More on Thought and Language

In the previous post we were considering the relationship of thought and language. There are other ways to notice the close connection. From time to time I have the experience (which I think is not uncommon for others as well) of thinking something, or perhaps being about to think something, but then being distracted before being able to internally verbalize the thought. Afterwards there is no easy way to recover the thought without going through the chain of imagination and thought that led up to that point. And if this is not done at the time, it may be impossible to ever recover the thought. This is perhaps most directly because memory depends on the imagination, and consequently we do not remember our thoughts without either some associated verbalization or the equivalent.

This can have various consequences. For one thing, thinking a thought is rather like speaking to oneself, and needs interpretation just as we need to interpret the speech of others. You might assume that you automatically understand yourself, since you are the one thinking the thought, but this is not necessarily the case. Each time you remember a thought, you are doing it through a verbalization, which is itself a vague expression which could be understood in more than one way. This implies that you may not even be thinking exactly the same thought each time.

This influences the way we learn or change our minds. Thus for example Thomas Talbott criticizes John Loftus’s book The Outsider Test for Faith:

By way of a partial answer to such questions, Loftus suggests that most religious people, even among the most intelligent and reflective, never (formally) convert to another religion or de-convert from their initially acquired religion viewed as a cultural phenomenon: “In most cases,” he says, “we rarely stray from what we were raised in but merely move around among versions of the same general religion…” (p. 83). My own informal impression, however, is that, depending upon how one might measure such things, many people travel a huge distance (in a host of different directions) over the course of a normal lifespan; and many observers, such as hospice workers who work with end of life issues, sometimes report great spiritual growth, as they interpret it, in the final days and weeks of a person’s earthly life. Beyond that, I see no reason to deny that even very small movements, as judged from the outside, can sometimes signify profound spiritual progress. Do I rest any argument of substance on such subjective matters, or expect to achieve universal agreement on them? Not at all. But I do suggest that one should not trivialize, as Loftus appears to do above, what it might mean to “move around among versions of the same general religion.”

Here is why. The Christian tradition, which is the religious tradition I know best, is so rich and includes so much diversity within it that the question of diversity between the Christian tradition as a whole and some other religious tradition, such as Islam, may have little or no coherent meaning. Put it this way: A cultural Christian has no need to embrace another religious or cultural tradition, at least not formally, in order to embrace religious views typically associated with some other tradition. Take, for example, the great Christian poet John Milton, who emphatically rejected the one substance theory of the Trinity, adopted the Arian view that Jesus Christ was on a lower ontological level than God the Father, and even set forth an elaborate biblical argument in defense of polygamy. He had no need, in other words, to embrace the Muslim religion as a cultural phenomenon in order to embrace a concept of God that was virtually identical with the Muslim concept; yet, C. S. Lewis and others (including myself) still consider him a great Christian poet. Similarly, those Christians who come to believe in reincarnation, as more than a few do despite their upbringing, have no need to embrace all the nuances of the typical Hindu understanding and certainly have no need to embrace all of the cultural trappings and conventions of some particular sect in the Hindu religion. My point is that moving “around among versions of the same general religion” may involve profound (and easy to overlook) changes in one’s religious outlook, changes that may be at least as momentous as converting to another religion (or even as adopting a kind of practical atheism). For as Loftus himself points out, “Worldviews are dynamic rather than static things, anyway. They are constantly changing with additional education and experience” (p. 97). So again I ask: Given such dynamism and so many dynamic opportunities for spiritual growth (however that should be construed) within any one of the great religious traditions, why should it even matter where one’s spiritual journey begins?

There are several reasons why things work this way. In the first place, belonging to a religion does not in itself signify a certain belief, but membership in a religious community. This implies that changing your mind about religious matters does not necessarily imply changing your religion, and it may be more reasonable not to change it, depending on various circumstances. But there is another reason. Due to the vice of pride and various other causes, we do not like to say, “I was wrong.”

Not only in religion but in almost every other matter, changes of opinion are significantly more frequent than the actual admission of having been wrong about something. One can avoid admitting this in various ways, some deliberate, some usually subconscious. Sometimes a person will say nothing for a while, then begin to voice the new opinion, hoping that no one notices that he has changed his mind, since this would be to admit that he was wrong. Occasionally a person may even assert that he always held the new opinion, and he may even believe this, perhaps since he now finds it difficult to imagine holding another position, and consequently difficult to remember doing so, since memory depends on the imagination. Or a person may wait until he leaves one social circle and joins another, before starting to say something new, so that no one notices the change of mind. Or again, one can voice the new opinion using the same words that were used to express the old opinion. In this case one may or may not even notice that one has changed one’s mind. Or one can change one’s mind gradually, in such a way that at each stage the same words are used, and it is actually reasonable to call it the same opinion, perhaps with a variation of degree or emphasis. But at the end it may no longer be reasonable to call it the same opinion, just as a color may be changed by imperceptible stages until a new color is present. The person himself, however, may still not recognize that he has ever changed his opinion at all.

The vagueness discussed in the previous post is closely related to all of this. The boundaries of a word are vague; thus there is a region where it is vague whether a person is bald or not. And likewise the boundaries of the vague region are themselves vague; at no level will complete precision be found. This makes it all the easier for an opinion to drift gradually and in an almost unnoticeable way over time.

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6 thoughts on “More on Thought and Language

  1. […] people change their minds, they often do so gradually, and by degrees, and in such a way that sometimes they do not even notice that they have changed their minds. It follows that if someone does not want to change their mind, they have a reason to be cautious […]

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