Reason and Religion: Irremediably Incompatible Bedfellows?

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Like the poet e.e. cummings, floyd merriell writes his name in the lower case to stress the arbitrariness and non-necessity of our egoic self-identification. That humility is conjoined to one of the most interesting intellects in American letters today. In his many books, merrell has demonstrated how the obscure science of semiotics—especially as developed by the great American philosopher C.S. Peirce—can play a fundamental role in developing the emerging new paradigm of an evolving, self-organizating, irreducibly interdependent universe. Here we present merrell’s extended essay on the paradoxical nature of religious truth.

by floyd merrell

Can we know what we can’t know
Is it possible for anything to be totally unintelligible, completely nonsensical, so out in left field that nobody can make any sense of it at all? The answer must be affirmative, if by unintelligible we mean that which we cannot effectively tell, that which we are incapable of putting into words.

With respect to the nature of understanding, for example, we might take the view that what cannot be understood is that which has no other. This notion of other is taken in two ways, and each way ushers in its own particular problem. The first problem is this: to understand something there must be at least something else against which that something can be compared and contrasted, against which there can be some standard of judgment, and, if there is no other something, then there is no yardstick by means of which to judge the first something. The second, considerably more cantankerous, problem has to do with language: to make something intelligible in words implies that there is in the very least words in addition to that something that is to be put into words, and that some sort of correspondence can be had between words and that something. Without words, the something must remain unintelligible. Without words, there’s not much of worth to be known——this, at least, is the customary time-honored view.

Yes, words. Proud words, bearers of all that is worth knowing.  They are signs that link up to that with which they are interdependently, interrelatedly, interactive by way of cultural conventions. The problem is that during the past century, words became the spoiled offspring of more basic nonverbal signs. After the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, we have come to consider language not merely the culmination of human expression, but the heart and soul of all thought and communication. Language now predominates to the extent that we take virtually all signs of sight, sound, smell, taste, and tactile sensations basically in terms of language, language as mediator and revelator of concrete experience. Sensations must pass through the language filter before they can become adequately understood. And mind is the grand adjudicator deriving understanding from language. Mind is the knower of what is to be known, and body, processor of sensations conveyed to mind, is no more than at best a willing servant. Consequently we tend rather contemptfully to relegate the more basic semiotic forms of communication directly emerging out of concrete sensations received by body to the category of relative unimportance, or we attempt conveniently to ignore them, while rendering homage to mind.

It is quite comfortable to assume that if something is intelligible it must require language, and that by and large European languages are chiefly dualist——bivalent——in nature, following traditional logical tenets. This puts everything into neat sets of pigeon-holes. But what if reality is fundamentally nondualistic? What if certain aspects of the world resist either/or imperatives? What if the world itself is of contradictory, inconsistent nature? In such case, the world must be made unintelligible, according to the imperatives of classical logic. We might tend to rebel against the very thought. We want crisp, clear-cut words and meanings. In order that reality may be made intelligible, for every concept or word there needs be something against which it stands. Here the word, there the thing. Here the word, there the maker or taker of the word. Here the word, there the meaning. Quite comfortable, all this.

The Christian edifice also enjoys its root beginning with the dualism of good and evil. After all, Christianity——along with Greek philosophy, which is also injected with a massive dose of bivalency——is where much of Western thought begins. Everything else emerges from there. Adam and Eve knew neither happiness nor sadness, neither joy nor sorrow, neither pleasure nor pain, until they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, of good and evil. And, of course, it had to be a slithering, formless, nonbinary and unstructured serpent that was instrumental in bringing about this original sin.

Unintelligibility can be considerably less mundane than metaphysical thought and ancient religious accounts. Concepts that incorporate falsehoods as if they were true may actually be unintelligible. The ancient notion that the earth rests on an elephant’s back and the elephant is standing on a turtle’s back is in a manner of speaking unintelligible. It is so unintelligible that we tend to take it as simply child-like. Do the elephant and turtle live forever? Where did two beasts of such magnitude come from? And most perplexing of all, if the elephant stands on the turtle, then what does the turtle stand on? When the story of the earth, the elephant, and the turtle was narrated by a Buddhist monk and he was asked this last question, he is reported to have responded: ‘It’s turtles all the way down.’ The response is in a manner of speaking also unintelligible, because the idea of infinity is implied, and an actual infinity of existent objects is inconceivable.

But, then, one may wish to retort that the elephant-turtle account is mere myth, and should not really be taken seriously. Actually, this account is of mytho-scientific origin; it stems from an attempt to describe and explain the universe. Surprising as it may seem, concepts that incorporate apparent falsehoods as if they were true are also found in many scientific theories, and some of them have even come to be taken as unintelligible. As an example, allowed me to put a certain aspect of quantum theory in a nutshell, if you will, since here, we have an account that could well be for generations of the distant future considered mytho-scientific as well. Is the wave interpretation or the particle interpretation most appropriate for the quantum world? This posed a virtually irresolvable problem for almost two decades. Then Niels Bohr suggested that quantum events can be conceived as either waves or particles, depending on the context. But the catch is that they cannot be waves and particles at the same instant. In the classical, atemporal sense, then, it can be said that quantum events are both of wave and particle nature, or that they are neither of wave nor of particle nature. This quandary remains, at least for classical thinking. The term ‘wavicles’ was proposed for quantum events, but that doesn’t quite cut the cake. It only gives the quandary a convenient label.

John von Neumann developed an alternative logic, ‘quantum logic’, in an attempt to account for the strange world of quanta. Basically, quantum logic does away with the classical Excluded-Middle Principle, though it still holds true to the Principle of Non-Contradiction. If we embrace quantum logic, then classical logic loses face (Heelan 1970, 1971, Putnam 1969, 1971). So we must toss binary values as we know them in the trash can, for nothing would necessarily be true or false, good or bad; rather, some act of mind would be sufficient to make it so. How could this possibly occur? Would not the consequences be devastating for our Western cultural life as we know it? How could we begin to cope in a world the very ground of which has been ripped from underneath us?

Perhaps the problem is not as dire as we might expect, however.

Where our dualism got us
In classical logic, two statements each of which is presented as true, yet they contradict each other, are considered inconsistent. Falsified scientific theories have been so falsified because contradictory statements that were incorporated within the same theory were revealed, and the theory was thereby disproved.

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