On Meaning, Words, Games, and Problems

I recently read a conversation on Facebook about the conscience – this conversation went on for a good many posts, but it was ultimately an exercise in time-wasting. Why? Because terms were not defined. Not once in the lengthy thread were the terms under consideration defined or even really discussed. This means that the conversation was basically about nothing. It may as well have not have happened.

Sure, that’s a bit extreme of me to say, but I say it to illustrate what I believe to be the most important thing you can do in life: define your terms. What does X really mean? So much of what is said has no meaning simply because meaning is assumed. Don’t assume that the word has some innate meaning, because it doesn’t. But, the objection goes, then everything just becomes (as I typed the word ‘becomes’ I saw that I had typed ‘because’ instead and had to erase it) word games. Yes! Exactly!

It should be no secret to readers of this blog that Wittgenstein is my favourite philosopher, not because he was ‘right’ or whatever, but because of his method – letting the fly out of the bottle by kneading and working through the fogs and mists of our language to show us that the problems of philosophy really aren’t problems at all. I’m convinced that most problems, and not just in philosophy, are problems of language and meaning. By this I don’t mean I’m a logical atomist. I mean that our words and language games do more to hinder us than help us when we try and get to the root of a problem and that if we work through the game, we can often get to the real nub of the issue – maybe even to a solution. Maybe not, though – I don’t believe that philosophy is necessarily about trying to get to a set of certain doctrines. But if we can simply clear away or clear up the conceptual ground, perhaps we can discover that there isn’t really a problem after all – maybe we’ll even find an answer.

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More Natural Theology

It seems that the question of natural theology is one of epistemology, specifically epistemological method. No one denies that the heavens declare the glory of God, etc – the question is can/how one to know of God through nature. Here I think it’s important to get a line on exactly what one means by ‘natural’. I take ‘natural’ to refer to human nature before the fall – this was our ‘natural’ state. I would take a Bonhoeffer-esque line in this regards – which means I would hold that, contra (say) Aquinas, our natural state, our created state, did not include knowledge of good and evil – our knowledge of good/evil is a product of our fallen nature which comes as a result of Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit in the Garden. To quote a friend (this was in reference to natural law, but the principle applies here since it relates to how one comes to know the good):

‘He writes His laws upon the heart not because after the fall Knowledge of Good/Knowledge of Evil was now a delectable, nutritious, and healthy adjunct to the Tree of Life, but because He is in our very being, drawing us, such that if anything we do is good it was itself wrought in God (Jn. 3:19-21), “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).’

This has to do with epistemological method – how does one come to know truths in theology? For Aquinas, foundationalism is in play – one can arrive at certain truths (aspects of the natural law tradition as exemplified in Aquinas) via pure reason apart from faith – to quote paraphrase Pope Benedict, certain truths of morality can be arrived at by reason alone apart from faith. I would hold with Bonhoeffer that such a position is mistaken, and that apart from the presence of God truth as such cannot be arrived at by pure reason.