Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

Introduction: Why Symbols?

Posted on: 2013/05/13

Why Symbols?

I apologize, truly, for any imprecision in this post; this is an idea that is still not entirely firmed-up in my head, but perhaps you, as readers, can help me to refine it, and correct me where I seem to be going wrong. I would appreciate any input on this idea in particular because it is, as far as I have seen, I’m the only one saying some of this or, at least, the only one who has taken some of these critiques, which do not originate with me, to this conclusion.

I’ll open this with a rhetorical question (ha! I see what I did there!): Was Kore kidnapped and held against her will by Hades? More importantly, did this have to happen in the real world to be meaningful? Keep this in your head.

This also requires a bit of personal digression. You see, I am a freshly minted college graduate with a BA in Writing and Rhetoric. Much as I love writing, I honestly came to love the rhetoric side more than the listening-to-the-sound-of-my-own-words part, and engagement with rhetoric as a field has brought my conflict with skepticism, as outlined in my last post, to a head.

Although there are plenty of working definitions for the word “rhetoric,” my personal favorite is the first one that I received: Rhetoric is the study of how symbol systems move bodies to action. Keeping in mind that “symbol systems” references all manner of things–from language (which, at best, attempts to describe reality while failing utterly to encapsulate its entirety) to political ideologies to religions–this is a pretty broad operating framework and requires a great deal of care (particularly since I have my own preferred symbol systems and must disentangle those from the differing ones of others in order to attempt to observe the world with any fairness).

This came to interest me in regards to skeptics specifically as I was in the process of writing a long-ish paper about the issues that the skeptical community has with sexism. While trying to unpack the origins of sexism in that community–an issue that I am honestly thoroughly tired of, but will likely discuss here–I gradually came to realize something that I couldn’t fit into the limited space that I had to write. Skeptics have serious symbol problems.

Remember that I said earlier that language is a symbol system. An excellent example of this is the famous painting by Magritte (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which serves to remind the viewer that a representation is not reality. Language is such an integral part of our function as a species that it can become very difficult to remember that language is the map and reality is the territory that we are attempting to describe, using deeply flawed physical equipment and sounds and images that can, at best, only approximate what we ascertain with that equipment. I’m not even approaching going so far as to say that we can know nothing about reality as a result; I think that it’s important to reach as much of a consensus as we can on what we can, and to use natural explanations where they exist without falling prey to the urge to use supernatural explanations solely because of the current absence of a natural explanation. However, we must be mindful of our own lack of precision which, although not our fault (excepting when it is a result of negligence, as it frequently is in the case of our horrible media coverage of scientific discoveries), is still a built-in part of our existence as a hodgepodge of evolved mechanisms. Symbol systems are, essentially, all we have with which to communicate with one another about our experiences of the world.

The problem with this is that a lot of skeptics do not seem to realize that words are not descriptions of reality. I think this stems from a lack of appreciation for symbols, which are, in the skeptical mindset, “not real”; this renders them as having no value because they do not bring us closer to understanding what is real. Since words are all we have to communicate with, they have to be able to describe reality, because otherwise we’re just working with shadows here. Make no mistake; I am not saying that your average skeptic is incapable of appreciating a work of fiction as having great meaning to them, or ceding that words are an imperfect means of communication, but I think that there is a problem with the sharp delineation between “real” and “not-real” that is usually a built-in part of the skeptical OS.

If you accept the idea that things are, ontologically, either real or not-real, and that there is no ground in between, then that doesn’t leave room for symbols. Symbols–be they words, deities (in religions and denominations that don’t require a literal, interfering god), or rituals–must either describe reality or be completely false, with no real room in between for them to bring meaning through metaphor. Words must be either true or not-true, without the possibility that the metaphors that we use to describe science actually elide the public understanding of science (Richard Doyle has done some great work on this topic) or that our metaphors actually create a space where we have entire gaping holes in our understanding. Words are either true or not-true, which means that either they describe reality or they don’t, and if they don’t then they are either fiction or lies.

