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Kevin Versus Genghis Khan

Denis Solomon • 1,223 words

Do you believe in scluff?

The natural answer of anyone to whom that question was posed would be “What the hell is scluff?”

If it is to be answered, the word “scluff” has to be defined to the satisfaction of both interlocutors. Substitute the word “God” for “scluff” and the question is equally meaningless. A positive answer merely means there is agreement on the definition, in which case there is no point in asking the question. If there is no agreement, there is still no point, because it is impossible to pronounce oneself on the existence of something not defined to one’s satisfaction.

Therefore the answer to the question “do you believe in God?” can be neither “yes” nor “no”. The question itself is invalid as an act of communication. This obvious fact was given formal expression in 1905 by Bertrand Russell in his Theory of Descriptions, which said that valid predications cannot be made of “things” but only of descriptions. An utterance about a thing can be true only if the “thing” is shorthand for a description, which in turn must be objectively verifiable.

Which is why religion is nothing but words about words. I am not talking about the ethical and moral appendages that have been tacked on to religion, but are not necessary components of it. “Thou shalt not kill” is not religion but law.

Once we realise this we have to be very careful indeed about our use of words, and try to make sure that they mean something. The word “meaning” itself is such a word. Two others are “belief” and “faith”. They are question-beggers, carrying a weight of connotative as opposed to denotative meaning that encourages meaninglessness. “Faith” and “belief” are good, “doubt” and “unbelief” are bad. This is an illicit seizure by the religious of the moral high ground. In fact, “faith” can validly mean no more than reliance on the truth or efficacy of something. It describes only the person who harbours it. The only objective meaning of “belief” is acceptance on the basis of logical demonstration, empirical observation or authoritative assertion. Should any of these three collapse, belief instantly collapses with it.

Religion is therefore not belief but hope. No one who claims to believe in any religious creed would buy a second-hand car on the evidence offered in its favour. Reason cannot be suspended in that fashion. Those who “believe” a religion to be true do not in fact believe but rather hope it is true, and behave in certain ways in case it is.

In his column in Thursday’s Express, Kevin Baldeosingh quotes Marvin Minsky on the circularity of questions about the “meaning” of existence. Bernard Shaw said the same thing in his play Back to Methuselah. In it he depicts a lesson in a school in the distant future. The teacher tells the class “Ask what, where, when and how. Do not ask why. There is no why”.

It should be obvious that the closest definition we can give of “meaning” is that it is interpretation of one thing in terms of other things. And these other things must themselves be defined first. This is the circularity Baldeosingh refers to. Since the universe by definition is all that exists, it is nonsense to speak of finding a meaning for it – i.e. outside it. By definition, there is no outside. Spinoza and Kant made this point in different ways. For Kant, the reality behind appearance (the noumenon as opposed to the phenomenon) exists but is unknowable. For Spinoza, the only thing not contingent on something else is the universe as a whole, which is God. God is the ultimate tautology: the only subject that is its own predicate. This is similar to the idea of the unity of Brahman and Atman (the Tat tvam asi) expressed in the Upanishads. For both Kant and Spinoza, morality resides in the intellect. For Kant, it is intuitable a priori; for Spinoza, it is derived from the understanding and acceptance of the unity of nature. Wrong action and intellectual error are one and the same.

Needless to say, both Kant and Spinoza fell foul of the religious authorities. Kant was banned from publishing by the Emperor of Prussia for trying to reconcile God and reason, and Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community for denying the separation of God and nature.

At this point it must be made clear that the exaltation of reason implies neither that truth resides solely in the accurate manipulation of language nor that science is the key to the discovery of ultimate reality. Not only some, but most, of what we know is neither verbalised nor verbalisable. As for science, it is simply the process I mentioned above, in which the explanation of phenomena in terms of other phenomena is perpetually refined. Science can have no pretensions to ultimate truth, because, as Karl Popper pointed out, a scientific theory can never be proved but can only be refuted and replaced by another. Furthermore, to be scientific a theory must be couched in terms that permit its refutation by further evidence. Which is why Marxism, though it claims to be scientific, is not science but religion, because it purports to embrace everything, leaving nothing to refute it by.

Science is also proof of the inadequacy of language as a tool of discovery, since science, in its upper reaches, has to use its own language, mathematics.

Kevin Baldeosingh’s article was a response to Keith Smith’s cry of despair at the meaninglessness of existence, a cry falsely transmuted by adherents of every religion into “evidence” for its truth. But a belief cannot be justified by the fact that its absence is painful. We cannot believe, in any meaningful sense of the word, simply because we feel we must.

But Kevin, in explaining this to Keith, does not go far enough. While denying the absoluteness, and pointing out the circularity, of words like “meaning” and “belief”, he ignores the circularity of words like “courageous” and “moral”. Religion, he says, is a means of enabling people to “weasel out of their moral responsibility” to do something about evil. It is “neither courageous nor noble” to seek truth in religion, and “the truly moral person does not act in expectation of reward or punishment”. All these statements imply that virtue, courage and morality are absolutes for him in the same sense as the dogmas of religion are absolute for their adherents.

Unless he is proclaiming, with Kant, a belief in an inherent moral law discoverable by reason; or like Spinoza considers that evil and ignorance are one; or can demonstrate on utilitarian grounds that courage and responsibility are imperatives, he must take his views to their logical conclusion and recognise that life is absurd, in the literal meaning of the word. It just happens that Kevin is an intellectual of optimistic temper. But who is to say that Kevin’s way of finding meaning in thinking, reading and writing is more valid than Genghis Khan’s way of finding meaning in rape, pillage and murder? I certainly hope it is, and I spend most of my waking moments trying to convince myself of it. But I am writing this article, not Genghis Khan.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top