27 August 2016

How to understand theology

I know I'm not alone among atheists in that over the course of many conversations with our theist friends, I frequently find myself asking, "What does that even mean?" Discussions about theology are frequently steeped in concepts whose meanings are not always perfectly clear, and the conflicting assumptions underpinning the meaning of crucial concepts leads to debates between atheists and theists amounting to, as Tim Minchin described it, trying to win a tennis match by scoring perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate courts.

I've been thinking a fair bit about why this is, and revisiting a book that is an old favorite has helped me shed some new light on this issue. The book in question is one that any long-time readers of this blog (both of you!) ought to be familiar with: Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. Far from a new-atheist polemic, Religion Explained is an academic study of religion through the lenses of anthropology, cognitive psychology, and evolution.

One of the chapters deals with the characteristics of gods and spirits. Why are they generally anthropomorphized? Why do people worship gods whose actions and thoughts are at least somewhat like that of humans? Why do they generally take on human (or sometimes animal) form, instead of being, say, misshapen tentacled beasts?

I can't possibly do justice to Boyer's thesis in a brief blog post like this, but his answer is that gods and spirits are concepts that come from our intuitive conceptual systems. The most intuitive aspect, and the one present in all gods and spirits, is agency. Boyer says [p. 145] that for those detecting the activity or influence of spiritual agents it is not so much like seeing "faces in the clouds", but rather "traces in the grass". This is part of our evolutionary tendency to be hyper-active agency detectors. Boyer explains,
[Our] agency-detection system tends to "jump to conclusions"—that is, to give us the intuition that an agent is around—in many contexts where other interpretations (the wind pushed the foliage, a branch just fell off a tree) are equally plausible. It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions.
Most interestingly, Boyer says that gods and spirits are much like humans and animals, but stripped of certain properties and saddled with others:
In myth and folktales, we find supernatural concepts describing all sorts of objects and beings with all sorts of violations: stories about houses that remember their owners, islands that float adrift on the ocean or mountains that breathe. But the serious stuff, what becomes of great social importance, is generally about person-like beings. These invariably have some counterintuitive properties—for example, a nonstandard biology (they do not eat, grow, die, etc.) and often nonstandard physical properties (they fly through solid obstacles, become invisible, change shape, etc.)—but people's inferences about them require that they behave very much like persons. [p.142]


How concepts work in theology

It's here where I realized that concepts in religious philosophy work in much the same way. [Note that I'm going to use the term theology going forward instead of "religious philosophy", but I'm speaking not about doctrines and dogmas but rather the broader aspects of metaphysics that are central to discourse in religious philosophy.] Theological concepts are everyday concepts stripped down to their purely intuitive aspects; and once it is assumed that only those intuitive aspects of the concepts are important for the concept to be meaningful, all kinds of conclusions can be reached when these assumptions are put to work through some system of formal logic.

Let's take a few examples: mind, existence, and causation.

Example 1: Mind

Theologians often conceive of God as being an unembodied mind, having no physical body or brain. The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity states that God is not composed of parts, and is therefore "metaphysically simple". God is conceived not just as an agent, but as a mind that is itself pure agency. But in our everyday understanding of a mind, there are several crucial properties of the mind incompatible with such a view. 

Firstly, minds and brains are intimately connected. I'm going to carefully sidestep the debate on substance dualism here, as I think that most rational people will readily agree that brains and minds are crucially and causally connected. After all, brain damage can cause radical and often counter-intuitive changes in cognition: we can lose the ability to feel empathy; we can retain the ability to feel empathy, but lose the ability to respond to or act upon those feelings; we can lose our ability to recognize faces; we can lose our ability to remember the names of people or animals, but still remember the names of objects or tools. Moreover, our understanding of abstract concepts are crucially dependent on our physical bodies. We use what in cognitive linguistics are called primary metaphors like "that went right over my head", or "tomorrow is the big day". There is an exhaustive (and fascinating) list of these embodied metaphors here

