Wednesday, August 07, 2013

"A description of something that actually takes place in human life"

Somebody's gonna have to clean this up!
Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says "No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you." If some said: "Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?" I'd say: "No." "Do you contradict the man?" I'd say: "No."
Suppose someone were a believer and said: "I believe in a Last Judgment," and I said: "Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly." You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said "There is a German aeroplane overhead," and I said "Possibly I'm not so sure," you'd say we were fairly near. It isn't a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you could express by saying: "You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein."
Whether something is a blunder or not--it is a blunder in a particular system. Just as something is a blunder in a particular game and not in another.
So recently I wandered over to Crooked Timber, where a post announced that Robert Bellah had died.  Bellah is a very important sociologist in the field of sociological studies of religion, and while I don't think such a science (or any science) is dispositive of truth (I'm not, after all, a positivist), I studied Bellah's work in seminary (where I was first introduced do it) and recognized its importance.

And after all, Crooked Timber is an "academic" blog where often the talk is academic gossip of one sort or another, but just as often it is enlightening and informative.  But about the third comment in was a long quote from Bellah critiquing Dawkins's work in The God Delusion.  It wasn't a brilliant critique, but it was eminently defensible; and yet because it was about "religion" it was also eminently foolish, at least in the eyes of the commenter; who wondered why any information arising from an "age of ignorance" (i.e., any time before the Enlightenment) was taken seriously as anything except the prattle of stupid children.

I lodged my complaint with such stupidity and then, feeling I'd actually left a turd in the punchbowl (well, a second one, anyway), I decamped. (I'm argumentative, and that's not always the best way to behave; especially at someone else's blog.  It's too much like walking into a strange bar and picking a fight with the biggest guy in the bar, just because you can.)  But the experience prompted me to re-read Terry Eagleton's review of The God Delusion, and that's where I found this comment by A.C. Grayling:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.
Eagleton is no philosopher?  Neither, I would say, is Grayling (and yes, I know who Grayling is).  " the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers"?  Did his education stop in the early 19th century?  He falls, frankly, into the positivist error Eagleton points out in his review:

 Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.
In a classic example of  a language game (which was the beginning of the end of positivism), Eagleton presents a compact summation of basic theological doctrine, and Grayling swipes it aside as meaningless because it is the product of  "the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers."  They are simply talking past each other, with Grayling refusing to give Eagleton any credence, lest Grayling have to learn something he doesn't know.  He might must as well have said an "age of ignorance;" his would be no less ignorant a remark.  And it fails entirely to get at the substance of what Eagleton said, because Grayling denies there is any substance to what Eagleton says; because theology is the equivalent of astrology or phrenology (which was actually considered a science).  Need one point out the extremist Christians who make the same claims about science?  And the difference in premises between Grayling and the science denier is substance?  or simply subject?

But if we take Grayling more seriously than he takes Eagleton (and dismissing an argument by declaring it without merit is not a product of rigorous logic; it is simply letting your knee-jerk be your answer), we are back  to the argument all atheists think is fundamental, but it is so only to them:  that the "existence of God" is first and foremost the question of religion.  And yet what "existence" means is always presumed, never defined.  Do you exist?  How would you prove it?  You can say you are alive.  You can even prove your identity (if I accept the indicia of papers and photos as proof.  But are they?  If you have amnesia, does a driver's license convince you the name by your picture is yours?  If you present a fake ID, does that prove your identity?  Or just prove your assertion of identity?  I ask simply to know how narrowly we can define this subject.).  Do you exist?  What does it mean to exist?  Is it the same as life itself?  Is it more, less, or neither?

I ask merely for clarification.  What is this concept "existence" and how does one "have" it?  Do I have it as I have the computer before me?  As I have a wife, a daughter, a life, a job?  I can easily define my family and friends in terms of relationships.  Do I have a relationship to existence?  If so, who is the "I" having this relationship, and what is "existence" that I can, or even must, have a relationship with it?

What is "existence"?  Is it "being"?  Then what is that?

We seem to be going in circles, and yet I am told this is the critical question:  if God's existence cannot be established, how do I believe?  But how do I establish existence at all?  Do atoms exist?  Do they exist as my daughter exists?  Her existence is bounded by life and death; does an atom die?  Her existence is bounded by memory; and when no one remembers her, does she cease to exist?

