also the way in which their language functions.

At the heart of the Christian faith – indeed, something which is held in common with other faiths such as Buddhism – is the sense that we cannot capture what is most essential in our words, our language games. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Which has the consequence, once it has been understood, of making all explicit claims to finality stand under a cloud of doubt – this could be wrong. In Christian terms, this is the process of casting out our idols, those things around which we structure our lives which are not God, and thereby diminish our humanity in so far as we gain our worth from them (ie worship them). Which leads, ultimately, to a radical uncertainty, for there is nothing tangible and explicit upon which we can rest our judgements. Here there is only room for faith – for a lived out and worked out understanding and approach to life which cannot be captured in words.

Thing is, our culture suffers from a crisis of certainty, from Descartes onwards (see Cosmopolis by Steven Toulmin for one account of why), and this crisis of certainty has its origin in the rejection of Christianity amongst the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Yet the consistent reapplication of the grammar of salvation to various issues teaches me that the longing for salvation has not gone away – it has simply channelled itself into more socially (intellectually?!) acceptable channels. Metaphysics does function as a religion – it is a kind of magic, as Wittgenstein puts it.

“Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.”

We are required to live with our uncertainty; and the only way to live with uncertainty is through faith. The only interesting question is ‘what sort of faith?’ not ‘do you have faith?’. The ability to be detached from one’s own perspective is a sign of spiritual maturity – living with uncertainty we walk by faith. Unfortunately, those who are most strongly attached to the various perspectives – those in whom is provoked the strongest ‘emotional charge’ when such perspectives are held up to sceptical scrutiny – are those who have not come to terms with the uncertainty, and they do not have faith.

Only the holy can see truly. That is what it means to believe in God, to attain perfect detachment, and that is what it means to walk with faith.

Does the internet matter?

A train of thought prompted by the Dawkinsnet kerfuffle.

I would say: it matters in the same way any other human activity matters. In the end, it will all pass away into nothingness.

The merit is what happens whilst we are working on it.

The real motorcycle is yourself.

Which is why the crass stupidity of the administrators has caused such anguish. A part of the self has been torn away.

Here is where I would say: only religious language can deal with this phenomena. “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.”

Actually, this post is very relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation. I might bring it up front.

Random stuff

Got rid of the flu but now seem to have succumbed to a cold: I feel mentally shot to pieces at the moment – not the best place to be at the beginning of holy week 🙁

But I’m sure I’ll recover slowly. Monday’s are always the ‘down day’ after the weekend, and the most strenuous thing on my plate today is preparing some compline addresses – I’m going to expand on my Orthodoxy post over the next three evenings.

In the meantime, this made me smile (HT Chrisendom), as did this for very different reasons.

And Matt Kundert is sustaining a very hiqh Quality output of MoQ related thoughts on his blog, and this reading of Pirsig’s Lila is remarkably fruitful. You’ll hear more of that in due course.

Oh yes, and on the Peak Oil front, this is worth glancing at. Key quote: “The oil industry has for several years claimed that the production from existing fields is declining at around 5 % per year or a decrease in production of about 4 mbpd each year. Adding the increase in demand and the decline we get that an extra 27 mbpd is needed in new capacity in the next 5 years” – is that going to be found? No. Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye.

Twelve Links

One of the most coherent MoQ posters is now blogging! See the site here if you’re interested in metaphysics, Buddhism, that sort of thing.

It must say something about the nature of that particular discussion group that the attractions of blogging outweigh the attractions of dialogue. I don’t think it’s because we don’t enjoy debate – I suspect it’s simply that there are some heavyweight trolls there whose intellectual mills grind exceedingly slow….

Posted in moq

A Christian interpretation of the MoQ

Something I posted to the MoQ discussion group earlier today.

