Knowledge, Language and the Existence of God

Continuing to read in Bryan Magee’s book Ultimate Questions, and came across a common philosophical assertion within philosophy that I continue to find a bit wanting

He’s talking about the nature of knowledge in relationship to time and space. More specifically he is dealing with how it is that we can claim to know transcendent truths, which he describes as making an existent claim about reality that is not a fact in the empiracle world, such as value or beauty.

He begins by asserting a necessary agnosticism as a “positive principle of procedure” and an “openness to the fact that we do not know” or cannot know in certain terms. He pairs this with an “intellectually honest enquiry in full receptivity of mind”.

Honest enquiry he binds to language. “Far from the limits of what is linguistically intelligible to us determining the limits of what we can apprehend, the truth is the opposite: the limits of what we can apprehend determine the limits of what is linguistically (language) intelligible to us.” He uses this to so suggest that while one might be tempted to say that ethics is transcendental in nature, the very fact that we can articulate right or wrong from the center of our conscious awareness using language should suggest otherwise. He posits that “experience leads me to suspect that among the causes why so many people deny that ethical and value statements can be true, and give as their reason the fact that such statements cannot be rationally validated, is a fear of letting religion in by the back door…” He goes on to suggest that this is a baseless fear because “in any honest intellectual enquiry there is no place for religion.”

Why does he say there is no place? Because “when religious people say ‘why don’t you accept our calling the noumenal God?” they have “no grounds for doing so. To do (so) implies a characterization of it, and insinuates an attitude towards it, (and) you have no justification for the implying, or the insinuating, or the characterization (of religion). You are allowing yourself to think you are in a postion you are not in- and then proceed from there.” He goes on to say that “religious discourse has this general characteristic. It is a form of unjustified evasion, a failure to face up to the reality of ignorance as our natural and inevitable starting point. Anyone who sets off in honest and serious pursuit of truth needs to know that in doing that he is leaving religion behind.”

He uses this to uphold the claim that “I have never found myself able to believe in the existence of a god” even, as he suggests, where he cannot prove gods non existence. “To extend my metaphysical understanding I am driven in other directions”, thus the limits of his knowledge about god becomes tangible reason to not believe precisely because, unlike transcendental ideas such as awe and value and beauty, god cannot be understood in the limits of our language.

This argument tends to tackle the issue of ontology, meaning the idea of whether such truths are created from the ground up towards something transcendental or whether it moves from the top down informing our language according to what we observe about the transcendental realities. For Magee, it is our ignorance (that which cannot be known) that reveals our knowledge of what can be known. If we experience awe it must be rooted in what we know about human, social and biological functions, for example. If we experience value, it must point backwards to what we do know about the fact that we value in the first place.

And yet, it remains unclear why he would disallow the same reasoning when it comes to the existence of God. Its equally unclear why he would make such a strong disassociation between things like love, awe, value, beauty, and the idea of god, as though these things must be separated in our intellectual inquiry. It seems like the thing he both wants to assume and deny is the presence of conviction. He wants to discredit religion because he sees it as appealing to certain transcendental realities that lie beyond the limits of our knowledge, but he also refuses to admit that for him awe operates precisely as such a certainty. Enough so that it fuels his convictions about what can be real and what is not. I find this dishonest, and an approach that runs rampant in philosophy.

It’s also curious why he doesn’t allow for the limits of language to work in the opposite direction; that the very limits of our language points to that which we cannot otherwise describe. This binds itself to what I think becomes his rigid defintion of knowledge. There are ways of knowing that reach beyond such limitations.

Anyways, just some thoughts.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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