Monday, October 31, 2011

Of Hair Dryers and Geometry, Part 3

“Ok, Sarah, “ I hear you saying, “so it’s pointless.  Atheists and theists can’t talk to each other.  Awesome.  Thanks for the despair.  Now what?”  So, is dialogue between people holding different axiomatic systems/world views impossible?  No, I don’t think so.  But we first have to acknowledge the difference is deeper than the level at which we usually discuss, and examine our own axiomatic systems.  Otherwise, you’ll just end up preaching to your choir.   

Here’s an example, which a friend of mine thought of.  It was my experience that I didn’t really learn English grammar until I started to study a different language, in my case, Latin.  English is my native language, so I think in English.  In order to understand how Latin worked, I first had to understand how English works.  I had to go beyond the intuitive understanding of English that I absorbed through growing up speaking English, and really learn the rules and mechanics.  Once I understood how English worked, I could understand and appreciate the difference in how Latin works.  And, most importantly, this native English speaker could begin to understand things written in Latin. 

Saying listening to God is the intellectual equivalent of listening to a hair dryer will be thought clever by atheists and dismissed out of hand by religious people.  Quoting the Bible to prove why God is not like a hair dryer would be respected by Christian religious people but dismissed out of hand by atheist.  In spite of their validity within their own circles, there will be no dialogue using these methods. 

The importance of understanding axiomatic systems/world views is similar to the importance of learning grammar.  First, you need to understand your own axiomatic system, so you know how you view the world.  Examine what you accept as authority.  You may need or want to change things.  Do what you think you believe—what you accept as axioms—line up with how you live your life?  Second, you need to understand other people’s axiomatic systems.  Understand how they think and reason, and what they accept as authority.  Understand how someone who accepted those axioms would live their life if they applied them.

I am not equating dialogue with winning or losing, but a useful analogy is video games.  The rules and game play of Super Mario Brothers is different from Zelda, and is even more different from Words with Friends.  You won’t find a fire flower in Zelda, and a sword is only useful in Words with Friends because a W is worth four points.  You have to know the rules of the game you’re playing.  Just because you can beat Super Mario Brothers in an hour doesn’t mean you’re awesome at Words with Friends.  If you know and understand the rules of how you think and believe, and put the effort into knowing and understanding the rules of how others think and believe, then and only then can you start true dialogue. 

The goal of dialogue is understanding, not winning.  The goal of understanding is to reveal and know more Truth.  I personally hold that objective, capital T, Truth exists.  Dialogue is one tool to discover and learn more of it. 

Some closing thoughts. 

Knowing your world view is like stating your bias when you are reporting or researching.  It is much more honest—and useful—to state that bias, than to assume erroneously that you do not have one.  Because that’s silly, if you breathe, you have a bias. 

People, myself included, need to be prepared to discard or change their axioms, their givens, if they discover that they don’t work.  Just like with Euclidean geometry and planes flying over the poles.

Lastly, I don’t believe that all axiomatic systems are created equal.  Some reflect reality and Truth better than others.  Nor do I believe that Truth is unknowable.  Can we know Truth exhaustively?  Remember that chick at the end of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull?  If we had exhaustive Truth downloaded into our heads, I think they'd explode.  But can we know part of Truth truly?  Yes, absolutely.  I invite you to interact with me and others on this blog as we search for what Truth we may find.  Please do leave comments! 

The Truth is out there.  –Fox Mulder, X-Files

Seek, and you will find.  –Jesus Christ, Book of Matthew

Monday, October 24, 2011

Of Hair Dryers and Geometry, Part 2

To sum up the last entry, an atheist blogger said that Hair Dryer = God.  I reigned in my instinctive reaction to vigorously pontificate, thinking better of ranting in light of a deeper problem at hand.  That of Axiomatic Systems.

