The value of religious nonsense
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Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Registration date: 2007-07-21
|Subject: The value of religious nonsense Thu Oct 11, 2007 6:46 am|| |
below a fragment from the introduction to my abandoned dissertation on Wittgenstein's views on logic and religion. Hopefully this fragment will make it somewhat clearer how I (wuth Wittgenstein) see the ature and role of religious language. The last part of it will refer directly to the discussion we are having on the meaning of the mythology of Christ's Resurrection, and the discussion on the link between madness and religion.
|This discussion of the logic or grammar of religious language then prepares us for a discussion of the role that religious mythology plays in the life of a person struggling with the question 'How to live?'. I will discuss what problems such person may have, how they affect and pervade his life and how religious mythology both sets the course for those problems, as well as embeds them into a meaningful mythology and provides us with hope, inspiration and consolation. |
This is essential since Wittgenstein did not just occupy himself by distantly or objectively exploring religious grammar and trying to find a way in which it could, at least to a certain extent, make sense. He exactly wanted and did apply this religious mythology in the struggle of his own life. I will not focus solely or mainly on Wittgenstein's life, but instead concentrate on the religious struggle in general.
This will also enable us to understand the notion of 'following your conscience' that is so central to especially Wittgenstein's early work, but also to the religious mythology of Christianity in general, in more detail. In particular I will focus on the role that honesty must play in this struggle: the honesty to not over-scream or silence your conscience that, as we saw in the discussion of Wittgenstein's early work, is the voice of God that needs to be followed in order to 'do the right thing', and the honesty that your conscience in turn will require of you in order to let go off your ego, to break down the edifice of your pride, and live happily, without guilt, fear and so on.
We will see that the ethical demand in the form of religious mythology ensures that for the religious person this struggle is not just one side of their lives that can be put aside when needed, but something that pervades the person's life, in a way that is reminiscent of the role of the metaphysical subject in the Tractatus, that makes him feel not just imperfect but ill when he does not obey it. This is one of the four reasons that I will discuss that make the religious struggle so difficult.
Since living happily is the central goal of Wittgensteinan ethics and religion, it will be fruitful to discuss the differences between the life of non-religious persons, especially those who are unhappy, namely those who are depressed, with the religious happy life and especially the struggle that leads up to it.
Depressed people feel guilty, fearful, without hope and often contemplate suicide. These are all ways in which your conscience tells you that you are living wrongly. Depressions are typically treated or even cured by either medication, cognitive therapy, electroshock therapy, or a combination of the above. In the case of medication and electroshock therapy the 'cure' comes from external physical means, and in the case of cognitive therapy the emphasis is on the ultimate supposed irrationality and groundlessness of these negative feelings. You are encouraged to overcome these feelings of guilt, fear, hopelessness and so on by realizing that they are not realistic.
This is difficult enough, but religion goes a step further: it requires you to fully acknowledge and take extremely seriously your feelings of guilt, fear and so on, to realize that there are grounds for them and to change your life so that you will live it so that such feelings will no longer occur, that the grounds for them have disappeared: thus not because you have come to see them as unrealistic, but exactly by acknowledging their supreme importance and changing your life accordingly by following your conscience.
As said, this is an immensely difficult thing to do, it will pervade your entire life: listening to your conscience, being honest and breaking down the edifice of your pride means letting go of all the false idols you used to be so attached to without there seeming to be a reward for this struggle.
It seems that you are slowly being sucked out of the world you once loved. So a good way to understand the position of the person engaged in the ethical struggle is by saying that with one foot he still stands in the 'earthly' world of false idols, but with the other he seems to stand in the supernatural world, and this latter aspect is a source of comfort and inspiration.
Religion does not just 'tell' you what to do, religious mythology also provides you with sources of insight, hope, consolation and inspiration in the struggle of learning to actually do so. That is, religion is a refuge in a man's ultimate torment. I will discuss various ways in which religious stories, prayers, confessions and other religious practices can help a person in such a struggle.
But the religious mythology is neither literal nor metaphorical, yet at the same time it does do something to us, does seem to directly speak to us and it pervades our lives. This is a profoundly strange state of affairs. And in this respect it will be fruitful to investigate the relation between madness and religion too.
In madness religiously inclined (and religiously talented) people may, unwittingly but unavoidably, explore the boundaries of religious language and how it relates to them: they may go from a 'mere' state of depression due to the religious or ethical struggle into a psychosis for example, and in such a state they may really experience hearing the voice of God and follow it so as to explore and make ultimate sense of religious ideas and concepts and how they translate into real life, the crises of a real person.
