Sep 27, 2010

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Reality and Language Games

Reality and Language Games - Pilate iconPilate asks, famously: “What is truth?” He isn’t asking a real question, but rather a rhetorical one. The modern-day equivalent would be for Pilate to say “Who am I to judge what truth is?” “What works for you may not work for me.” By asking the question, he is trying to force the stubborn reality of the situation (is this man the Son of God? should he release him, or have him crucified?) into an easier, more manageable mold. If truth can’t be determined, Pilate is not responsible for betraying it (or, in this case, Him.)

He is playing a language game.

And in our postmodern world, we play that game all the time, trying to make reality conform to our use of language.

To a certain degree, it is true that our language shapes how we react to reality, though that is not the same thing as saying it shapes reality itself. We know, intuitively, that there is a basic reality beyond, or beneath, language. At the most fundamental level, to recognize that “I am” does not require language; I do not need to communicate it to another person to know it.

In any case, no matter what we call it, reality remains stubbornly… real.

We can call a pair of women “parents” and claim that we have reshaped reality by our language, but no matter how long we leave those two women together, they will never, ever produce a child without the participation of a third person who is male. Certainly we can redefine “parent” as “caregiver,” if we like, or add qualifiers like “biological parent” to be more specific, but in either case, the biological reality of the situation hasn’t changed, and remains independent of the language used to describe it.

Along the same lines, we can declare that all children in a competitive activity are “winners” – a trick that does not alter the reality that some kids will be better at the activity than others. As a result, we lose the word “winner” entirely, since it has simply been redefined as “participant” – and now we lack a way to indicate which child was the most skilled or successful participant. (Incidentally, anyone who thinks that children are actually fooled by this should observe kids at play more often.)

Often times, this kind of manipulation of language is done with good intentions, the desire to be kind, inclusive, tolerant, and so on. If someone considers himself or herself to be a parent, or a winner, or a success, then voila! he or she is.

However, there are consequences – both individual and cultural – for going this route.

Consider the housing bubble. People bought houses that were far beyond their ability to pay for them. Simple mathematics showed it: this much mortgage payment per month, this much (less) income per month. By rights, a rational understanding that truth is objective would have protected many of these people. However, they were not guided by objective but by relative truth. “For me,” they said, “numbers don’t matter; I don’t want to hear ‘I can’t afford it.’ I really want a house, so a house is right for me.” So they bought the houses, and for a while it looked like it would work out OK.

But not for that long. Eventually the disconnect between amount owed and amount that could be paid caught up, and people went into foreclosure, and lost their homes and went bankrupt… or they were bailed out by money taken from other people who had been more careful with their finances.

We can act as if truth is relative (here we did) but if truth is in fact objective, reality will hit eventually. And with disastrous consequences, if we have acted out of conjunction with reality.

Certainly it is not a nice fact or a happy one that housing prices were out of the reach of many people who would have liked one. Certainly it is a difficult fact that we cannot have it all, right now, without having to work and save. Certainly we do not want to hear that our resources are limited. It would be much nicer if we could just act on what we wish were true. “I deserve this” – so I will charge it.” – but the bills will come due, because economic reality doesn’t suspend itself based on what we wish for.

On the flip side, this is what makes hard work and saving worthwhile – that we can make decisions based on reality, and while we cannot guarantee success, we have good reasons to believe that having expenses lower than income works out better, in the long run, than the opposite. The same is true for moral truth, as well as mathematical truth.

If we won’t even recognize objective truth when it stares us in the face from a bank statement, then what hope have we of recognizing moral truth? It’s much harder, and the rot has set in deeper, but it is vitally important to do so. What will be the consequences of moral bankruptcy?

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