Thursday, January 24, 2013

Saying to Show: Reflections on Wittgenstein's Tractatus

I have just finished the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, (pictured above) an Austrian-born student of Bertrand Russell, is widely considered the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. This, and the fact that I am currently taking a class about him, means that I have been led to gorge myself upon his philosophical work, beginning with the aforementioned philosophical treatise. And, let me tell you, there is much to partake of.

The Tractatus is Wittgenstein's attempt, through investigations into logic, language, and mathematics, to solve all the problems of philosophy. And even though he himself rejected a lot of its premises in his posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations, I think he did a pretty good job. This is why: by taking a striking turn toward the "mystical" near the end, he uses philosophy to transcend philosophy. The work itself anticipates this, as seen below:

6.54: My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions: then he sees the world rightly.

In this sense it is not what the Tractatus contains that is important, but what it does not contain. To use a Wittgensteinian set of terms, what it says is irrelevant and ultimately false; what it shows is key.

On that note, let me share with you my favorite proposition from this amazing work:

6.41: The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is not value, and if it were there, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

What Wittgenstein means by "the world" is unlike the normal definition of the term. Instead of meaning the entirety of existence, of things "as they are, as they were, and as they are to come", he simply intends to signify "the totality of facts, not of things" (1.1). The meaning of this phrase may escape the reader, so let me elaborate by saying that, for Wittgenstein, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world", (5.6) and that "I am my  world" (5.621). If there is something of which I cannot speak, think, or conceive, common sense says that this thing does not exist to me - it is outside my world. And yet, as the above quotation seems to indicate, these extra-conceptual things are the most important entities of all.

But wait! How can something of which no knowledge is possible give value to the world? How does it even make sense that an un-thinkable thing could make life meaningful? For that, I return to the "say"-"show" distinction mentioned above. There is nothing whatsoever that one can meaningfully say about ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, etc., for as soon as you try, you run into the problem that you lack a "referent". Take free will, for example. Have you ever seen free will? Even if you were to examine the brains of every person on the earth, combing through grey matter for something which accounts for this nebulous quality, would you then hold free will in your hand, so to speak? Surely not. The existence which our agency possesses cannot be pinned down and examined, and so any attempt to reference it in language would lack meaning. But, as evidenced by our encounters in everyday life, these higher things can be shown.

But what is this "showing", really? If I were to put it simply, I would say that to "show" something is to become a manifestation of that entity. Instead of miniaturizing the thing in your head and then conveying it to another person, (as per Wittgenstein's picture-theory of language and thought) showing involves letting that thing act through you, in as vague a sense as possible. For example, if one were to show ethics, he or she would be an ethical person. Likewise, to show free will, he or she would act freely. 

And now we can see where Mormonism comes in. There are many religions and worldviews that try to bring us into contact with existence outside the Wittgensteinian world. For Hindus, this seems to be Brahaman, while for or others it would be the Tao or even God. But many of these religions or philosophies try to exclusively convey this outside world in language instead of through demonstration. Think of pantheism, for instance. A pantheist believes that God is the reality behind the world, beyond language and beyond conceptualization. While this may sound Wittgensteinian, the fact that this too is a representation of God (however ethereal and abstract) is a form of idolatry, a futile attempt to convey someyhing which cannot be said. The reader then may protest by saying that only a literally thought-less person could avoid this problem - every religion, including Mormonism, seems to have claims about the nature of reality. This is true, but you would be missing a key point: in Mormonism, (and other faiths to varying extents) we say not to say, but to show. When we say that God has a body, it is much more than just a fact: it is a way of getting us to feel our significance as a finite being. Likewise, when we believe that families can be together forever, we are led to experience the joy of the familial life. Both of these are exquisite manifestations of the emotional joy at the heart of reality.

What makes Mormonism unique among all religions is that in it the joy of Reality (capital R) becomes most fully manifest in its believers. These are the fruits of the spirit - it's what you feel when you read the Book of Mormon prayerfully, attend sacrament meeting, or go to the temple. For ultimately, I believe that Mormonism's strength is not is saying the truth, but in showing it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Accepting Finitude

As a part of the curriculum in my Philosophy of Religion course, I have encountered several definitions for the term "religion". And while they all have a good deal of merit, the most interesting one I have encountered thus far is that "religion is man's response to his finitude". All of humanity has an inherent feeling of inferiority when compared with what could be, whether it takes the form of political dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, or even existential angst, and we want nothing more than to transcend our limitations and become more than we are.

Various religions have different responses to this anxiety over man's finite existence. Hinduism promises that by extinguishing the individual soul or ego, we can escape the endless cycle of rebirth and become one with Brahman. In addition, many sects of Christianity believe that through the "beatific vision", one can escape the world entirely by continual direct communication with God. In fact, this is a common thread throughout nearly all religions - one can escape the finite by going to some other realm where it no longer exists. Mormonism, as it turns out, is a striking exception.

