Saturday, July 11, 2009

What cannot be said

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.
What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

-- Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
The idea of apophatic theology has gotten some play in blogs recently, mostly due to a book by Karen Armstrong defending the idea, and some leading uncompromising atheist scientist flamers have attacked her. I'm not sure I see why. Apophaticism by design does not make any positive statements about God or anything else, thus it cannot conflict with science. You'd think that would satisfy the militants, but no, they will not rest until anything even vaguely smacking of religion is razed to the ground.

Not me! I have a mystical streak and a contrarian streak, so this form of enlightenment through negation appeals to me. I see Jerry Coyne is having a contest to name those atheists who like me are less than thoroughly hardcore. I think I like "placatheist" the best of his candidates so far.

One good argument for apophatic theology is to look at what happens when douchebags and pinheads think they have a line on God and "the Absolute". Apparently He's not only American, but a wingnut Republican as well. I think the wingers have (in embryonic form) something of a new religion, in which the saints are the founding fathers and Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin is playing Joan of Arc. In keeping with the apophatic approach I am not very comfortable giving attributes to God and I can be pretty sure that he doesn't pick sides in US electoral contests, nor does he have some special affinity for people born in North America.

The obnoxiousness of the noisy religious right is a large part of what drives intelligent people to atheism, but I think it's a tactical error. There is generally a hidden metaphysical core at the heart of most political belief systems, and the left needs to be more explicit about it. There is a vague correspondence between the apophatic demand for silence about metaphysics and the liberal walling-off of religious arguments from the public sphere. But it's not clear that apophatic religion can compete with the more primitive forms as a political organizing tool.

If you can't say anything about that-which-we-usually-call-God but probably deserves a more mystagogic name like "the One" or "the Absolute", what can you do with it? Contemplate it silently I suppose. Keep it in mind as a reality underlying the visible world. Or, you can just deny that the concept has any meaning or utility at all as the hardcore atheists do, but that is boring and philistine. Or you can make meta-level statements about your inability to say anything about it itself. This is what Wittgenstein and others do. A great deal end up being said about that of which we cannot speak.
I'm in the business of effing the ineffable.
-- Alan Watts
Why I, like others, am compelled to issue words on this topic which demands silence, I cannot say. Call it a nagging dissatisfaction with the standard stories. Neither the materialist nor the standard religious pictures of the world make much sense to me, so I'm trying to construct my own. The loudmouths for God or for atheism strike me as team players, which I am not. Universal skepticism is more my thing. Even the existence of an apophatic tradition makes me suspicious; I wouldn't want to accidentally be part of a movement.
Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.
-- Samuel Beckett
Links to the tradition:

4 comments:

hoyhoy said...

Anyone attempting to gain acceptance and political power through collective virtue is suspect. I'm not sure what's worse, the religious right manipulating the hoards of desperate, gullible, and broken working class citizens reverting to mysticism, or the militant atheists whipping the professional classes into a frenzy through their righteous indignation towards mysticism. Both factions are tending to atomize the population.

TGGP said...

You just ruined the excellence of a post on what cannot be said having nothing said in the comments. I hope you're happy!

mtraven said...

You should see all the posts that I don't make.

hoyhoy said...

I thought I was agreeing with you.