But although such periods of madness can achieve great insight and great value also for others, ultimately because of the nonsensical, non-literal and non-metaphorical character of religion such madness necessarily falls short; it is the ultimate exploration of the experience of religion and religious language as experiencing and expressing the necessity of ethics, but in the end these are nonsensical.
While the supernatural may provide you with insight, comfort, hope and so on, the insight that religious language to Wittgenstein in both his early and later work, is ultimately nonsensical (non-literal and non-metaphorical) will mean that this support in a sense is false, and ultimately has to be let go of, leaving the same silence as in the Tractatus.
The mystery then lies herein: as soon as you, after an intense struggle full of despair, finally have changed yourself so much that you are able to put the last leg from the 'earthly' world into that of the supernatural world, this latter world disappears. Religious language is nonsensical and therefore religion is forever out of reach. This is the supreme and most difficult moment. I will discuss it by relating it to the idea of Jesus on the Cross where he cries: 'Why hast Thou forsaken me?”
The vanishing of religion in the final part of the ethical struggle will bring us full circle: it leaves us with the same silence that is reserved for ethics as in the Tractatus. The two-fold necessity of ethics will show itself directly in your life. Where this leaves the religious mythology in the life of such a person is a question that I will speculate a bit about in the last bit by discussing a remark of Simone Weil on the subject.
Number of posts: 5647
Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Registration date: 2007-07-21
|Subject: Re: The value of religious nonsense Thu Oct 11, 2007 6:50 am|| |
The below quote comes before
the above quote and puts it into context
|In any case, the odd phenomenon seems to be that despite all sorts of attempts to prove the existence of God or of the supernatural, either through philosophical or through scientific arguments, no such arguments seem to be very convincing, while at the same time billions of people simply do still believe in God. |
Moreover, some of the most intelligent and skeptical people either had the greatest respect for religion or were religious themselves. Is this then still mere superstition that will perhaps slowly disappear when our world view becomes more scientific or rational, or is something else the matter?
The philosophical and scientific arguments above and the resultant skepticism rest on an assumption that is not unproblematic. Wittgenstein exactly asks what it is like to say that a person beliefs in God. Once we accept that this belief is similar to a belief that the Yeti or the Bigfoot exists, we have to evaluate it in a similar way; what proofs are there, and how good are they?
And, as I have just discussed, in this respect religion does not come off very well. But there are other ways to interpret a belief in the existence of God. Wittgenstein writes: “It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it’s a belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life.” (CV 64)
Let me now give an overview of how I will present Wittgenstein's alternative conception of religion and religious language as both the experience and expression of the necessity of the ethical, as 'a way of living or assessing life', and show how the five different types of connections that will have to be made in order to support this interpretation, occur in it.
In the first part of my thesis I will try to make philosophical sense of Wittgenstein's remarks on language, logic, ethics and religion in respectively his early and his later work. In his early work Wittgenstein held that language works by picturing situations in the world, either directly or metaphorically. In the latter case the metaphors can be translated into ordinary language that is a representation or picture of situations in the world. Logic and ethics, as we saw, are instead conditions of the world and hence they cannot be pictured and hence, talked about. Instead their truths are shown.
The idea of showing is then related to the groundlessness of our acting, to logic and ethics being conditions of the world that have no support other than our human being. We will see that the idea of showing is another source of continuity between Wittgenstein's early and later work, since it occurs in a somewhat different form in Wittgenstein's discussion of certainties.
In any case, the Tractatus as we shall see is exactly about logic (and through it, about thought and knowledge too) and ethics and this means that its pronouncements are according to its own standard strictly speaking nonsensical. But they are of a good form of nonsense, they make us see the world aright after which we can throw them away like the proverbial ladder we have used to climb upon. The Tractatus will allow us to see how many problems in philosophy are strictly speaking non-problems, and how the problem of ethics is a non-problem as well, in the sense that it cannot be solved by reason.
I will discuss the danger of approaching logic, but especially ethics and religion from the point of language, of reason. In all these cases such an approach will lead to the worship of false idols, idols that can never do what we need them to do: in logic this means providing an ultimate ground of truth, and in ethics and religion it means providing us with an answer to the question how to live and a motivation to exactly do so.
