In Salon, Steve Paulson interviews Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, who call themselves “proud atheists.” But this post is not so much about their atheism as it is about language, concepts, and misunderstandings —
You have a fascinating observation in your new book about causation. You say the way we construct sentences, particularly verbs, has a lot to do with how we understand cause and effect.
PINKER: That’s right. For example, if John grabs the doorknob and pulls the door open, we say, “John opened the door.” If John opens the window and a breeze pushes the door open, we don’t say, “John opened the door.” We say something like, “What John did caused the door to open.” We use that notion of causation in assigning responsibility. So all of those crazy court cases that happen in real life and are depicted on “Law and Order,” where you have to figure out if the person who pulled the trigger was really responsible for the death of the victim, tap into the same model of causation.
I talk about the case of James Garfield, who was felled by an assassin’s bullet, but lingered on his deathbed for three months and eventually succumbed to an infection because of the hare-brained practices of his inept doctors. At the trial of the murderer, the accused assassin said, “I just shot him. The doctors killed him.” The jury disagreed and he went to the gallows. It’s an excellent case of how the notion of direct causation is very much on our minds as we assign moral and legal responsibility.
Rebecca, you’ve written a great deal about competing philosophical theories of language. Do you think our mind can function apart from language? Or does language define our reality?
GOLDSTEIN: Obviously, much of our thinking is being filtered through language. But it’s always seemed to me that there has to be an awful lot of thinking that’s done prior to the acquisition of language. And I often have trouble translating my thoughts into language. I think about that a lot. It often seems to me that the thoughts are there and some words are flitting through my mind when I’m thinking. So there’s something very separate between thinking and language. But that might vary from mind to mind.
As a novelist, this must be something you think about.
GOLDSTEIN: Very much so. My novels begin with a sense of the book, a sense of the place, and then I have to find the language that does justice to it. Strangely, I find that in my philosophical work as well. And in math; I’ve done a lot of math. I have the intuition, I’ll see it, and then I have to translate it into language. So I’ve always had a keen sense that thought does not require language.
The understanding that “the way we construct sentences, particularly verbs, has a lot to do with how we understand cause and effect” has been integral to Zen Buddhism for 15 centuries, and in Buddhism generally for a thousand years before that. I believe it originated in vedanta, a movement of Hindu that began ca. the 6th century BCE, possibly earlier. And of course it’s central to philosophical Taoism as well. I’m very happy to see that “America’s brainiest couple,” as Paulson calls Pinker and Goldstein, are finally catching up.
I wrote about the limitations of language in the Wisdom of Doubt series, but the Paulson article has inspired me to revisit the topic and take it a little further. And to do that I’m going to go out on a limb and discuss Chao Chou’s Dog, which is the first koan of the Mumonkon. (Please note that I’m not a Zen teacher, just a rather slow student, and will not provide anything approximating the answer.) Rinzai Zen students spend years meditating on this koan; it’s said that if you can resolve it, the other 800 or so koans aren’t so hard. Here is the case:
- A monk asked Master Chao Chou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Chao Chou answered, “Mu.”
And that’s it. Some explanation: Non-Chinese speaking Zennies are told that Mu means “No thing.” Chao Chou was a famous Chinese Zen master ca. 9th century, who sometimes shows up in literature as Joshu, his name in Japanese. “Buddha nature” is the reality that enlightened beings are enlightened to. It’s said that Buddha nature pervades the universe — that’s a line from common Zen liturgy. So, one might assume, Buddha nature pervades dogs, right? So, a dog should have Buddha nature.
But Master Chao Chou said “No thing.” Not ‘no,” but “no thing.” If a child had asked him the same question, he might have said “yes.” But a monk should be able to go beyond the words, to the meaning beyond the meaning.
The koan collection called the Mumonkon, which sometimes is called “The Gateless Barrier” or “The Gateless Gate,” was compiled by a Chinese master named Hui-k’ai (1183-1260) who also came to be called Wu Men (Chinese) or Mumon (Japanese), meaning “no gate.” Hui-k’ai/Mumon provided commentaries and capping verses to help the student along. The American Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi gives this translation of the capping verse to Chao Chou’s Dog:
Dog, Buddha nature —
The full presentation of the whole;
With a bit of “has” or “has not”
Body is lost, life is lost.
With a bit of “has” or “has not” — there’s that pesky verb. The way we construct sentences, particularly verbs, has a lot to do with how we understand cause and effect. It has a lot to do with the way we understand everything. If you think in terms of the dog having Buddha nature, then you’ve got two things — a dog, and Buddha nature — connected by the verb to have. But Mumon says no thing.