Taking this into mind, and considering that I do not believe in the supernatural, paranormal, or pseudoscientific, it would seem as though I am stuck with religious-symbols-as-lies or I am an accommodationist. (If I am an accommodationist then very well; I have been called far worse in my life.) I disagree with this dichotomy, and think that this failure to understand the function of the symbolic in ordering people’s lives creates very real problems with communication between skeptics and liberal theists, who should be natural allies in the pursuit of a society that is more scientifically literate (despite our imperfect mental and rhetorical equipment) and more tolerant of a multitude of religious views. I, and many nontheists, can both believe that fundamentalist and literal interpretations of religion are dangerous lies and that there is a great deal of good to be found within symbolic readings of religious texts and praxis. It is unbelievably damaging and condescending to refer to religious practices as mere superstitions without any basis when, for many people, they create a symbolic order around which people make sense of their lives, and the supernatural nature of the beliefs is frequently secondary to their importance as symbol systems. Science as a working symbol system simply does not provide the richness of metaphor that many people require in order to feel fulfilled, and a lack of provision for people’s metaphor-hunger creates a skeptical movement that is impoverished both in its understanding of its own flawed symbol systems (which are “true” under the “true-not true” dichotomy) and in its understanding of why so many people do not feel satisfied with science as a symbol system, regardless of its accuracy in interpreting reality.

The problem with this goes beyond the ability of skeptics to empathize and communicate with a largely theist public. It extends into their understanding of how symbols, even when they are firmly in the not-true half of the dichotomy, influence the way that people view reality and so, not-true as they may be, create the realities that entire societies inhabit. This is part of why it is important to be intellectually honest enough to delineate between different religions and different forms of the same religion in order to make accurate critiques: the difference between, say, a member of Westboro Baptist and a Christian who attends a Unitarian Universalist church is vast, and the way that the latter interprets the symbol system around which they arrange their lives creates a reality around them that is far kinder and more open to people who think differently from themselves. We shape the reality around us, which includes reality for the people who disagree with us, through our interpretation of it and through the symbol systems that we choose to order our lives around. If we are not mindful of this, then we both have difficulty understanding the reality that others inhabit as well as understanding that our own reality is shaped by the symbols that we choose to interpret it with.

Stories aren’t just stories. I don’t believe that Kore descended to the underworld and emerges as Persephone, but I do know that that particular story resonates with me as someone who, as do too many women, entered into mature sexuality through sexual assault and coercion. That symbol, that story, is important to me, just as it may be important to someone else that a mad god condemned all of humanity to Hell until his son willingly died on behalf of them, or that a man sat under a tree until he reached enlightenment. They may not be Real, but they are real to the people who believe them (whether literally or metaphorically), and they shape the world.

Until skeptics understand what symbols mean to people and why, they are not going to be able to communicate, or understand how they are communicating. They will not be able to understand the ways in which they are making the world in their own image. They will not be able to understand that so many of them view the words of marginalized bodies as unreliable because they cannot trust others to accurately render their own experience through symbols, as opposed to white cisstraight wealthy educated atheist men, who describe Reality and impart it to the masses.

As a rhetorician, I’ve got to say: Skeptics, we’ve got a major problem. The inability to communicate keeps wounds in the shadows and, neglected, unseen, they go septic, poisoning the body.

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2 Responses to "Introduction: Why Symbols?"

If you accept the idea that things are, ontologically, either real or not-real, and that there is no ground in between, then that doesn’t leave room for symbols. Symbols–be they words, deities (in religions and denominations that don’t require a literal, interfering god), or rituals–must either describe reality or be completely false, with no real room in between for them to bring meaning through metaphor.

Have you ever read Ways of World-making by Nelson Goodman? (Or any of his other books?) If not, it is really hard to sum up his thinking, but I think you would very much enjoy (and potentially agree with) his writing. He argues a lot against his kind of thinking, calling himself an irrealist to reference the fact that he doesn’t hold the question of “is this real” or “is this unreal” as important as “what kind of reality does this construct” and “how does that interact with the realities constructed by other symbols.” It isn’t quite as post-modern as I’m making it sound (not that that’s a bad thing, I just don’t think I’m representing him that well), like I said, it is really hard to briefly sum up his ideas.

On the general topic of symbols/rhetoric and skepticism, I’ll note in a sort of lazy/offhand manner that I find the use of study citations by skeptics in internet debates very interesting from a rhetorical standpoint. It seems to me that a lot of the time studies are used as a concretization of a viewpoint into “reality” even though, as skeptics, we should be more aware than most people that one study is essentially meaningless, that statistical significance is often an (unintentional) artifact of researcher-controlled factors, etc.

I haven’t read the book, but it sounds terribly interesting to me! I need to add that to my (already inexcusably long) list of books to read.

Agreed on the use of study citations by skeptics. There needs to be a body of work in order to back up points in which studies are useful; otherwise, it’s just a bit of data without context. I do know, though, that it is very easy (as someone who is layperson-literate but not at all that knowledgeable about science) to find studies that sound good to me and think that they must be representative of something important. I usually try to find friends who are more expert than me to prevent that kind of laziness on my own part, but I’m imperfect. It’s particularly troubling because of the way that folks on the left tend to push outlier studies demonstrating that GMOs are inherently harmful, among other things.

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