I could just say World View, but I think axiomatic systems better illustrate a concept that we all think we know.  Everyone has world views, but not everyone knows what their own one is, let alone what other people’s are.  World views are very much like axiomatic systems (AS).   AS’s are mathematical concepts.  Here’s a great, though technical, article describing AS’s.  The definition given on that article is, “An axiomatic system consists of some undefined terms (primitive terms) and a list of statements, called axioms or postulates, concerning undefined terms.”  If you ever took geometry, you have been exposed to AS’s.  The geometry you studied was Euclidean geometry, based on the axioms posed by an ancient Greek, Euclid.  Axioms cannot be proven.  They must be granted, taken as givens.  Euclidean geometry is based on five axioms, and everything you learned in geometry can be proven from those five axioms alone.  I think that’s pretty neat.

But do you want to know a secret?  That geometry you had to learn doesn’t completely line up with the world in which we find ourselves.  Everything works if the world is flat.  But we in on a roundish planet.  Euclid’s fifth postulate, the parallel postulate, has some difficulties with it (see here for a technical explanation).  Here’s a simple example of the practical applications of those difficulties with this axiom.   Take out an atlas, and tell me the shortest way to fly from Portland, OR, to Frankfurt, Germany.  You’ll use a ruler and draw a straight line.  Now take out a globe and tell me the shortest distance—it’s by going over the pole, not straight across the Atlantic. 

The vast majority of the geometry you learned is still useful.  Some of it doesn’t apply to the world we live in, our reality.  But all of it is true in its own system, in that it is all proven from the initial five axioms.  The axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry is a cohesive system, where everything can be proven based on the five stated axioms.  It’s just that one of those axioms doesn’t match up with reality. 

Now, back to our hair dryer/authority problem.  The problem is our individual axiomatic systems—the things we accept as givens, and can’t prove.  These are what we base our world views on, and from that, what we base our lives on.

The problem with the Atheist vs Religious person argument is that the two axiomatic systems are not the same.  Both accept or do not accept different things as unprovable givens.  One of the typical axioms of the atheist’s world view is that the material world is all that there is—there is nothing above the material/natural world, no supernatural.  One of the typical axioms of the religious person’s world view is that there is a super-natural being(s) that interacts with matter and nature.  Both are unprovable givens—axioms—around which their entire world views are based. 

That last sentence was a purposefully inflammatory sentence.  I hear you say, “You’re telling me I base my life on things I can’t prove? Yeah right.”  You’re probably thinking about some links you want to post in the comment section below, which reference the best argument you’ve ever read for pure materialism or for the existence of God.  However, before you start to prove something, anything, you must start with some givens.  Before you build a house, you must first lay your foundation.  You must have a starting point.  Your axioms, your givens, are that starting point. As in geometry, if the underlying axioms of a system are not accepted, the proofs based on the axioms are not accepted.  If you reject Euclid’s first postulate, which essentially defines a line, you’re not going to get very far in geometry.  It’s a fundamental assumption, and it must be accepted before you can move forward and reason anything out.  

Also, when you are discussing with someone and trying to prove something, you both must agree that each step in the reasoning is true.  If one of you thinks that one of the steps is false, you end up not agreeing to the conclusion.  Here’s a kind of a nonsense example.  You ask me what two plus two equals, and I say six.  You tell me that it’s actually four.  We both look at each other like we think the other is silly, since we know our answers are correct.  What you don’t know is that I had parents with a weird sense of humor who taught me to count, “One, three, two, four, five, six.”  The axioms in this example are the values of the names of numbers.  For me, I associate “Two” with 3, not 2 like you do.  So when you ask me what two plus two is, I say 6.  The example breaks down, because unless I’m amazingly stubborn, you can teach me that “Two” actually is the name for 2 not 3.  But the point is that we disagree on what the word “Two” means, so we can’t agree on any problem that involves “Two”.  Our axioms are different.

So an atheist and a deist walk into a bar and start talking.  How do they overcome their differences, instead of yelling, getting into a fist fight, and getting kicked out of the bar?  Tune in next week for the final gripping installment, of Hair Dryers and Geometry!  ♪♫ Dun dun dun. ♪♫

Monday, October 17, 2011

Of Hair Dryers and Geometry, Part 1

In college I was a religious studies major and took a good number of philosophy classes, too. So when a friend posted a link to an atheist blog post entitled, Listening to the Hair Dryer: Why Nice Religion is Still Problematic, Reason #37,476, I was intrigued. Here’s an excerpt:

Let’s say Person 1 thinks their hair dryer is talking to them, and is telling them to shoot every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train. 

