Thursday, 2 June 2011

Waiting for Godot

I have always felt that Dawkins was on the ‘probable’ bus because it was heading towards the terminus of science and the safe haven of the empirical. By affecting to hold this position he could insist that the likelihood of evidence emerging for the existence of God was vanishingly small. Agnosis still falls within the precinct of gnosis, the conceptual dyad still stands if the question remains open.

Grayling impugns this stance by saying that such ‘evidence’ could never come to pass, nothing would ever serve to prove the existence of God. In effect evidence that could never become manifest is not evidence at all. The agnostic then is a confused atheist that wants a firm talking to. It's the old 'tooth fairy' argument.

This position of Grayling’s is a 'buck up man, stop being windy' retort to a Dawkins stance. It is to be contrasted to the apophatic mystical. God in whom we live, move and have our being is not an object of empirical observation, we will not stumble on it while looking for the tv remote.

The agnostic stance may be a valid position emotionally but faulty from a purely intellectual point of view. People like to keep their options open. This is why paint shops sell testers. However thinking it through, looking for definitive evidence is to have failed to appreciate what the entity in question is. Something that can be settled empirically even though there is a remote possibility of that eventuality ever coming to pass is not adequate to any serious concept of God. That we do not know is true but that we cannot know is also true. We cannot know because the intellectual equipment is not adequate to that purported object. If God is not an object he/she/it cannot be known. Therefore without some sort of realisation of God however limited that might be, the atheistic position is to this believer the intellectually respectable one. Is Grayling that sort of atheist? He has taken a stance about supernatural agencies and their incredibility on the basis that there is no evidence that could not reasonably be forthcoming. Colour me atheist.

Who then is an atheist in the heroic sense that I have been urging? A contender might be the philosopher Simon Critchley whose influences are continental and therefore large positions are second nature to him. Interviewed on http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2002-12/simoncritchley.htm re his book on humour he has this to say:

Are you suggesting that in a secular age, humour is the new God?

SC: This is an important question and it strikes me that there are about twenty things to say. First, there is no God. I begin from the assumption that modernity is defined by the impossibility of any metaphysical belief in a deity. That's where I begin from and that is axiomatic for me. It means that if I had a religious experience I would stop doing philosophy: philosophy for me is essentially atheistic.

Now that's an anxious atheism. It's an atheism that is anxious because it inhabits questions that were resolved religiously in the pre-modern period. So the difficulty of modern life, of modernity in the full sense is this: the way in which we make sense of ourselves, those things we value and attribute meaning to, is still within a religious framework. Yet we cannot believe that religious framework. So from my perspective, modernity as a fully secular worldview has never really been achieved. We still inhabit the traces, the memory of, that religious perspective. And that's an ambiguous thing.


Critchley being English has an acute sense of the folly of portentousness so I suppose it is a mark of his commitment that he ventures so far into an irony free zone. I respect that. His position on deity is a metaphysical transcendental one. Empirical confirmation or disconformation is senseless.There is no 'waiting for Godot'.

6 comments:

Richard E. Hennessey said...

1. Do my eyes deceive me or am I really reading the following, in one and the same paragraph?

The agnostic stance may be a valid position emotionally but faulty from a purely intellectual point of view.

and

That we do not know is true but that we cannot know is also true. We cannot know because the intellectual equipment is not adequate to that purported object.

The first text quoted surely rejects agnosticism while the second adopts it. To be more precise, the “that we cannot know is also true” adopts agnosticism; the “That we do not know is true” is a simple recognition of ignorance (which latter I admit to sharing).

2. Re the stance of Grayling, which you regard as “the intellectually respectable one”: You put his view as follows:

Is Grayling that sort of atheist? He has taken a stance about supernatural agencies and their incredibility on the basis that there is no evidence that could not reasonably be forthcoming. Colour me atheist.

Isn’t it, however, the case that his thesis “that there is no evidence [for the existence of a god] that could not reasonably be forthcoming” is more a denial, or, more accurately, a mere doubt, that we can have a knowledge of any god than a denial that there is one? Isn’t it, therefore, also the case that his thesis is one of agnosticism, or near-agnosticism?

3. Re the stance of Simon Critchley:

First, there is no God. I begin from the assumption that modernity is defined by the impossibility of any metaphysical belief in a deity. That's where I begin from and that is axiomatic for me. It means that if I had a religious experience I would stop doing philosophy: philosophy for me is essentially atheistic.

That he holds the thesis, be it that there is no God, that any metaphysical belief in a deity is impossible, or that modernity is defined by the impossibility of any metaphysical belief in a deity, is axiomatic for him may well be true. But it is hardly axiomatic tout court, given what the word “axiomatic” is normally taken to mean: proof is needed.

ombhurbhuva said...

Hi Richard,
It all hinges on what you take knowledge of God to be. In my view it is a radically analogical sort of knowledge and cannot be assimilated to empirical acquaintance. Everything about it comes within those single quotes which make us so afraid. The normal understanding of the agnostic position is that we are not entitled to claim that God exists because our evidence is not firm enough or is too subjective. I believe that this is to miss the point; the knowledge of God comes from the individual's progressive divinisation or theosis and cannot be demonstrated by means which would be acceptable to science. In this case waiting for evidence or dismissing the idea that this evidence will ever arrive is the face and obverse of the same false coin. Someone like Critchley who takes the transcendental position that reason by its very existence discounts the existence of God is the opposite number of the theist (my sort). Both of them are essentialists.

