A definition is the obituary of an idea.


Categories: Religion

One of my father’s favorite sayings was “a definition is the obituary of an idea”. For all that our culture, and our very survival, depend on rationality, it has its limits. There are things we cannot usefully encapsulate in our nice, rational, minds. Some things don’t survive dissection; you can take a clock apart to find out how it works, or at least how it used to work, but you can’t take a kitten apart to find out why it’s cute. There are things which no definition can fully capture. I can describe them, and you can recognize them if you’ve experienced them, or possibly just if you’ve experienced something similar. I’ve “recognized” what people were talking about when they spoke of “being in love” more than once. I think I’m right this time, but that’s what I thought last time, too.

There is a danger to this. It’s too easy to throw these things away; to dismiss them as “irrational”, rather than merely “non-rational”. Down that path lies madness. It’s too easy to accept these things without question, becoming a mindless ball of emotional response. Down that path lies madness, too.

These things must be balanced. You cannot be fully human while rejecting the parts of your experience which are beyond the scope of rational analysis; you cannot be fully human while refusing to analyze anything. The art lies in finding the balance between these things.

Religion is often dismissed as “irrational”. If the only evidence I feel I have for my faith is personal experience, why do I believe it? I am told by people who are sure they are much wiser than myself that I should dismiss my religious experiences, toss this “faith” away, since its roots are so irrational, unreproduced in any laboratory. Surely, people assert, this is special pleading. Are there other things I treat the same way?

Yes, there are.

My friends, Dave and Jordan, had a baby recently. (I understand Jordan did most of the work.) I got to hold the baby. There is no way for me to put this into words. I was invited over to the hospital, to hold the baby, to share the champagne, to debate whether or not “Anne” should have an E on the end. I can tell you this, but I can’t tell you what it was. I can say “friends”, but the word is pallid and empty compared to the experience. I can say “new baby”, but if you’ve never held the newborn baby of a friend you’ve known for more than half your life, there is no hope that you will understand what happened. You can have the facts, but not the experience. I can only say that it is impossible, today, for me to be other than joyful. I woke up early today, eager to see the world, to be in it, to be conscious to experience this joy. I can’t tell you why. I just know that it was important.

Should I dismiss this too, O Wise Ones? Shall I describe it in terms of “social bonding rituals,” and note dispassionately how many children were born in the same hour, the same minute, as little Sylvia? Do you nod sagely, as you acknowledge that it’s surely for the best that I attach no special importance to the daunting knowledge that I have seen the beginnings of a life as vast and unwieldy as mine?

Go ahead. Throw out everything which isn’t totally rational. Throw out all the things you can’t reproduce under the watchful eye of some priest-skeptic, trained to disregard that which cannot be given discrete numeric values. But please, be careful with the tissue paper left of the world; it will be fragile when all the flesh is gone from those weary bones.

In the end, all we have is rooted in faith. I have faith that my experiences describe something external to me; it pleases me to imagine that this “universe”, as I have come to call it, is a real place, full of real people. This charming fantasy, totally unsupported by any external evidence, fills my time with excitement and adventure, but only so long as I suspend my disbelief. In the end, though, I must admit that what I have is only experiences. I have no way to verify them, except to have more experiences. All I can tell you is that these experiences seem consistent. Maybe they aren’t, and my memory is unreliable. I could never know such a thing. So, I act as though the world I perceive exists. Following the same path, inexorably, I act as though my friends matter to me, as though there is a distinction between right and wrong, and as though the force which moves me sometimes when I pray is God. You may draw a line between “rational” and “irrational” in the sand wherever you please; the waves will wash it away presently.

Comments [archived]

From: Annabel Lee
Date: 2003-11-07 15:57:52 -0600


When I read your words, concepts like ‘faith and hope’ become tangible and real.

From: seebs
Date: 2003-11-07 21:30:34 -0600

When I write things like that, they’re real to me. Sometimes, they aren’t so real - but I remember that they were, and I trust that they will be again. It’s like being in love. I’m not always in love, but I have been before and I assume I will be again.

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-08 15:11:04 -0600


you said:

“In the end, all we have is rooted in faith.”

Speak for yourself. I have absolutely no faith whatsoever. Any beliefs that I do have are backed up by at least some evidence, whence said beliefs are not faith.



From: seebs
Date: 2003-11-08 16:30:58 -0600

Everyone likes to say there’s “evidence”, but we mostly agree that we rule out circular evidence. There’s no non-circular evidence to support the foundational claims of epistemology.

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-09 02:24:19 -0600

Evidence is evidence, whether you like it or not.

Again: I have absolutely no faith in anything.



