The Tower of Babble: True Communication

In earlier posts, we considered meaning as truth, and communication as participating a common meaning. We also considered the nature of babble, which is the lack of such participation. Perhaps no exchanges so frequently exemplify the latter as the typical debate between the religious man and the atheist. In the most basic sense, no dialogue can transpired between them because each party contains in its very concept of God, the refutation of the other’s position. Thus, the religious man’s concept of God entails that the latter exists as the creator of the universe and, by implication, that his opponent’s standpoint is false. The atheist, by contrast, with the word “God,” signifies an imaginary entity in which his counterpart mistakenly believes. In the context of such a debate, therefore, “God” is a sort of homonym, since the same name is employed to different meanings. Because the religious man and the atheist are meaning different things with the same word, they have their backs to one another, in an intellectual sense. Communication between them is impossible, even if they use the same word, as long as they fail to participate a common meaning.

In a certain manner, the religious man and the atheist could achieve an higher degree of communication if they used different words than if they used the same one. Thus, when the religious man says the word “God,” the atheist might be more capable of participating his counterpart’s meaning, and thereby entering into a dialogue with him, if the latter instead of “God,” thought of “the laws of physics,” “the unconscious,” or “the global economy.” In short, the latter should think of what “makes the world” and “makes the world go ‘round,” according to the latter’s belief structure. Still, to imagine a simple translation could resolve the miscommunication above would be an error. Let us explore the reason for this, and make use of the first example (i.e. “the laws of physics”) for illustration.

As a concrete case, we can consider the following excerpt from the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in his posthumously-published book, Brief Answer to Big Questions, (2018). “Did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur?” Hawking asks, and then proceeds, “I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.” Naturally, the promise of an explanation for the origin of the universe is no trifle. Indeed, the religious man means just such an explanation when he says “God,” for he believes God to have been the world’s creator. Any proposed explanation for such a question must be considered with the proper degree of seriousness, since it intends to explain the very conditions by which our explanation is possible, as well as the object of that explanation. “The universe,” Hawking asserts, “in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature.”

Were it not for the reputation of the one who issued it, a proposition like the one above would challenge the reader’s resolve for serious consideration. Apparent chance, or to “simply have popped into existence,” is precisely what one is seeking an explanation for. Thus to explain something by appeal to chance is to not explain it. Not only does Hawking fail to provide an answer, but he does not even seem to understand his own question. “The known laws of nature” are just what one is seeking to account for in attempting to provide an explanation for the universe. For this reason, it is absurd to appeal to them as though they pre-existed the universe’s origin, either in the logical or in the temporal sense. No one would think of explaining speech by the laws of syntax, or music by the laws of acoustic, and neither should they think of explaining the origin of the universe by the laws of that universe. Given that explanation is the daughter of understanding, and to understand a thing (as Aristotle wrote) is to know its cause, one can hardly consider the above as a serious explanation.

On a related note, Hawking’s lapse of logical rigour should hardly surprise anyone familiar with his declaration in an interview that “philosophy is dead…[since philosophers] have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, 2011) The reader can draw the inference from the statements presented so far that the trenchant comment, from Hawking in particular, is not the indictment that is might seem. To assert that things have no reason is a self-refuting position (just like the Liar Paradox) which falsifies itself if it is true and undermines the rational credibility of the one who issues it. Undeterred by respect for philosophical consistency, however, Hawking continues to press his assertion that the universe requires no creator. After explaining that time originated with the Big Bang, and did not precede it, Hawking concludes that this refutes the notion that the universe has a reason for existing:

We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in…for me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Evidently, Hawking is no longer appealing to logic but rather to personal inclination. Objections on logical grounds, therefore, will remain unmet. Still, Hawking’s philosophy is not the philosophy of Theoria-press. For this reason, a few observations seem in order.

First, one should point out that the assertion above begs the question, since the origin of the universe, of which time itself is an aspect, was just the question at issue in the first place. Further, as we have explored elsewhere, causality that depends on temporal sequence is one manner of causation, but not the only one. Methodologically, physical causation in time (i.e. causa movens and causa materialis) is the only sort that lends itself to study by the physical sciences, but it is obvious in a tautological sense to say that the physical sciences study only the physical aspect of things. We also say that the thermometer measures the thermal aspect of things. In no manner does the fact that physics studies physics prove, however, that physics is the only aspect from which the universe may be legitimately considered. This point is more than a mere trifle, since physics itself depends on the very logic that proponents of the former all to often surreptitiously reject.

Furthermore, the necessary temporal sequence of causation is not even beyond question within the appropriately circumscribed domain of physics. The standard model within that discipline posits a four-dimensional manifold of spacetime, which is itself curved (i.e. to account for gravitation without expanding one’s conception of causality to include more than material and efficient causation). If spacetime is curved, then it is no longer clear what Hawking means when he appears to temporal sequence to disprove the existence of a creator.