In other words, in the case of ethics worshiping false idols may make us lose sight of the possibility of a final and necessary and right answer and instead either direct our ethical tendencies and problems that we undeniably have as human beings to the wrong, earthly types of solutions, or lead us to disregard our ethical tendencies altogether. Exactly by curbing our enthusiasm and tendency to talk about it we come to realize that this ethical side to our being is there and that it is of absolute, out-of-this-world importance. So the silence that Wittgenstein reserves for ethics does play a positive role.
An example of an important false idol in the case of both logic and ethics is the existence of a 'self' over and above the thoughts, body and actions of a person. Postulating such a self creates both problems in logic as well as sets us out in the wrong ethical path. Instead we should realize that there is no such self over and above the thoughts, body and actions so that the problems of logic will be solved, and so that our ethical path becomes clear and meaningful, namely renouncing our psychological self as the bearer of ethical value.
In the case of ethics we should instead see not the psychological subject, but the metaphysical subject that is not something in the world, but forms the limits of it, as the bearer of ethical value. In this respect the influence of Schopenhauer on Wittgenstein can be felt, as I will briefly explain.
But is the above, the quasi-Schopenhauerian approach to ethics sufficient to provide us with an answer to the question 'How to live?'. That is, can we make sense of the idea of renouncing the self and realizing that there is no value in the world? Does a necessarily true content arise from it, and does this answer come across as inescapable, as a necessary way of living?
In the final bit of my discussion of Wittgenstein's early work I will try to show that an answer to the question 'How to live?' in the form of a morality, that is, directions for our everyday dealing with ourselves, and people and things in the world, cannot be found if we concentrate solely on the remarks on ethics, logic and the resulting silence. That is, we cannot construct such a morality and even if we could then we could not show its necessary character in the sense of its being something inescapable and of utmost importance. But in what sense then does the Tractatus aim to meet our needs?
In order to answer this question we should take very seriously the role of religious notions in the Tractatus. In a sense we could say that Wittgenstein cheats a little here: on the one hand he aims to delimit ethics from within, to reserve only this silence for ethics by showing how and why we should get rid of false idols and corresponding wrong approaches to ethics, but on the other hand he also uses 'good nonsense' in the form of religious notions such as 'God' and 'conscience as the voice of God' to express both the inescapable aspect and, albeit in a very minimal and cryptic form, the necessarily true content of ethics.
In the Tractatus then there seems to be a certain tension between a quasi-Schopenhauerian notion of ethics as the renunciation of the will, a notion that follows from the reasons that Wittgenstein wanted to reserve silence for ethics, and a full-blown religious notion of ethics, that in turn follows from Wittgenstein's use of the 'good nonsense' that his allusions to religious concepts constitute.
I will argue that the quasi-Schopenhauerian notion of ethics can neither help us to construct a morality, a concrete and necessarily true answer to the question 'How to live?', nor can it make us realize the necessary, inescapable character of ethics. An answer to the ethical question can only be had by the religious notions in the Tractatus.
Both the quasi-Schopenhauerian notion and the religious notion of ethics answer the question 'How to live?' by insisting that one should live happily and in harmony with the alien will on which we are dependent. But the quasi-Schopenhauerian notion cannot further make sense of this ideal, cannot explain what exactly it means to renounce the psychological self or to live in agreement with the world. Instead, the religious notion provides us with an answer in the form of listening to your conscience that is the voice of God. This both provides us with a concrete, albeit extremely minimal, content of ethics, as well as makes us realize the necessary, inescapable importance of it.
The focus on conscience, the voice of God as showing us how to lead our lives also nicely indicates how we should not try to approach ethics through reason, which the quasi-Schopenhauerian approach would be indirectly guilty of, but how ethics is concerned with another realm or rather with another aspect of our human being. The problem with it on the other hand is that this answer leaves us both with an extremely minimal and seemingly very subjective notion of ethics. I will acknowledge this problem, but also partially answer it by relating it to Wittgenstein's idea of religious faith as a trusting.
Fortunately for this latter problem, Wittgenstein's later work exactly enables him to explore the religious side to ethics in more detail which in turn makes it somewhat easier to give a positive reading of his remarks on ethics.
In his later work Wittgenstein lets go off his early monistic view of the nature of the relation between thought, language and the world: language does not work solely by representing situations in the world according, let alone solely according to the logical laws of the Tractatus. Moreover, contrary to his early views he no longer sees meaning as needing to be determinate. Most importantly, this allows Wittgenstein to acknowledge and study the great variety of ways in which we use language, other than just describing, and to acknowledge much more so than in his early work the groundlessness of our language use through the notion of practices and rule-following.
