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Faith By Reason Contents




Chapter 2 ~ Abstraction

PHILOSOPHERS such as Leibniz have long dreamed of a precise, perfect language by which thoughts and ideas could be imparted without systemic degradation. Yet a degree of ambiguity is as inherent in the mechanics of communication as it is in the communication of mechanics.

Even allowing for inconsistencies in the formulations themselves— not to mention those of the formulator— attempts to process ideas through the inexactitude of a symbolic means of expression such as language are approximations at best.

For example no verbiage can rival the experience of seeing for the first time a moonlit marine by the Nineteenth-Century American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Reaction may depend on the associative emotions evoked with respect to personal history, but while a viewer’s response could range from wonder to fear, the entirety of the event can’t be conveyed without seeing firsthand the composition, color, and detail of the work.

Similarly it would be beyond ambition to translate into words a particularly measured yet impassioned rendition of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony #7.

Reaction here would likewise differ, but while a listener might try to describe being overtaken by a variety of sensations, from being ensconced in gentleness to hurling with the clouds, sentences alone can’t replicate the audio experience itself, forever recallable.

Nor for that matter can any amount of crafted rhetoric do justice to the joy of landing on Free Parking and collecting a pot that’s been accumulating since the start of the game, a euphoria incommunicable to those who’ve never experienced it.

These typify what we call indescribable experiences, not just because they are totally beyond the capabilities of language, but because they are the kinds of translations that best expose semiotic inadequacies, inspiring us to hoard water and board up our windows.


While linguistic abstraction is of primary concern with regard to philosophical thinking, the indescribability of reality isn’t limited to speaking and writing efforts.

Imagine the difficulty of trying to convey visually, using only silent moving or still pictures, Beethoven’s Seventh— much less a particular interpretation of it— to someone who has never heard it, or to capture musically, without words or image, the sheer ecstasy of owning hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place.

Were we to try to categorize these kinds of events, we’d find that— to anyone who has not actually had it— no experience is describable to the extent of being perfectly or fully so, nor is it indescribable, in the sense of being impervious to any definition— for example the experience of watching certain episodes of Seinfeld.

The reason we say an experience such as viewing a particular painting or hearing a certain musical composition is beyond description is because of the perceived size of the gulf between the weakness of our best attempt at verbal reconstruction without firsthand experience versus the strength of the actual experience.

Why else would we annoy friends with, “You should have been there.”

Yet all language is so tied to reality. If but one tree existed on earth, to a person who had never either seen that tree or an image of it, the event of first gazing upon the tree is to a similar extent indescribable— nor could that person even think about building an ark.

However if people were familiar with another more common object very much like the tree, such as a shrub or a coatrack, which could be referenced by words, the experience of first seeing the tree becomes easier to communicate using phraseology only.

The describability or indescribability of any object, idea, or experience is tied to the personal knowledge of similar things, vis-a-vis both the speaker and listener. (So are identical twins the best communicators? The more conjoined the better!)

When we say something’s indescribable, what we really mean isn’t that there are no appropriate cuss-words, but that it’s strongly dissimilar to all others of its kind that are within the realm of familiarity.

Noir’s there likely to be language— much less cinema— at hand with the required meaning, even if definitions are used in lieu of unavailable words (Philip Marlowe).

The more original and unique from its categorical companions the object, idea, experience, or Character, the more truly indescribable, incomprehensible, incommunicable, or Unforgettable it, it, it, or He/She is.

The importance of personal experience cannot be over-emphasized. Whether or not a person has ever actually been incarcerated will greatly effect that individual’s reaction upon encountering this directive: “Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

Since in both philosophy and religion everything from elemental concepts to the most powerful of epiphanies tend to be closely aligned to others of their respective classes, the premise that many of these are totally indescribable does not hold.

Further if everything’s more or less convertible to language, there may not be many— if any— things in our reality that are beyond human ratiocination.


Of course even at best language remains an inexact science. Errors in preciseness of meaning lie at the root of many a classic problem, and by classic problem we’re not talking about how to rank your friends on MySpace.

Take for example the following paradoxes— the first, a famous and fascinating one from ancient times, attributed to Zeno of Elea; the second, an obscure and boring one from our own era, a contradiction of an entirely different sort from a dialogue on faith, language, and religious experience, discussed by Arthur Danto.

