Monday, January 31, 2011

Words, meaning, and truth

Words are artifacts of human existence. When we first encounter them, they are not symbols for preconceived abstract ideas. Such ideas develop only in the course of time, as we connect various experiences in a network of associations. Words become associated with people, things, actions, and more generally patterns which can be perceived by the human mind. They then become symbols, but not merely so. To think of words as merely symbols is to falsely assume that language was designed for the purpose of representing a certain a priori cognitive framework.

Meaning happens only within an already existing network of associations. Words have meaning only insofar as they interact with a broader network. To suggest a one-to-one association between words and ideas is not only very limiting, but very naive. The way in which words interact with a network of associations is both linguistic and non-linguistic. For instance, the word "pitcher" in the sentence, "The pitcher threw a curve ball," interacts very differently with the words in the sentence, "Fetch me the pitcher of water." In both instances, the word "pitcher" interacts with more than just other words in a linguistic framework; there are also shared experiences, such as playing baseball or passing a water pitcher around a dinner table. It is impossible for the mind itself to fully map its own network of associations, or at the very least it is impossible to construct the entire map linguistically. Hence it is impossible to exactly predict what meaning words or anything else will have for us. Only broad patterns can be determined with any accuracy.

Truth and falsehood are too narrowly defined as a binary judgment on a given proposition. The search for truth is really more general. As our network of associations grows, we develop the ability to imagine possibilities, constructing "models" to simulate a possible real world scenario. The "real world" itself is a concept which we develop after it becomes clear that imagination can be done for its own sake, and not merely for predicting events to be experienced physically (children learn this very early on). Truth, then, is a matter of the reliability of our models. The word "reliability" here has an expansive meaning, incorporating but certainly not limited to attributes such as predictive power, self-consistency, and beauty. The latter of these rarely gets enough attention.

The common person already acts on these assumptions, and needs no stated theory to do so. A husband who tells his wife that she looks stunning in that dress; a neighbor who politely remarks that it's a nice day, isn't it; and a pastor who declares from the pulpit that all visitors are welcome are all using words the way they know they are supposed to. Whether in some abstract sense of propositional logic these statements are "true" is irrelevant. It would be a mistake to assume that for this reason such words have nothing to do with truth. Words function in this capacity the way they always do, both building and invoking certain associations from which follows meaning. In this sense we may rightly say that the husband is being true to his wife, or that the neighbor is being true to her friends, or that the pastor is being true to his congregation and community. This is truth in the sense of reliability, wholeness, beauty. It is not a relativistic/utilitarian "whatever works for you" conception of truth. While we acknowledge that truth can only be evaluated from within a given network of associations, the very network we speak of is constantly being shaped by its environment, i.e. by experience of the real world. In other words, common sense really is knowledge.

Knowledge is neither given nor received. It is grown. Its possibilities for growth are determined by the rules governing the environment in which it grows, though this often does not make the process predictable. A person who seeks knowledge as a thing to be possessed is chasing a phantom (although the pursuit may still be beneficial, since her knowledge still grows in the process). On the other hand, a person who seeks to cultivate knowledge through training and experience is on the right track.

Theologically this implies that truth cannot, strictly speaking, be revelatory. A revelation is not in itself truth, any more than words are in themselves truth. Revelations (like words, especially if the revelation is words) must be interpreted, but we must say more than that. Interpretations don't exist in vacuums, but in flesh and blood human beings. Non-incarnate theology makes no sense: God has no theology. But theology grows up in an environment governed by God. Revelation constitutes a dramatic change in the environment which cannot be ignored. Those who seek knowledge must shape their thoughts around revelation. (I have assumed here, at least for the sake of argument, that there really are such things as divine revelations.) God does not impart knowledge directly to humans, but he governs the possible growth which the human mind may experience.

What I have outlined in this brief note is a small part of a larger epistemology, one which is based not on the primacy of reason but on the necessity of growth and adaptation. In other notes, I hope to address some underlying metaphysical questions and develop a response to what I feel is a more common but improper rationalistic Christian epistemology.


  1. I'm not sure how this would affect your larger point about knowledge, but I think you ignore somewhat the range of roles words (and particularly speech) play when you give the examples of the husband, neighbor and pastor. None of those statements is necessarily "true" in the sense of being a factual assertion borne out by reality (the wife may not in fact look very impressive to anyone else, the weather may not be particularly fine, and the congregation may not be especially hospitable to guests in actual practice), but quite aside from expressing less-literal meaning - the husband is in fact expressing his love and devotion, e.g. - there's a volitive, declarative function in play as well. The neighbor is certainly making a propositional statement, but he's also likely inviting the hearer to share in enjoyment or thankfulness for the situation. The pastor is exhorting his congregation to welcome visitors, asserting his own intent to do so - and declaring the visitors, so to speak, forensically welcome; that is, he confers upon them by his words the status of "welcome." I don't know that an epistemology dealing with symbols like this does can do without addressing the will.

    Furthermore, I think you're way off when you say that "God has no theology." Perhaps there's no way to account for a unitarian God having self-knowledge, but I think it's a pretty classic (and worthy) doctrine that teaches that God's theology is the basis for everyone else's. God knows Himself perfectly, interprets Himself and His creation absolutely and completely - is infinite in Self-knowledge. But because He is Three in One, this isn't simple introspection the way a human individual might practice it, but infinite exploration of relationship.

  2. Concerning the range of roles words play, I think my fourth paragraph only confirms what you said. I'm not sure what the objection is.

    Concerning God's theology, I suppose it depends on whether you think God's "self-knowledge" needs to be accounted for.

  3. And here, the consequences of a conceptualist metaphysics. No direct revelation, no direct knowledge of reality and therefore no communication of public objects between two people.

    "The "real world" itself is a concept which we develop after it becomes clear that imagination can be done for its own sake, and not merely for predicting events to be experienced physically (children learn this very early on). Truth, then, is a matter of the reliability of our models."

    I would evaluate these propositions for their truth, but I've read somewhere that truth is now more general, which I take to mean probably true or not, depending on the "model of reality" I'm working with.

  4. "No direct revelation, no direct knowledge of reality and therefore no communication of public objects between two people." That's a bit of a non-sequitur. Just because people don't possess knowledge, say, in the way that a computer stores memory, doesn't mean communication is impossible. On the contrary, as I attempted to say in paragraph 4, and as my brother also said, we communicate much more than information.

    "I've read somewhere that truth is now more general..." It's a shame you say this sarcastically. That really is the whole point. Is it so implausible that truth is more than propositional content?

  5. Truth itself is more than propositional content, and so far as that goes I agree with you...but we know and express truth in propositions and propositions to describe you have here in a series of propositions, ironically.

    The logical outcomes of conceptualism are seen in your own post, not my assumptions. You cannot have communication (meaningful, at least) about a public object if all one has to refer to are one's own ideas. As far as direct revelation goes, Saul on the road to Damascus becomes twisted out of all recognition when the scene is described as "a dramatic change in the environment" as opposed to God directly imparting knowledge through veridical perception.

    Of course you believe communication is possible, etc. What I'm saying is given the system you believe in, it is not possible to show how without piling falsehood upon falsehood in the end to make it work. Thus, we have "model dependent reality" a la Hawking.


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