Definition game

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This game has been played since the beginning of Greek thought 27 centuries ago. Socrates was a superstar.

Like Tic-Tac-Toe, the game cannot be won against an expert player--but neither can you lose if you are yourself an expert!

As in WarGames (a 1983 movie), you may win by refusing to play the game.

The game is rigged. The unstated rules are these:

  • All knowledge can be put into words. If you cannot put the definition of religion wholly into words, that proves that you literally do not know what you are talking about.
  • The better we know something, the more clearly we can define it.
  • Definitions must be simple, clear, exhaustive, all-encompassing, and universally accepted.
  • If any exception to a definition is found, that proves it is a bad definition.
  • If anyone disagrees with the definition, that proves it is a bad definition.
  • Everybody has to use the same dictionary. Nobody is allowed to use words in an unusual fashion. We must limit ourselves to "what Webster says."

No matter what definition you propose, one or more of these "rules" will be used to shoot down your definition.

A suggested survival strategy

Take a position at the outset. Explain the meaning(s) you intend to use for your purposes. Then hold your ground. Be confident that no one can browbeat you too long. If there were one perfect definition of the term, there would be no need for anyone to discuss it; since there is not, you may affirm your right to use the term as you see fit ("performing to self-set standards"--Polanyi) while acknowledging that others have the right to do the same. If you stay calm and remain gently assertive about your rights, the browbeaters will eventually leave you in search of some other victim. Be careful not to equivocate--using two incoherent definitions of a term in the same argument.

Give your audience the impression that you have thought through the issue and made a responsible choice--one that they can live with for the duration of your presentation, even if they may not wish to adopt it for themselves.

A Polanyian Approach: Purposeful Self-Appraisal

The post-critical viewpoint common to John Henry Newman and Michael Polanyi has a different idea of ideas from the models derived from mathematics and the Enlightenment (especially Descartes). There is great value in vague and inexact expressions because they cast a large net that is flexible and adequate to various tasks.

We perform to self-set standards. We may use words as tools for particular purposes. We estimate the precision of any particular use in the very act of speaking itself and do the best we can, within limits, to give clues that will allow others to enter into the standpoint from which our speech makes sense. It is the tacit (definite but not fully articulable) vision of reality that counts and that gives meaning to our words far beyond all telling.

We may use various models (analogues, analogies, paradigms, metaphors) for what we are doing with language (J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words).

  • Spreading a fishing net. Nets can be designed with large or small openings; they may have turtle or dolphin excluders built in; they tend to catch many things that the net itself can't sort out. Fishing with nets almost always requires sorting the catch.
  • Sifting with sieves. Much like a net, but used on archeological digs and in the kitchen to separate one known kind of material from another (water from pasta; prime numbers from non-primes; dirt from bones and artifacts).
  • Working with tools. Carpenters and electricians have large toolboxes that are used to construct and deconstruct things. Different tools have different functions. What we know about hammers and nails may have very little to do with what we know about nuts and bolts or screwdrivers and screws. Homes are not deduced from a toolbox. Assembling a house takes very different skills from disassembling it. A house in pieces, whatever it may be, is not a home.

Parents say that if you give a boy a hammer, everything in the house looks like a nail. Some tools are really neat, but they are only part of the toolkit. Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for everything. There is a time to use hammers and time to put hammers away. There is a time to take things apart and a time to put them back together again.

  • Expressing a vision. Words can play the role of a finger pointing at the moon. It is not the words in themselves that are important, but the reality toward which they direct our attention. A truly comprehensive vision can never be fully put into words although it is the source of everything that we think, say, and do (Polanyi).
  • Making maps. Maps must abstract and condense reality into a small set of symbols. A map that is as large as a territory is not a useful map. Mapmakers must select the aspects of the terrain that they consider most important and most helpful for finding one's way around the landscape. They may (must?) take at least a bird's-eye view if not a God's-eye view of the region. The mapmaker's standpoint may correspond to nothing in reality or the map may be drawn from a standpoint that one may actually attain (seeing how the world looks from the top of a tall building or mountain peak). To show that a standpoint is comprehensive, one may demonstrate that other mapping systems can be mapped into it.
  • Exploring alternatives (dialectics). The dialectician plays Goldilocks, taking various points of view to see what is satisfying and unsatisfying in them and striving for something that combines the best of each position.

Casting a wide net

I am inclined toward very broad generalizations. My rudimentary understanding of religion is that it is a vision of ultimate reality and meaning (Tibor Horvath, SJ, founder of the journal, Ultimate Reality and Meaning). This net catches all worldviews, even those that from other standpoints may not be classed as religions (Marxism, atheism, saganism, etc.).

I propose that any worldview that answers religious questions is religious. There is, of course, no general agreement on the set of questions that are to be called religious; thinking of it in terms of a set of questions simply shifts the intractable problem to another place under the carpet. But here are some examples of what I mean by "religious questions":

- Who am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Where am I going?
- Why do I exist?
- What will make me happy?
- What will become of me after I die?
- Why do people suffer and die?
- Why must I suffer and die?
- Is there a God? A power greater than myself? Anything like a God at all?
- If there is a God, what does that God want from me?

"Marxism functioned [in East Germany] as a state religion, as Lutheranism once had. If you did not adhere to the state religion you were denied opportunities in education and employment" (Ninian Smart, 143).

A personal criterion

I am a religious person. If someone's theory about religious behavior doesn't fit my experience--and if I think my experience is valid--I may judge that there is something "off" in the proposed theory. I don't need to do a lot of ethnography, exegesis, or history to consult my own religious experience, such as it is. When someone talks about an aspect of religious experience or practice that goes beyond my personal experience (mystical states, for example), I may still be able to "take some bearings" from my personal experience that help me understand the claims that are being made.