Once one has used the finger to indicate the moon,
one no longer has use for the finger.
The elusiveness of Truth.
What is true? What is Truth? Any attempt to describe the nature of reality, of the universe, of our experience of the universe, or any attempt to describe the universe independent of human experience, must necessarily involve some type of language. Systematic descriptions of various levels of rigidity, whose goal it is to explain how the constituent parts of the universe interact and combine to create the complexity we see in the world, vary from person to person and group to group. These descriptions differ as a result of being derived from various points of views—perspectives—and have different sets of assumptions and thus different conclusions. When one doesn’t know where they are going, any road signs or markers along the path can be mistaken for the destination. Similarly, if one does not know the truth, the metaphors we use to dig part of it up can be mistaken for the truth itself.
People from various places, times, and with various cultural environments have tried to make sense of the world—to describe it systematically. In doing so, observers of this quest have found that there are limitations to our abilities to describe the world precisely and accurately. In addition, the experiences, traditions, and other factors that shape our view of the world will effect how our descriptions will be formed themselves. After all, the conclusions that we come up with are formed in the environment of our minds, which are formed in the environment of our cultures and personal experiences.
This situation leads one to wonder whether there is any sense of even asking about something objective or ultimately “True.” This is especially the case since we are steeped in contingent factors which depend on subjective and inter-subjective analyses rather than some hypothetical objective perspective (a concept that seems oxymoronic, to say the least). Plato and his many dualistic philosophical descendents have commented that there is a distinction between the Truth and those things which are mere shadows of that truth, things that are dependent upon circumstance and subjective perceptions. And while I don’t buy this dualism, I recognize that there seems to be a difference between the nature of how the world functions and our low-resolution simulation of it that our minds concoct. This difference has led some to postulate that the concept of truth in-itself is a fiction that has no meaning, or at least is beyond our epistemological capabilities.
The history of science reflects this tension between theory and some hypothetical Grand Unified Theory, and gravity is a prime example of how this tension plays out. We can predict to a good degree of precision, given sufficient information, where a ball will land if thrown or shot in some gravitational field. Newton’s success in describing the inverse square law of gravity was able to give us a relatively accurate mathematical relationship to make such predictions. But in the early decades of the 20th century, an ingenious and somewhat annoying discovery was made by the well-known, if not well-misunderstood, Albert Einstein. Our description of gravity was not precise enough to be considered exact, and we would find that the theory of general relativity would surpass Newton’s observations in descriptive power. But even general relativity proves not to be spot on, either. We are still grasping for the subtleties of quantum gravity with M-theory and loop quantum gravity, and there is no way to know, now, whether these ideas will be any more fruitful in ascertaining the truth of the matter of gravity. Only time and effort will tell.
Whether or not the true description of gravity will one day be found is not the point of this mental exercise. The point is that our relationship with the world is one where our words and the descriptions they formulate have an inexact relationship with their intended referents; the “true” descriptions of how the world actually works. Through our prodding, measuring, and calculating of the world around us, we refine our resolution of the world until we have a theory that can map the terrain sufficiently for our purposes. In terms of technology, our theories do not need to be exact to make objects that suit our purposes—the computer I am typing on is sufficient to demonstrate that. But it is a different project to determine what is True, and human beings from time immemorial have been playing with the questions of what is ultimately True, and there is no sign of this trend going out of fashion any time soon.
But what are of interest include the various methodologies of tackling this question of what is true. Surely, there may be many angles or perspectives from which we can attend to the problem, each using different specifics but describing the same universe, that depend upon the experiences and information accessible to the questioner. This does not imply that any methodology is equally valid or that different methods may be equally effective or efficient at gaining understanding. In fact, it seems quite clear that some methodologies have a clear advantage over others, gleaning more descriptive power than others and therefore having better descriptions than others.
There is something that is common to all descriptions, something that is a potential stumbling block for many truth-seekers. The commonality is rooted in language, the implications of which have been a subject of philosophy, linguistics, and other fields. Neither an extensive nor exhaustive account of language’s role here is necessary. Rather, a specific relationship between the world and language is relevant; the relative exactitude of some description’s language to the referent itself; how precisely does the description convey what the universe is like?
Specifically, the key factor is that of comparison, analogy, language games, and metaphors. In this essay, I will use metaphor for a short-hand for all of these uses of language, as well as other related ideas that convey an inexact but useful description of our experiences with the world. A metaphor is a comparison of two things by use of description of one object which is intended to describe, analogously, something else. This concept encapsulates the central relationship I want to illuminate here between this tension between description and our quest for understanding. While ‘analogy’ or ‘language game’ might be more apt terms in some cases, I believe the use of one consistent term would serve the purpose not having to distinguish between these differing concepts and stray from my central thesis.
