We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is,
we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
(Lao Tzu, chap. 11, tr. Waley)
The flight of a bird is not in wings, but in the shape of the space-time enclosed by each wing from instant to instant. In other words, flight is a grammar of relationships. An infinite variety and number of wings may participate in this grammar of flight relationships, but it is the grammar alone which remains constant.
A dance is not in bodies, but in the shape of the space-time enclosed by each dancing body from instant to instant. A daisy is not in its molecules, but in the countless shapes of space-time enclosed by a family of molecules over several summer days. A daisy is a particular, very complex grammar of relationships which only certain molecules are able to enter into, but those molecules may do so to make an infinite number of daisies. And a sentence is not the sum of its words, but is found in the peculiar grammar of relationships which may exist amongst those words. There is a subset of relationships amongst certain elements which we take to be a human being. The grammar making that human thing is very complex indeed, but it too is constant in a way which enables the wonderful variety of human creatures to be recognized as members of a close family. One segment of the particular grammar of relationships known as human, also has unusual properties of recursion. We know this recursive behaviour as self-inspection, self-analysis and the ability to act with premeditation. In other words, humans have sentience.
The sentience thing is not a standard quality of the bits of fat and meat and water and bone which any butcher could find. (Nor is the word processor I am writing this with necessarily located in bits of silicone …). No, sentience has to be some remarkably complex and dynamic grammar of relationships persisting in a peculiar envelope of space-time. The neighbourhood of that envelope, we guess to be defined by the meat and bone etc., but as with most grammars, it might in principle be possible to transpose it to other mediums.
Some humans have proposed that there is a master grammar of relationships amongst all the elements of the universe. In fact, such a grammar is generally assumed, and is often called Nature. A far more fiercely argued proposition is that Nature is in some sense sentient. Indeed, since most people find it easier to think of “objects”, rather than a grammar of relationships, Nature is apt to be iconized as a sentient creature of some kind (even though only some subsets of complex relationships have truly “object=like” qualities).
From that it is a short leap of imagination to think of the Nature creature as sitting “outside” of the grammar of natural relationships, and manipulating that grammar in some way. Such a leap is not logical, but dreams don’t have to be logical. At this point, a personalized “God” has arrived on the scene. Historically of course, traditional societies mostly iconized subsets of natural grammars in this way, assigning sentience and power to hills, rocks, animals and all kinds of imaginary spirits.
We have this saying that “seeing is believing”. We are physically equipped to “see” or perceive certain sensations which emanate from certain relatively static “grammars of relationship”, such as solid objects from which light is reflected. Nevertheless, perhaps the largest quanta of phenomena which we believe are not apprehended directly through sensation at all, but through language. We cannot “see” or perceive language, and only sometimes the phenomena to which it refers. In fact if you ask anyone but a linguist to attempt a description of the grammar of their language, they are likely to retreat in embarrassed silence.
Yet whether the signs of the language arrive in puffs of air, or the visual symbols of print, or touch Braille, everyone subconsciously applies an incredibly complex known grammar to decode relationships amongst the signs, that is, to extract meaning. These “meanings” are generally believed, and sometimes fought to the death over. In other words, the unseen grammatical relationships of human languages have an awesome power to influence human actions.
Linguistic grammars are not the only unseen relationships which have power. The so-called laws of Nature are similarly apprehended by inference, and they are powerful enough to keep the whole roadshow of life rolling. Whether any important non-human part of that power manifests as an agent with some sort of premeditated purpose, that is, in a volitional manner of its own making, is a trickier question. Since humans, a subset of Nature themselves, do just that, the question is reasonable.
The pantheistic notion that Nature, as a grand grammar of relationships amongst the elements of the universe, is in SOME sense sentient, IS conceivable to my brain. The proposition that a SUBSET of natural relationships, besides the known human variety, might exercise some powerful sentience, is even more conceivable to my brain. What that sentience might amount to has been a rich field of invention. However, I have seen NO persuasive evidence that such non-human sentience, even if it exists, can be harnessed for good or ill by humans. That is why I choose to call myself an atheist.
To me it seems that neither our science nor human religions have established the power of any external intelligence to influence our lives, least of all in answer to prayers and sacrifices; (I am a stubborn skeptic. Others may require much lower standards of evidence). However, I cannot honestly preclude the possibility that such a thing might come to pass. And that is why, unlike many (perhaps most) atheists, I am not a dogmatist. It is a perfectly rational possibility that the cracks between the floorboards could be managed for some bizarre purpose by a local duty god.