[Ian Glendinning] challenged me to be more forthcoming about what I believe. My long posts last month in the ‘What it means to believe in the orthodox Christian God’ are part of an answer, but I suspect what you are after is some positive description of how I integrate the MoQ with my Christian understandings. So herewith a ‘Christian interpretation’ of the MoQ; an ‘interpretation’ because the MoQ as it stands is clearly non-Christian, indeed some parts are anti-Christian. However, I am comfortable that those bits can be amended (‘interpreted’) with a result which is still recognisably the MoQ, but which is compatible with Christianity, as I understand it.

So firstly I’ll sketch out how I understand the levels, and where they correspond with traditional Christian language. I’ll also say something about the nature of religious belief, concentrating on Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘grammar’, and I’ll say something about your understanding of theism. I’ll conclude with some very speculative points about the Trinity. I’ll try to be as bold and clear as possible, but with the caveat that this is very much a ‘work in progress’ as my thoughts are still evolving. It should answer what you need, though (I hope).

How I understand the levels:

– basic ‘engineering’ of how the levels work, I’m not aware of having any differences, as set out in my eudaimonic paper. So acceptance of patterns of value, ‘machine language interface’, “natural selection” (with quibbles about the word ‘natural’) etc etc

– level one, inorganic, no difference to standard MoQ (Christian language might call it ‘dust’);

– level two, biological, no difference to standard MoQ (Christian language might call it ‘the flesh’);

– level three, social, probably some distinct differences. I see the social realm as being a) the realm of language, in the Wittgensteinian sense, and b) the realm of group desires (in a Girardian sense, which I haven’t talked much about here). I think it is what Christian language refers to as ‘the world’; it’s also the realm of the ‘ego’, the ego being the agglomeration of social patterns which respond to the social pressures (eg flattery produces pride which encourages social cohesion). It is the realm of ‘other people’s desires’;

– level four, what I have called eudaimonic, major differences from the standard understanding of the MoQ, which you’re familiar with. Christian language would call this the level of the ‘soul’. I see this as the arena of ‘autonomous judgement’, by which I mean it is not conditioned by the social patterns. I see the ego (social patterns) as the ‘machine language interface’ between levels 3 and 4. I see the extent to which that ego becomes transparent to Quality as a) the expression/ salvation of ‘soul’, and b) the development of ‘freedom’ (I accept Pirsig’s account of free will, which I think is essentially a restatement of Augustine). This is not a discrete level, in that the ‘top’ is open to Quality in a way the others are not (pragmatically, not theoretically). I think the language of Christian mysticism maps comfortably onto this understanding, ie the soul needs to be stripped bare of all the level 2 and level 3 influences, at which point it becomes ‘transparent’ to God (quality), achieves union with God, expresses the nature of God etc.

Now, a bit more about religious language. What I often ‘rail’ about, concerning the misunderstandings of Christianity, is that the grammar of religious faith is misunderstood. That is, religious language does not function in the way that scientific language functions, and to construe religious language as making scientific claims is to necessarily misinterpret it.

Scientific language grew out of Christian language (the shrub before the tree) but has incorporated certain mistakes _within_Christian_theology_ . In other words, the mistake about the grammar of religious language happened first within Christianity itself, and has been contained within the development of science on what might be called a ‘genetic’ basis.

I would characterise the difference like this: the ‘grammar’ of scientific discourse is abstract; the ‘grammar’ of religious discourse is ‘thick’ or ‘concrete’. By which I mean that the claims which science makes (*claims*) are for independence from social context. Whereas I see religious language as necessarily bound up with social context, they can’t be understood apart from the social context, and, to a very great extent, they are concerned with the structuring and maintenance of the social order. Religious language gains its meaning from its use in the various local language games that make up the practice of religious faith. It is less concerned with correct external reference than with the orientation of behaviour, and therefore life. However, pursuing that latter necessarily involves some external reference, but it’s not the primary source or motivation for religious language (as it is for scientific language). This religious language can be oriented in three ways: suppression of level 2 patterns, maintenance of level 3 patterns, and enabling of level 4 patterns. I think different religions can be evaluated on the basis of how well they do these three things.

