Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle | Things That Are Not Things

Well, Joel Grewe told me that he likes practical philosophy, such as my article on Beauty, Ethics and Politics from a few weeks ago, but that he’s not a particular fan of more abstract and impractical philosophical questions. Presumably, this would include such topics as “what is ‘Being’?”, “how does it differ from ‘being,’ ‘being-in,’ ‘being-with,’ ‘being-of,’ ‘being-on-top-of,’ ‘being-falling-off-of,’” and besides, “how can ‘non-being’ not be, since there must in some sense be something that there is not?”

So today, in honor of practical philosophy and in a decided attempt to evade any complicated abstract concepts in philosophy, I’m writing on the immensely practical and pressing question of “what is a thing?”

The Nature of Things

Some examples of things.
“Thinginess” is something that has been long debated in philosophy, in fact, it has an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to it (ontology). At its most basic level, ontology attempts to determine what exists, and what doesn’t. For Christians, our ontology is quite large, that is, we believe that there are a lot of things that exist (God, angels, demons, humans). For most modern philosophers, there’s not much that exists, it’s pretty much just a bunch of matter arranged in arbitrary ways that we apply our own labels to. For Christians, the existence of a thing relies on it actually existing – that is, God created the thing, as a thing, and we call it a thing because it is a thing. For modern naturalists, it’s just random matter appearing in various odd ways – a thing is only a thing because we choose to call it a thing.

The Christian, therefore, declares that things are unchanging and universal. The color red exists because God made the color red and if you choose to say that red and purple are the same thing, then you are wrong. For the naturalist, if we get to decide how to deal with these “things” that we encounter, such as redness and purpleness, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t say that red and purple are the same thing. The naturalist may say that it’s not a particularly useful distinction, and that, pragmatically speaking, it is better to refer to red as red and purple as purple, but he’s not making a declaration that this is the way it actually is.

So when this way of talking about “things” bleeds into the culture at large, it becomes a mess of wading through preferences, feelings, and opinions and the concept of a static, unchanging thing gets thrown out.  This way of thinking has had a drastic impact on the way we talk about things like “life”, “family” or “marriage.”

For example, Scripture tells us that marriage is a thing with certain characteristics. It is a covenant between one man and one woman, created to symbolize the relationship of Christ and the church, to raise godly children, et cetera. Marriage is a thing and there is a certain way that it actually is. To call a homosexual relationship “gay marriage” denies the essence of what marriage is. “Gay marriage” is not a relationship between one man and one woman and it cannot produce godly offspring, therefore, it is not marriage at all. Similarly, to call a relationship an “open marriage” is to deny the lifelong covenant upon which marriage is constituted. “Gay” and “open” are the opposite of “marriage,” to mash the two together is not to bring a thing into existence, it is merely a trick of language. It’s like talking about a square circle, trying to determine how much the color purple weighs, or asking if God can create a rock so big He can’t move it. Gay marriage and open marriage are not things, and we should not give them the credibility of being referred to as such.

The problem with modern political discourse is that the underlying philosophy has been ignored. Fighting for things like life, marriage, and family is a hopeless cause if we aren’t committed to defending the concept of things in the first place. So the next time you hear a person reference “gay marriage,”  “an evolving set of beliefs” or other such square circles, I'd suggest banging a fist on the table and loudly declaring "THESE ARE NOT THINGS."

Posted by Nick Barden

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