Reply To: RN/language for Social Change

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    NOTE: I am posting this on behalf of vandermude as he was having a problem with posting it here.


    Here be demons.

    This is an area of active research for me. This whole discussion has multiple layers of meaning and nuance. Don’t be too sure that Religious Naturalism has a better answer.

    Language is a fundamental part of humanity. But too often language itself becomes the reality. This is a fundamental error that you see, for example, in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    Well, no, not really,

    One of the big problems with language is that our language distorts and constrains what we can think about. This was what Orwell warned us about with his description of Newspeak. Language is the box that we are urged to think outside of. But even if we do, we end up having to force our thoughts back into the box to communicate it.

    “But on principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.” – Albert Einstein, as quoted by Werner Heisenberg in “Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations” (1971) quoted by Peter Coy

    The paper you mention alludes to this problem.

    “But recent events have reshaped the national conversation on power, privilege, gender norms, whiteness and systemic racism. Together these ideas have pushed us to think, talk, argue and become aware of the many implicit biases we all carry about our identities, unconscious assumptions that privilege some and inflict harm on others. These insights have also made it easier for people to realize there may be plenty of other unconscious assumptions undergirding their positions….There has, of course, been ferocious pushback against many of these ideas, claims that they are divisive or exclusionary. #MeToo, B.L.M. and trans rights have been weaponized in service of the culture wars dominating the media.”

    This does not get to the heart of why there is a pushback – it just does not identify the deeper problem. For example, there is no analysis here about which implicit biases are correct and which biases are in error. The pushback is sometimes framed as a reaction to “Politically Correct” language. It is more than politics. The author discounts the other side as “weaponizing” the ideas. What is actually happening is that they cannot even understand what the other side is saying because their theory forces them to observe only the implicit biases that is expressed in language that the national conversation has become.

    As an example, there is a debate going on the last few years about sex and gender. Because our view of reality is distorted by our thoughts and language, both sides are in error. The right sees sex as binary. This is incorrect. The left believes that gender is socially constructed. This is also in error because it downplays biological essentialism.

    Part of the problem is language itself. Sexual binary is based on a view that sex derives from the genes. The XY chromosomes are male, the YY are female. But sex determination is not static. It develops in the fetus through the process of epigenetics, which turns on and off the genes in the cell, so that undifferentiated stem cells become fully differentiated muscle cells, liver cells, neurons and so on.

    How the genes are expressed is called the transcriptome. The naive view is that male and female differ in only 1 gene in 23, so the difference is about 5%. In actuality, recent research has shown that the expression of genes differs by as much as 30%. This is a huge difference.

    A popular press description is here:

    For the relevant paper see:

    So the right is incorrect in calling sex binary. Actually, it is more like a logistic function. Most people are one or the other, but there is an intermediate area. But the left is just as bad. Back in the 1990s it became clear that there was a biological basis for homosexuality. It was not a choice. To some extent you are “born that way”. So, obviously, gender as a social construct is just flat-out wrong. There are social aspects to gender as well as biological. Sex and gender are part nature, part nurture.

    But questions about sex and race are radioactive. We are constrained by the language of our individual tribes. We cannot deviate from the group consensus, and we cannot understand what the other side is talking about.

    As to Religious Naturalism, don’t be so sure that we are any better. One of the ideas passed around is Loyal Rue’s description of an underlying myth as the heart of a religion. We have this too, in the form of Evolution:

    But this myth becomes our reality. The way we talk leads us to view the world in particular ways. We are forced to pick and choose certain facts because we cannot even state things differently. For example, Religious Naturalism uses Evolution as a central metaphor, so we force our discussion into those terms. But that obscures reality. For example, you cannot use the metaphor of evolution to base a moral code. Evolution can describe how social animals like humans develop morality, but it cannot be used as a basis for morality.

    “Every mythology, every religion is true in this sense, it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. But when it gets stuck to the metaphor, then you’re in trouble.” – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Episode 2, with Bill Moyers

    The problems with language is one of the reasons why I like Taoism. It warns against making thoughts and language superior to reality. The Tao te Ching starts with the warning: The Tao that can be written down is not the Tao.

    In Zhuangzi, the story of the wheelwright points out that direct experience is more important than the written texts, which are “just the dregs of the once living-spirit of an ancient”.

    Too often we just repeat what we are told without looking deeper. We tend to take what is said and pass it along without deeply thinking about things. For example, I hear a lot about “humility” as something we should do and be. But I can’t, for the life of me, see why this is a virtue. I just don’t get it. It seems to me that we pass this word along, like some smooth stone, from person to person without really thinking about it.

    So to sum up:

    “When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow.” Yes, this is true. But if the new concepts are not a true reflection of reality, than the social change could be a disaster. The way I like to express it is this:

    Language is power. But it is not truth.

    “RN offers an evidence-based language of interconnection/interdependence/interbeing. Can a new relationship with reality follow?” Yes, but be very careful. Look at the evidence carefully. Is it really there? What are you leaving out? And, like Einstein says, your theory decides what you will observe. Your language may be forcing your response to reality into a limited relationship. In that case, the language will have to change, because reality is what it is.

    In any disagreement between theory and reality, reality always trumps theory.