Secondly, our minds are governed by a vastly complex subconscious. George Lakoff hints at just how deep this goes in Philosophy in the Flesh [Kindle location 152-3] :
Consider, for example, all that is going on below the level of conscious awareness when you are in a conversation. Here is only a small part of what you are doing, second by second: 
Accessing memories relevant to what is being said 
Comprehending a stream of sound as being language, dividing it into distinctive tinctive phonetic features and segments, identifying phonemes, and grouping them into morphemes 
Assigning a structure to the sentence in accord with the vast number of grammatical constructions in your native language 
Picking out words and giving them meanings appropriate to context 
Making semantic and pragmatic sense of the sentences as a whole 
Framing what is said in terms relevant to the discussion 
Performing inferences relevant to what is being discussed 
Constructing mental images where relevant and inspecting them 
Filling in gaps in the discourse 
Noticing and interpreting your interlocutor's body language 
Anticipating where the conversation is going 
Planning what to say in response 
All of these processes are completely and totally inaccessible to our conscious process of reasoning, yet they are crucial in governing it. Our understanding of the mind is dependent on the existence of a subconscious.

But neurological correlates, embodied primary metaphors, and subconscious reasoning are all very counter-intuitive things. What's not counter-intuitive is conceiving of a mind as an agent — possessing some form of conscious reasoning. This leads to some questions that theologians seem reticent to grapple with: How does an unembodied mind understand embodied concepts? Does God have a subconscious? If God is omnipotent, does he know his own processes of reasoning — entailing that he does not have a subconscious at all?  To even consider that an unembodied mind could understand embodied concepts and/or have a process of reasoning radically different from our own necessitates the uncomfortable conclusion that whatever God's mind might be, it's radically different than minds as we observe and understand them. 

Example 2: Existence

What if I told you I had a close friend and, when you asked to meet him, I replied, "Well, he's not really anywhere. In a sense he's here with us right now, even though you can't see, hear, or touch him. But he's never at any particular place at any particular time." You'd probably think I was nuts, but a being who exists outside of space and time is precisely how God is very often conceived. Generally, we conceive of existence as a spatial and temporal phenomenon. Even if we're generous enough to say that abstract thoughts "exist", we conceive of our minds as containers and say things like, "it's a thought inside my head". We don't conceive of our thoughts existing nowhere at no time, nor do we consider them omnipresent in the universe. 

The theological concept of existence is stripped of spatio-temporality, down to its most intuitive skeleton: something that is real. It is real in that it has agency and/or causal influence in the universe. When we say "unicorns don't exist", we mean that there are no agents or objects that can either act or be acted upon which fit the description of a unicorn. But God is conceived of being able to act upon things despite lacking any kind of spatial or temporal properties.

Example 3: Causation

When we think about causes, we're generally thinking about what philosophers might call "event causation". That is, causes describe a relationship between events — events that take place in space and time. Effects always follow their causes, and causes always precede their effects. In classical physics, the concept of causation is essential to connecting physical processes — if we know the initial state of a system, then the laws of physics can tell us precisely what the outcome will be. We can even work backwards, connecting effects to their causes. 

Lakoff describes the literal skeleton of the concept of causation as "a determining factor for a situation"[Kindle location 1277]. Theologians strip causation down to this most basic intuitive level. To the theologian, time and space are not necessary for causation to occur. Nor are any particular physical components or even physical laws. God, the unembodied agent who exists nowhere at no time, can nonetheless causally influence events in the universe and (of course) create or destroy the universe purely through his will. 


How theology works

These are just three examples, and there are of course plenty more. But what can be seen from these examples is that in every case, an everyday concept is stripped of any counter-intuitive aspects it might have. Once it is assumed that those counter-intuitive aspects are unessential to the meaning of a concept, a vast array of possibilities unfold. Things don't have to exist in particular places at particular times and they don't have to have any particular set of clearly-defined properties, but they can nonetheless causally interact with things that do exist in particular places and particular times. We can plug these stripped-down concepts into various systems of formal logic and work out their entailments. The irony, of course, is that the entailments can themselves be highly counter-intuitive precisely because those stripped-down concepts are crucially distinct from our common understanding of them. 

The divide between the theist and the atheist is that the atheist sees no reason to entertain these deconstructed concepts as anything but idle speculation — wherein their true meaning has been hopelessly mired in ambiguity —  while the theist views them as integral to metaphysical knowledge. And with no readily apparent way to bridge that divide, the impasse seems destined to continue.

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