God is a metaphor
That having been said, it may peak the curiosity of my reader the nature of this thesis. Surely, it must have something to do with metaphors, and surely, something of a theological nature is at hand. More specifically, it must have something to do with this thing called ‘god,’ a concept that has presented many a thinker with a range of ideas, feelings, and conclusions. An apt question would be what we mean by such a ubiquitous term; in a world in which religion stakes a large claim of influence and divine presences are considered common, surely we must know what this ‘god’ concept refers to, right?
Quite frankly no, we don’t know what the term ‘god’ is supposed to mean. Theologians talk of the supernatural as being beyond nature or simply as unknowable. Negative theology can define what god is not, but in terms of what the supernatural might be, we cannot say. Anything we could say would be based upon experience with the natural, and thus could not hope to describe the supernatural. As a result, our descriptions of gods and other supernatural beings are nothing but metaphors to invoke a concept. But this concept is natural in origin, and thus cannot be a true description of something that is not natural.
Further, if ‘god’ were supposed to describe something natural, then the question is what it is supposed to represent is open. One could talk about the actions of god, the creative acts of god, etc. But all in all, this use of the term is, at best, a metaphor for natural processes or poorly misunderstood events ascribed to the unknown, where the metaphor of god is placed to fill a gap. The metaphor of god is placed as a quick fix to cover over the whole of mystery. That which we do not know is placed in the lap of a metaphor we call god by theists, rather than remaining a beautiful mystery. This epistemological, emotional, and cognitive band-aid is empty linguistic filler for the unknown spaces in our understanding. Further, saying that god is the beautiful mystery is committing the same fallacy of placing a metaphor over what is essentially a gap in our understanding. If we do not understand something, then filling it with “god” is meaningless.
As an atheist, I understand that I don’t understand; I know that I know nothing, as Socrates is reported to have said. As an intellectually honest person, I must admit that that which I do not know, I must not place a meaningless term like ‘god,’ but rather admit that our understanding is finite. And when we do understand, it’s usually metaphorical in nature.
What is interesting is that many theists seem to understand this too. It has been a tradition of much of Western theology to recognize the profound gulf between our understanding of the world and god’s understanding, or between our being and god’s being. Here, for example, is St. Augustine;
What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if thou hast been able to understand what thou wouldest say, it is not God. If thou hast been able to comprehend it, thou hast comprehended something else instead of God. If thou hast been able to comprehend him as thou thinkest, by so thinking thou hast deceived thyself. This then is not God, if thou hast comprehended it; but if this be God, thou has not comprehended it.
Here, it seems as if the theological tradition that comes to us through Augustine demonstrates understanding that we don’t know, but yet persists in the belief nonetheless. This is the infamous faith, in which one believes despite this ignorance, this gap, this uncertainty. It is as if, somehow, this feeling of awe, mystery, and humility somehow translates into a kind of existential significance. It is as if the great lack comprehension which we try to simulate in thought cannot be conceived of, so the brain fills it with a pattern of firing neurons that creates, accidentally perhaps, a sensation of a kind of being or meaning that provides something of great value to them.
Surely, this feeling or concept that many attain through this ignorance is very common among humans. It seems that it has deep routes in human psychology, and is often very persistent. But it’s neither universal nor necessary, as many people have never experienced it, at least not as a “god.” Sure, the non-religious experience awe, mystery, and adoration of the world. But there is something that distinguishes between an atheist and theist and their experience of this set of emotions and thoughts.
Atheist v. Theist, part ∞
What distinguishes the worldviews of the believer from the non-believer? In many cases, nothing is the most likely answer. But there is a fundamental difference between methodologies, ways of figuring out the world, which leads to better conclusions. The methodology gives one a perspective that will either conform to our experience with the world or it will create cognitive dissonance with the world. The conclusions drawn from a worldview will, therefore, ultimately be the result of that methodology as it has been applied to the experiences and language game of any particular person.
The scientific method is a tool that leans on empiricism. It cannot rely on anything accept that which can be observed, directly or indirectly, as having some relationship with the universe in which we live. That is, the objects of science’s gaze must exist within the natural universe, and not be anything, for example, supernatural. When a person utilizes this methodology of science to determine a way of interpreting the world, they are doing so in an attempt to check their conclusions thus far drawn with the world around them. If the scientist finds that what they have observed conflicts with some descriptive model of the world, then revision is necessary to either the experimental observation or to that larger description if the observation stands upon repetition.
