Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wittgenstein and 'Aspect Blindness'

Hi Sam,

I have decide to break this out into a new post. Let gain an agreed understanding of this as a starting point. I read over the first of the two links you provided but did not have much time to mull it over. I shall nevertheless blunder on in proud ignorance. My thoughts thus far:

It seems to me that Wittgenstein is laboring the point about experience, be it sensory, thought or emotional, being applied to a word. I think therefore that the meaning of a word is necessarily subjective, though a general approximation of each individuals experience can be shared. As in the case of the name Schubert coming to fit the face and works of Schubert, I think this is referring to nothing more than subconscious associations. If you had mistakenly thought that Schubert’s image and works were in fact those of Mozart it is almost certain that with repeated association that the name Mozart would, for you, come to fit the face and work of Schubert. Indeed, you might have a very difficult time adjusting your experience of the name Schubert if your error should be pointed out to you. The word in any given context has only the meaning we associate with it. It might be said that someone has aspect blindness with respect to a meaning of a given word or phase only if that meaning is experienced generally or at least not as an individual’s subjective experience.

Aspect blindness would in the sense you are employing it have to mean a generally accepted meaning or at least a meaning shared by at least two people. I could claim that there is a meaning or an experience, an aspect if you like, of the word truth that everyone but me is missing. This, of course, is ridiculous. There might well be some subjective experience that is mine alone but surely then I am redefining what is generally meant by the word truth. It is no longer the appropriate word to communicate my experience.

With regard to the example of saying ‘Mr. Scot is not a Scot’ and attempting to force yourself to mean the first `Scot’ as a common noun and the second as a proper name; the meaning or experience of 'Mr.' is conflicting with the meaning or experience of 'Scot' meant as a common noun. From this conflict we activly experience meaning.

These musing bring me to the following questions regarding your employment of the concept of ‘aspect blindness’ in our previous discussions.

Are you suggesting that I or indeed Atheists in general are ‘aspect blind’ with regard to entire religious concepts or is this blindness limited to words or phrases?

How do you know that the aspect we are missing is not just a purely subjective meaning you are applying?

Even assuming aspect blindness exists; this is still only referring to experience and does not in any way lend weight to truth claims or the validity of religious concepts. I am assuming that your suggestion is that we do not clearly understand the concepts because we are aspect blind to certain components of the language used to decribe it. I this the case?

I have not studied the articles too deeply so my apologies if I have missed the point Wittgenstein was making. If you think I have done so, let me know.


Sam Norton said...

Hi Gary,
The point I want to draw from the discussion of aspect-blindness isn't really about the fine detail of Wittgenstein's argument (so to that extent, perhaps I should have put the links in the other way around) it's to bring out the point that many disagreements are not about facts but the interpretation of facts; that is, it is about ways of seeing. And, indeed, it is my point that a religious point of view is a way of seeing the world - as is atheism. So I would want to say that arguments about 'fact' can only take us a certain distance, for at the end of the day the most fundamental difference between us - at least superficially - is about how to interpret the facts.

Now, to pick up one more specific point to take us forward. Yes I do think that atheists(*) are aspect-blind with respect to religious understandings. I don't see those religious understandings as 'subjective' (ie not in the pejorative sense you mean) simply because the vast majority of human beings in time and space have been able to 'see' in a religious way, across all the different traditions and cultures in the world - and, crucially, some of them are atheists in the Western sense. It seems from my point of view - having switched away from atheism at about age 20, in the context of studying philosophy and theology at university - that I understand atheism and can 'see' the world through its eyes, when I choose. Now some atheists can do the same with regard to a religious point of view (Terry Eagleton for example, or Wittgenstein himself), that is, they are able to understand the religious perspective 'from within', even if they don't end up agreeing with it. And I know a number of people like this.

So the issue for me isn't 'why do some people claim to have these bizarre and inexplicable understandings?', but rather 'why do a certain subsection of Western society (=some atheists), who tend to be highly educated in a particular tradition, find it meaningless?'. As it happens, I think there is a very clear and intelligible answer to that question, involving the patterns of intellectual history in the West - Hume, Kant, Freud, logical positivism etc - and I also believe that understanding that progression throws up the way in which that intellectual tradition itself has now abandoned that approach, because it has manifestly failed (this can be seen most easily by considering the fate of logical positivism).

