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.

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.

Schools of Thought: Anglosaxon versus Continental Philosophy

I have now completed 75% of my undergraduate and can almost see light at the end of the tunnel. I started studying in 1996 at the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands, where I completed my first year.

I recently re-read some of the course material, as I was working on some Wikipedia articles. Reading the Dutch philosophy course notes, I realised the great difference between continental and analytical (Anglosaxon) philosophy.

The Dutch material is all about hermeneutics and refers to philosophers such as Friedrich Schleieremacher and Heidegger.

The Australian course is much more analytical and I am supposed to ‘untangle’ arguments in order to bit by bit analyse the text. There is no reference to the ‘melting of horizons’ of Gadamer or anything about the historicity of philosophy. Ancient philosophers are treated in exactly the same manner as contemporary texts.

The rational approach is I think sometimes too simplistic. By following strict logical rules you can only describe certain truths, those that form part of the logical tree that grows from the axioms one has chosen.

But, it can be argued that there are truths which do not form part of that tree, ones that can not be described by logic. The analytical philosopher would probably try to resolve this problem by introducing another axiom, so the tree covers more aspects. Kurt Gödel has shown that in number theory, it is impossible to find an axiomatic system that can derive all known truths.

Although his evidence is only applicable to number theory, many have argued that it should also be applied to all other forms of axiomatic system.

Philosophy is not a science, it is not a rational program aiming to unearth eternal truth by thinking very very hard. Philosophy is an art-form, a language game to describe the world. The more I study philosophy in the analytical tradition the more I realise that I am a continental thinker. I am the wolf in the sheep’s-pen.

Only if one thinks more crazy than the philosophers can you solve their problems (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1949).

The School of the Tortoise—Taking Philosophy Slowly

The School of the Tortoise—Taking Philosophy Slowly
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a wonderful little book containing many wonderful aphorisms. One of my favourite is:

Those who are able to walk the slowest win the philosophy race, or those who reach the goal last.

I recognise myself in this aphorism, as I am the world’s slowest philosophy student. I started my bachelor degree in 1995 and have not yet finished. There is a kernel of wisdom in this aphorism, as it implies that philosophy can only be digested very slowly.

I recently received an message from a fellow slow philosopher from Oklahoma, claiming to be the slowest philosophy student on the Northern-hemisphere. This e-mail has inspired me to establish the School of the Tortoise, a philosophical school without consistent ideas other than subscribing to Wittgenstein’s credo. It was Wittgenstein who thought that the slow philosopher will the ‘race of philosophy’, just like the tortoise beat Achilles. Anyone caring to join this school can leave a message below.