Mormonism gives up all notions of transcending the finite world, as we believe that there is no such thing as a realm where there are no limitations or boundaries. Joseph Smith once said, "the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there [in the Celestial Kingdom]" (D&C 130:2) meaning that in the eternities there will be no blending of essences or merging of being, but only our day-to-day lives continued on for eternity. Furthermore, the doctrine says we will always have this body, and even God himself is and continues to be a man like ourselves.

If Mormonism is to deny one of our most basic impulses, why believe in it at all? Wouldn't it be much more convenient to be a pantheist, believing that you'll merge into the infinite and impersonal well of being once you die? It actually would, but to do so would miss the point of spirituality entirely. This is why: true religion teaches us not to flee from the present, finite world, but to embrace it. You see, if we were to seek after the seemingly infinite "other", it would inevitably end in a wild goose chase. In similitude to a dog chasing its own tail, goals would be replaced by newer goals, and our trip to the infinite would never end. Far easier, and far happier to be content with what you have right now. For this is precisely what Mormonism teaches: the materially limited world is what there is, and by becoming aware of this reality, we can come to accept its glory.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can't fulfill our longing for the infinite in a roundabout way. As seen here, the transcendent and the immanent are not mutually exclusive; the closer we get to God, and the more we accept the here-and-now, and the more the infinite infuses the finite to the point where they become indistinguishable.To do this is to extend not in breadth but in depth, and to see exaltation in the most mundane of circumstances. This is heaven - where the boundless and the bounded come together in perfect symmetry, ensuring that the aforementioned sociality would be, as Joseph Smith said, "coupled with eternal glory".

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ruminations on the Sacrament

The sacrament has become my favorite part of church.

Rivaling scripture-reading and prayer, the sacrament as an intensely real spiritual experience is often the most spiritually clear moment of my week. But why do I find it so powerful? Aside from the obvious fact that the Spirit is present, I wonder what specifically invites it to come, what makes it such a unique weekly event. I give an answer with this post. Here I will endeavor to show what components of the sacrament make it the powerful symbol that it is, and where it invites in the Spirit.

Let's begin with the obvious: the bread symbolizes the body of Christ, and thus his incarnation into the world of flesh. On the other hand, the water (originally wine) represents the blood of Christ, or his all-atoning sacrifice. But this just scratches the surface - there are many levels of meaning for this powerful ritual.

For example, the sacrament exists as a uniquely physical aspect of Gospel worship. The bread and water are not abstract concepts which we absentmindedly ponder - they are real objects, which are both tangible and corporeal. This is above all a reminder that we should never deny the physical or the material; God has a body of flesh and bones, and all spirit is matter. But even the specific traits of these objects remind us what they stand for. The bread has concrete substance, and is quite literally in one place at one time. However, the water can pervade space much more readily than its solid counterpart, having the capability of figurative omnipresence. Here, (as Alan Watts once pointed out) the bread and water symbolize the unity of matter and spirit, of the finite and the infinite. But most importantly, these symbols can literally enter into us, and thus become a very real manifestation of the fact that God lives in us, and that by partaking of his fullness, it can become part of our very being.

There is also very clear resurrection imagery in the Sacrament. The cloth draped in turn over the bread and water is nothing less than a shroud, meant to represent the death which Christ experienced. But for each emblem priests uncover the shroud, thus symbolizing that he has emerged from the grave victorious.

In addition, all participants in the Sacrament ritual partake of the bread and water together. We all, more or less, do the same thing at the same time, hopefully thinking the same thoughts. In a very real, yet also very symbolic sense, we become one with those around us.

Finally, we can apply the traditional interpretations of this ceremony to us, as well as to Christ. We commemorate Christ's suffering, yes. But he suffered for all of our sins, and so by partaking of the water we remember not only the pain of Christ, but vicariously the pain of the entire human race.

The sacrament is an intensely real, intensely present experience of spiritual oneness with God and with our neighbor. This is a time when boundaries between the spiritual and the physical become thin, and when we can connect with God readily.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

D&C 88 and the Gospel of Thomas

SPECULATION WARNING: I am not preaching certain truth. This post contains pure speculation, which could be entirely wrong. 

In 1945, a cache of ancient texts was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The most important of these texts was the Gospel of Thomas, the first page of which is pictured below.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings that the author claims were spoken by "the living Jesus". Now, to many members of the LDS Church, the idea of Jesus-isms that can't be found in the standard works makes one quite uneasy. While we are told that if we wrote everything that Jesus said or did, "the world itself could not contain the books that should be written", a lot of the stuff claiming to be said by Jesus is, without a doubt, crap. Out of this concern, let me assuage the reader by saying that I believe the Gospel of Thomas to be mostly, if not entirely, out of Jesus' mouth. How do I know this? It is simply because the ideas within them seem so profound that I do not believe they could have had human origin.

Interestingly enough, there is a section in the Doctrine and Covenants which, if boiled down to its bare essentials, has practically the same message as the aforementioned gospel. This is section 88. In this post I will essay to show, through side-by-side comparison, that these two works come from the same source, as they are both inspired.

