The limits of Dawkinism: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

I have been reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Although I largely agree with his atheist point of view, I think he stretches his argument a bit too far as he does not seem to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can achieve with reason, a horizon across which rational thinking can not take us.

His view can be summarised by Wittgenstein’s famous proposition: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Dawkins places the limits of knowledge at the limits of reason. His view of religion, which lies largely outside the limits of reason, is directly derived to this assumption. I would, however, like to argue that the limits of knowledge are not formed by the limits of reason.

One of his arguments is that there is a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence, e.g. the higher the IQ, the less likely somebody is religious. This seems to give the impression that religious people are generally less smart than atheists, thereby labelling most of the world population as dumb.

The reason for this correlation is, however, that measurement of IQ is totally biased towards rational thinking. Tendencies towards religion or spirituality in general are not part of an IQ test. This does not explain the correlation, but shows the limitations of comparing religiosity and intelligence.

Religion should be considered as a Vehicle for Meaning. Rational thinking can not provide us with meaning to life and religion is for a lot of people a way to deal with the vacuum.

Religion is not my preferred way if providing meaning to life; I choose an existentialist point of view—flying in a metaphysical hot air balloon. This attitude is, however, only possible after deep and complex rational thinking. Most people do, however, not have the energy or capability to live this way and religion is an ‘easy’ way out.

Dawkins does not seem to consider the provision of an answer to meaning to life questions. He places a very high burden on the rational abilities of people. The creation versus evolution question is an example of this.

Dawkins might reply that this is all very well, but the provision of truth has primacy over providing meaning. This is philosophically very slippery ground. Science is based on presuppositions, as much as religion is. Science is only confirmed by its own rules, it is a self fulfilling prophecy—the same can be said for religion.

I think truth is not important, if absolute truth does exists, we will not be able to find it. Knowledge is more important than truth and knowledge is nothing more than that which is able to provide the outcomes we desire. Both religion and science are very capable of doing this.

Living Without Free Will: The Collapse of Morality

Free willAssume you have been charged with a crime. In court you are able to conclusively prove that free will does not exist and therefore you can not be held responsible for this act.

Although this seems more to be a legal than a philosophical problem, some core issues of philosophy are embedded in this scenario.

From a pragmatic point of view, if I was the judge in this case I would simply argue that I am forced to sentence you for the crime, as also I have no free will in this matter.

The idea that it would be scientifically provable (the only type of evidence that would be acceptable in court) comes from the reasoning that since we are made of material components and that since those components follow the ‘laws of physics’, our behaviour is a result of predictable interactions between atoms.

This idea is contrasted with the view that, although we have physical bodies, we also have something non physical, which does not follow the laws of physics, allowing for free will.

I don’t want to delve into the discussion between the materialist and idealist points of view in this article, as this is a philosophical minefield. For the purpose of this thought experiment, we need to assume that it has been proven that our minds and therefore our behaviour follows causal relationships and is therefore, assuming we can know the starting conditions and have full access to the laws of physics, fully predictable. Free will does in this context not exist and what we perceive as free will is to be considered an illusion.

The philosophical question that this thought experiment poses is what would the world be like if there was overall agreement that we are biological without free will. The consequences for our culture, our societies and our psychologies could be devastating. The philosophical problem is thus an existential one.

Some would argue that being deprived of a free will removes all morality and meaning from life because without will there can be no humanity—all our triumphs and digressions can be simply be blamed on causality. The person in our imaginary court case would argue that it wasn’t him or her that perpetrated the crime, but the laws of physics.

My position in the materialist/idealist discussion is towards the materialist. Although, this does not mean that I think we would ever be able to conclusively prove that either is the case. Also, I think our so called ‘laws of physics’ are based on a logical error, as shown by David Hume, but that is food for thought for another time.

In the hypothetical situation of this thought experiment I think that society would not come to an end. In some ways it would be great for society because it would bring philosophical thinking to the foreground. Everybody would have to take position in this situation.

