Empiricism, God and language

I started reading a really good book a couple of days ago called Simpler Syntax, by Culicover & Jackendoff (2005). In it, the authors outline considerable problems with the way the Minimalist Program has been progressing in recent years. But that’s the stuff of another post sometime. I thought I’d google a couple of reviews to see how much of an impact the book had had on the linguistic community. I came across this review, which interestingly (to me) compared the way in which Culicover & Jackendoff perceive Universal Grammar with a ‘God of the gaps theory’. One sentence particularly got my goat, however:

Fortunately, unlike the issue of the existence of God, in which one side views empirical evidence as simply irrelevant, there is a good chance for the UG/constructionalist debate to be resolved along empirical lines.

I stopped thinking about Linguistics for a while and pondered the opinion expressed by the reviewer. I’m sure you’ve all come across it many times: science = empiricist, existence of God = not empiricist/stupid (delete as appropriate). Is the reviewer right when he says that people who argue for the existence of God view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’?

Something else that caught my attention this week was a comment on a friend’s Facebook status which read:

You don’t need to be a theologian if your argument is with the fundamentals, not the fiddly little details. If someone tells you there’s a unicorn in your bedroom, you know there isn’t. You don’t ask what colour it is and which way it’s [sic] horn twists first.

Not being an epistemologist by trade, I have only dabbled a little in the theories of knowledge, caught up in the debate between rationalism (e.g. Chomsky) and empiricism (e.g. Quirk), along with a couple of other books and articles about theology which I’ve read. As far as I understand it, empiricism refers to the kind of knowledge that comes via ‘sensory experience’. The Wikipedia article on the subject (ever to be trusted!) defines it in this way:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.

I wouldn’t quibble with that. What strikes me, however, is the apparent hypocrisy of some in the ‘science’ camp concerning the existence of God, such as those I’ve quoted above. Empiricism dictates that one doesn’t make one’s judgment based on a priori reasoning, but that is exactly what the Facebook commentator has done! He starts off with the view that unicorns do not exist, therefore he needn’t concern himself with the finer details. That’s not empirical, at least according to wikipedia’s definition of it, and thus isn’t ‘scientific’ (by his own logic).

That’s all well and good, you say, but unicorns don’t exist. This, however, isn’t really the point. I’ve no problem with a priori reasoning: there are many kinds of knowledge, not just empirical knowledge, and everyone lives their lives according to these different kinds of knowledge, whether they care to admit it or not. In many circumstances, a priori knowledge makes a lot of sense (such as this one). I just find it curious how often it’s the case that ‘scientists’ (whoever that refers to) sometimes don’t stick to the ‘rules’ of their own game.

It is not my intention to start spinning out the usual arguments in the Science vs God debate. Many others devote their life to this, and this is a good place to start. John Lennox, a Professor of Maths at Oxford University, also has an excellent website which is worth looking at. Nor is it my wish to bring forth the (historical) evidence for the God I  trust in, though I believe this to be profuse.

Instead, I want to think about language. It’s certainly true that language can be investigated according to empirical methodology, and Linguistics has undergone a bit of a shake-up over the years as scholars from other disciplines (notably Psychology) pick holes in its bad research practice. But I wonder whether empiricist methods can really illuminate our understanding of the meaning of  ‘language’ as a concept. Let me be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that empirical linguistic evidence does not shed light on the nature of language. But let’s think a bit about what language actually is.

You can’t touch language. It isn’t physical. Sure, you can observe it, for example, in the utterance you spoke when you ordered a coffee this morning, or the words you’re reading on this page. But that’s not actually all we mean by language. These words I’m writing are part of what we call the English language, but they’re not synonymous with it. In fact, they’re just symbols on the page that represent the phonetic noises we emit when we exhale air. Sound waves even. But there’s more to language than that, everyone knows that. There’s that meaning part to it. Oh, and grammar.

Some have argued (notably Chomsky!) that what language really is is I-language, that is, the ‘internal language’ in your brain made up of a lexicon and a grammar, which is heavily dependent on Universal Grammar, which is something all babies are born with. But we’re about as close to finding out what constitutes this I-language, or where it is in the brain, as we are to drawing square circles. It may be the case that we’ll know everything about I-language one day, but this ‘science-conquers-all’ mentality requires a (blind?) faith in science that I find difficult to share.

Nevertheless, people do argue that we know language is in our heads, so it is ‘tangible’ in some abstract sense. However, when we refer to the English language, we refer to the language through the ages, as well as the language used by different geographical and social groups, and not simply to the I-language in your or my head. To be a native speaker of English today, you don’t have to know that the English passive used to be formed with weorþan (‘to become’) rather than ‘to be’. But this and similar phenomena are still part of what we understand when people refer to ‘language’ as a concept.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we happily get on in life with knowledge that is not ’empirical’, in the purest sense: while language is observable and can be empirically tested, it isn’t something ‘physical’ when we refer to it on a day-to-day basis. It’s not made up of atoms. Our concept of it can’t even be reduced to neurons flying round our brain. And yet no one denies that it exists or is real, even though we don’t really know much about how and where it’s stored in the brain, how words are associated with meaning, and so on. This is, of course, true of other abstract nouns such as hope, or love, etc. It’s just that Linguistics prides itself on being ‘scientific’. Oh, and I happen to have a vested interest.

