Abstractions are very important for humans to be able to communicate. Consider the simple word ‘chair’. If I bring up this word in a conversation, the other person (presumably) understands what I am talking about. Yet if we were asked to describe a specific chair, a concrete object, we would talk of two different chairs. It is the common characteristics of a chair that allow us to communicate about its nature.
Unlike Plato’s absurd theory of a hidden universe of ideal forms (where float perfect tables, chairs, and all other objects), Occam’s razor indicates that our ability to abstract comes from experience. The more chairs we experience, the greater our ability to understand and encompass in a single word the familiar characteristics of a particular object.
This is where ignosticism or theological noncognitivism comes in. When it comes to religious words like ‘God’, the words are empty abstracts, not drawn from any concretions that exist in real life. This is why when one asks ten people of the same religious denomination for a definition of ‘God’, one will discover ten different results.
Take for example a common characteristic attributed to ‘God’, namely omnipotence. It means all-powerful. But how can humans conceive of something all-powerful without there being some experiential basis for such thinking? In a sense, these concepts are so muddled and polymorphous because the proposition of ‘God’ and its various attributes is unthinkable.
Here’s a short quote from the Wikipedia article that provides some examples:
- “The sentence X is a four-sided triangle that exists outside of space and time, cannot be seen or measured and it actively hates blue spheres is an example of an unthinkable proposition. Although some may say that the sentence expresses an idea, that idea is incoherent and so cannot be entertained in thought. It is unthinkable and unverifiable. Similarly, Y is what it is does not express a meaningful proposition except in a familiar conversational context. In this sense to claim to believe in X or Y is a meaningless assertion in the same way as I believe that colorless green ideas sleep furiously is grammatically correct but without meaning.”
Now religious discussions (in the classical sense) are not actually my purpose here. This is just an introduction to what I understand theological noncognitivism to be.
The real purpose of this is to talk about collectivism. If you’ve read “Why are there more atheists than anarchists?” you know that I classify Statism as a religion. The worship of political power is to me the replacement of one authority (supernatural) with another (man) by an atheist who hasn’t completely shrugged off his chains. This picture illustrates what I mean.
Now, how does this relate to theological noncognitivism?
I want to explore whether the language employed by Statists, namely collectivist language, is similarly as nonsensical a series of abstractions as the various omni-something attributes of god.
Let us begin with the individual. We are all individuals, and we encounter other individuals throughout our lives. The idea of an individual human being, who has needs, who thinks, who feels pain – these ideas come from our very real experiences, both as individuals ourselves, and through our observation and experience of other individuals.
What about “Society”? Or “The People”? Or “The Collective”? Are these terms meaningful? Maybe and no.
The maybe is because we have encountered and can conceive of groups of people. And in some sense, these collectivist terms are groupings of people. But here’s where the sense ends.
First, none of these terms mean simply a horde of people standing in a field somewhere. When we think of society, we try to imagine not just the people, but also their professions, their daily activities, their opinions, and their interactions with one another. But the problem is that this is impossible even with a small society in a town, let alone a country of millions. Society is far too complex for anyone to imagine, understand, or model.
Even the production of a single pencil cannot be undertaken by any one man. This is one of many reasons why central planning fails, and why positivist economists find themselves in so much trouble with their increasingly complex mathematical models.
In this sense, “Society”, or “The People” are an unthinkable proposition. And although on the surface it seems as though these abstractions come from our experience with individual people, this is not actually the case. If “Society” was built up of the people we’ve actually interacted with, it would contain very few individuals. The dentist who did your cleaning, the teachers at your school, your friends, your family, the grocer, the baker. But this is a tiny slice of what most people refer to when they talk of “Society”. There’s a disconnect – a sort of break, between what we know from experience, and what we try to conceive of with these collectivist terms.
It is not surprising that collectivist thinking is always muddled and nonsensical. Often all it takes to disprove a collectivist proposition is to disaggregate the larger groups into smaller groups, and the theories fall apart.
Secondly, and perhaps even more problematically, the attributes we imagine society has are those only an individual can possess. How many times have we thought or said, “Society is moving forward”, or “Society is stagnating”, or “The People are angry”, or “Society needs a safety net”.
And yet “Society” is just an abstract concept. Society cannot have needs, cannot feel pain, cannot progress. That would require society to have its own mind and body. Individuals can do these things, because individuals are concrete, real, beings.
But collectivist concepts are abstractions with no basis in concrete things. Worse, the attributes given to these collectivist abstractions are demonstrably applicable only to individuals.
I suggest that just as muddled language enables muddled thinking when religious people try to conceive of meaningless abstract concepts, so is this muddled language present in the greatest religion of them all – Statism.
It is nothing new to propose that our thinking is shaped by our language. But just how deep does the rabbit hole go?