If humanity would be without free will, meaning and morality would most certainly not collapse. In some ways it would be very good for those who try to provide morality with a rational foundation—because if our minds are based on pure causality, than it would be possible to construct moral algorithms.

As for the question whether lie has meaning or not, I don’t think that having no free will makes any difference. But for that question I refer back to the tireless Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill till eternity.

Heraclitus and Freud

It dawned me a little while ago that the human condition is one of ongoing tension between the way the world is (ontology) and the way our mind works (psychology). The world is inherently unpredictable—even our best attempts to make it predictable ultimately fail. We have trouble predicting the weather more than a few days ahead and predicting earthquakes and volcano eruptions are even more unpredictable. Heraclitus had a great insight when he proclaimed that:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus understood that the world is ever-changing and nothing is ever the same. Our human psychology, however, has difficulties accepting this eternal change. Sigmund Freud thought that we are not as free as we think we are, but are ultimately creatures of habit. Our minds are designed to find regularity, even where there is none. Hume’s sceptical argument of inductive inferences is a great illustration of how this works.

In this respect we also need to jump into the abyss, as argued in my earlier post. This does not imply that we should just accept the chaos and not use our mind to attempt to understand the world. We should, however, accept that all our attempts to grasp the world around us in neatly packaged theories will never succeed. All knowledge is practical knowledge and can only be judged in its ability to produce the desired effects.

Does God have a sense of humour?

Does God have a sense of humour?This photo arrived in my mailbox with the subject line: “FW: Someone’s going to hell for this!!!“.

I found this statement a bit strong because, I figured that if God is by definition a perfect being and we are made is his or her image, then God would most certainly have a great sense of humour. He would be rolling on the floor with laughter when receiving this photo in his mailbox!

There is, however, not much in the Bible – or any other religious book for that matter, which would indicate that God, the gods, or whichever way you might swing, has a sense of humour. One story in the Bible that comes in mind though is the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), were Jesus provided the booze when they ran out of wine.

“… and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.”

Jesus and his disciples were invited for this wedding and it only seems logical that they were drinking and dancing. Following the text, it seems that they already had been drinking when the wine ran out. I love this passage because it shows how human Jesus was — and in a roundabout way that he had a sense of humour.

Therefore, in my humble theological opinion I do not believe that the guys in this photo will go to hell because they have a great sense of humour which will be appreciated by whichever divine being looks upon them.

Immanuel Kant the Mystic?

Immanuel Kant the Mystic?I recently bought an English translation of the Critique of Pure Reason, which has this picture on the front page.

The interesting thing about this engraving is that Kant is surrounded by the mythical snake Ouroboros. I have yet to find out exactly what is meant with this etching, as the combination of Immanuel Kant and mysticism is a bit puzzling.

According to the book, it is an engraving by J. Chapman. There is an American artists named John Gadsby Chapman (1808–1889) who was a Freemason, judging by his painting The Masters Carpet in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

I would love to know more about this portrait of Kant and what the idea is between the combination of him and the mystical snake. Any suggestions?

Post Mortem: The Importance of Funerals

Paleolithic burial in sleeping position.

Palaeolithic burial in sleeping position. Source: Journal of Cosmology.

Dealing with death through funerals is one of the oldest signs of human culture, some anthropologists even define the onset of culture by the fact whether the dead were buried or not.

Our fascination with and fear of death relates directly to our ability to think about the future. We are the only animal that seems to have the ability to ponder life and conclude that there is only one certainty: we will all die. That insight creates a whole lot of existential anxiety, which is the defining factor of the human condition. This anxiety is mitigated by developing vehicles for meaning, such as religion.

Funerals are an amazing ritual. It is our way to pay respect to the memory of the deceased and their family. It is also a form of catharsis for the emotions that have built up since the death occurred. The announcement of somebody’s death is surreal. The funeral brings reality to the death, helping to anchor the irreversibility into our psyche.

Funerals make us ponder our own mortality and provoke good intentions that we should make the most of the time available to us. The funeral ritual is the end of one life, but provides new beginnings for al those who attend.