Moreover, religious language is necessarily mythological, ie narrative based. As you know I don’t accept the scientific claims for being independent of social context; what I think has happened is that one mythology (rich and religious) has been replaced by another mythology (thin and ‘scientific’) – which is actually responsible for the ills which Pirsig diagnoses. Any language which overcomes those ills is necessarily religious and mythological.

So religious language is necessarily, limited, local and partial. Yet I would also insist that it is possible to discriminate between religious languages and determine which are better and which worse. Which is what I think gave rise to level 4 in the first place, as discussed in my eudaimonia paper. I think that the different religious languages can be assessed by their contribution to human flourishing, or, more generally, by their Quality.

Level 4 I see as necessarily wordless. This is a corollary of the private language argument that I mentioned, from Wittgenstein, which demonstrates that language is necessarily shareable, ie it is a social level phenomenon. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be used for higher purposes, what it does mean, I think, is that it cannot escape being level 3. In the same way that agriculture can be a biological phenomenon organised by the social level, I think that many languages (eg science and mathematics) are level 3 phenomena organised by level 4 understandings. Language cannot encapsulate level 4, for this reason. Hence, ‘the finger pointing at the moon’.

I see level 4 as being fundamentally oriented from the virtues; the virtues being those static patterns which enable resistance to social pressures (honesty and integrity etc – what the Sophists were teaching, originally). I see the various intellectual patterns like SOM, mathematics, Aristotelean logic – but also theatre, art, film, poetry (especially poetry) – as being the fruits of those virtues. Those virtues I think are the sinews of the soul; the soul being simply a level 4 pattern, more or less open to Quality (= salvation?).

The God question. I see Quality as one of the names of God, as final and accurate as calling God Father or Rock (no more, no less). I think it has advantages in terms of healing the breach between science and faith, I think it has consequent disadvantages in terms of actually living out the consequences of pursuing Quality. So in general terms I see no conflict between MoQ and belief in God, on this score.

You describe God as “a purposeful, willful, intentional, transcendent “intelligent” causal entity”. Firstly, God is not an entity. Hang on to the point I made before about God never being a member of a class. We know what an entity is – God is not one. Here we come up against ‘the limits of language’, in that no language can capture what the word ‘God’ refers to (which might suggest that construing the word ‘God’ on the model of reference is likely to mislead..) Now I’m not clear on where the modifiers, once you’ve let go of ‘entity’, are different between Quality and God, if at all. I’ll think further about this point and come back to it.

Finally some more specific things about intepreting Christianity using the language of the MoQ.

Jesus I see as someone who was wholly open to Quality, in such a way that everything he did expressed that Quality. He did this without breaking any of the social level patterns which had formed him (Pirsig’s point that you don’t need to destroy to transcend). This is what Christians mean when they talk about him being ‘without sin’.

The crucifixion is the conflict between level 3 and level 4 (and absolutely essential for understanding the claims of Christianity).

The resurrection a demonstration that the destruction of level 2 by level 3 makes no impact on level 4.

The Eucharist is the level 3 rite which reaffirms the establishment of level 4 (through crucifixion and resurrection), and provides the most important virtues for the growth of level 4 in a person (food for the soul).

I think there are some ways to correlate the language of the Trinity with the MoQ ‘Trinity’ of Quality – SQ – DQ, ie that ‘Quality’ is God the Father, SQ is God the Son (the visible form, fully expressing all four levels); DQ is the Spirit. We are to be so caught up in DQ that we become wholly open to Quality and thereby come to resemble Jesus in expressing SQ on all the levels. And they are all the same, ie our eventual end is to become identical with Quality, indistinguishable from it.

The mystical path I see as the cultivation of level 4. That’s what I see Christianity as all about.

