An Essay on Belief and Definition

Friday, May 18th, 2012

It is true that I often get visitors at our Simsbury house. They are often inconvenient but as I don’t like to be rude, I bear the visitations. A often comes with B. Or A will come with B and C. One time D came with B and I sensed the smell of alcohol on B, but it might have been that B was suffering a cold and had taken medicine. I didn’t ask. Who comes is a form of strategy.

The purpose of these meetings is conversion. I’m to be brought around to the views of A, who holds to Russell’s and Rutherford’s ideas. A contends that he’s right and that I’m wrong. On one of the visits, A argued that he was right because of birds. This is a fairly accurate paraphrase:

“Have you noticed how birds can fly so swiftly through the trees without hitting any branches?” I agreed with this, that I had indeed observed this activity, although I also said that sometimes the birds do indeed smack into limbs. He said, “The reason is that God built them this way.” This I disagreed with. I told him, partly with a joke, that birds evolved with this capability as without it they wouldn’t be able to get where they needed to go or make good at escape. He wasn’t impressed. I also told him that there were many theories about bird flight. I closed with a question: it’s usually the small birds that do this best, right?

A and Co’s typical method is to carve their fingernails under lines of the Book of Isaiah and tell me how these words justify or supply proof for their conclusions. I tell them that this kind of proof is not something I find all that convincing. One of our discussions had to do with a belief in evil. A had brought E this time, who has yet to return. E was a young, serious guy, a computer geek, and he told me point blank: “You do believe in evil.” I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “You don’t think Hitler was evil?” I said, “No, I think he was crazy.” E was visibly shocked.

With A I pursued this line: why do you need to use deity to explain the flight of birds? Why was it not good enough to explain bird flight by studying bird flight, a curriculum he obviously hadn’t taken up? But he asked a legitimate question in return: why was that “good enough” for me?

Mitt Romney in his Liberty U speech claimed that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” The problem of same sex marriage will obviously persist in our culture. I often wonder when people say things like this what they really mean. Do they really believe that this is what marriage is or are they trying to get people on their side, as a statement of conviction or as a statement of fact? Does the distinction matter to them? Historically speaking, this is not how marriage has been defined or used in practice. There are several domains of marriage. In some theologies, marriage has been defined as a relationship between people and the church. The word also forks back to the Latin mātrimōnium, which has to do with mothers and their “state.” The Old French marier seems to indicate an act, that is the act of combining or providing a husband for a woman, a means of creating kinship relationships, or establishing any number of forms of unions, one of them being religious. In politics, the later is emphasized, which is the domain of explanation for the flight of birds for A.

What does it mean to say that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman”? The first observation is that Mr. Romney asserts this as a “universal” fact. Delta equals Delta(1). If we observe, therefore, Delta(1) we label it as Delta. More precisely, Delta comes with conditions which, absent any one of them, alters one side of the algorithm, therefore the conditions are not met for the definition to be valid. This would mean that when the Old Testament claims 700 wives for Solomon that Solomon was not married according to Mr. Romney’s definition. Solomon’s was an invalid “marriage.”

When I lecture on the idea of clubs in class I usually claim that clubs define their members by who is excluded. Belonging is often defined by exclusion. Because to not belong means one is “outside.” As kids, my brother and I started a club whose name I can’t remember. In our mean way (which our mother set right by giving us a good dress down), we wrote beneath the name of the club “No Smellingsuaces.” This was a reference to the kid whose odor we found not to our liking. We had used black crayon for the sign. We scratched the excluding condition out with red crayon, but I’m pretty sure the unliked boy still knew what we had intended. Writ large, religions work in much same way to various degrees. Doctrinal ideas are a means of defining who is not in the club just as much as they define the congregation. The Catholic Church, for example, excludes gays and lesbians from Catholic marriage.

The problem is that these kinds of assignments are not phenomenologically factual. Nor do they conform necessarily to true beliefs or statements of faith. Do people believe in definitions? It seems odd to claim that one can “believe” in a definition. A could certainly believe that the deity “created” bird flight and birds and, therefore, require no further examination. A can believe in the deity, building the degrees of his faith. A can also want me to believe in these things, too. Definitions provide meaning, and these meanings can be agreed upon with their variety of stipulations, connotations, and cases.

In arguments, persuasive cases can be made for reasonable definitions. Poverty, for example, can be reasonably defined as Delta if several items can be excluded from Delta. Or, in Romney’s case, an argument to define a set without having to supply arguments of essence, as in quid nominis/quid rei relationships or the Lockean nominal and real. Romney may want to the definition of marriage to be “this and that” but to claim that definition as Marriage’s authentic nature is like claiming a case for bird flight by avoiding avian observation and, instead, just making wild guesses and pretending to know what you’re talking about.

Ultimately, I think A’s world view is insufficient and with his world view he can easily avoid responsibility. I don’t find claims for deity all that interesting. That’s what I told him. It’s sufficient for me because it’s more interesting and comes with more profound conclusions and insights.

3 responses to “An Essay on Belief and Definition”

  1. Josh says:

    “You do believe in evil.” I said, “No, I don’t.””

    I’d love to see this line of reasoning articulated in a post.

    Anyway… Door-to-door “sales pitches” of faith will not work, nor propositions that confuse “self-exclusion” with “designed exclusion” concerning membership in the Church catholic: The Gospel is an announcement, not an argument; Christian faith is a relationship, not an audit.

  2. Steve says:

    You should explain what you mean by this: “The Gospel is an announcement, not an argument; Christian faith is a relationship, not an audit.” Blog post? As far as I’m concerned you may keep whatever “relationship” you wish.

    I’d be glad to explain my bit about evil but I doubt it’d be all that interesting. Twain does it much better in “The Mysterious Stranger.”

  3. Josh says:

    “The Gospel is an announcement, not an argument…”

    “Christ has atoned for all sins; creation is reconciled to God!” is a news headline. It can be shrugged off, denied, embraced in contrite faith, spread around, reasoned away, railed against, hated, praised, et al. but its reality cannot be altered or debated.

    “…Christian faith is a relationship, not an audit.”

    This is directed to the “knock-knock” folks, but they can’t hear me I guess :-)

    Thank you for the post on evil.