Christian funeral rites are, however, unsatisfying. The empty promise of eternal life and the hope that we will meet the deceased again after we have fallen to the same fate lead us astray. The promise of a life after death diverts our focus from life itself to the afterlife. One could argue that it doesn’t really matter and it is better to believe, it is better to play it safe, just in case religion is true. Religion is founded on metaphysical sky-hooks—there is no justification for the idea of life after death, besides our existential anxiety.

I choose to accept that there is no metaphysical foundation. My philosophy is not based on a sky-hook, but a metaphysical hot-air balloon, floating over the cultural landscape. Accepting that there is no certainty, no absolute truth is a very liberating experience. It forces one to choose life over death!

Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth

Language gamesWhen I studied philosophy in the Netherlands, postmodernist thought was an important part of the curriculum. Now that I am studying in Australia, I am more exposed to the analytical philosophy tradition. (See also my previous article Schools of Thought). I have been reading some analytical criticisms of postmodern thought and think some are missing the point.

Thinkers of the analytical tradition have a big issue with the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute. A very common counter argument is that this is by itself presented as an absolute truth and therefore a logical contradiction. Most criticisms are, however, missing the point.

The answer to the problem lies in the work by Richard Rorty whose interpretation of Wittgensteinian Language Games provides a very powerful way of dealing with relativism.

Within a Language Game (closely related to Khun’s ‘paradigm’ and Foucault’s ‘episteme’) there is absolute truth. Rorty argues, however, that there is no almighty Language Game that can provide a universal truth. Human culture has produced many different language games across time and cultures and none of these provide a final answer to any problem, nor will any future products of the human mind be able to do so.

This thought is quite disturbing as we are psychologically wired to favour certainty. Our oversized brains give us the possibility to contemplate the future. This amazing feature enables us to develop science and philosophy because we can think about an answer to the question “What if?”. This causes a great deal of grief because with an uncertain future comes fundamental existential uncertainty. Science, philosophy and the arts are merely psychological band-aids to help us deal with this uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

Postmodern philosophy is, in a way, an attempt to create a universal language game. The quest for universality comes at a great price, because the only universal claim we have been able to find is that all knowledge is relative and only valid within a certain Language Game. The issue that many analytical commentators, and also many postmodern thinkers, do not seem to understand is that postmodernism—as a universal language game—can not be used for any practical purposes. It is a Language Game about Language Games—not a Language Game by itself.

Postmodernism is therefore only useful to be able to talk about language games in general. The problem is that postmodern mankind is by definition detached from the possibility of finding truth with the inherent risk of falling into nihilistic despair. Postmodernism is a Venom Crystal, a beautiful wisdom which is poisonous to the mind. From an existential point of view, postmodernism is a view that can only be maintained by those who are able to float in a metaphysical hot air balloon above the landscape of Language Games.

The True Philosopher: Flying the existential hot-air balloon

What is a true philosopher?

Plato and Socrates. Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio (1509).

What is a true philosopher? What distinguishes them from other people? Are philosophers smarter, wiser or crazier? Answers to this question have been sought since the beginning of philosophy. Plato’s answer to this question is:

… philosophers are those who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging, while those who are incapable of this but lose themselves and wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things, are not philosophers … (Plato, Republic, 484b)

This quote is related to Plato’s idea that reality is unchanging and fixed and that our ever changing perceived reality is an illusion. He illustrated this idea in the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, we are imagined to be locked in dark a cave. What we perceive as reality are in fact shadows, cast by objects in the cave. Reality is, according to Plato, not the shadows on the wall, nor the objects that cast the shadows. Plato thinks that reality is the unchanging world outside the cave. Philosophers are, in Plato’s view, those people who are able to unchain themselves and leave the cave. Once outside, the true philosophers are those who are able to stare into the sun – to look absolute truth in the eye.