One such form of language use concerns religious language. In his later work he is out both to explore the logic or grammar of religious language while holding on to the idea that it is neither literal nor metaphorical. He is thus trying to explore what rules such religious language follows, in what practices such rules are constituted, and what positive role they have with regards to the ethical question 'How to live our lives?.
When discussing his later work we will then see how a religious mythology is directly tied up with instinctive human reactions and emotions, and how the religious mythology embeds these reactions into a meaningful and complex whole, and how it at the same time refines and shapes these human emotions. Rather than being literal or metaphorical such religious mythology is a way of speaking, a grammar that is tied up with more a-rational aspects of our being, like the ethical side is.
We will investigate what exactly this religious grammar is made up of. That is, we will explore the aspects of the religious grammar such as the role of the concept of 'Resurrection', 'God', and so on. In particular I will focus on the place that the notion of 'conscience as the voice of God' has in it, because that was after all the answer to the question 'How to live?' that we got from Wittgenstein's early work.
We will also have to see why this grammar is not just any ol' grammar, but how it has a particular role in a person's life: we passionately seize hold of it as the result of a life. Moreover, once we have got hold of it we tend not to let go without a struggle. That is, the religious grammar functions as a certainty. With all certainties it is typically nonsensical to say that you know that they are true. Instead your life shows that they are in the sense that there is no further foundation for them, nor something in the world that can subvert their truth : this is simply what we do and this is simply what we call it.
I will discuss how this idea relates to the groundlessness of logic and ethics and in particular what role the idea of showing plays in it. In any case, exactly the religious or supernatural aspect makes religious grammar a peculiar kind of certainty, one that we passionately hold on to and one that pervades our ethical lives.
Number of posts: 1399
Registration date: 2007-09-07
|Subject: Re: The value of religious nonsense Sun Oct 14, 2007 6:05 am|| |
Conrad, why did you abandon this dissertation?
Do you still hold the same position, the same opinion that you had when writing this?
It seems that you're saying that religion (or religious grammar) is neccesary in some way to determine "how to live." Do I undertsand that correctly? If I do, what does that mean for people without religion? Are athiests unable to determine a proper ethics for themselves? Or do athiests unconsiously use religious grammar, or are do they obtain/learn ethics from religionists?
Number of posts: 5647
Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Registration date: 2007-07-21
|Subject: Re: The value of religious nonsense Sun Oct 14, 2007 6:25 am|| |
|mike barskey wrote:|
|Conrad, why did you abandon this dissertation?|
well, I was quite clear in my head about Wittgenstein's position on religious language in both his early and later work and the role it would have in a life, but the parts about the nature of logic and the question of realism I found maddeningly difficult to think through (I wanted or needed to come up with a new perspective on this, a perspective that was both true and original) and apart from writing hundreds of pages of notes I wasn't progressing with the actual writing. Also, in retrospect I was quite depressed at the time and was laboring under a constant feeling of guilt which made it quite torturous. Those latter two aspects are different now, so in that sense there may be new possiblities.
|Do you still hold the same position, the same opinion that you had when writing this?|
when I initially wrote this, I got quite carried away with the ideas and thought the way to living that Wittgenstein proposed was perhaps the only true way to live. I no longer believe that, nor do I think I believe that the Christian way (which emphasizes sin, guilt and repentance and salvation (which at that time seemed to be the most important things in life, but whyich I now tend to see as rationalizations/justifications of my depressed state of mind) (hey, I had never really noticed this until I just wrote this post. thanks for the question Mike!)) is a very good way to happiness either.
I am now more into the guilt-free and positive and confidently living, accepting that I will make mistakes but just trying to learn from them and going on.
|It seems that you're saying that religion (or religious grammar) is neccesary in some way to determine "how to live." Do I undertsand that correctly? If I do, what does that mean for people without religion? Are athiests unable to determine a proper ethics for themselves? Or do athiests unconsiously use religious grammar, or are do they obtain/learn ethics from religionists?|
see above + at the time I thought people who do not live like this may be happy or whatever but that they were missing the Higher, the true Meaning of life, the necessity of Ethics, taking life seriously enough...
i still think that one can genuinely express life in these transcendental terms, but that happy and positive guilt-free living is a better approach to it
The value of religious nonsense