Terry Eagleton has been a strong defender of religious belief, religious practice, and theology against the attacks of the neo-classical atheists, as in this interview here. I have a great deal of sympathy with Eagleton’s aims, but he seems confused about performative acts, actions which may or may not imply propositions, and, when they do, certainly rarely imply propositions reasonable people can agree on. Normblog, here first and then here, attacks Eagleton’s account of religious practice. In his second post, Norm is responding to a post by Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling, a post which defends Eagleton by discussing tacit knowledge and coming-to-know-something-through-experiencing-it.
I have argued before (and here) that many (perhaps even most) religious adherents have personal encounters which they perceive to be of the divine. These experiences, despite being widespread (in apparently all human societies, and seemingly across all human history) have so far proven not to be objectively replicable, which therefore invalidates them as evidence for scientific claims. But this does not invalidate them as evidence for personal beliefs and actions. Indeed, quite the contrary. If I prefer the taste of drinking coffee to the taste of drinking tea, it is because of my personal subjective experiences of the two liquids; there is nothing that an explicitly-socially-negotiated activity such as science should have to say on the matter of my personal preferences or tastes. To argue otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of science as an activity as well as to intrude on my autonomy as a human person. (In other words, if Richard Dawkins chooses not to believe in a non-material realm, fine. But he has no moral right to tell other people what they may believe or practice, let alone to assert that they should ignore or discount their own personal experiences in deference to his.)
All the writers here are victims of the bias in our western intellectual culture these last three centuries, a bias which is long-run consequence of the European religious wars of the 17th century. This bias favours beliefs over actions, favours propositions over other representations of knowledge, and (inter alia) favours written accounts over other forms of communication. There are many ways of knowing besides beliefs, and other forms of knowledge representation besides propositions. For example:
- Know-What: We may know what objects there are in the world, what features they have, and what their relationships are to each other. Such knowledge may be expressed in the form of propositions – statements which are true (or not) of the portion of reality they purport to describe. On the other hand, not all human communicative utterances are statements with truth values (perhaps, indeed, most utterances are not), and a great part of the meaning of utterances is unrelated to their truth or falsity relative to the world. Arguably, the mainstream of pure mathematics since Mario Pieri’s and David Hilbert’s work in creating and studying formal axiom systems in the 1890s has been unrelated to truth or falsity. As Eagleton is trying to argue, many religious actions may be communicative utterances with profound meanings and highly-impactful consequences not associated with their truth values. And in situations of extreme uncertainty, where the very objects in the domain are unknown, let alone their attributes and relationships, I am not convinced it makes any sense at all to talk of propositional representation of knowledge of the domain.
- Know-How: We may be able to perform some activity, or exercise some skill, without our knowledge being expressed, or even expressible, in propositional form. All of us can breathe, most of us can walk down a staircase, some of us can even hit a 99-mile-per-hour cricket ball over the boundary or improvise jazz on a piano or successfully manage a large software development team, yet every single one of us would be hard-put to express any of these abilities in propositional form. Indeed, many of us would be hard part to even describe the actions involved in these activities: try saying exactly what basic actions, in what precise order, you undertake to walk down stairs, for instance. (And as any sportsman or musician can tell you, the whole point of achieving mastery of some physical skill is to put it out of conscious awareness – to be such a master of the skill that one does not think consciously about it and cannot describe it verbally.) In any case, representation of know-how knowledge may be much better undertaken with collections of feasible actions or commands, rather than with propositions, as in the definition of computer protocols (such as HTTP). The 1868 book by Brown (details below) is an example of such a collection of possible actions, in this case mechanical movements.
- Know-Where: We may know our geographic position, relative for instance to the sun or to the directions of the compass, without even necessarily being aware that we have this knowledge, let alone being able to put it into propositional form. Yet we may use this knowledge even without being aware that we have it. In an earlier post, I reported on experiments in Australian aboriginal communities which demonstrated that some people maintain a sense of their relative geographic position all the time, and use this knowledge without conscious awareness, in the same way that we all breathe or most of us walk down stairs. One could easily imagine non-propositional representation of know-where knowledge by means (for instance) of co-ordinates in some manifold, or a directed arrow (a vector) always pointing from the knower to some other point, such as the sun or the north pole.
- Know-When: We may have an acute sense of rhythm or timing. Professional musicians, particularly percussionists and drummers, are often able to beat perfect time at a pre-specified rate (eg, 60 beats per minute) without recourse to a metronome, to detect very small differences between different beat rates, and to play one rhythm against another. Good musicians are invariably able to beat complex rhythms (2 against 3, or 4 against 5), or play non-standard divisions of a beat (11 equal notes in the time of 8, for example). The jazz drummer, Jeff Tain Watts, for instance, once began a song that was in 8 beats to the bar with a 7 bar introduction, with each successive bar having one additional drum-beat (ie, the first bar had 1 drum-beat to the bar, the second 2, the third 3, etc). Even the act of playing music together requires an ability to know when to play one’s part relative to when other performers are playing their parts, and to anticipate each other’s playing, a cognitive skill that can take years of practice together to do well. For the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for example, the organist was located in Sydney Town Hall, about 10 miles from where the Orchestra and the conductor were. Although linked by video, there was noticeable delay, both in video transmission and sound transmission. To actually sound together required the organist to play before the orchestra did, which meant anticipating the conductor’s instructions. Similarly, people in other professions whose success depends on the timing of actions, such as many sports, acting and stand-up comedy, have a very good sense of timing, a knowledge of when best to act or speak. Whether this knowledge is innate, or (more likely) learnt, it can be extremely sophisticated, and none of representable in propositional form, nor even easily describable in any form.
- Know-Who: People who get things done in the world almost invariably have a good ability to “read” groups and social situations, and to manage them. The pundit David Brooks has argued, correctly in my view, that the skills involved in these activities – “Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group”, in Brooks’ words – are both cognitively demanding and essential for success in modern society. Indeed, these skills have been essential for success in human societies for thousands of years, perhaps more so in oral cultures, such as those in Southern Africa before colonialism, than in modern society. I have written about precisely what we are doing when we “read” a group or social situation, here. This form of knowledge, like so many in this list, is not easily codified.
- Know-That (in deference to Huxley): We may know that some entity exists merely by being in its presence. We may know this without use of any of our so-called “five senses“, but through some other means. The Sufi school of Illuminationism, founded by Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (1155-1191), is an example of a mystical tradition based on such knowledge. Anyone who has been in love or felt the love of another person will have had something like this knowledge.
Wittgenstein famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” He was certainly not claiming that there is nothing about which one cannot speak.
Henry T. Brown [1868 ]: 507 Mechanical Movements: Mechanisms and Devices. Reprinted 2007 by Dover Science.
Aldous Huxley : The Perennial Philosophy. London, UK: Chatto and Windus.
Mehdi Amin Razavi : Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination. London, UK: Routledge.