First, let me share with you saying 77 from the Gospel of Thomas:

 "It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

Next, for comparison, consider D&C 88:41:

"He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever."

As you can see, these two are radically similar. Both tell us that God surrounds the universe in different ways, and both tell us that God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Next, here is Thomas's saying number 3:

"The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty"

Compare that to D&C 88:47-50: 

"Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended. The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; nevertheless, the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him. Then shall ye know that ye have seen me, that I am, and that I am the true light that is in you, and that you are in me; otherwise ye could not abound."

Consider the last sentence in the D&C excerpt. Could there be a more glorious good news that this, that God lives in us, and that we live in him? And could there be a more perfect match for Thomas 3? He is inside us, and by knowing ourselves, we can know Him.

As a brief digression, let me expound on the D&C verses for a bit. It says earlier in the same chapter that "there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space", meaning together with the above quotation that whenever we see, we see kingdoms, and therefore see God. However, it also says that, despite our seeing Him, we do not comprehend Him. God is figuratively camouflaged, visible to all, yet hidden in plain sight. But one day, it says, we will see him for what He is, and we will know that He has never left our view. 

Finally, consider number 5 of Thomas's sayings:

"Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you . For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."

Together with D&C 88:66-67: 

"Truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound. And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things."

Both excerpts offer the possibility of omniscience, if we will only pay attention to the light of God eternally before our eyes. If we become single to the glory of God, we will comprehend all things, and nothing will be hidden from us ever again.

That's about it. There are many more similarities, which I won't go into. You can, though. I urge you to read both works, as they each contain the light of the Gospel.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Love, Pain, and Faith

In my head, a perfect storm has been brewing. Various ideas which swirled around in my head until recently without direction have now coalesced to become something beautiful, something worthy of shouting from the rooftops. But first, let me share the components of this amazing intellectual concoction.

First, I have recently become enamored with a certain Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard, who lived in early-nineteenth-century Denmark, is well-known for several reasons. On the one hand, people regard him as the founder of existentialism. He was also a Christian, and so people think of him in addition as one of the greatest Christian philosophers and theologians of all time. But his significance to me lies in his beliefs concerning "uncertainty". He puts it best in his pseudonymously-written work Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, as follows:

 "[Truth is] objective uncertainty held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness"

To me, what this means is that you cannot escape from the unsure. Ultimately, definiteness and certainty are complete illusions, meaning that you must continue through your life with faith as your only assurance. It is a scary thought, but a profound one at the same time.

The second component of my perfect storm is a book called The God Who Weeps, written by Terryl Givens, (along with his wife, Fiona) whom I have had the privilege of meeting in person.

Though this book says many things, the most relevant point made by it is that heaven is not merely a place of happiness - it is a place where Gods and angels weep over the pain and sins of the human race. In other words, it states that love and suffering are intimately connected.

When these two thoughts came together, I was on the bus, and I was traveling to my place of residence after finishing the first two finals of last semester. A tragedy (which I won't go into) had just occurred, and while I was pondering on the suffering that it would cause, I watched as a disabled man boarded the bus in a motorized wheelchair. For reasons I cannot explain, I suddenly felt an overwhelming feeling of love for this person. Unlike at other, less-noble, times in my life, I did not look down upon him in any way - he was a son of God, a manifestation of his glory, and a miracle. It was not long before this new-found love began to extend to everyone that was there with me. The flaws, imperfections, and humanity of every single person in my line of sight made them seem incredibly beautiful.

It was then that I realized I knew absolutely nothing about any of them; they were strangers, people whom I would probably never see again. But I loved them, with all of my heart. Suddenly, the voice of Kierkegaard spoke to me: these people were an objective uncertainty, and I was holding onto them with the most passionate inwardness. It became clear in that moment that all love involves uncertainty, whether it be with a complete stranger, a child, or even a spouse, because we can never know the innermost thoughts of another. In other words, love occurs despite an imperfect knowledge.

But I also felt a profound vulnerability. At most other times in my life, I had been content to live within my tortoise shell of numb comfort, and had refused to open myself up to the magnificent, albeit dangerous, wonders of the world. It is only when I began to venture outside of it that I become exposed to new heights of emotion, and to feel the raw joy that comes from experiencing the divine nature of the world's inhabitants. But I also began to feel incredible pain at their suffering. This love, which mixes joy with sorrow, is completely and totally divine. By exercising it, perhaps we as human beings can see the world as God does, and thus gaze into his heaven.

One can identify this love with something else, too. For what is love, as I have portrayed it, but a manifestation of faith? When we truly love another person, we believe them to be nothing less than a miracle. But we do not know this, we can only have faith in it, trusting that it is true despite the insufficient evidence of our senses.

In summary, I would say that pain, love, and faith are all intimately connected phenomena, having the unavoidable reality of uncertainty at their core. And in conclusion, I'd like to say that I wish all of you to have the same experience that I had on the bus - it was truly a revelation.