Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gibberish? Non-Cognitivist Speech Act? or Serious Truth Claim?

In meta-ethical theory, they have come up with a salient view about moral claims that sheds light on a lot of puzzling religious utterances. Non-cognitivism is the view that strictly speaking, moral claims are neither true, nor false. They are not the sort of speech act that can or should be evaluated with objective criteria of truth. Instead, when someone condemns an act as immoral, what they are saying is more like “I have bad feelings about what’s going on. I need to express those bad feelings. You should have bad feelings too!! Boooo."

Now consider “Jesus loves you,” “Jesus died for you sins,” “God be with you,” “Accept Jesus into your heart and experience salvation,” and so on. If you take these sorts of claims seriously, they’ll make you crazy trying to figure out just what they mean. Like Flew’s frustrated skeptic in the parable of the invisible gardener, it’s hard to see just what’s the difference between a world where these things are true and a world where they aren’t. There appear to be no experiences or no events that could possibly occur that are inconsistent with Jesus’ loving you, or with God’s cherishing you. For comparison, consider your typical university president, or political candidate who keeps fervently repeating that he’s committed to the future, and who says he’s got a vision of excellence.

We can all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we acknowledge that these sorts of speech acts just aren’t the sorts of claims that make and sort of true or false difference in the world. No state of affairs would count against them, as their utterers maintain. Even as he’s being carried off to jail for embezzlement, the university president or the politician insists he’s a vision of integrity. And no matter how severe the suffering from earthquakes, malnutrition, war, and child abuse get, the religious leaders steadfastly maintain that God loves you. What many of these claims really amount to is something more like public emoting, singing, poetry, or cheering. They are expressions of personal desires, hope, feelings of subjugation, admiration, and humility. And so they aren’t really a matter of true or false, right or wrong. They can be annoying, condescending, or self-righteous, of course.

What “Jesus died for your sins, accept him into your heart” really means is something like “I have sympathy for your plight, we are all lowly and pathetic and in need of paternalistic comforting, you can have it if you perform certain kinds of behaviors and adopt a certain kind of personal posture with regard to your place in the world. When I do these things I feel joyful, I want you to feel joyful too.”

It should be obvious to you that religious ceremonies, rituals, and liturgies all tend to slip away from being true/false sorts of assertions and more towards some kind of religious expressionism. If you’re really taking many of these behaviors as the sort of thing that can be evaluated with reason the way evidence in a court case can, you’re wasting your time and your breathe. It would be absurd to raise your hand at a poetry recitation and say, “I think your claim in the second line of the first verse about love’s being a furry puppy is mistaken. Here’s why . . . “ wouldn’t it?

The problem is, of course, that lots of religious people who are making these utterances do not think that what they are doing is non-cognitive. They think that Jesus really did die for your sins, and that Jesus really does love you, and that those clich├ęs actually mean something. It can be hard to dismiss such behaviors as non-cognitive when the speakers themselves insist that they are making true assertions that make all the difference in the world.

The answer, I think, is that the real measure of whether or not some speech act is cognitive or non-cognitive is not something that is always settled by how the speaker feels about it. The speaker may or may not appreciate the non-cognitive aspects of what they are doing. The university president insists that he is committed to excellence, no matter how poorly his university is doing under his guidance. That what they are saying is non-cognitive will be revealed by the way that the speech acts weave themselves into their worldview. One telling question that I always come back to is this, “just what would it take in principle for you to change your mind about X?” We can’t imagine the university president conceding that in fact he’s not committed to excellence under any circumstances, and it’s hard to imagine how many people who are fond of repeating “Jesus loves you,” and “Jesus dies for your sins,” would ever change their minds about that. Suppose we found compelling archeological (maybe including DNA evidence) grounds that showed that Jesus wasn’t crucified and just live out a normal life as a carpenter. Do you imagine that the people who now insist that Jesus died for our sins would ever accept that evidence and conclude that they were wrong? If a speech act has working its way into a person’s psyche in that fashion we have good reason to think it’s become a non-cognitivist dogma.


Jon said...

Although much of it is gibberish, I think that there are states of affairs in the world that could count against some of these claims. In University President example, if he both claims to have a vision of excellence for the future of the university and to then get caught red handed and on camera lighting the Student Union on Fire while caught on film for embezzlement, then obviously he is wrong about claiming to have that "vision". He cannot both have a vision of excellence for the future of the university and at the same time try to destroy it. Other examples for the "Jesus loves you" approach can also be similiarly made.

Jon said...

I missed your point earlier, I invalidate my last comment.