This methodology uses the world itself as the foundation, the text from which we gain understanding. The letters of this text are the constituent parts of the world that interact in their subtle and often mysterious ways. The sentences are the various facts and simple objects that orbit our mind. Going further, the great chapters, books, and libraries range from the ideas, people, and cultures with which we interact and in which we swim. This, of course, is metaphorical language. And we all use metaphor as a tool for describing the world when we are unable—or unwilling—to be exact.
Metaphors are not exact enough to be the descriptions of the world we would need to be a exact scientific descriptions. And none of us, I believe, is a scientist through-and-through. None of us utilize the methodology of empiricism sufficiently or solely, as our minds cannot ascertain the world’s reality exact enough to create a sufficient map—a sufficient theory. Thus, we use inexact language to create a broad brush-stroke of a description. These insufficient models of the world can be beautiful, sublime, puzzling, or down-right terrifying. With the range of our languages and imaginations, we can create imagery that can contain important meaning, inspiration, or even fear.
But these descriptions will never satisfy the most rigorous of methodologies. Thus, the tension is realized. We cannot be exact enough, epistemologically, to live up to our most precise of methodologies; science. Does this mean that we simply stop using those methodologies? Does the fact that our minds cannot apprehend the world with sufficient precision imply that we give up on trying to become scientists—or the versuchen of Nietzsche’s ubermenschen?
This is one facet of the tension between science and religion. The mind thinks in inexact metaphors. The many doctrines and ideologies of religious traditions have saved the most beautiful, sublime, puzzling, and terrifying of metaphors from our past, and hold them in esteem. This is why they are so pernicious, because they contain images that we find beautiful and meaningful, not because they are necessarily true.
So, therefore, we should adhere our worldview the true conclusions of science, right? Not exactly. Science very well may be the best tool humans have at their disposal to distinguish between better and worse descriptions of reality—theories. But telling the difference between two theories to see which conforms better to our empirical data is no better than our best description, which is admittedly dependent upon our inexact perceptual tools (the brain and our extended perceptual tools of technology). Our best theories do not necessarily exactly conform to the world, and thus science is a tool for getting closer to the truth through theory choice. This is why science is perpetually changing, which is a ubiquitous criticism of many of the faithful who misunderstand that this is, perhaps, what makes science so awesome.
Religion offers us no better an option. The descriptions of the world that comes from religion come from a different methodology. Religion has traditionally been the product of descriptions of gods and other proposed divine or natural forces envisioned not from the same process as science. They survived in lieu of or in ignorance of science, not as an equal alternative. Religion depends on the tools of metaphor, imagination, and story-telling that dominated human minds and cultures prior to or adjacently hidden from scientific process.
But religion persists because it clings to the human experience in some way. Humanity’s religious texts would not have survived if they had not contained something of value to human minds. They have undergone a sort of natural selection of their own, and have evolved into a form that adheres to human minds and cultures because human minds and cultures evolved with them. There is a sort of symbiosis involved. Religion speaks in the language of metaphor, and the human mind thinks and talks in metaphor. The relationship is, therefore, fundamentally linked.
So from whence comes atheism?
Atheism is nothing more than looking at the world, through use of some methodology, and finding that one does not—and really cannot—believe that a so-called ‘god’ exists in the world. One question is whether god does not exist literally or does not exist metaphorically (or neither). The former would imply that there is no being in the universe that can be associated with the term—there is no referent for the term in reality—and the latter would imply that the idea itself has no meaning or use in our description of the world, even in inexact metaphorical language.
The former, the literal lack of god in the world, is a question for the scientifically minded person. It is a question of what actually exists according to our best data to date. Someone who concludes that there is no god while using this method will most likely say something like ‘I see no evidence of such a being, and thus lack belief until sufficient evidence is presented.’ They are agnostic, in that they don’t ultimately know, but they lack belief, thus are atheists. This person cannot go very far with this without bumping into description, theory, and interpretation. It is at this point when metaphor takes over.
The latter, the person using his metaphorical toolbox, has a more subtle route to atheism. What does the term ‘god’ mean? What, from the data in the world gathered, can we put together into a cohesive concept that we can call ‘god’? Once the data is gathered, some way of making sense of it must develop in order to continue to inform a worldview. To make the connections between ideas that come from new information, we have to use association of concepts and comparisons of ideas to create the interconnected web of ideas in order to literally build a neural network responsible for thought patterns. In the mind, this is viewed as a connected coherent worldview or at least a concept that relates to other concepts—whether in dissonance or not.
