Friday, February 6, 2009

Why We Can't Communicate

Like many of you who debate the lofty matters of religion online know, the arguments have a high probability of degenerating into little more than shouting matches of "Nuh-uh!" and "Uh-huh!" To avoid such situations on, I've created a group there called Debate Faith (no, it's not related to the Stickam chat room run by AtheistAtLarge). Come join us if you like to discuss these affairs within the context of proper argument.

And argument is what I wanted to blog about today, namely the question of why theists and atheists have such a hard time understanding one another. I suppose the reasons I'll state go beyond the "God debate" and touch any opposing viewpoints that are so at odds with each other that a conclusion seems impossible.

Code Words
We communicate through the language of logic. If a language exists, then by definition logic exists, otherwise we wouldn't be able to communicate a thing (or even understand a thing). If I want to communicate a sentence to you, we must both first agree on certain fabricated rules; a type of code that we mutually 1) either invent or borrow from someone else, and 2) agree upon. In order for you to understand the sentence, "I play drums", you have to know what the sounds "I" and "play" and "drums" stand for. These code words point to our experiences, things we have seen or otherwise experienced before, and the rules that are encoded to relate these ideas. The words we use are important. If we substitute another meaning for an idea we're trying to convey without first agreeing up the new meaning, the communication breaks down. So if you hear me tell you "I play the drums" but you don't think of me banging around on a musical percussion instrument, then you cannot relate to what I'm trying to convey. Likewise, if I tell you "I play drums" but mean instead that I engage in a game utilizing a large metal cylinder used for storing liquid, then I'm responsible for the ambiguity.

Humans created the language of logic. All the symbols, formulas, statements, rules -- logic is man-made, yes; but logic itself is a representation of something else: the behavior of existence. It's a reflection of the way the universe commonly behaves. We don't just arbitrarily decide its rules, but rather they are built upon the framework that the universe provided to us. Something cannot both be and not be. Something must either be true or its negation must be true. When two things are the same, they are the same. We get these rules out of observing the nature of nature. If nature wasn't consistent then we couldn't have logic and thus we could not have the language to express it (or we'd have a completely different version of logic). Either we have contradictions but no language, or we re-write contradictions, change the rules and meanings of things, make contradictions no longer contradictions, and communicate.

There may be things that exist but cannot be communicated or described. But if they can be experienced then they can be given a code name and the idea can thus be communicated to anyone who has experienced the same thing and knows the code word for it.

If It Happened To You
This brings me to the idea of personal experience as justification for believing something (a topic I've written about extensively), specifically when it comes to subjects of theism and faith. It may very well be that your personal experience is genuine and that your perception and conveyance of the event is flawless and true. I could rightly argue against it by citing the way people tend to shade their experiences based on what they know, the way the mind can be tricked, the numerous different and contradicting accounts of that type, my own personal experience, and the simple fact that it's subjective and untestable. Regardless, there is no possible way for me to refute that idea sufficiently enough to a believer who is positively sure it is real. I couldn't convince such a person to even try to imagine otherwise. No one could.

The problem then, lies in the fact that I have not experienced what you're talking about -- I don't have the same rule in my rulebook for that code word. If you are ever to express your ideas to me, then I must either agree to accept your rules as my own, or I will have to experience it for myself.

This may sound obvious -- we either mean two different things (your red is my green, for example), or one of us has a code word for an experience which the other has neither -- but understanding what limits us from reaching agreements is key to creating a better, healthier, more tolerant and connected world. We need to learn to identify what stifles conversation; what brings our relatable experiences of reality to an impasse...and I feel in no other arena than the domain of faith is this needed most.

It is our shared experiences of reality that lay the tracks for our engines of understanding to run upon. If you tell me something purely subjective, like "Last night I dreamed about flying," for instance, there's no possible way for me to prove or disprove that (other than looking and brain scans while you slept, but even still I couldn't know what it was you were dreaming about). So why do we believe people when they say they dream? Because people dream. Because we understand what they mean when they use the code word "dream". Sure, it's subjective, but we all share it. Therefore, if you're going to use personal experience as a proof of a deity, your only hope to convince me with that argument is to pray that the god reveals itself to me in the same way it did for you. The only way for me to know and understand it is if I, too, experience it. After all, if you weren't convinced until it happened to you, why would anyone else be different?


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