Where do I go to get these questions answered?  Science?  Atheism?

As Kierkegaard pointed out, I can identify a man named Napoleon with a set of actions, and thereby establish the identify of Napoleon with an individual.  But does that mean Napoleon exists, or did?  And what does "exist" mean in that sentence?  That he was "real"?  If a Turing Test program convinces me that a computer program is a human being, does that program have "existence"?  Why?  Why not?

But it's the positivism that is the falsehood.  God must "exist" before anything about the nature of God can be posited?  Why?  Because God must be a being among other beings, and therefore an individual, and therefore a supernatural individual, like Zeus or Apollo?  Does Grayling understand the first thing about monotheism, or radical monotheism?  He doesn't, because he says he doesn't have to:  prove God's existence first, then he'll consider the rest.  I might as well ask him to prove the existence of an atom before I accept the conclusions of modern physics.  What would he show me?  How would he do it?  If I don't accept the existence of the atom, what proof will persuade me?  Eagleton specifically says:  "God is not a celestial super-object of divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in.  Theologians do not think [God] is either inside or outside the universe...."  No, Grayling doesn't touch on that language, on Eagleton's attempts to make a summary of bog-standard Christian theology.  He simply assumes it's bosh and derides Eagleton for not thinking so, too.

Such are the intellectual arguments engaged by most Anglo-American philosophers.  The presumption is an atheistic one; not just a disinterest of denial of complete knowledge, but a denial that such knowledge is even possible.   It is also a blinkered and frightfully limited engagement with reality, which Eagleton describes in terms very familiar to anyone familiar with Anglo-American culture:

 There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. The secular Ten Commandments that Dawkins commends to us, one of which advises us to enjoy our sex lives so long as they don’t damage others, are for the most part liberal platitudes. Dawkins quite rightly detests fundamentalists; but as far as I know his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism. Instead, as the obtuse media chatter has it, it’s all down to religion.
 Dawkins and Grayling replace insight with platitudes, and understanding with cliches.  And they don't wind up all that far away from Rep. Reid Ribble.    There is, as ever, an intellectul argument to be had (but clearly neither Grayling nor Dawkins are equipped for it), but the ultimate question is still:  "How should we then live?"  And if the answer is "As a self-content and self-righteous Oxford don, comfortable with the products of global capitalism and critiquing only straw men of your own creation and only on purely intellectual grounds," then I really have no respect for you.

As if, of course, my opinion on such things matters to anyone else.

There are many valid critiques to religious practice and even arising from religious history:  I learned about many of them in seminary.   I'm also familiar with every published argument over the existence of God, and the refutations of each argument.  But this flat rejection based on an ignorance proud of what it knows nothing about turns Western philosophy on its head. Socrates famously declared that he knew nothing, and so asked those who claimed knowledge to teach him.  What he usually did, of course, was prove they understood less than Socrates did (and he also proved understanding was far more important than knowledge.  The foundations of Western philosophy rested on sophia, not techne; since the Industrial Revolution and the Triumph of the Empiricists, that has shifted.).   Consider the classic syllogism:

Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal.
Therefore:  Socrates is mortal.

Is it necessary for "Socrates" to exist, to make this syllogism sound?  No; because the syllogism makes no claim to either identity or existence; it speaks merely to a form of reasoning.  Logic cannot establish the validity of the propositions in that syllogism; it can only say that the syllogism itself is soundly constructed, and the conclusion arising from it is valid, within the system of logic.  Does logic automatically apply to the world?  No more than math does.  As I've pointed out to my students before, 1+1=2, except in biology where it =3, 4, perhaps even hundreds.  In biology individuals do not vanish into a new whole on the other side of the equation:  if they did, biology itself would soon come to a halt.  Granted, it isn't precisely the same thing to say that 1+1=2 is to say one male plus one female =?.  But then again, for most species, without one of each, there is never another; and that other is always (at least) the third.  You have to be very precise about how you discuss matters.

