Over at Normblog, Norm returns to his argument against religion as a human activity that ultimately implies beliefs in the form of propositions. I have written against this view before – here, and here, and here. In his latest post, I think Norm makes two errors of reasoning common to western philosophy these last three centuries or so – that of conflating knowledge in general with a specific form of knowledge, namely know-what (knowledge of facts about the world), and that of conflating know-what with a particular representation of it in the form of propositions (statements about the world with truth values).
We can know how to tie our own shoe-laces, for example, and, as knowledge engineers in computer science have learnt these last 50 years, such know-how is not the same as know-what, and is also often very difficult to represent as propositions about the world. Without explicit representation of the actions, one is forced to associate each action with the propositions that are true before its execution, and those true afterwards, ie, two states, or collections of propositions. But doing so does not enable us to distinguish different actions having the same pre- and post-states, for example, two different procedures for tying the same shoelace knot. One is therefore soon forced to explicitly represent actions. But what exactly are these things, these representations of actions? They are not statements with truth values; indeed, they are not even statements. And this is just for plain old actions, not even utterances about actions, such as promises and requests and commands, all of which may comprise part of a system of know-how (eg, knowledge of how to steer a crewed sailing ship, or knowledge of the process of launching an ICBM).
Even know-what may not be readily amenable to propositional representation, or at least not to propositions understandable by the human subject having the knowledge: any propositional representation of the knowledge of the hundreds or thousands of scents distinguishable by an expert perfumier, for instance, would likely have to involve descriptions of chemical molecules in a style and formal language way beyond the knowledge or thinking or scent-memory of the perfumier. The same conclusion is true with even greater force for the knowledge of non-human beings, such as the keen olfactory sense of most dogs or the navigational abilities of homing pigeons; I’ve yet to meet a dog that understood a proposition, but dogs retain an ability to recall and distinguish scents despite this inability at propositional representation. I have written before on different forms of knowledge here. And if you think all knowledge of geography has to be represented as maps, you should see Rory Stewart’s example recounted here.
Norm ends with:
At bottom, the whole intellectual project founders, in my view, on this logical conundrum: if you really do evacuate religion of all its substantive beliefs, it will be left as meaningful as scraping a stick along a wall, or balancing a marble on your head, or pronouncing a slow ‘drooom’ into a mauve cup; and if religion has more significant meaning than that for its adherents, meaning which really matters to them, this must be because of things religion says about the condition of the universe and their place within it.”
Norm’s understanding of “meaning” seems only to be know-what; a wider view of meaning throws that final “must” into serious question. The meaning of scraping a stick along a wall may be the pleasant sound this action leads to, or the pleasure is gives your hand as the stick undulates with the surface of the wall, or the pleasure it gives you to have a hand able hold a stick, or the presence of friends and family doing the same action with you, or that doing this enables you to recall past times, when you were younger perhaps, when you enjoyed doing the same thing, or that your ancestors likely did the same as long there have been walls and you wish to honor them by repeating the action, or the sense of bliss or ecstasy or contentedness or calm that scraping sticks along walls may induce in you. The meaning of a stick against a wall for you may even be its complete lack of any ostensible meaning, its complete and utter time-wasting lack of utility, especially for us western moderns in a culture obsessed with achievement, success, progress, time, self-improvement, and bildung.
All of the meanings I’ve listed here apply equally well to religious activities and other rituals, both social and personal, such as prayer and meditation and attending church services. And I find it hard to believe that someone who follows sport with enthusiasm should appear to insist that all human activities should have meanings to their adherents that entail propositions testable by external observers, as if all our actions were subject to some community test of significance of meaning. Does the thought that cricket really matters to me necessarily occur because of things cricket says about the condition of the universe and my place within it? This I doubt. If it’s not true for cricket, why should it be true for religion? If Norm wants to insist on religion satisfying such a test, then this constraint says more about his paucity of understanding of religious practices and ideas than anything it might say about religion itself.