One of the sets of vows that is commonly used when I do weddings includes the words “to better understand ourselves, the world and God.” One of the things we do as humans with our language to better understand ourselves, the world and God is we attempt to describe objects and actions and their interactions. All of these words, symbols and ideas are constructed within a system to give meaning and sense to them, for example in the world of mathematics 1 + 1 = 2, if the rules of the system were different 1 +1 could equal a different number, but the rules that the system works within allow 1 + 1= 2 to be the correct answer while 1 + 1= 3 would not make sense within the system. The systems we understand the world within are attempts to describe the reality we observe and know, and yet they are always metaphors or propositions of reality. As Jacob Bronowski states:
I believe that all the kind of scientific descriptions that we can make about one another are perfectly real. And yet, I believe that any theory that we as human beings make at any point in time is full of provisional decodings which to some extent are as fictitious as the notion of force in Newton. (Bronowski, 1978, p. 58)
As Bronowski alludes to, Newton’s description of force, particularly the force of gravity where “the gravitational attraction is proportional to the mass of the two bodies divided by the square of the distance between some point in each mass.” Or in the symbolic language of science:
G= k ( m m’) / r2
Which as a description of reality worked well in a system of Newtonian based physics, but when Albert Einstein published his first paper on relativity in 1905 it demonstrated the flaw in the concept and proposed a new way of describing the reality, and yet even Einstein’s theory is no longer held to be an ultimate description of reality- yet both the work of Newton and Einstein and countless other scientists (just to stay within the scientific realm of creativity) work well for describing reality as it is encountered and it is only when we find exceptions to the rule where we begin to wonder what might cause these anomalies, is the way we have constructed reality inaccurate in some manner and we begin to wonder if perhaps there is some new way to understand the world our senses observe and to describe it so that others can encounter the world in a new way.
Science is not the only discipline that works this way, think for example in the realm of religion. At various point in history different metaphors have served as a dominant metaphor for understanding God. For example, at the beginning of the enlightenment where the clocks and watches were one of the most complicated pieces of technology available that most people would encounter in their world there was the common image of God as the clockmaker who constructed the world and then allowed it to run. It is not coincidental that this was a time in which deism was the primary philosophical tool for talking about God and the deist view of God was a God that was for the most part uninvolved in the day to day undertakings of the world. This is not the dominant picture of God today and there are a number of problems with this image, but it was how many religious people of that time tried to make sense of God in a way they could imagine.
Here I think is where the mystical tradition of talking about God can help us out: on the one hand there is the cataphatic tradition which in a positive manner says that our language can point to God while, on the other hand, there is the apophatic tradition which states that our language is never adequate to describe God. Moving back to our world and ourselves there is a sense in which our language describes reality, for example I can say that I have hazel eyes or that I am around 6’2” tall but ultimately my descriptions, even of myself, will never be completely adequate to convey all of who I am. Our understanding of the world around us is also provisional or metaphorical, that doesn’t mean it is incorrect-but it may not be complete. I think the French language has a helpful construct here with its two words that we can translate into the English ‘to know.’ The French word savior refers to knowing a fact, knowing how to do something or to know something by heart. The French word connaître refers to knowing a person or being familiar with a person or thing. There is a sense where we can know about and describe individual things but people, for example, are not reducible to a set of facts. We can describe others, ourselves, the world and even God, but that sense of knowing is always based upon our relation to those things and is in its own way contingent on the systems we understand them within. Each of these systems are really theories about the nature of the world and there may be times where we find our own metaphors of reality are inadequate and need to be reexamined as we attempt to make sense of our relationship to the reality we encounter.