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Letters to the Editor
Private Meanings • Bah! Humbug! • Christian Marriage • God’s Mind
In his amusing piece on Alice in Wonderland and language games (Issue 13) Peter Williams objects to the concept that the meaning in language games “can be wholly private”. This would appear to be the reverse of Wittgenstein’s claim. Although, for him, meaning ultimately lay outside of language, the way words are used are not private to the individual, but lie in the world. For Wittgenstein, a private language is an impossibility as it could not be constructed from scratch.
Williams also insists that “words do not mean certain things because of the way in which they are used, but are used because they mean certain things”. Really? What about irony or sarcasm? A person may be praised in a manner that makes it quite clear he is being damned. The words say one one thing, but mean another, purely from how they are used. The same applies to flirtatious remarks, which, if written down, are wholly innocuous, but can achieve a totally different meaning in the situation in which they are used. If you know what I mean.
Peter Williams recommends reading some ancient Arabic folklore in order to acquire a better understanding of the limits of the scientific world-view (Letters, Issue 13). I must reply that, like every other indoctrinated youngster in the land, I know lots of those ancient Arabic tales of Moses, David, Jonah and the rest. And I enjoyed them – even the one about Zeus (or was it Deus?) drowning millions of animals and people because he was annoyed with somebody for worshipping somebody else. Fantastic! You can see why Cecil B. DeMille went completely overboard on it. The bits in Leviticus, too, which detail the different offences for which people ought to be stoned to death or burnt at the stake, make exhilarating reading too.
But I fail to see the connection with the protracted, gradual process of scientific advance. In the case of electricity, for example, we have established certain facts which enable us to describe such phenomena mathematically and to generate, control and employ electricity. Reading the story of how Sodomy Gomorrow was destroyed by lightning which Zeus/ Deus apparently generated and controlled by an act of will, does not add to our knowledge in any meaningful way unless Peter Williams can repeat the stunt himself, in which case he has a glowing career ahead of him as his own privatised power supply.
But the big dispute between religion and science surely concerns the origin of the human species. Evolution has been confirmed by scientific advances since Darwin’s time (e.g. the discovery of genetics) and yet it provides an account of human origins which is very different from the theological version. In particular, evolution makes life after death quite improbable – unless we can swallow the notion that somewhere among our ape-like ancestors there was one generation which suddenly acquired immortal souls.
I recommend the Catholic Truth Society publication on evolution where David Jones OP tries to combine Arabic folklore and Evolution. Thus he suggests that Adam and Eve were two of our apelike ancestors and that the long process of evolution took a sudden leap when they were given immortal souls by divine intervention. The idea of two hairy Neanderthals in the Garden of Eden is very appealing, but since God is supposed to have made Adam in his own image, there is perhaps a touch of heresy involved. Nevertheless, Jones certainly helped me to make my mind up and I would recommend him nearly as much as Hume on miracles or Flew on atheistic Humanism. Read on, Macduff.
Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
Is Bob Sharpe (in Issue 13) against (a) marriage as such, or (b) Christian marriage, or (c) just certain aspects of one interpretation of Christian marriage? I suspect he is using an attack on (c) as a pretext for a rejection of (b) in favour of (a). This seems illicit to me, and two points are relevant in response.
First, we wouldn’t even have (a) were it not for (b). Marriage, at least as we know it, is a Christian institution. No matter what the beliefs of those who actually get married, and with all due respect to the Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others among us, getting married in our society typically involves either a Christian ceremony, or a parody of one. So if marriage as we know it is a good thing (which it patently is), it is primarily the Christian tradition that we have to thank for that good thing.
Second, it is hardly news that there is an ascetic strain in Christianity which has done marriage down. There is a pessimistic strain in all religions which are not mere superficial ego-stroking cults; for a religion to be deep, it must be at least open to the possibility of ascetic abuse. So it is a mistake to treat the least helpful aspects of recent Catholic teaching on contraception as if they were the teaching of “the churches” (a vague phrase which Professor Sharpe rather overworks). Other churches regard the Vatican’s teaching on contraception as an illogical and ascetic aberration; and so, in practice, do most Catholics. Professor Sharpe shouldn’t present the findings of Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae as if they represented the only available Christian view of these matters.
Our society, which tragically has largely lost its conceptual grip on Christianity, is also, naturally enough, losing its grip on the concept of marriage. The ethical notions central to the concept of marriage which we have inherited – the notions of a friendship based on a vow, and of the good of the body – are foreign to modern minds. It is our loss of comprehension of these ethical notions which explains our current incoherence about marriage. We cannot without disastrous consequences simply abandon the idea of marriage; but neither can we return to it as if we had never begun to find it problematic. What we need to do is not just cavil at aspects of interpretations of it that do not make sense to us, but rethink marriage, and its central notions, from the bottom up. Now that’s what I call a research programme for ethics.
University of East Anglia
Roger Caldwell’s article ‘Reading The Mind of God’ (PN Issue 13) states that if there are no gaps left for God to play a cosmological role then ‘God Talk’ becomes redundant. I disagree. Talk about the ‘God of the Gaps’ only made sense against the background of the rigidly deterministic scientific world view of the 18th century which still exists under the guise of scientific reductionism. Science has moved on, so has Theology.
A constant theme in the history of Religion has been that God is transcendent. In other words He is not to be identified with any of the processes operating within the universe; neither is He a First Cause in a chain of cause and effect. He is to be seen rather as that ultimate reality that upholds and sustains all natural processes. The investigation of the natural world can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence.
Religious believers have never regarded God primarily as an explanation for anything, certainly not for the natural world, which has always been regarded as subject to natural laws acting as secondary causes. Science only operates at one level of reality, and may influence what we think and feel about the meaning and significance of our existence. It is in this arena that believers see the presence of God. Our perceptions of beauty and value, the sanctity and dignity of the Other, are understood to be reflections of the Divine in our world, to which we are invited to respond with heart and mind and will.
Science yes, Religion yes, but science as religion, NO.
Mike Morris Chorley,
Contrary to Roger Caldwell’s claim, the question as to why “there is anything at all” is not quite immune to rational discourse and the reply “why not?” is inappropriate.
For the question to be puzzling we would have to have expected “there to be nothing at all”. If the laws of physics had eternally existed we would find the existence of this infinite series no less puzzling than a limited series. Yet there necessarily could be nothing prior to the existence of a limited series of instances of the laws of physics to account for their origin. We should, therefore, have expected nothing at all, so the appropriate response to existence is incredulity rather than the bland “why not?”
If the origin of the laws of physics provokes a conundrum then the same conundrum subtends the continuation of the laws of physics and present phenomena.
Meditation can be a method of experiencing this puzzling aspect of the present moment.