So yes, I do believe that some atheists "do not clearly understand the concepts because [they] are aspect blind to certain components of the language used to decribe it". (Although I'd want to broaden the point beyond 'language' in a verbal sense, to include, eg, ritual and so on.)

The Celtic Chimp said...

Hi Sam,

Good comments.

Don't have the time to respond this evening (bloody work) but I do think your response is helpful. I think I'm getting a much clearer picture of what you are suggesting and don't entirely disagree. There is a fairly large BUT to tack on to that though :). Hopefully I'll have time tommorow to properly respond.

JustBrowsing said...

In teaching there is a well known concept called 'Frame of reference'. It quite simply means that an individual needs
contextual information to understand how concepts, ideas, arguments etc fit together. Without an adequate frame of reference, the
words might make sense but the overall meaning will allude. In a lot of cases, when you first jump into a new subject, its a bit of a chicken and egg scenario - to fully understand what people are talking about, you must first get the 'gist' of the arguments but to understand the arguments you must understand the gist!

Whenever I hear the words ‘interpretation of the facts' or 'presuppositions' (not a phrase you used but common nevertheless) , alarm bells start ringing in my head. What began as recognizing that information could only be understand with a context, took on a different meaning within modern social psychology.

When we infer meaning, we use our deep systems to filter what we see and hear. This is called ‘framing’ and the combination of needs, emotions, beliefs, values, mental models, goals and so on that affect our inference act together to form a ‘frame of reference’ or just ‘frame’.

To persuade people means changing how they perceive something, which means changing some aspect of these deep systems – either how they are used (for shallow persuasion) or what they are (for deeper persuasion). Changing the frame of reference is called ‘reframing’.

Needless to say, some theists, especially American fundamentalists specialize in reframing and actively teach and research the area in their training programs. Check out some of their videos on youtube. Watch out for repeating key terms and emotions. Eg

“People need to accept the goodness and salvation of Jesus Christ for Jesus Christ is goodness and Jesus Christ is salvation and if you accept Jesus Christ into your hearts you will be saved and loved”
(Repeating for emphasis coupled with emotive words to attempt to force an association within peoples minds – textbook!)

Anyway its late and I’m probably not making much sense. The point is 'many disagreements are not about facts but the interpretation of facts' is a minefield and one needs to step carefully - is it adding contextual information or is
it text book reframing, American fundamentalist style?

"And, indeed, it is my point that a religious point of view is a way of seeing the world - as is atheism."

I honestly don't understand that. Atheism is just the absence of theism - it does not dictat any way of viewing the world. Can you give some examples of how an Atheist point of view differs from a religious viewpoint?

"..ast majority of human beings in time and space have been able to 'see' in a religious way, across all the different traditions and cultures in the world - and, crucially, some of them are atheists in the Western sense..."

Sure but what they 'see' varies so greatly and is in most cases so culturally dependant , that I don't think this a very persuasive point.

"So the issue for me isn't 'why do some people claim to have these bizarre and inexplicable understandings?', but rather 'why do a certain subsection of Western society (=some atheists), who tend to be highly educated in a particular tradition, find it meaningless?'."

I don't agree that it is a 'certain subsection of western society.....who find it meaningless'. Allow me to interrupt the facts or to reframe the question :)
The atheists you mention are merely the minority who proactively think and question. The overwhelming majority in
western civilization do not think about the subject - it is by all definitions completely meaningless in their lives. For example, my parents and a lot of their friends go to church every sunday for a hour and come back grumbling over the length of the sermon. They have never read the bible, never owned a bible, don't know
what it says, dont live their life by it. If I were to ask them what the priest said during sermon, they wouldn’t be able to
tell me. The only reasons they do that sunday chore is habit and the chance to catch
up with old friends. Yet they would still tick 'Christian' when it came to filling in a national census. And I
have proactively (but with some subtly!) polled friends dotted around the country and found the same pattern repeated. The number of practicing Christians in countries like France and Germany are tiny and while, new EU countries like Poland may have a relatively high number of practicing Christians, I hope the increased freedom of information and prosperity will fix that :). So I don’t agree is it a 'certain subsection' who find religion meaningless; rather only a 'certain subsection' who
choose to question and engage with people like yourself. Its like claiming the majority of people are politically active because the majority of people vote – A lot of people will vote and not care about politics until the next election comes along : It is meaningless to their lives.

