Friday, April 19, 2019

Philosophers can't be friends

In this post I'm going to discuss some related issues. One concerns the nature of biblical inerrancy. A way in which inerrancy is defended is to distinguish truth from pedantic precision. You didn't miss a target you didn't aim for. I'd like to put that distinction in a larger framework.

Another issue is whether it's ever justifiable to lie. I'm actually not going to discuss that. Rather, I'm going to discuss an issue that lies behind it. 

Let's take an example. Many hymns have some theological inaccuracies. That may reflect the defective theology of the hymnodist. Or it may simply be a concession due to the ambiguous nature of poetic imagery, or the restrictive verbal choices imposed by meter and rhyme. 

Under such circumstances, is it permissible to sing a theologically inaccurate clause of a hymn? Is it morally permissible for the singer to exercise mental reservations when singing a clause that's theologically inaccurate? 

A Puritan might say that's a good argument for exclusive psalmody. This is what happens when you sing uninspired music in public worship.

However, that doesn't get us out of the woods. Exclusive psalmodists don't normally sing psalms in the original Hebrew. Rather, they sing them in translation. In addition, they often sing metrical versions of the Psalter. So that's two steps removed from the original. And there's a certain amount of fudging that's necessary to squeeze the translation into a metrical straightjacket. What they sing only loosely corresponds to the original. 

To take another example, suppose you had a roommate who's a scrupulous philosopher. Whenever you ask him a question, he demands that you define your terms. Whenever you answer him, he demands that you define your terms. Moreover, he demands that you provide corroborative evidence for all your claims. That you justify all your operating assumptions. 

Even though you might admire his scrupulosity, it's impossible to be friends with someone like that. Indeed, it wouldn't last a day. If that's what it means to be a consistent philosopher, then philosophers can't be friends, because they are incapable of making the minor practical compromises that are necessary for social life. 

Another example is Clifford's infamous dictum that it's wrong, always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. A problem with that dictum is the failure to prioritize. It isn't even possible to have sufficient evidence for everything be believe. And it isn't necessary. Not all beliefs are equally important. Many beliefs are trivial. So we should focus on the justification of truly important beliefs. 

Human communication routinely involves or even requires abundant resort to approximations. Studied imprecision, where we deliberately say less than we mean or more than we mean. Where we intentionally make statements that are strictly false. 

And yet, for two reasons, that's not dishonest:

i) There's no intention to deceive. And ordinarily, there's no deceptive effect. 

ii) The common function of communication is to facilitate a transaction. Questions are asked or answered to perform certain tasks. Even though the statements may be ambiguous or imprecise, the listener understands what was meant. 

In that context, pedantic precision would lead to social gridlock. It would frustrate a basic function of communication, as the exchange got bogged down in gratuitous caveats. Honesty doesn't obligate us to foment social paralysis. 

Take references to colored objects. Does honestly require a speaker to specify the exact shade? 

Take references to "tall" or "short". Does honesty require the speaker to resolve the sorites paradox?  

This goes to distinction between practical and moral compromise. By its constant resort to approximations, human communication is rife with practical compromises, but that isn't  equivalent to moral compromise inasmuch as there's no intention to mislead the listener, the listener was not misled, and it successfully discharges the purpose of the communication, which is transactional or performative rather than narrowly propositional. 

Finally, this goes to the obligation to practice interpretive charity. It's not reducible to what the statement means, but the purpose of the statement. 

This is an issue in biblical hermeneutics. Exegesis aims to ascertain what the writer meant. That's fine up to a point, but it can break down if we fail to make allowance for the nature of communication. Take the allegation that Jesus was wrong to say the mustard seed is the smallest seed there is. 

Our scrupulous philosopher is mistaken about the ethics of communication. His preconception is too narrow. 

1 comment:

  1. --In that context, pedantic precision would lead to social gridlock. It would frustrate a basic function of communication, as the exchange got bogged down in gratuitous caveats. Honesty doesn't obligate us to foment social paralysis.--

    As illustrated by the episode where everybody speaks in Mojo Jojo's overly circuitous, circumlocutory, diffuse, long-winded, prolix, rambling, verbose, windy, and wordy manner of speaking. Gridlock is indeed the result.