Monday, June 20, 2011

Cave-Like Seas

Mark Vernon calls bullshit on Stephen Law's calling of bullshit. Vernon:

I suspect - having read Humanism: A Very Short Introduction - that apophatic theology counts as bullshit for Stephen. As he writes there: 'The view that we cannot say what God is, only what God is not... has it's attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never say what God is, you can never be contradicted.' Touché.

Only, clearly rational theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, who are also big on apophaticism, show that it's quite straightforward to talk about something only by saying what that something is not.

Imagine you have lived all your life in a landlocked country, where there is no talk or sight, let alone comprehension, of the sea. There's not even the word. Then, one day, you venture across the horizon and after a long journey reach the end of land. And you see it. The sea. Astonished, you contemplate the view for a while and then you head back to your fellows. You try to describe what you've seen. It's not land, you begin. It's not hilly or mountainous, you continue. It's not possible to walk across it. It's not covered with grass and trees. It's a bit like that lake, only it has no apparent bounds and it does weird things like approaching the land and then retreating from it, day by day.
You take the point. Quite a lot can be said negatively, by saying it's not like what the landlocked peers are familiar with, and by using some analogies with a negative twist. Similarly, as Aquinas says of God, it's not that mere mortals can have no knowledge of God, but because by definition what God truly would be lies beyond comprehension, that knowledge will always be provisional and hedged with mystery.
It's difficult to see where Vernon finds any support in his ocean-as-apophatic god analogy. Demonstrating the ocean's existence to skeptics would require nothing more than walking the skeptics to the nearest beach and letting them look, smell, taste, touch, and reason for themselves. Even if that proved impractical -- say, because because it's too long a walk for too lazy a group of skeptics, or because they're all deathly allergic to sea salt* -- it should suffice to appeal to what they already know about puddles, ponds, creeks, and lakes but apply modest, comprehensible qualifications like "saltier," "larger," and "subject to wave action."

What Vernon has done here, it seems to me, restate and then misapply Plato's cave allegory. The cave allegory works because the sunlight-aware fellow can simply ask the lifelong cave dwellers to get up and follow him in order to verify his 'wild' claims, and Plato's reader can readily identify with the contrast between the shadows cast by candle light on a cave wall and objects illuminated in direct sunlight.

Unlike the slinger of apophatic theology, the sunlight-aware fellow from Plato does not insist that the exotic realities he recounts are, in principle, unknowable. Instead he points to a significant reality -- without necessarily claiming to comprehend its every particular -- and invites others to experience and explore it. Whether this collective exploration will arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the new-to-them significant reality is a separate question, one that cannot be answered in advance of the investigation. The invitation is to get up and examine the available evidence and begin excavating the conclusions that can be drawn about it, not to accept profundities that are, at the same moment as part of the same gesture, declared unreachable.

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* That would be terrible. I hope it isn't even possible.

5 comments:

Paul Sunstone said...

Stephen Law: "...if you never say what God is, you can never be contradicted."

I think Law's point is either painfully trivial or simply false, depending on how you take his meaning. Aquinas says his god is "not mutable." But how is it not possible to simply assert the opposite of "not mutable"?

If one trivially points you cannot disconfirm the opposite of "not mutable", then so what? You cannot disconfirm "not mutual" either -- deity cannot be falsified.

What am I missing here? What was Law thinking?

At any rate, that's not even interesting. I'm just mentioning it for the hell of the afternoon.

My real purpose is to wonder why people like Vernon keep using such innacurate analogies for mystical experiences? Vernon's analogy, as you pointed out, comes down to saying "My experience was like a puddle only bigger."

But mystics -- the ones I've come across at least -- typically do not make such analogies.

They more typically say things analogous to, "Your experience is like a turnip. But my experience was so different from that, that if you think of your turnip as a cat, you still won't have an idea of my experience."

Of course, there are exceptions. There are mystics who say things in line with Vernon. But most of those I know about don't. Maybe that's just my bad luck though. It wouldn't be the first time.

Paul Sunstone said...

Sorry about the earlier comment, Dale. I just re-read it, and I think it sucks. I've had some bad insomnia for a day or so and it seems to be messing with me. My apologies.

Dale said...

Paul, thanks for the comment. Regarding Law's statement, I'll agree it's not terribly interesting in the sense that it functions here (as cited by Vernon) merely as a jumping-off point into a flawed analogy. Suffice to say Law's criticism of apophatic theology are not done justice by this brief quote.

As for mystical experiences, we demonstrably lack a proper vocabulary for these; I'm not even comfortable with the word 'mystical' as it tends to just gesture toward something that words don't do justice to. As you say, trying to communicate the nature of an experience -- this applies to many kinds of experiences, not just the ones that get tagged as 'mystical' -- quickly runs to futility. This, to me, suggests we should be very wary of pressing forward as though words *do* or *can* reliably capture them. When words fail, that's the time to turn to other means and methods.

My take on apophatic theology comes down to that, and I think Law agrees --- if words don't do justice to X, Y, or Z, then step one is to stop using words and use something else instead. What the 'something else' should be admits of many possible answers -- art, science, feeling, inducing or inviting the experience in others, etc.

Dale said...

Paul, no worries. I took no offense, nor did I think you posted anything especially outrageous. Thanks.

Paul Sunstone said...

I think we can discuss mystical experiences on some levels. For instance, in terms of what we can find out about their neurology.

But to communicate what it is like to have one appears to be impossible. Yet, there could be an exception to that rule: It might be that two people who share the same kind of experience could communicate well enough with each other so as to recognize the similarities, and perhaps some of the differences, between their experiences.

At any rate, I'm of the opinion that folks like Law are doing good in the world by debunking the claims of charlatans.