Finally, if Hawking is referring to the Abrahamic tradition by “people of faith,” (which it is fair to assume since the latter comprise over half of the world’s total population and over 2/3 of the world’s religious population), then the possibility of his “offend[ing]” them should be very low, since not one of these several billion people of faith believe that time preexisted God’s creation of the universe. Indeed, the first chapter of Genesis uses such phrases as “God…divided the day from the night” and “God said…let there be signs, for seasons, and for days, and years” to explicitly describe the creation of time. It might be objected that this ancient Hebrew scripture fails to employ the lingua franca of today’s physical sciences in order to convey its account of cosmogenesis but this is, of course, an absurd expectation. One might suggest that time is something other than the signs by which it is measured. The most accurate clocks in the world, for instance, excite ytterbium atoms so that their electrons oscillate between valences in a periodic fashion that provides an infinitesimally precise standard for measurement. We cannot mean something other than such a standard when we say “time,” since if an hypothetical time outside of this standard were to slow down, for instance, the periodicity of the atomic pulses in the ytterbium atoms would lengthen in the same proportion so that the hypothetical time outside of the standard would still be the same as the one within it. On a side note, this is a reason to give serious consideration to an alternative standard of time based off of phenomenal experience, since if there were an objective time outside of physics, a psychological measure would be able to capture it in a way that ytterbium atoms could not.

Returning to the germ of this consideration, we can draw some conclusions. In light of Hawking’s assertion above, it will be evident why one cannot simply exchange “God” with “the laws of nature,” and in a larger sense, why communication between the religious man and the atheist is impossible. Specifically, “the world” has a fundamentally different meaning for these two parties. The former assumes that meaning is woven together with the world’s foundation. Physics, therefore, is an emergence (this is close to the original meaning of φύσις/phūsis) from the world’s metaphysical ground, which is a ground of meaning. The atheist contrasts with the religious man not in that the former forgoes metaphysics. It is a superstition of modernism that physics is self-supporting. Even into the nineteenth century, metaphysics was called “First Philosophy” and understood to be the study Being as such. Physics was called “Natural Philosophy” and understood to be the study of divers beings. The difference, therefore, is that the atheist (often unconsciously) adopts the metaphysical axiom that the world is originally without meaning. As a corollary, he expects physics to be capable of providing ultimate answers. The eventual assertion or denial of meaning is a first principle, which can be neither seen nor proven, but by which everything else is seen or proven. We should not imagine that such axiomatic starting points could be dispensed with; Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems offer formal proofs that this is impossible. On the contrary, we should evaluate these starting points with the utmost earnestness—certainly without less than we give to the propositions that we derive from them. This is science as true communication. It is the return of scientia to sapientia just like the Prodigal Son.

Thanks to many people and beings, and Being, and to the laws of physics


11 Comments Add yours

  1. How does this have only one like — mine?


    1. Max Leyf says:

      The readers like what they will.


    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for the kind words, and for all of your inspiring work.


  2. Hesiod says:

    This is a good take-down of some of the problems with communication and language today – which I’ve also participated in. Also a good showing of the ignorance of some of the high profile critics of “God” who, if they’d read just a single book or two, would not make the erroneously claims that they otherwise do. Or perhaps if they did they would still deliberately distort.


    1. Max Leyf says:

      My hope is that, at the very least, it can serve to illuminate the issue. Thank you for the comment, and for all of your work.


  3. erikleo says:

    It is not surprising that Hawking gets into a metaphysical muddle. Richard Dawkins is the same when he argues against God and/or religion; he is out of his depth and specialism as he has only a limited experience of the numinous/mystical dimension of existence. THese scientists should keep within the limits of their speciality! (Incidentally Max, you are using the noun ‘man’ when you mean humankind or ‘people.! Eg.’ the debate between religious man and the atheist’.)


    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for the comment. I agree that it is better for people not to pronounce about things they haven’t first attempted to understand. It is funny that you bring up my use of the word “man” in this context, since by “man,” I mean the same as you do when you say “person.”


      1. erikleo says:

        I only meant the issue about using ‘man’ from the point of view of equality between genders is concerned in the use of language.


      2. Max Leyf says:

        Thank you, I knew what you meant. Do you think it is better not to use “man” in this sense? I know many people think it is oppressive, but then that alone doesn’t prove anything, and there are many other factors coming into play. I used to always circumlocute in order to avoid it, but then I stopped.


      3. erikleo says:

        I do think in the interests of gender-equality it is better to use ‘person’ or some other neutral word if possible.


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