Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dawkins Versus Collins: On the Things Which Spark Debate*

After being sick for three weeks, my mind is starting to click again.  (Poor you.)  Can I ask a question?  What is a “thing”?  As in my saying, “Buddhism is just a thing.”  What does it mean to call something a thing?

A thing is something that can be separated and removed from the other elements around it.  Thus, a stone lying on the road is a thing.

But this opens other avenues for drawing conclusions.  Something that is a totality, representing the superset of “wholeness”, cannot be a thing.  So, the universe cannot be a thing if, by the universe, we mean the sum total of everything.  Some people might say the same thing about God, seeing that God subsumes everything that is less than God.

I would say that the phenomenon known as conscious experience also qualifies as a totality.  We cannot directly “know” (or have direct awareness of) anything that falls outside the scope of conscious experience.  Elements within consciousness can be removed from the mix.  But consciousness itself cannot be removed (while we are conscious).  Therefore, conscious experience is not a thing.

Here is another distinction.  Some things can be described as “physical” things.  Other things have no physicality, but are, nevertheless, things.  Nonphysical things could be described as “mental” things.  They exist only in the mental environment of a conscious mind.

Example: I create a mathematical set that consists of the days of the week.  Each member of the set is a thing since I could remove it from the set and consider it alone.  And the set is a thing.  Why?  Because it is not the totality called “the set of all sets”.  (It can be removed from the set of all sets and can be examined on its own.)  Yet, we can recognize that all these are mental things and are clearly apart from physical things.

There is a special category of mental things: words.  A word is a constituent of the superset known as “vocabulary”.  What makes words interesting is that they have “correspondences” to other things.  Word correspondence can be representational: words stand for things.  Word correspondence can also be associative: word things can have similarities or relationships to other word things.  This permits classification, grouping and reminding.  In other words, word things have primary meanings as well as shades of meanings beyond the primary.

Word things can create confusion.  When I use a word I am using a thing, but do I mean the word thing or the meanings associated to it?

One area of word thing confusion might arise if the word thing refers to a rule.  “Rule X” is a thing that references a law or regulation that requires car drivers to turn on headlamps when continuously operating a vehicle’s windshield wipers.  If I invoke “Rule X” in conversation, am I making reference to the practical application of this rule on the part of a car driver?  Perhaps, I am in the legal or enforcement profession.  In that case “Rule X” refers to the word-for-word law that is recorded as the official wording of Rule X.  Or, maybe my use of “Rule X” in my speech would be a reference to the intent or the “why” behind the rule’s creation in the first place.

Many an argument has taken place precisely because the discussants were using the same word thing, yet conjuring in their minds distinctly different referential meanings.  The fact is that such debates happen and are given social importance.  To illustrate, we might step into a courtroom in which two law firms (and the parties they “represent”) are battling out a conflict to the point that one side’s meaning prevails over the other side’s meaning.

Here’s another example.  Suppose I use the word thing “God”.  Doing so, I might be referencing the word itself.  This is not a trivial usage.  Fundamentalist Judaism places strict limits on how and when words for God may be used.

Or, perhaps “God” refers to a specific religion’s understanding of a God-concept, and, indirectly, is a reference to that religion apart from other religions.  For instance someone who says “God” might be invoking the specific meaning “Christ”, which, of course, directly connects to a specific group of religions known as Christianity.

Alternatively, the word thing “God” could be indicative of a specific type of experience.  For instance, a person who says “God” might have in mind the entity to whom humans give praise and what it feels like to give praise.

Clearly, the experiential quality of praising is distinct and different from a specific God-concept, and both are different from a name for God.  Yet, unending arguments will burn because each participant is contributing a different sort of kindling to the fire of disagreement.  The debate happens because the participants can’t free themselves from the trap set by a word thing with different referents.

What this suggests is that we may need a new kind of language that can describe the use of things in multiple and different ways, thus freeing us from the confusion of “single thing, multiple correspondences”.  This new language (and the thought which accompanies it) would help us see past the confusions that arise when things enter the mind and take on form in conscious experience.

From such a language a new concept of things and meaning could arise, as well as a respectful understanding of the weaknesses that come with holding things such as words in consciousness.  From this new language:
A super-consciousness.
That renders consciousness as a thing.
A super-consciousness.
That transcends.

*As I wrote this, I had in the back of my mind some of the great debates in recent years between believers and atheists.  One notable, and brilliant scientist, Richard Dawkins, has positioned himself to become a lightning rod for some of these debates.  For example, see the debate between Dawkins and NIH administrator Francis Collins that was arranged and published by Time magazine in 2006, “God vs. Science”.

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