Obviously, in answer to my (rhetorical) question above, no theologian worth his salt would view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’. How many books arguing for the existence of God have you read which do this?

I’d welcome comments!

9 thoughts on “Empiricism, God and language

  1. When it comes to linguistics, there are quite many different paradigms of thinking, each with different objects of inquiries and different methodologies. In terms of the generativists, the study of UG is a rationalist (less empiricist) enterprise. Whereas in the case of say, the language typologists, a discovering of a UG counterpart in this paradigm of linguistics becomes a little bit more positivist, relying on statistics and also more empirical in nature. These are where the two differ in method. They also differ in the objective of inquiries– Generative linguistics is interested in looking at language as mental faculty/object (competence) whereas typologist tend to survey language as phenomena (performance).

    • Indeed. However, I find in ‘popular’ circles, your average man on the street associates empiricism with ‘being scientific’. I’m just trying to show that ‘science’ involves many other paradigms of thinking!

  2. Hi there, thanks for engaging with my post. You raise an interesting point. The sentence you highlight is based on my experience (raised a Christian, now an interested non-believer) that when you get fussy over the existence or non-existence of God, believers feel that many of the kinds of evidence that science likes to work with are essentially irrelevant.

    But I agree with you that the really interesting issues lie elsewhere. In my view, God is a concept that is “good to think with” (to use a phrase coined by Levi-Strauss). It is in a way irrelevant whether God exists in some literal or natural sense; God certainly exists in the minds of those in whose life ideas about God play an important role. The people I do fieldwork with in Ghana tell stories about their mythical forebear “The Giant Man”, who still roams the forest and can help you overcome your enemies, provided you have been faithful in pouring libation. It is wholly irrelevant that the existence of The Giant Man is difficult to prove: he has a function, he is “good to think with”, and at least in that sense he has a proper existence.

    The corrollary, though, is that such concepts as “God” and “The Giant Man” are culturally variable and that there is no a priori way of choosing one over the other. It so happened that the God concept of a patriarchal Middle Eastern desert tribe has come to be widespread (essentially through the power of cultural transmission in combination with particularly powerful knowledge dispersal technologies). It could have been very different. And the world probably would not have been worse, though it might also not have been better.

    • Hi Mark – thanks so much for engaging with my post and for taking the time to write. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on several things. One thing we can agree on, though, is that people of all faiths and none do not always think through such questions systematically. Just a few things:

      1. ‘… believers feel that many of the kinds of evidence that science likes to work with are essentially irrelevant.’

      I’ve not come across this view within the apologetics world. I’m sure there are some theists who espouse this view, but they don’t tend to be the ones who write the books arguing for the existence of God, at least not in my experience. I’d level the same accusation at the Dawkins and Hitchens brigade, who reckon that empirical knowledge is the *only* type of knowledge that can tell us anything. As far as I can tell, they view other kinds of evidence that ‘science’/’philosophy’ works with as irrelevant.

      2. ‘It is in a way irrelevant whether God exists in some literal or natural sense.’

      I’ll have to disagree with you here. I also think that it is true that there either i) is a creator God or ii) there isn’t. If you go down the line of ‘it’s true in people’s minds’ then we fall into a relativist hole.

      3. I have reservations about the implied principle of empiricism that events that happen in the world are by nature repeatable. Most of them probably are, but empirically testing some event that happened only once isn’t going to work. However, many scientists obviously reckon that the empirical facts about the world (e.g. harmony of creation) point to a creator, and I really recommend the link to John Lennox’s website in my post, where many of these ideas are explored.

      4. The Christian belief I have is that God made himself known in a man, Jesus Christ, and the power of God was made manifest in raising him from the dead. It’s my view that the historical evidence for this is convincing. But sure, each person has to weigh up the evidence and decide, if we’re remaining with a purely existential argument for the existence of God.

      Just some thoughts anyway!

  3. Can you spell out more clearly the problems of what you call the “relativist hole”? Interestingly enough your original post comes very close to it due to your parallel with language and linguistic items. Think about how language spreads: cultural transmission. Think about the life of words and concepts: their history can be traced quite well and I don’t think anybody would want to hold that they have an a priori existence independent from us. What is wrong with a God concept that originates like that and works like that in everyday life?

