or What I learned from mystical language: In Search of Truth in a World of Language
It struck me in philosophy class. Ancient Philosophy. The year was 1993. Bang, how do you solve Zeno’s dichotomy paradox? Hmmm, what is wrong with most philosophical questions? It came again in the course on knowing. A priori, A posteriori. Humbug.
We construct these arguments and logic with a language we created. It is meant to point to the world, but it is not a direct correlation with the world. Language is not bound to the same logic as the universe. If it was, we would not have A Wrinkle in Time or even the whole genre of Magical Realism. And yet, we play with this language, pointing toward a world we can’t really gain direct access to (it is always mediated through our senses and filtered through our culture… always and already. Inescapable).
And we can get some sort of post-modern laughter from it: sometimes slightly uncomfortable and disturbed laughter and other times hilarious gaiety. Sure. However, unlike the laws of physics which strongly intend to accurately portray the world, language is not created to do so. It is not bounded, tied, strapped on to the world as it is. Instead language is the arrow we throw at what we sense and feel, the metaphors we use to describe experience, the expression of our creativity, and the communication medium of some of our emotions.
What can I know? Hmmm, answering that question means I have to answer the question “what do these words even mean?” I may describe something or make an assertion, but I can’t mistake that map for the territory. I am simply pointing toward and can never point directly at… My location isn’t fixed, the thing described isn’t fixed, and the relationship between the two isn’t fixed.
In graduate school, my first course was Language and Negativity. We studied a bit about mystical language. In particular the book Mystical Languages of Unsaying by Michael Sells. To know God by saying what he is not is to talk apophatically. To assert and then remove the assertion: God is all knowing, but he is not all knowing, he is more than that. We point toward the thing and then acknowledge it is not that thing–it is beyond that. It is something we can’t even point at directly. And really, this is how language works in relation to the world. We can point toward the world, but we can never surely say the world IS that or DOES that or PERFORMS that way. It seems as if…. From all that we know, it seems like the case that…. Transcend your paradigms of explanation. They are already and always formed through a fallible language of approximation.
Where does this leave us? Living in paradox? Living with approximation? Truth as the most useful thing we can understand and communicate. Does this mean we should rest, dejected and surely wrong about our approximations? No, just as Lawrence BonJour argued that while we might be brains in a vat, it is highly improbable that we are; it is highly probable that we are pointing ever closer to the thing we really mean to approach. Asymptotically. We strive for ever more accurate approximations. Always understanding that the truth is likely between or beyond our language.