Ron Murphy said...


In the context of your latest response here, how does Islam fit into the picture? It isn't tainted by Western philosophy. It has an absolute claim to its view. It encompasses as much or more than Christianity, in that it accepts Jesus as a prophet, but simply doesn't accept the trinity, while Christianity doesn't acknowledge Mohammed. You can hardly say that Muslims don't 'get' the religious point of view. But, they are right, you are wrong. And claiming mere cultural differences will not do. They are adamant that Christianity and other religions are corruptions, where the mortal men involved have misinterpreted the truth.

The charge of aspect blindness could equally be directed at theists, if not more so. Many theists claim to understand the atheistic view, since they have been atheists at some point. Quite often their atheism is transitory. They are brought up to be religious, and may even have spiritual needs that support their views through childhood. They then turn to atheism in their youth as they discover science and scepticism, but eventually turn back to religion. They have experienced the atheistic and the mystic and think that gives them a superior view that the currently atheistic don't have. Their understanding of the science based sceptical atheism is skewed by their religious commitment, driven by their spiritual needs. And this is evident in the distorted, twisting, esoteric and circular arguments they employ. The absolutist view is a necessity, because without it the whole shaky house of religion will collapse, and for religious leaders this questions their whole being. The charge of aspect blindness also doesn't account for the many atheists who came to atheism later in life after complete immersion in the religious view.

Kelly Gorski said...


You said, [I]t is my point that a religious point of view is a way of seeing the world, and while that may be true, what gives this world view any validity? What, for example, makes its interpretation of facts worth investigating further, it worthy of being adopted by a person, or perhaps, what makes it "better" than a secular world view?

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Gary,

I posted my own reference to your post here. Sam responded so you can see more of his input there.

Sam Norton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam Norton said...

Kelly - in brief terms I'd pick up on a comment I made at Stephen Law's place (in response to something Gary said) about the perception of truth being dependent upon emotional maturity in the perceiver. As I see it the religious traditions are very good at cultivating emotional maturity, it's something that they take seriously, whereas the most popular forms of atheism (roughly speaking, those which seem dependent on something like logical positivism as a philosophical foundation) don't see this as an issue worth considering. This isn't an argument for Christianity rather than any other form of spirituality, it's an argument for spirituality rather than asophism.

scott gray said...


sam continues to build a magnificent straw man with part 6 of his 'wisdom' chronicles. i'm ready to set fire to it, or to wish it were singing, 'if i only had a brain.' guess i'm done playing with this one. it is a pleasure to have met you; i'll keep lurking at your blog.



Ron Murphy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron Murphy said...

Emotional maturity - depends what you mean by it. I'd understand that term to include the ability to assess arguments rationally without letting emotion dictate your response. In that sense I'd say many theists are emotionally immature in that much of what they say and do with regard to theism is emotional. There's an abundance of reliance on 'love' - the love of God, the love for God, etc. In this respect many theists let their 'hearts' rule their 'heads'.

If a theist asks himself, "Why do I let love drive my understanding and belief in God?", then in asking a question he has already dipped his toe into the rational world. But the response is often, "Oooh! That's too cold. I'll stick with my emotions, they feel nicer. I'm sure they are right."

scott gray said...

cc, ron--

i've just come across this by david swanger:

" psychology makes increasingly clear, our emotions define salience for us. they organize our internal body states, our thoughts, and our actions. they direct our attention and make us more likely to notice certain things. and...our emotional reactions make us more likely to remember particular people, places, events, and stories; indeed, in the absence of writing and other mnemonic technologies, being memorable is the sole arbiter of a tale's fate."

if this resonates with you as much as it does with me, it asks some interesting questions about differences between theists and atheists: how is the emotional framework of a theist different from that of an atheist? why are the god stories 'memorable' for a theist, but not for an atheist? is the atheist view 'valueless' to a theist because there are no 'memorable' atheist stories? it implies there's a mutual aspect blindness; one rooted in the difference between emotional frameworks.



scott gray said...

if wisdom is rooted in life experiences, cumulative across communities, individuals, and generations, and focuses on successful outcomes, then as conditions change, what constitutes 'wisdom' also has to change. our laws change, our codes of condust change. the problem with making wisdom come 'from god' is that laws and codses of conduct derived from deistic wisdom cannot be changed as conditions change. and that's 'unwise.'