There’s a question being asked here, but as soon as you try to put the question into words, it’s wrong. You might be tempted to say, well, the dog doesn’t have Buddha nature, but what then is the relationship between the dog and Buddha nature? That’s still two things. The monk is being challenged to push beyond nouns and verbs and objects to directly perceive the nature of beingness itself, which cannot be explained with words. The koan is presenting something to be realized. It’s easy to come up with a conceptual answer — that the dog and Buddha nature are one — but just as the question cannot be conceptualized, neither can the answer, which is a matter to be resolved between teacher and student.
In the interview, Goldstein says, “I often have trouble translating my thoughts into language. I think about that a lot. It often seems to me that the thoughts are there and some words are flitting through my mind when I’m thinking. So there’s something very separate between thinking and language. But that might vary from mind to mind. … I have the intuition, I’ll see it, and then I have to translate it into language. ” Once we can conceptualize whatever’s clanking around in our heads, we can describe it with language. But concepts are an interface; they aren’t the thing itself. Realization outside of the conceptualization/language filter is what Zen and other mystical practices are all about. The kind of head work Goldstein seems to think is cutting edge has been going on for millenia.
But, of course, when you start talking about eastern mysticism to some folks, they put up all kinds of “this is just New Age claptrap” filters, and they don’t hear anything you say.
Later in the interview, Pinker and Goldstein go on about Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza is celebrated as a great rationalist who helped lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment. Goldstein says of Spinoza,
I also like the grandeur of his ambition. He really does believe that we can save ourselves through being rational. And I believe in that. I believe that if we have any hope at all, it’s through trying to be rigorously objective about ourselves and our place in the world. We have to do that. We have to submit ourselves to objectivity, to rationality. I think that’s what it is about Spinoza. He’s just such a rationalist.
And that’s fine. But Spinoza was no atheist; he was a pantheist. His answer to the question of the existence of God was that nothing exists but God. “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived,” Spinoza said. “God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things. All things which are, are in God. Besides God there can be no substance, that is, nothing in itself external to God.”
So, does a dog have God nature? And how close in understanding were Spinoza and Chao Chou? Not identical, I don’t think, but they were certainly pointing to the same thing.
This part of the interview pissed me off:
Steve, you recently waded into the controversy over Harvard’s proposal to require all undergraduates to take a course called “Reason and Faith.” The plan was dropped after you and other critics strongly opposed it. But the people who supported it say that every college graduate should have a basic understanding of religion because it’s such a powerful cultural and political force around the world. Don’t they have a point?
PINKER: I think students should know something about religion as a historical phenomenon, in the same way that they should know something about socialism and humanism and the other great ideas that have shaped political philosophies and therefore the course of human events. I didn’t like the idea of privileging religion above other ideologies that were also historically influential, like socialism and capitalism. I also didn’t like the euphemism “faith.” Nor did I like the juxtaposition of “faith” and “reason,” as if they were just two alternative ways of knowing. …
…But can you really equate religion with astrology, or religion with alchemy? No serious scholar still takes astrology or alchemy seriously. But there’s a lot of serious thinking about religion.
PINKER: I would put faith in that same category because faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it. I would put it in the same category as astrology and alchemy.
In his book Dynamics of Faith, the Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote, very clearly, that “Faith is not belief and it is not knowledge with a low degree of probability.” He called Pinker’s definition of faith an “‘intellectualistic’ distortion of the meaning of faith.” This and other distortions of the meaning of faith have had a “tremendous influence over popular thinking” that “have been largely responsible for alienating many from religion since the beginning of the scientific age.” Tillich continued,
The most ordinary misinterpretation of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence. Somethng more or less probable or imporbable is affirmed in spite of the insufficiency of its theoretical substantiation. … If this is meant, one is speaking of belief rather than of faith.
So if believing that some supernatural thing is real or true even if it can’t be proved is not faith, then what is faith? Tillich said,
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. … Faith as ultimate concern is the act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind. …
…Faith is not an act of any of his rational functions, as it is not an act of the unconscious, but it is an act in which both the rational and the nonrational elements of his being are transcended.
I want to do a post or two just on Tillich some day; I don’t have time right now to do his work justice. But as I understand it, faith is a means rather than an end. It’s a means of engagement with something, and that something may be tangible or intangible, true or false. The something does not necessarily have a religious nature.
The kind of arrogance and ignorance by which Pinker dismisses “faith” as something like believing in magic is disturbing. It was his own prejudice and ignorance, not rational judgment, that inspired him to oppose the Faith and Reason class. Too bad.
Update: Neil the Ethical Werewolf has a post up refuting an op ed by Lee Siegel called “Militant atheists are wrong.” There’s a lot about Siegel’s arguments that are, um, flaky, and Neil makes some decent points. But Neil’s argument is mostly based on an assumption that faith equals belief. I’m afraid both Neil and Siegel miss the boat here.