    Also, to clarify my comments about irrelevance, I was not aiming at the apologetics world in what I wrote about my experience. One of the most interesting things about belief in its everyday workings is that most believers aren’t very interested in apologetics. It is in precisely that sense that the “literal” or “natural” existence of a God is irrelevant. People likewise don’t worry about the status of their nouns and verbs, they just use them to good effect. It’s the scientists’ job to worry, or rather to wonder (a more positive term).

    Now note that when the scientist finds out something about how words come to be, or when s/he develops and tests hypotheses about the evolution of language and linguistic structure, this does not change anything about the way language works in everyday life for its everyday users. Likewise (in my view), when scientists find that there are good reasons for cultures to come up with a “God” concept, but that this God concept does not necessarily have an empirically verifiable a priori existence (let alone direct causal influence), this does not change anything about how God works in the everyday life of believers.

    It may of course change the way the scientist thinks about God in everyday life — but scientists ought to know that messing with worldviews comes with the job.

    • I begin this response with the caveat that I am no philosopher and have not read much about existence. I suppose ‘relativist hole’ was shorthand for the belief that there is no absolute truth (which strangely enough is an absolute truth in itself, but hey ho). I’m aware there are plenty who hold the view that there is no absolute truth, though I was under the impression that this view was unfashionable again. In any case, I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you wrote that my original post comes close to relativism. My analogy of the concept of ‘language’ was designed to get people thinking about different kinds of knowledge. I’d say I think certain things exist independent of our perception of them, though language is perhaps not the best example here. Though if there is UG then I think it probably exists independently of our perception of it. Otherwise I don’t understand how you can tell anything about anything. You can’t know there isn’t a God because the fact that you believe there isn’t a God is just something in your head. How then can empiricism work?

  4. Hm, took me a while to get back, sorry about that. (Some absolute truths in real life intervened.)

    What I meant was that the interesting thing about knowledge of language is that it is (a) culturally transmitted and (b) that we can be quite sure that it originated in human creativity. (Unless you believe that talking humans were created ex nihilo, which given the evidence I consider unlikely.) So you are quite right that there are other sources of knowledge; human innovativeness and cultural transmission form a particularly effective pair. My view about the god idea is that it, like language, is part of our shared cultural heritage. That doesn’t tell us anything about existence in your strong sense, but you still have to explain why that matters. People rarely if ever worry about the “real” existence of their nouns and verbs; they communicate using them, that’s enough. Not worrying is the standard case (actually that’s another aspect of my earlier post I’d love to hear your response to). I’ve never met someone who was inclined to believe in the true existence of Nouns and Verbs in some reality other than our own culturally transmitted ideosphere.

    It is quite strange then, in a way, that some people worry so much about the putative “real” existence of God (where “real” apparently means “independent of us”). It is quite clear that God exists in our own culturally transmitted ideosphere. For me and many others, that is enough. And why would it not be?

    • Hi Mark – now it’s my turn to apologise about taking so long to get back to you! I think I understand what you’re saying. I think the analogy with language breaks down here. I’ve not deliberated over it for too long, but I think e.g. nouns and verbs are not ‘independent’ of us in the way a banana is that’s sitting in front of us, for example. God, on the other hand, is, and I think this for a number of reasons. Though I add the caveat that I’m not sure I agree with the idea of being ‘real’ meaning ‘independent of us’.

      I’m not sure it’s the goal of apologetics to ‘prove’ the existence of God in ‘real’ or ‘natural’ terms, either. I think the main goal of apologetics is to show that God existing is intellectually satisfying.

      I also think I differ from your view in that I believe that it does matter whether God exists (outside of a culturally transmitted idea), because I hold to the mainstream belief about Christianity, which states (as I’m sure you’re aware) that God loves his creation so much he is going to cancel out all the wrong in the world and renew creation, and that he has started this work through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose action guarantees our salvation. This changes everything. If Jesus lived and died (and rose), and if he is/was God, then God DOES exist ‘independent of us’ and so is ‘real’ in the sense you mentioned. The underpinning issue then turns into arguing the case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that’s something that the science camp rarely wants to engage with, unfortunately. May I recommend an excellent book on the topic by N.T. Wright: ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God.’

  5. Also, to be clear, empiricism can still work because it is easy to see that the god idea apparently matters in the everyday goings-on of many humans. Compare the Giant Man of which I wrote in my first post. Do you think it matters that this entity is or isn’t there in the sense you’re aiming for when you use those terms of the creator god? In my view it doesn’t matter; or rather, it is the wrong question to ask — the wrong level of analysis. I am quite confident that if we go look in the forest we will find no Giant Man. (Indeed it is part of the mythology that you won’t see him if you purposely look for him.) You will note that many people likewise went looking for God in all corners of the earth, and didn’t find him in any literal, real-as-a-stone sense. Does it matter? I’m sure you’d say no; as you point out in your original post, it’s not just the things made up of atoms that matter. God or Giant Man, the relevant place to look is the ideosphere, where culturally transmitted ideas blossom.

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