Richard E. Hennessey said...

On one point, that “In this case waiting for evidence or dismissing the idea that this evidence will ever arrive is the face and obverse of the same false coin”: if this means that waiting for evidence is the same erroneous attitude or approach as dismissing the idea that this evidence will ever arrive, then I think it is wrong. Waiting for evidence seems rather to presuppose a belief that the evidence will sometime arrive.

If “reason by its very existence discounts the existence of God” means something like “reason by its very existence denies (in some way) the existence of God,” then, yes, we are dealing there with a version of atheism. But surely the thesis that “reason by its very existence discounts the existence of God” needs, not assertion as if an axiom, but argumentation.

On another point: if we understand “empirical acquaintance” to refer to an immediate, i.e., non-inferential, knowledge of a physical thing, being, entity, or reality, then, if there is a being that is not a physical thing, being, entity, or reality, it will not be known or demonstrated to be through empirical acquaintance.

Again, if we understand “science” to refer to knowledge that is ultimately confirmed through empirical acquaintance, then, if there is a being that is not a physical thing, being, entity, or reality, it will not be known or demonstrated to be through science.

Science in this sense, however, is better identified more specifically as empirico-mathematical science. That empirico-mathematical science is the only science is not self-evidently the case; I’d say that both mathematics and philosophy also offer themselves as candidates for the title of “science,” though not the science that is empirico-mathematical science.

On yet a third point: you assert “the knowledge of God comes from the individual's progressive divinisation or theosis.” That that is so (a) presupposes that there is the God which one can come progressively to be and (b) requires explanation: how can one being, say, Richard Hennessey, become another being, say, God.

ombhurbhuva said...

R.H.
On one point, that “In this case waiting for evidence or dismissing the idea that this evidence will ever arrive is the face and obverse of the same false coin”: if this means that waiting for evidence is the same erroneous attitude or approach as dismissing the idea that this evidence will ever arrive, then I think it is wrong. Waiting for evidence seems rather to presuppose a belief that the evidence will sometime arrive.

M.R.
I mean that evidence satisfactory to the Dawkins type agnostic will never be forthcoming because it is not an evidential matter.

If “reason by its very existence discounts the existence of God” means something like “reason by its very existence denies (in some way) the existence of God,” then, yes, we are dealing there with a version of atheism. But surely the thesis that “reason by its very existence discounts the existence of God” needs, not assertion as if an axiom, but argumentation.

Critchley’s statement seems more ‘transcendental’ than that. I take it to be in effect ‘we have reason, therefore there is no God’.

On another point: if we understand “empirical acquaintance” to refer to an immediate, i.e., non-inferential, knowledge of a physical thing, being, entity, or reality, then, if there is a being that is not a physical thing, being, entity, or reality, it will not be known or demonstrated to be through empirical acquaintance.

Correct though some claim religious experience as a sort of acquaintance. However it is too subjective and will be thrown off the Dawkins bus.

Again, if we understand “science” to refer to knowledge that is ultimately confirmed through empirical acquaintance, then, if there is a being that is not a physical thing, being, entity, or reality, it will not be known or demonstrated to be through science.

Agreed

Science in this sense, however, is better identified more specifically as empirico-mathematical science. That empirico-mathematical science is the only science is not self-evidently the case; I’d say that both mathematics and philosophy also offer themselves as candidates for the title of “science,” though not the science that is empirico-mathematical science.

The agnostics that are most voluble at the moment are mostly affiliated to physical science.

On yet a third point: you assert “the knowledge of God comes from the individual's progressive divinisation or theosis.” That that is so (a) presupposes that there is the God which one can come progressively to be and (b) requires explanation: how can one being, say, Richard Hennessey, become another being, say, God.

per speculum enigmata and all that. If evidence is out and arguments for the existence of God are not persuasive then conviction must arise from somewhere. The notion of connaturality is a very big topic.

Thanks for your detailed reading.

Richard E. Hennessey said...

Significant writing on important matters requires careful reading.

Re the very big topic: Is being connatural with God, for I think this is the notion motivating your remark about “connaturality,” the same as being or having become God (as a result of “progressive divinisation or theosis”)?

ombhurbhuva said...

Yes that big subject. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had probed it more deeply than I. This weekend I bought a paperback copy for €1 of Western Mysticism by Dom Cuthbert Butler. It originated from a Jesuit residence and on flicking through it I discover only one underlined passage.
It is an experimental perception of the presence of God in the soul, Who is at all times there.

How is God there, is it as a spark as Eckhart put it, an emanation of divinity or a reflection that is infused by grace? “But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower”. S.T. 1.Q12 Art.4 There appears to be an intimation in this that the knowledge of God is natural, generally obscured but there. In Advaita Vedanta the obscuration of the continuity of being between Brahman and Atman is a function of avidya/ignorance. Essentially in that system there can be no decrease or increase in Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam Brahma. Only knowledge can finish ignorance. Shankara does not accept samadhi as realisation. He regards it as just another experience.

Just a few thoughts, scattered and inchoate. By the bye to correct my schoolboy Latin that tag should be: per speculum et in aenigmate