Is love, for example, analyzable by logic?   Is desire reducible to a mathematical formula, or to be best understood as the product of genes?  Do I love the music of Bach, or of polyphony and chant, because I am genetically predisposed to do so?  I find it quite unnecessary to explain it in those terms, and I'm not sure any such explanation would make sense, as well as a mockery of Occam's Razor. 

But back to Socrates and the syllogism:  is it really necessary for me to prove the existence of Socrates before I prove that Socrates is mortal?  No, because we are all familiar with the class of "man" and the concept of mortality, and since no one has yet experienced an immortal man (even Jesus died), we have no problem with the conclusion of the syllogism.  What, then, of the reality (or existence) of God? Can we posit that God is an experience like the experience of mortality among men?  No; by definition, God is beyond all categories of human experience.  God is infinite, God is eternal, God is creator ex nihilo, God's very speech is the act of creation; etc., etc.. etc.  All of this is beyond human experience, if not human understanding (to the extent it is, we enter into the realm of negative theology; let's keep this simple).  So God is impossible?

Perhaps.  An unstoppable force striking an immoveable object is impossible, since we can't posit the reality of one or the other.  But, as Wittgenstein said of Christianity:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.--Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

"A description of something that actually takes place in human life."  If that experience is foreclosed to you, is God impossible?  Well, if you can't love my wife the way I do, is my love for her impossible?  It is beyond your experience.  You have only my word for it.  No visible manifestation of my love is proof of its reality.  In fact, there is no proof of my love for her at all.  You either accept it, or you don't.  Does it, then, exist?  How would I prove it to you?  And more importantly, why would I bother?

 For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that :om. For we see now that we have been using the word 'miracle' in a relative and an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: lt is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle. Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense. Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt as to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
Wittgenstein uses the term "existence" in that passage, but does he mean it in the same was as we say animals have existence?  No, of course not.  But reading the passage carefully, we can say with Wittgenstein that "...we see now that we have been using the word 'existence' in a relative and an absolute sense," because "The truth is that the scientific way of looking at existence is not the way to look at it as being."  In fact, I'm not sure there is a scientific way to look at existence.  And if we use the word "existence" in both a relative and an absolute sense, we need to nail down which sense we mean when we ask "Does God exist?"  The question is not:  is God's existence absolute, but rather:  is existence an attribute God must absolutely have?  And if it is, what does "existence" mean in that context?

Does science even deal with questions of existence in any but the relative sense?  That is, the platypus or the coelocanth exists in the relative sense that it can be shown to be present in the world; but in the absolute sense, existence requires neither platypi nor coelocanths.  Is there an absolute sense in which existence itself must be present; that the world cannot not exist, therefore it must exist, therefore there is an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing?

And yet, again:  what is more important to us?  Scientific advancement?  Or understanding our own existence?  As Terry Eagleton points out, there is nothing in Richard Dawkin's philosophy (or lack thereof) which compels him to consider questions of justice or equality (or lack thereof) extant in the world, although Dawkins does get quite worked up about the science curricula in American public schools (so his world does extend to at least this side of the pond).  But he's quite complacent about economic injustice and social inequality, so long as it doesn't affect him.  And what is more important to the rest of us:  that Dawkins is right in his science and his atheism?  Or that we consider the substance of our own existence, and what we are doing with our own lives on this planet, among all these people?

How should we then live?  And do we expect science to provide a satisfactory answer to that question?  Or would the right answer to that question explode all the books in the world, including those of Messrs. Dawkins and Grayling?

P.S.  The sculpture in the photo is "The Shattering of the Vessels" by Anselm Kiefer.  It's one of the sculptures I used to admire at to the St. Louis Art Museum.   Follow the link if you want to read about it.

This picture is just to give you a sense of scale.  And no, the pictures don't do it justice at all.

1 comment:

  1. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’.

    As an academic scientist, I've attended enough department meetings to know that "scientific" and "rational" are not synonyms but rather opposites ;)

    Seriously, though, what is even meant by "rational"? If "rational" means forming beliefs and acting on them according to Bayesian utilitarian theory, rational behavior is something few of us engage in ... and those who engage in rational behavior would seem to be bizarre, unfeeling, indecisive, fussy and otherwise "irrational". If rational believes what most people presumably mean when they say "rational", scientific beliefs may or may not even be rational -- how rational is quantum mechanics?