Ron Murphy said...

In this respect I'd say there is not necessarily any great difference between atheists and theists in their capacity respond emotionally or rationally. The claims by theists to 'emotional maturity (superiority?)' is as far as I can tell aspect blind in that they can't see that atheists may be equally emotionally driven - just not in trying to understanding reality. There are some differences in emphasis, and there may be some characteristics (genetically or environmentally driven) that predispose a theist to his world view and to want to use emotion to drive it. But I don't think theists are any more emotional than atheists, it's just that in the search for an understanding of reality science is used as a method to remove emotional influences as much as possible; just as objectivity in understanding history requires one to sometimes understand the past without being unduly influenced by ones own cultural past and present.

I think this use of science and reason has led to so many advances in so many fields in such a short time with an amazing degree of consensus; and the rejection (or cherry picked partial rejection) of it and the reliance of emotion explains why there are so many culturally determined conflicting religions.

Many stories are memorable, but that says nothing of their relationship to reality.

scott gray said...

ron, cc--

i was speaking to a theist about what the 'aha' moments have been in his college studies. ('aha' moments strike me as the deepest emotion about learning.) all were theistic, but all were about seeing a larger world view than he had been taught before-- typology understandings of the hebrew scriptures as 'old testament' weren't all; postmodern thinking has some great advantages; enlightenment in theology has its uses. i thought it was neat that his deepest emotions about learning new things were about an expansion of his world view.

for me it was discovering calculus.

the emotion is there; somehow the stimulus is different. can this be generalized as a difference betwee theists and atheists, or is it just personal preference? what have been your 'aha' moments in learning?



Ron Murphy said...


I've had plenty of aha moments. A can't remember them all clearly, though I do remember the 'rush', the flood of emotion that accompanies them. One of the earliest regarding learning was when it dawned on me I could teach myself stuff, I didn't need a teacher.

A related episode came later at uni doing post-grad teaching I realised one of the most effective ways of learning something is teaching - particularly knowing that the next day you have to stand up in front of class and teach somebody else everything you don't yet know about a subject - you learn pretty quick; and the whole process of having to explain something a dozen ways because not everyone in class gets it the same way. Teaching makes you re-examine stuff you thought you knew - so, "Aha! Teaching is good for me as well as the students." Even the aha moment you share with a student when the student gets what you're explaining.

As to aha moments regarding subjects, pretty much any subject has produced them, though I guess the more awe inspiring the subject the bigger the buzz. For example, when numbers of the very small and the very large are put into perspective with a good metaphor.

Again. I think all this depends on how you see things and what does it for you emotionally. 'Getting' some complex stuff is always a buzz, but because it's inherently associated with rational study I think the emotion is different - the emotion unexpectedly appears in the middle of rational contemplation.

I guess, though I can't say from experience, that if a theist is already in the emotional domain to begin with then any aha moment lifts the emotion a bit higher. Probably closer to the emotions of human love because it has that anthropomorphic element to it - a loving communion with God, which, since a relationship with God as a concept doesn't have any of the hang-ups, is most 'pure'. I think the human mind is easily capable of self-inducing this level of emotion - where all rational signals are lost in the emotional noise of positive feedback.

All very nice, I'm sure - very transcendental; but I don't know what it has to do with understanding reality. That's why I don't think (can't be absolutely certain) I'm aspect blind in this respect. I think I get the mystical emotion that theists speak of, it's just that I don't kid myself it's telling me anything about reality.

scott gray said...


i'd forgotten about the rush that comes when you've explained something, or facilitated something for others so they 'get it.' it's what i live for, actually; to facilitate an 'aha' moment for another, and in their response to it, you yourself have an 'aha' moment about something as well. those really are the best feeling moments.

the push then, for me, is to experience those moments often, by 'aha-ing' others. that's why challenging the world view of others can be so rewarding; when a bit of existential angst or cognitive dissonance that you've initiated 'aha-s' someone into a new understanding.

perhaps theists want this same rush, and in a similar fashion, feel this rush when they convert someone to their world view ('saving' someone or leading someone to jesus), or when they pray, or are engaged in a sacrament, or read christian scripture. the closest i've ever come to this in church is through music. there's nothing like the 'aha' satisfaction of a perfectly sung a capella chord in a resonant cathedral space.