Meaning and mind-changing

I noted in the introduction that this site isn’t a blog, although it certainly seems we’re blundering into that territory. One distinction is that because of the nature of blogger software1 — and if I’m wrong here please correct me — you don’t revise a blog entry after the fact.2

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Thus Omar Khayyam, via FitzGerald. Time is a blog.

But I’m not the finger of God on Belshazzar’s wall. I reserve the right to revise and edit, to the disgust of textual critics everywhere, until my editor says otherwise. (“So there. Nyaah.”)

Theologians have that power. Dr. Charles R. Smith, one of my professors and advisors, was once asked in class how he would define Christian theologian;3 he shot back, “Someone who studies the Bible and changes his mind.” He paused to consider that off-the-cuff phrase, and decided he liked it. I do, too. If someone never changes his [her] mind in the course of study, he [she] either possesses latent omniscience (and is thus able to discern truth, or lack of it, instantly) or is doomed endlessly to repeat a party line.

Historians have that power, too. The job of a historian is not merely to recount events but also to find the significance of those events — to see the patterns of cause and effect that underlie them. In other words, to tell their story and bring out their plot.

All of this is done in retrospect, of course. It’s simply a more formal version of what you and I do every day: we see things happen and we try to figure out “what the hell is going on” (a magical phrase to which we shall return in a later article). We may succeed in figuring it out, or we may not. Some of us believe that we are not finding out the significance of those events but rather creating it, since truth is not absolute but rather what is “true for me” — the postmodern approach. I don’t buy it: reality existed before me, and I choose to hold the opinion that it is the result not of chance but of craft. And therefore I am not out to impose my views on the universe and its everyday occurrences, but to bring my views into line with what the underlying patterns of meaning and significance in the universe actually are.4

And if you’ve followed me this far, then you know something about another seventy-five-cent word, tossed around in discussions of philosophy, theology, and artificial intelligence: hermeneutics — the science of interpretation. How we read stuff, whether books, road signs, movies, faces, or events.

“Wait: artificial intelligence?!” Ohhh yeah. For if a computer, or a robot (an ambulatory computing system; see Roddenberry and Coon’s made-for-television movie The Questor Tapes), is not told something by its programmers, then how is it to read the clues to figure that something out? Indeed, if reality exists independently of us, and if we do not impose meaning on it but seek to perceive its meaning, then, given the fallibility of our senses and our reasoning, how would we know that meaning with any certainty unless we were told it?

Back to theology, then. And revelation.

  1. Yes, I realize that commenting on the software is like saying an SR-71 Blackbird isn’t an airplane because there’s no one on board passing out those little bags of mini-pretzels. Work with me here, okay? []
  2. [Retrospective note: There’s nothing like actually getting to work with the tools. WordPress, as it turns out, is quite helpful about letting me edit past posts. Ah, well.] []
  3. He had just given his definition of scholar as someone who is able to consider the subject matter from the perspective of the person or people involved — to think the other’s thoughts, as it were. For example, one would expect an Augustine scholar to be able to consider Augustine’s debate with Pelagius with an understanding of why each man adopted his particular doctrine (and, in the process, to realize how we in American Christianity have followed Pelagius far more than we would like to admit). It certainly gives the term “biblical scholarship” considerable significance and, perhaps unexpected, weight. []
  4. The terms meaning and significance aren’t always interchangeable, and I like the distinction E. D. Hirsch Jr. adopts with regard to texts: meaning has to do with the content of a text, and significance with the effect the text has on its context.

    For example, when we say, “The movie Fahrenheit 9/11 sent a message to the Bush campaign,” we can understand “message” two different ways. Its meaning is the words said and the actions taken in the film itself. Its significance, on the other hand, includes the effect its release during the 2004 presidential campaign was to have on President Bush’s chances for re-election. Or, consider the moment during the movie Chariots of Fire when, before an Olympic race, runner Jackson Scholz hands a note to competing runner Eric Liddell, who is in this race because he refused to run in one that was scheduled for a Sunday. The meaning of the note is its content: “It says in the Good Book, He who honors me I will honor.” The significance is, “I think you’ve got guts, and your God will reward you for the stand you’ve taken. Way to go, friend.”

    When we speak of events, however, we tend to blur that distinction. I think Vera Nazarian’s quotation, discussed in “On meaning,” uses “meaning” in the sense in which I’ve used “significance” here, and so in that discussion I’ve followed her usage. []

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