Zeno— Before a moving object can reach a given point, it must go half the distance, then half the remaining distance, and so forth, through an infinite number of divisions. Since a distance measured as an infinite quantity must be infinite, and an infinite distance can’t be travelled in a finite time, the goal can never be reached.

The trick is that the so-called infinite distance is really just a finite distance infinitely divided. If a distance can’t be infinitely divided, it’s finite anyway, which is how Alice got through the looking-glass.

Danto— When a man’s wife dies after an incurable, protracted, and painful illness, he is said to be at once happy and unhappy (rather than the sum of the two contraries, which would be no emotion). Despite being opposite extremes of feeling, they don’t cancel each other out.

The key is that they would not occur simultaneously, but oscillate in such a way that one or the other was predominate, as he reflected on opposing elements— at least until they got too hot.

While resolutions of fundamentals such as these are ascertainable, by their relative starkness they show how more complex or obtuse arguments can, despite the author’s best intentions, compound misstatements virtually impossible to trace, and why everyone’s talking and no one’s listening.

Paradoxes themselves can transcend categorization. Thus the paradox of paradox (don’t look for this anywhere, I made it up)—

A contradiction might reflect a weakness in assumptions or logic, pointing to a falsity, as in Zeno’s famous paradox;

Or contrarily be the best way to express counterintuitive truth, as in ascribing to light the properties of both particle and wave, thinking of spacetime as being finite yet without boundary, or if you are hopelessly unrealistic in your expectations, trying to convince yourself that you enjoy dating.

Since the most precise expression is but a sketch of reality, the best we can hope for is to minimize the influence of distortions incurred in the process of converting afference to symbols (acquisition) symbols to other symbols (reason) and those symbols back to knowledge (integration).


Toward this end the following is utmost (uddermoft):

First, consistency in the use of words, sticking in the case of known words to chosen definitions from erudite and accepted dictionaries, and for devised words (employed only for precision or conciseness) to the definition given when the word is introduced.

Second, watching out for unintended assumptions and implications, as in Zeno’s “infinite number of divisions” assuming “infinite distance”, Danto’s “at once” implying “simultaneous”, or a fascination with Nietzsche being mistaken for aspirations to godlike heroics when it might just reflect feelings of insecurity symptomatic of a troubled adolescence.

Third, using the most direct and elemental means possible in inferring one thing from another, especially important when trying to convey very complicated ideas where the simplest means, much less the next-simplest, might be incomprehensible, not to mention wrong.

Even slavish adherence— if that were possible— to these rules doesn’t assure safety. Anyone who’s had to pick a video is familiar with the problem of the thumbs. It may be summarized as follows:

One might think upon superficial reflection that “Thumbs Up!” (as opposed to “Thumb Up!”) would be an as-strong or stronger approbation than “Two Thumbs Up!”®, since thumbs (plural) implies at least two but possibly more thumbs-up.

However “Thumbs Up!” is used only when either critic recommends a movie, but not both, “Two Thumbs” being reserved for that.

Yet this is child’s play compared with “Two Thumbs Up!”® verses “Enthusiastic Thumbs Up!” [Of course “Two Enthusiastic (or ‘Very Enthusiastic’) Thumbs Up!” beats all other thumbs, a no-brainer.]

Not only does “Two (ordinary) Thumbs Up!” beat “Enthusiastic (one critic’s) Thumbs Up!”, it surpasses even “Very Enthusiastic (one critic’s) Thumbs Up!”!

Here too one might think upon casual reflection that the more intriguing cinematic choice would be the one with the dipolar review— “Enthusiastic Thumbs Up!” positing thumbs-down by the other critic— over twin lackadaisical endorsements.

But the reverse is true, since the odds are better than even that one or the other in “Two Thumbs” is “Enthusiastic Thumbs Up!”, or even “Very Enthusiastic Thumbs Up (whew!)!”!

[If either critic was enthusiastic and the other not enthusiastic but still positive, to avoid awkwardness they’d be described together as one, and not (deceitfully) upgraded but downgraded— just “Two Thumbs Up!”® rather than “Two Enthusiastic” or “Two Very Enthusiastic ‘Thumbs Up!’!”!]!®!

We see that with something as elementary as up-or-down opinions of critics, word difficulties can be formidable. Adding for the complexity of even the most rudimentary philosophical problem, it’s easy to imagine we’d be all thumbs!)!]!’!”!*!~!!

Faith By Reason Contents
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© 1999-2007 Warren Farr — revised 9/25