I see the language of ‘immediate experience’ as the importation of a level 3 mythology (the social respectability of ’empiricism’, and all the fruits following from it) to function as a ‘pseudo-level 4’, that is, the pursuit of a ‘mystical experience’ is delusional (anti-mystical) and tied up with the ‘thin’ social practices associated with scientific influence. I think it is precisely a social pattern. I think the ‘orthodox’ account of level 4 as intellectual is a perpetuation of Platonic mythology, resulting in a form of gnosticism (a correct understanding provides salvation) – this is where the MoQ as presently constituted tries to replace religion, and is what lies behind my ‘cult’ allegation. (Tho’ let’s be clear, I only think there are a handful of people who actually DO let the MoQ function as a religion. They’re the most Platonist interpreters).

I see the mystical as the cultivation of wisdom. Hence the emphasis on honesty etc as the foundation for what comes later.

I think there are lots of other things that could be said, but that’s probably enough for now. I hope that gives you a much clearer idea of ‘where I’m coming from’.

“I don’t want them to believe me, I just want them to think.” – Marshall McLuhan

The MoQ is real!

Or at least, there are real people involved in it. Just come back from my first human conversation (as opposed to electronic) about the MoQ, with Ian Glendinning, who dropped by. Constructive conversation about some ways to take things forward with practical steps, possibly including a joint paper.

One thing that occurs to me (which may explain my interest to any Christians reading): the MoQ describes the world, using philosophical terms that correspond roughly to the world, the flesh and the soul – and it offers a way of integrating that language with the world of science. Something worth exploring, IMHO.

The religion of metaphysics

As you may be aware, I spend too much time arguing philosophy at a place called MD, stemming from my falling in love with the book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ in my late teens. I’ve posted a few times about it (they’re the really long ones that don’t get read. This’ll be another).

There was an academic conference at Liverpool University recently, filmed by a crew from the BBC, attended by Robert Pirsig (author of ZMM) and convened by Anthony McWatt, who had just been awarded his PhD for work on Pirsig’s ‘Metaphysics of Quality’. However, it turns out that one of the papers for the conference was a hoax. See here.

This makes me wonder whether all the time and effort that I have put into the MoQ over the last few years is worthwhile (not the first time I’ve wondered that). Grounds for doubt are:
– the MoQ discussion group often functions like an evangelical cult;
– if you accept Wittgenstein (as I do) then what are you doing with ‘metaphysics’ anyway?
– haven’t I got more important things to do?
– aren’t there some severe flaws in Pirsig’s presentation, which make the whole thing useless?

Well, sort of. Maybe I do need to scale back my involvement (or refocus it on a more academically significant outlet). But what this episode has crystallised for me is the way in which metaphysics functions as a religion (and this is where I reconcile the MoQ with Wittgenstein).

Consider the role of agriculture in a human economy. At the subsistence level agriculture simply is the economy, there is no distinction between the two. As an economy develops and become more affluent then part of the economy becomes non-agricultural and the economy can support other things. In our modern economy agriculture is a very small percentage of the whole economy, most economic activity is non agricultural and that is where most development takes place. Importantly, there is influence from the non-agricultural sector to the agricultural, for example scientific advances can help to increase crop yields. However, even though agriculture is a very small part of the economy, the economy cannot exist without agriculture, and remains dominated by it. Unless people are fed they will die, and the sophisticated economy supported by agriculture would collapse (which is something that elements of our culture appear to have forgotten). In this analogy, the whole economy represents our lived experience; the agricultural economy represents our bodily or instinctual nature; the non-agricultural sector represents our understanding, our theorising – our linguistic forms of life in all their variety (in MoQ language, the agricultural is the biological level, the non-agricultural is the social and intellectual).