If a person has a worldview that cannot find a place to put the term or concept of god that coheres with the rest, then that idea becomes nonsensical to them and they have no choice but to declare it as such—nonsense. From here one can construct many arguments of god being nonsensical, as god being no-thing, because the term doesn’t fit into the set of things that exist, or however they formulate the argument. In the worldview of this type of atheist, the term god does not refer to anything identifiable in their worldview. So what about the theist?
The theist can try to argue that they see evidence for god in the world—in the design, as a cause for, etc of the actual world. But they don’t see god itself, just its interpreted effects. Thus, on the level of data itself, a theist cannot place their idol and expect it to rest there. From a scientific point of view, the claim that god exists is only meaningful if it can be pointed at directly and unambiguously. This has never been done, and until it is done to the sufficiency of the empirical method, the claim is not even meaningful. The conclusion of god as designer or cause is an interpretation, an inexact description, of the data. God is never observed directly, but rather proposed as an explanation for or fundamental ground for the world which is observed. It is always, therefore in the realm of metaphor that god is talked about.
But cannot the same be said of the atheist? Cannot it be said that the atheist has an interpretation that god does not exist behind the world, and thus their lack of god is a metaphor? This is absurd; the lack of observing some object or being is not a metaphor—it is literally nothing. The atheist at this level simply states that a ‘god’ is not observed, and this belief in its existence is not justified. If someone proposes a description of the world that includes a god, the atheist can say that the theist is comparing how the data interacts with a concept they call ‘god,’ and thus god is a metaphor for either the world itself or the cause of or foundation of the world. If god is a metaphor, then one aspect of atheism is simply not accepting said metaphor, and thus being without an ultimate metaphorical description of all things by use of a being called ‘god.’
The distinction between most atheists and most theists is one of a use of metaphor. But since all humans use metaphors in descriptions due to the lack of exact descriptions for the world, it cannot be said simply that atheists lack metaphor altogether, but simply a class of metaphors. In a sense, the idea that the map is not the terrain is relevant, as it is as if the theist, in crating a map of reality, sees a pattern of intent, intelligence, etc that helps construct the map. If they call this fabric that they print their map on ‘god’, then it seems justified in claiming that the fabric of the world must be god too, and thus god exists. The mistake is carrying the role of metaphor that we use in describing the world unto the world itself, where metaphor has no place. Metaphor is a tool of the mind, and to project the language of the mind onto the world itself is to project the device of perception onto the perceived object. Even now I cannot help but use metaphor to describe my point, but what my point refers to is not a metaphor itself.
The scientific method is not completely deprived of metaphor. Even the best and most consistent theory is inexact, assuming a perfect theory is unattainable (whether this is the case is a question for the philosophers of science). But compare the foundations of science with that of religion. Note the degrees of usage of metaphor in each. And, further, note the difference in use of metaphor in the fundamental assumptions of an atheist and a theist. What metaphors underlie the assumptions of an atheist and what metaphors underlie the assumptions of a theist?
Atheists are people that don’t believe in god. Theists are people that believe in god. God is a metaphor to describe the world and how it operates, since it is never observed directly but always inferred from the world. Atheists are people that do not believe that such a specific metaphor is meaningful in describing the world, and a theist is a person that feels that that metaphor has meaning or, in some Platonic sense, that the metaphor is a shadow of some actual being.
But what meaning does god have? What is god? Perhaps god is whatever is meaningful to the theist. Whether a meaningful metaphor can be said to actually exist is not quite the right question in this regard. In this case the importance of god is in the usefulness and affect of the concept on the real world; almost as if the concept of god makes god real. Perhaps one thing which is meaningful to many atheists is not placing too much emphasis on metaphors, but rather to that which their metaphors point. And if the metaphor either points to nothing or to something that can be later named, then ‘god’ ceases to be a useful term.
Once one has used some metaphor of god to indicate what is truly meaningful, the atheist no longer has use for the metaphor of god to have meaning. The atheist then realizes that they never had need for the metaphor.
The description becomes a symbol. The symbol becomes the model. The model drives the concepts. The concepts, then, reflect the model, and hence the symbol, and hence the description. The conclusion is, therefore, a logical implication of the description.
But if the description is not exact, the conclusion drawn will be in error.
How does one describe without being inexact?
How does one describe some “Truth” without first having Truth? If the Truth gives you a message, how can the Truth include itself in a message that will be understood by one who does not already have truth? Can you only have a piece of the Truth, and thus climb to the total of the Truth a piece at a time?
What meaning will a part of the truth have if it is understood in the context of non-truth (the concepts already had).