From: seebs
Date: 2003-11-09 02:56:07 -0600

Could you cite what, exactly, this evidence is? Keep in mind that circular evidence is necessarily disqualified. For instance, you can’t take sensory data as evidence that your sensory data is correct; that’s circular.

BTW, if you’ve found a way to beat that problem, you should be posting in Philosophy over on IIDB; that question has remained unanswered for at least two thousand years, and probably longer.

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-09 03:14:50 -0600

Circular evidence IS evidence. The fact that you don’t like it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

The fact that I have evidence that my senses reflect reality means that my belief that my senses reflect reality has nothing whatsoever to do with faith.



From: seebs
Date: 2003-11-09 03:24:27 -0600

Well, if I can accept circular evidence, then I do have evidence that my religious experiences reflect reality. Yay! I have evidence! Woo! :)

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-09 03:29:54 -0600

Yes you have evidence. I’ve never said otherwise.

Now proof, on the other hand, is a much more difficult animal to find.



From: seebs
Date: 2003-11-09 03:54:43 -0600

Okay, I see your point.

I guess, when I say “faith”, I’m including the decision to accept circular evidence, since the evidence itself is unsupported. I tend to refer to anything without ultimate solid support as “faith”. For that matter, anything I have only evidence for, there’s a little bit of faith in deciding to trust the evidence.

I think this is a question of which definition to use. My usage tells you more about how I understand the word “faith” than about anything else, I think.

From: Leslie
Date: 2003-11-09 13:44:13 -0600

The death of any idea is putting it into words at all, I think. There’s something about the transference of it into lingual context that ruins it.

That said, I’ll be slaughtering ideas on a nice pike for probably the rest of my life, and hopefully getting paid for it too, like you and your mom.


Your Wayward Outlaw Sister Type Thing

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-09 14:52:18 -0600

Faith is, by definition, belief without evidence.



From: seebs
Date: 2003-11-09 15:08:14 -0600

I would say faith is the gap between the amount of evidence you have, and the degree to which you believe something. Most people would probably argue that circular evidence doesn’t count at all. Not sure how I feel about that.

From: Jesse
Date: 2003-11-09 17:30:42 -0600

Some people seem to have a reflexive reaction to the word ‘faith’ that has nothing to do with anything you wrote. They’ll necessarily have to overcome their contextual redefinitions before they can get any benefit from a discussion like this.

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-09 23:26:40 -0600

You forget, seebs, that I have had a xian upbringing. I know more about xianity than I will ever need to know, and I know much more about faith than I will ever need to know. Faith is belief without evidence. Period.



From: seebs_lawyer
Date: 2003-11-10 08:52:17 -0600

Goliath implies chistian faith (in whatever form) is not supported by any evidence. This is not the case. The ancient writings (gospels, epistles, church fathers, prophets, etc.) ARE evidence. Perhaps not very good evidence, but evidence nonetheless of christian belief. The authors of these documents believed in something and reported that belief. That is evidence.

If there was no evidence at all, there could be no faith at all. You would have no way of even considering whether or not to have faith unless you had evidence to review. Whatever points you to an idea you reject or accept is evidence–evidence you accept or reject.

Even if you conclude the authors of the ancient documents acted in mala fide (latin intentionally used to distinguish between meanings of the term “faith”), you must still review the evidence. And even if you conclude the authors acted in bona fide, that is not a guarantee you will agree with the authors. But you must review the evidence–even if it is a cursory review.

From: seebs_lawyer
Date: 2003-11-10 09:15:38 -0600

At base, religious writings are attempts to explain the inexplicable (to the author). The Book of Joel is an attempt to explain a plague of locusts–an event inexplicable to the author. seebs’ article is an attempt to explain a new baby. Sure, both of these experiences can be boiled down to their purely rationalist underpinnings (sperm and ovum, gamete and zygote; overpopulation and die-off, monoculture and weather cycles).

And yet …

if you report only the rationalist underpinnings, you miss this:

And afterward

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh

Your sons and daughters

will prophesy.

Your old men shall dream dreams

Your young men will see visions

Even on my servants

Both men and women

I will pour out my spirit

In those days

Joel 2:28-29


I act

As though the world I perceive exists.<br />


the same path,

inexorably<br />

I act

as though my friends matter to me,

as though there is a distinction between right and wrong,

as though the force which moves me sometimes when I pray is God.

seebs 2003.11.06 (with a little editing).

From: Goliath
Date: 2003-11-14 23:35:51 -0600

“Goliath implies chistian faith (in whatever form) is not supported by any evidence.”

Absolutely incorrect! Faith is belief without evidence, not necessarily belief that has no evidence with which to back it up.