Friday, March 1, 2013

Thoughts on Trees

I really like trees. Growing up in rural New England, nothing is more ordinary than trees, but I'm still not tired of them. It might sound sappy to say this, but trees just look more beautiful to me with each passing year. I look up at their twisted branches and feel a quiet joy. The sky and the ocean have the same effect.

Richard Dawkins said in The God Delusion, "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

I don't believe in fairies myself, but I do believe in angels, demons, and a God who is unseen, and of course those are the beliefs Dawkins is really going at here. He's saying we shouldn't need to resort to belief in anything supernatural (or "extra-natural") in order to fully appreciate the world around is. To an extent, I think he's right. Clearly, people are capable of appreciating nature without considering it the product of a Divine mind. However, I would say those who do so are appreciating the signifier while missing out on what the signifier signifies. It's like opening a book and saying, "Can't we just appreciate the shape and arrangement of these squiggles without insisting that they mean anything?" We could, but we'd lose a lot.

Do trees signify something beyond what they are, or are they simply trees? Do they mean something, or are they just aesthetically-pleasing squiggles?

The naturalist analyzes the squiggles with discipline and thoroughness. He knows precisely what they are comprised of, how old they are, and how frequently certain patterns tend to occur. But he doesn't think the squiggles are actually words.

It is interesting to me that the Bible describes God as speaking the world into existence. If the universe is what the words of God look like, then perhaps naturalism is the philosophy of analyzing the squiggles while refusing to accept the possibility that they are actually words. Like missing the forest for the trees, it's missing the words for the letters. And when you miss the words, you lose the plot.

The skeptic retorts: Prove it! Show me that there are more than just the squiggles! Those of us who claim to see more than squiggles struggle a bit here. We point to the beauty and order of the arrangement as evidence that the squiggles are actually words, but the skeptic protests that we know so much about the composition and arrangement of the squiggles that the assumption that they are actually words is unfounded. Those of us who believe reply: we know the squiggles are words because we know the language! But how do we know it? Maybe its innate. Or maybe it was taught to us. For the naturalist, either possibility is proof that we are deceived (in the first case we're deceived by our genetics, in the second by misleading socialization). For the rest of us, though, we hear the words when we see the squiggles, and their arrangement persuades us that a story is being told. Most of the time, that is good enough.

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