It is my contention that Plato’s idea of a philosopher needs to be reversed. The ever changing, unpredictable and chaotic reality we perceive is the real reality and our ideas of a reality above our perceived reality is the illusion. We have this illusion because it is psychologically not satisfying to have to accept that reality is unpredictable.

The main reason we have issues with dealing with the unpredictability of reality is that we have the ability to think about the future. Our huge frontal lobes allow us to think ahead in time much more than any other animal. This ability is a blessing as much as a curse, because with it comes a fundamental existential uncertainty. The fact that the future is, even in our best efforts, is unpredictable, causes anxiety. This anxiety causes a cognitive dissonance and we try to relieve it by constructing vehicles that reduce the dissonance. These vehicles—or language games, as Wittgenstein calls them, alleviate our anxiety by constructing an ideal reality in which there is no unpredictability. These language games become vehicles for meaning and reality—a foundation for our mind (See also my paper Religion as a vehicle for Meaning). In reality, these constructs of the mind are sky-hooks, based on nothing but the urge to reduce existential anxiety.

In my view, the true philosopher is the person who is able to accept the fundamental unpredictability of life and able to live in an existential hot-air balloon, flying over the landscape of philosophical and religious constructs.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Flying Spaghetti MonsterA new church has emerged, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The battle between evolutionists and creationists is still waging strongly. Evolutionists are propagating “Intelligent Design“—the idea that “certain features of the universe and living things exhibit characteristics of a product resulting from an intelligent cause or agent”.

However, the fact that organisms function so well and that nature is very efficient proves the reverse. The perfection and balance we perceive in nature is actually evidence of the fact that living things could not have been designed.

Following the Intelligent Design argument through to its Judeo-Christian roots, we are all created in the image of God. Mankind has, however, never been able to design anything that works as well as living organisms.

Some might argue that we are but imperfect reflections of God’s image and that this is the reason that designing anything is always a process of “trial and (t)error”. God, as a perfect being, would have designed the universe as it is now in only six days. The idea of God as a perfect being has been proposed many times to prove that a god actually exists. It has always struck me as a strange concept. Defining a being as perfect is an enquiry limiting rhetorical move. There is no empirical evidence or rational argument that leads to the idea that God is a perfect being—it can only be presumed.

The fact that the universe and living organisms work they way they do is in fact evidence of evolution. Nature has perfected its original “design” through billions of years of trial and error.

Flying Spaghetti Monster

A vastly superior theory to Judeo-Christian creationism is offered by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Proponents of this brand-new religion assert that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe, starting with a mountain, trees and a midget. All evidence pointing towards evolution was intentionally planted by this being. ‘Pastafarians’, as they call themselves, make some of the same basic philosophical mistakes as Christians.

However, the Spaghetti Monster theory is superior to Christianity because there is no dogma that we are created in the image of the monster—as can be clearly seen in the illustration.

If anyone wants or needs to believe that the world was created, rather than evolved, the Flying Spaghetti Monster offers a great alternative to established religions.

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?In one of the university texts I have been reading recently, the author often writes that a certain philosopher is being ‘over-sanguine’ in his approach. I thought this was a strange word to use as I found out it means ‘passionate’.

Can a philosopher be accused of being too  passionate? I don’t think this can be the case. Philosophy often deals with very important questions—the meaning of life, what ought we to do and other such life changing questions. How can one not be passionate?

Academic philosophy seems a bit exsanguinated at times. The main reason for this, I believe, is that too many academic pursuits are judged by the same standards as exact science—philosophy is an art form, not a science. Most academic philosophy could do with a blood transfusion!

The distinction between passion and reason is a very old one. In moral philosophy it has often been contended that passion conflicts with reason and that the latter should always have preference. Plato’s myth of the charioteer in the Phaedrus illustrates this idea. The charioteer is the soul of man, while the two horses represent reason and passion. Plato’s preference for reason has dominated Western culture for a long, long time.

If philosophy is an art form, we should listen to Nietzche, who teaches in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik that there is no Apollo (reason), without a Dionysus (passion).