Saturday, April 10, 2004

and yet it moves

John Zimmer over at Letters From Babylon has a very interesting discussion about science and the interpretation of scripture. I would like to respond, not to his main point, but to an example he misuses. To quote:
The Bible often speaks of the sun as if the sun were moving and the earth standing still. We find this same type of language in much poetry and in our continued use in everyday speech of such words as “sunrise.” Our best methods of science have shown that the sun only appears to move about a stationary earth; and that instead it is the earth that rotates on its axis to cause night and day to come...
This example itself illustrates a serious type of failing in interpretation. In brief, let me say that the sun does indeed move and there is no error of any kind in speaking of it that way. I don't mean that the sun likewise orbits the center of the galaxy or orbits the center of mass of the solar system, what I mean is that the sun does in fact move through the sky each day.

The statement that the sun moves isn't in any sense figurative or non-literal. It isn't imprecise. It's just a statement of simple fact. On the other hand it is also a statement of simple fact that the sun stands still and the earth rotates around it (although this statement itself is imprecise as the earth and sun actually both rotate around the center of mass). These statements only seem to contradict themselves if one applies an obsessively formalistic view of meaning, a view which is no longer held by any linguists or philosophers or anyone else who studies meaning.

Consider the following two contradictory sentences about a chess piece:
The bishop can only move diagonally across the board.
The bishop can be made to move in any direction by the application of a suitable net force.
The sentences syntactically contradict each other, yet they are both true. This is possible because the word "move" means something different in each sentence. In the first sentence it means "a legal game move" and in the second sentence it means "physically move" but that is by no means the only difference between the two sentences. These sentences take place in two entirely different paradigms.

A paradigm is a set of concepts and the relationships that exist between those concepts. The paradigm of chess involves a two-dimensional surface partitioned into sixty-four squares, a set of pieces, a set of legal moves for those pieces, and a set of consequences of those moves. The physical pieces are not relevant; they could just as well be images on a computer screen. For players with a very good memory, none of the chess objects need be physical at all; the game can be played entirely in the head. By contrast, the paradigm of the physical world involves hard things that take up space and move under physical laws (which are quite different from game rules but that's a whole 'nother topic). The fundamental reason that the two sentences can seem to contradict each other yet both be true is that they were talking about two different things. One sentence made use of the concepts "bishop as a chess piece" and "legal chess move" while the other sentence made use of the concepts "bishop as a physical object" and "physically moves". Both concepts of the bishop happened to have the same extension, they both referred to the same actual object (which isn't the same as a physical object, but that's a whole 'nother topic).

So now let's look at another interesting pair of sentences. You are sitting at a computer monitor. It is black except for white circle and the circle is moving across the screen. What is really happening, of course is that the pixels are being illuminated in the right sequence to give the illusion of motion. Nothing on the screen is actually moving. So both sentences are true:
There is a circle moving across the screen.
Nothing on the screen is moving.
Like the previous example, this one can be explained by the different paradigms to which the sentences appeal. In one paradigm the screen is its own world and the images we see on it are real objects. In the other paradigm we are concerned with the underlying physical facts. Both paradigms are equally valid or useful. If you are playing a game then you use the first paradigm. If you are programming a 3d rendering system, you use the second.

By now, it should be clear what I'm going to say about the sun moving. When someone talks about the sun moving, he is simply using our normal every day paradigm for dealing with astronomical bodies: they are lights that move across the sky. This paradigm is perfectly valid and useful in the contexts in which it is used. In this use, the sun is just a bright light, and its physical structure is not relevant. To take sentences spoken in this paradigm and evaluate their truth under the paradigm of physics is to do violence to the intentions of the speaker.

In order to understand what someone is saying you have to understand the paradigm they are using. It isn't reasonable or fair to impose a different paradigm on their statements even if you think that your paradigm is somehow more accurate or fundamental. And although the paradigms of science are more accurate than non-scientific paradigms it isn't at all clear that they are more fundamental. But that's a whole 'nother topic.

UPDATE: fixed the attribution in response to a comment.

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