The mathematical approach to language, God, culture, etc.

This entry is more for my own benefit.  A record of a discussion with someone today via WordPress (exactly the reason I joined! Hurrah).  Quotations by him, my response follows.

“If you don’t believe a claim, you disbelieve the claim. I.e. Don’t believe = disbelief. Abstinence, as defined above, is nonsensical and equates to saying: I don’t believe and I also believe.”

Well, perhaps this would been considered sound around the time of Frege, Russell, Whitehead etc. through to the Tractatus– we do need to be careful with the semantics, you’re right, but you’re putting too much emphasis on *disbelieving* as opposed to *not believing*. For instance, were I to say to you that there are black swans (and let us suppose you weren’t aware of this fact), you weren’t *disbelieving* this to be the case before you first heard the claim— more likely, your ‘disbelieving’ happened at the point where you first engaged with the idea, at that moment when someone first made the claim: “Did you know there are black swans?” Now, you might observe a difference in your attitude from before, now your idea of ‘disbelieving’ could start where before you lived in blissful ignorance. My point really here is that we use the word ‘believing’ in a variety of contexts; it’s impossible to pin down a specific acceptable meaning for the same reason it is with something as simple as the word ‘table’!

More than this, approaching language mathematically as you did above leads one astray can cause all sorts of complications. Consider:

“… the statement “I believe it’s going to rain” has a meaning like, that is to say a use like, “It’s going to rain”, but the meaning of “I believed then that it was going to rain”, is not like that of “It did rain then”.
“But surely ‘I believed’ must tell of just the same thing in the past as ‘I believe’ in the present!”—  √−1 must mean just the same in relation to -1, as the √1 means in relation to 1! This means nothing at all.” (PI IIx)

It also causes problems here:

“Consider the question whether there is a God or not. Two claims can be made: God exists and God does not exist.”

These mathematical notions of ‘truth’: either something is the case or it is not the case with a statement, are misleading when applied to language— Grayling had one example demonstrating a problem with this approach when he said in an interview some years ago:
‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’– [Two claims can be made]: Either you have stopped beating your wife; or you have not stopped beating your wife.
We are not *actually* confined to these two answers. But how trapped the innocent husband must feel with his response!

Two claims can be made, yes, but there are alternatives.

There is a vast amount of grammar surrounding the word ‘god’ that causes all sorts of problems when it’s used in a sentence. I’d suggest myself that the sentence is nonsensical. I accept, however, that to certain pockets in society, even to entire societies, that claim would make sense. But *I*, for certain, have no idea even to *begin* if someone were to propose that sort of claim to me. ‘Do you believe there is a god or there is not a god?’ The mind boggles. I don’t even understand what I would be denying or accepting.

It’s part of the trap of growing up in the western civilisation that we’re led to believe that there either is a god, or there is not a god, based on our cultural history. Another option is to look at it as nonsense— or, at least, that the word has different connotations and different meanings for different people. Look at how different sections of Christianity can argue in respect to the image of god or the idea of god, then compare this to people from other cultures who have their very own, distinct, ideas of what or ‘who’ (n.b. some would say it doesn’t make sense to speak of ‘who’ in the context of ‘god’) ‘God’ is. Let alone the differences between religious positions, non-religious people see how these different groups / societies use the word but cannot get close to grasping what on earth the others are talking about. Or have their own idea but, inevitably, it doesn’t necessarily synchronise with other peoples’ ideas.
People in their own society take for granted the fact that, often, everyone around them shares similar ideas to them of the words they use. You often don’t have to venture very far away from your own society to find that people think very differently from you on ideas that, assumedly, you feel should be mutually shared. ‘God’ to a lot of Americans, for example, brings to mind in particular the Judeo-Christian God. Here in the UK, this is no longer necessarily the case. You increasingly encounter theists, who struggle with the concept of ‘god’ but certainly don’t envisage it as conforming in any sense or form to the Christian version. Same word, but altogether different meaning, images, and connotations.