And let’s say that Person 2 thinks their hair dryer is talking to them, and is telling them to volunteer twice a week at a homeless shelter. 

Is it better to volunteer at a homeless shelter than it is to shoot every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train? Of course it is. 

But you still have a basic problem — which is that you think your hair dryer is talking to you.

The blogger does a word swap of “Hair Dryer” for “God” or “Deity”, where she demonstrates that one is whacko for taking direction from a Hair Dryer—whether that direction is good or bad. The blogger goes on to say,

You are still getting your ethics from a hair dryer. You are still getting your perception of reality and your ideas about how to live your life, not from the core moral values that most human beings seem to share, not from any solid evidence about what decreases suffering and increases fairness and happiness, not from your own observations and experiences of what does and does not work to make the world a better place… but from a household appliance.

The source of direction, not the substance, is pointed out as the problem. Now, I must say, my first reaction is to pontificate on why “core moral values that most human beings seem to share” is a very poor standard, and the philosophical difficulties in defining objectively “what does and does not work to make the world a better place.” But, after I calm down from getting all riled up, I know in my gut that that’s not a very effective way to go about it. So I wanted to put words to that gut feeling. There is a greater underlying misunderstanding or problem that my pontificating wouldn’t get near. See, by equating “Hair Dryer” and “God/Deity” and then going on to state what one should listen to for your perception of reality, the blogger is showing that she recognizes a different authority. The Hair Dryer is a linguistic and rhetorical tool and it is this linguistic swap that reveals that deeper misunderstanding or problem.

Hair Dryer is a household appliance --> inanimate, created tool
Hair Dryer does not talk --> does not give direction
Hair Dryer = God

And now, without needing to explicitly state it, the definition of Hair Dryer as an inanimate, created tool that doesn’t give direction, is transferred to God/Deity/Religion.

Therein lies the leap, and therein lies the problem. This rhetoric/logic issue points to the true problem at hand—that of axiomatic systems.

Axioma-what-ic? Huh?

Tune in next week for Part Two, where I reveal the scandal of your high school geometry class!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mondays and Bodies

My goal is to have a substantive blog post up each Monday. I've been working on a blog post, but it's not coming together. Had I started working on it, say, before ten pm Monday night, it probably would have been ready, but oh well. Instead, here is someone else saying something substantive:

"The divine Architect designed our male and female bodies in the very lines and curves of our flesh and bones to proclaim the mystery of Christ and his life-giving union with the Church. This, ultimately, whether we realize it or not, is why we are drawn to the human body--why we are deeply stirred by the mystery of it's masculine and feminine beauty and why we yearn for intimacy and communion."

--Christopher West, "The Theology of the Body Explained: a Commentary on John Paul II's Gospel of the Body", p8

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Blog Reboot

So, my last post was over two years ago about Basil, my late hampster.  She happily lived out her full, but short, life expectancy.  After a pet-less and blog post-less year and a half, I now have a dog, Stewie, and a renewed interest in blogging.  Stewie is a fun, three year old black lab mix, who is my puppy dog, and it just so happens my friends think he is fun, too.  That should be the same thing with my blog--I'm going to have fun writing out the interesting-to-me things I'm thinking about, and it just might happen that others have fun reading it.  So I raise my chocolate soy milk mug in salute to the great twenty-eleven Blog Reboot!

As a preview of things to come, here's a quote that has stuck in my head like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth--there's a lot there, and it's going to take some work to get it all out.
"Therein lies the purpose of the body: it provides the context for how and what we can and will know of God, now and in the life to come."

--Susan A. Harvey, in the collection, Theology and Sexuality
 Just as I'm delighted to have friends come over and play with Stewie, I'm delighted to have you come over and play with my blog comments.  Any preliminary thoughts on theology of the body? Directions to be explored? Tips on better analogies?  :o)