As I understand Wittgenstein he is trying to argue that the mistake made by philosophers is to assume that the non-agricultural economy is all that there is, in other words he wants to resist the attempt to give a global explanation of our life. This is because these explanations are by their very nature linguistic products, products of our understanding, and are therefore irretrievably part of the ‘non-agricultural sector’. When Wittgenstein talks about a practice having ‘depth’ he is referring to the fact that some practices involve more of us than our conceptual understanding, they resonate with our bodily and instinctual nature. With his remarks on Frazer he is not arguing that all ritual is reducible to this instinct; he is trying to remind us of an inescapable part of ritual experience. Most importantly I don’t think for a moment that Wittgenstein would wish to deny the importance of conceptual reflection upon a ritual, or the way in which ritual can develop into liturgy through the benefit of prayerful consideration. Just as there is interaction between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors of an economy, so too can there be interaction between our intellectual and instinctual natures.

One implication of this is that for Wittgenstein we will never be able to gain a complete understanding of our experience. This seems to me to be the basis of his ‘religious point of view’, for his position seems ultimately to be apophatic. The roots of our religious and moral life lie outside the realm of the conceptually understandable, and can never be fully integrated within a conceptual understanding. In other words, it is impossible to say anything final about God: ‘If such a book were written it would immediately explode the whole world’.

Wittgenstein is concerned to provoke a remembrance of the importance of agriculture within the economy; that is, of our bodily nature in our humanity. He is not concerned to say that all economic activity is agricultural, or that all our humanity is bodily. This bodiliness is far reaching in its scope: ‘the way in which animals are similar to and different from one another and in relation to man, the phenomena of death, birth and sexual life, in short, everything we observe around us, year in and year out’ . For Wittgenstein we cannot understand our language until we understand our embodiment, and it is in understanding our embodiment that we gain a proper understanding of our language. There are (of course) languages that are remote from our bodiliness – eg maths and logic – but for our purposes, in religion especially, we need to be reminded of what actually happens when religious language is used.

Wittgenstein saw the search for an overarching explanation as ultimately pathological. I understand him to be saying that metaphysics is the attempt to understand conceptually that which will always be beyond our understanding: an attempt by the non-agricultural sector to describe the agricultural sector in non-agricultural terms, to return to my analogy. What Wittgenstein is trying to do is to encourage us to recognise the primacy of our non-conceptually mediated bodily life in order that our language does not try and extend beyond itself. Metaphysics understood as a proclamation ‘this is how things are’ is inevitably totalising. Metaphysics understood as poetic ‘this is where I stand (and this is how it looks from here)’ is ultimately religious, a form of theology, and it allows for a proper recognition and validation of our human nature which does not prioritise ratiocination. It allows for the discovery of the new – it allows room for the Holy Spirit. It is in this sense that ‘all that philosophy can do is destroy idols’ for an idol is that which is put into the place of God, whether a golden calf or a metaphysical system.

By limiting, from within, what philosophy can actually do Wittgenstein allows room for our conceptions to be altered. It is the closed conceptual scheme which is idolatrous – and it is the closed conceptual scheme that the MoQ was slowly becoming. As Struan Hellier put it, some language was used pejoratively for those who hadn’t ‘found salvation’ in the MoQ. But it is a perennial human tendency to seek salvation, to seek an understanding that gives peace to our hearts and minds. Trouble is, in a culture which has a terrible blind spot where it’s own religion (Christianity) is concerned, that religious thirst will be slaked in stagnant water.

What can be salvaged? Or, what do I actually think the MoQ is worth? I would pick out two things that have stood the test of time for me. The first is the way that it integrates scientific understandings with wider artistic understandings. There are commonalities across the different fields, and I think the language of ‘Quality’ is an excellent unifying term. Secondly, the levels – how higher levels are built up out of the lower levels, that still makes profound sense to me. But other stuff, especially grounding it all on “experience” (pretending to be ’empirical’) and using the phrase “Dynamic Quality” in a parallel way to how religious people use ‘God’ – all that is garbage, from my point of view.

Interesting (for me at least). I wonder where it’ll go from here.