Sunday, 22 April 2007

Crisis of Context

Without context there is no meaning. And yet context is something our society has almost rid itself of.

Why is context so important, and why have we fled from it so?


Context is a very broad term, and it simply means the surroundings of something that give it a setting in which to understand it.

More formally, you could define context as a set of coherent concepts, some of which have already been determined as having strong correspondence to reality.

Context is important in communication (see for some discussion on context in computer UI's), the arts (see this amazing story in the Washington Post, one of the most powerful examples of how important context is that I've seen -- it's a great read, too), science, society, etc.

Loss of Context

Yet our society has lost so much respect for context. How is that evidenced? Well, think about watching TV. As you watch it (unless it's something like ABC in Australia, or BBC in the UK), the program you're watching will be interrupted every few minutes by some 30 second segments talking about something (usually products or services) with no relationship whatsoever to what you are watching. These "advertisements" are completely without context, and yet we have grown so familiar with them that we can provide our own context for them.

Another example is in the "sound bites" that make up TV "reporting". We expect, even demand, that everything that someone has said be boiled down to a ten-second "sound bite". But such brief comments can never provide us with sufficient context to really understand anything.

Even Reality TV pretends to be able to reduce people's lives to an hour a week, stripping their actions of all context.

Finally, we expect to learn something of significance in the tiny half-hour or hour long segments we allow for learning or training. We try to create "quality" time with our kids by packing lots of context-free activity into the shortest time possible, etc. etc.

You may think it ironic that someone with a blog called "Eclectica" is writing about lack of context, but pay attention to both my first post and the second part of the subtitle of the blog. These are deliberate and careful attempts to give some context to what I'm saying here.

Why Context was Lost

So why did we move so aggressively away from contextuality in our society? Why did we value it so poorly that we thought we could discard it in our headlong rush into busyness? The answer's simple, and the more formal definition above gives it away.

Context is only necessary if you value the correspondence property of truth statements. Or, to put it more simply, if you don't care whether things are really real or not, but just care about whether they "work for you", then context becomes unimportant.

The whole point of context is to provide us with a sufficient surrounding network of truths in order to be able to fit the new, potential truth we are learning into our network of beliefs. If our network of beliefs is very loose (ie. we don't care much about whether the beliefs conflict with one another) or disconnected from reality (ie. we don't bother testing our beliefs against reality), then context really isn't much use to us.

And this is precisely the direction that society moved in over the last century. Nowdays this movement is called postmodernism. As is hinted at by the name, postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. Modernism values coherence and correspondence of beliefs, but refuses to accept the existence of anything beyond nature. (I've mentioned it before, but called it by a different name, naturalism or scientism, both of which are variants of modernism.) The problem with modernism is that it gives absolutely no foundation for reason, logic, meaning, or any sort of real thought. Post-modernism recognises this and, rather than invoking supernaturalism as a foundation for these things (as Christianity does), or throwing away reason and embracing supernaturalism (as New Age does), postmodernism continues to embrace naturalism (nothing exists apart from nature) and discards reason and logic.

Without reason and logic, context is worthless. In fact, postmodernism denies the significance of context, claiming that the interpretation of truths is not contextual, but rather purely up to the individual (known as deconstructionism). While full-blown postmodernism is not accepted by most people, it has had a huge influence on our society, and the devaluing of context is one of those influences.

Context is on the way back

The good news is that context is on the way back. An easy way to see this is the rise in popularity of the "serial" programme on TV. Back in the 90's Babylon 5 revolutionised TV SciFi with it's five-year story, with complex, pre-planned character arcs for all the major characters, and it's multi-layered mysteries and story. Now, more than ten years later, this trend has truly penetrated the mainstream, with shows like 24, Lost, Prison Break, and the like demanding the viewer pay attention over an extended period of time. Each episode has so much context that the "Previously on ..." teasers are simply not enough to understand the story.

The arts are well ahead of the rest of society at the moment, but there is hope that things like the news will rediscover the value of context.

Context and Christianity

What does this have to do with Christianity? Well, Christianity was not immune to the influence of post-modernism. Over the years, Christians became so ignorant of the importance of context that they fell into all sorts of error due to failing to take context into account.

Greg Koukl has an excellent resource called "Never Read a Bible Verse", which explains what should not need explaining: you need to understand the context of a verse in order to understand the verse.

Context is crucial to understanding the Bible, and it's also crucial to explaining it to others. We need to insist that people pay attention to the context, even when they wish to ignore it, and we need to be prepared to show why it's so important.

So, what examples of egregious context-ignorance can you think of? What ways have you found useful for explaining the importance of context? This is an important issue, and I'll be talking about it more in the future.

1 comment:

Peter said...

People underestimate the power of the human will to usurp their reasonings and perceptions. It is the will, after all, that cherishes notions. When notions are cherished in such ulterior fashion, they manifest as obstinate assumptions in the rational/interpretive domain. Like stones tossed into a pond, our assumptions ripple outwards — manufacturing their own context — within our interpretive framework, or worldview.

I think this accounts for at least part of the problem. We ignore signs of the true context, because we're satisfied with the context we're projecting. We tenaciously cling to our existing paradigms, which renders us oblivious (or worse, willingly ignorant) to true contexts and correspondences. We'll admit only apparently reinforcing interpretations, rejecting anything apparently contradictory. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!

And it is story, or narrative, that's at play here. Narrative envelops and integrates facts within coherent contexts. The real question is whether our internal narratives are fiction or non-fiction. Insofar as postmoderns eschew absolutes and meta-narratives, they close their minds to real contexts and correspondences. The postmodern simulacra emerges: a relativistic, fabricated reality, with tailored contexts supporting (and derived from) cherished notions, predictably congruous with existential felt needs rather than any objective correspondences.

Human will, seeking its own moral autonomy (from objective moral obligations such as can only be established by a virtuous Creator) — indeed, the noetic effects of sin — this is the real "meme theory." Deception from within, not without, that propagates as a condition of the will, not a virus of the mind.