There remains the interesting question of why anyone would bother with the god in the crack between the floorboards, given our rotten record of extracting special favours, in spite of all the prayers. Not too many of us win the lottery either, but hope springs eternal. At this very moment, in a mountain grove fifty meters from my apartment window on the outskirts of a Korean city, two old Korean women are chanting and ringing a bell. In a tiny grotto or rocks, they have placed a libation of three oranges and a stainless steel goblet of spring water. They are seeking the favour of a hill spirit. Clearly, for them, their beliefs offer some emotional comfort, whether or not they are provable to my own severe standards of evidence.
A second, more political answer to the puzzling proliferation of unprovable religious beliefs might be that a) the human brain evolved to ask questions (that’s a big survival advantage), but b) nothing in evolution taught our brains that you can’t get sure answers to some questions with the mental equipment we have. When the old men of the tribe couldn’t get sure answers, they figured they had better make up some answers and stick to the story, or they’d lose all respect. Oh well, no doubt that still happens some of the time… But the emotional needs of those old ladies in the hill grove outside my window is probably a more powerful engine in the end.
Having gotten themselves a god, or gods, human ingenuity in defending him/her/it knows no bounds. Along with justifying the organized crime of earthly kings, many of the clever twits who inhabited seminaries, universities and courts for two or three millennia, seem to have devoted their lives to constructing religious arguments. Their most powerful tool has always been REASON, though most of them also glorified Faith as an impregnable front-of-house door genie. The beauty of reason is that you can easily construct whole libraries of rational argument, no matter that your shoddy premises are buried deep in the basement. This is the Faustian stuff of PhDs. I’m not about to waste my life digging up these many mouldy foundation stones. However, sometimes it is tempting to take a kick at this or that venerably dead religious premise when it is heaved through one’s window yet again.
Consider, for example, the grand accident of life itself. The grand accident was considered one of the best arguments for a divine being in 18th-19th Century Europe. They called it the problem of the Cosmic Watchmaker amongst other things, reflecting on the sheer improbability of life, especially the kind of life that could give rise to a pocket watch (a mechanical marvel of the age), coming about by accident.
Well, I’m not at all sure that this “accident” of life was so unlikely. From our human standpoint, life and it’s complexity truly is amazing, but we are entirely unqualified to judge on any cosmic scale, its emergence as probable or otherwise.
There are an awful lot of variables out there that we don’t know about, and given our limited sensory and cognitive equipment, we may never put it all together. However I can conceive that in a physical universe which seems to our puny measurements to be damn near infinite in extent, it might have been surprising if, somewhere, sometime the right combination of molecules to form a self-regenerating micro system had NOT bumped into each other.
And if this scene that we are part of now falls apart in the cosmic future (well, it seems certain to)… then it may very well happen in the next big bang (or whatever universes do from time to time, including inventing “time”) that some kind of life is created yet again … This could have been going on forever, but we are never gonna’ know about it. Why? Being a slow-witted fellow, I find it hard to even imagine that our own inventions, past or future, are going to save our descendants from cosmic catastrophes, such as our local sun becoming a red giant.
Far more important to a wretched bug like me is what the other silly critters of my species actually DO with their lives and TO mine. If they suspect there are gremlins at the bottom of the garden, then they’ll act on that belief and affect my welfare. We have to live with the stubborn illusions and simple hopes of common people. Many a merry philosopher, realizing this, has set up shop as a fortune teller or guru to make a tidy income from their wishful thinking.
Occasionally under extreme provocation we might need to cut a zealot off at the knees. But we certainly can’t move the teeming millions from their low-level religious comfort zones. Every prophet who tried that in the last three thousand or so years has been resisted, then enveloped and absorbed into the routines of kitchens and babies, of work and war, without ever making wise men of fools, or saints of ordinary selfish folk. Nor are we ever going stem the rise of opportunists (thousands are born by the minute) who will use any religion, or any ideology, or any idol made of clay for self promotion, no matter what the cost in merely human suffering.
Lao Tzu (translated 1934 by Arthur Waley) The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought , 1934
http://afpc.asso.fr/wengu/wg/wengu.php?l=Daodejing. Also see compilation Terebess Asia Online at http://terebess.hu/english/tao/waley.html
Professional bio: Thor May’s PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).
All opinions expressed in Thor’s Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.
“Unseen Grammar – Suspecting The God Of Cracks Between The Floorboards”
© copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2001