philosophy • 17.05.08
When I attended Edinburgh University in 1993 my head was still full of metaphysics. By that I mean I was still drawn to ideas of there being some kind of transcendent reality - i.e. there was an existence outside of the physical world that was absolute and tangible to the human experience. Such dualist notions had grown up with me in some form since childhood. The metaphysics was characterised by a kind of providence: that the conditions for emancipation and the capacity to elevate were possible. Ideas like that are not new and have existed down through the ages. They are central to the great religious movements and belief systems.
In my particular formulation I wasn’t specific in the way the traditions had been. Where they were detailed and elaborate I was vague. I thought it inadvisable to be detailed about the spiritual because how could you know detail about something that existed outside experience. Being specific was a facet of immanent experience not transcendency.
There was something other-worldly then about my values and I quite liked that. Consequently when I began to look at materialist philosophy (existentialism, behaviourism etc.) although I listened I was disdainful. I was amused by Russell saying that materialists were the villains and idealists the saints. I was of course fundamentally a moral guy on the side of the angels!
As the years went on providence was found wanting. My big ideas were slowly evaporating. They were being replaced with disappointment. I was cynical about myself and no longer a good guy. The materialism I had been dismissive of began to make more sense. The more I thought about it the more religious ideas associated with metaphysics seemed incoherent. They were easily explained. Having elevated beliefs has its benefits. They hold back the angst of existentialism for one. But it is one thing to have a system of beliefs that makes you feel better, quite another to bend factual reality to suit them as religious people tend to do.
This gradual conversion for me went beyond the three years I spent at Edinburgh. The readings I absorbed there slowly worked their way through my thought processes until they became more fully developed. This happened alongside other intellectual interests which resulted in a greater clarity of thinking generally. My thoughts began to gather round a set of central ideas, a centre which is now materialist. I no longer believe in metaphysics or in gods. I really don't believe in much at all now. I have come to see belief itself as a dubious thing. I think it an inferior mode when compared to the mode of knowledge. Belief may have psychological value. But knowledge is more solid. Belief is as likely to lead to confusion, contradiction, conflict, disappointment and endless argument whereas knowledge arguments do get resolved as they verify themselves around evidence and are therefore less controversial. Knowledge is a better tool with which to manage the affairs of humanity.
So, by my current account, and consistent with Nietzsche, God is dead. Unfortunately nothing replaces that in quite the same way. There is so much of inherited make-up that comes from religious thinking that dumping it leaves a fairly big hole. It will take a long time before education and newer insights can eradicate the foggy confusions of metaphysics. It has taken me virtually a lifetime to undo them and I was nothing like a hard-core believer with all kinds of indoctrination to overcome. I think a doctrine which has been powerfully enforced is never fully dispensed with.
That said, I should not call myself an atheist. I am a religious agnostic. I think that is the truest position. Humans don't have and can't have knowledge of what lies outside their conceptual reference. This is true by definition and by evidence. To be agnostic is to say I don't know about that. To abandon metaphysics is not to say there is no transcendent realm necessarily, it is to say there is no way to have that kind of knowledge. The natural state is ignorance. Knowledge has come in small doses down the millennia. With each generation it is added to and altered to suit findings as more information is gathered, adapted and applied. Actually I might be better described as gnostic in the literal sense. The word derives from “gnosis” meaning knowledge. Given that I put trust in knowledge before belief then that seems appropriate.
Of the many things that Philosophy taught me, one was that there are limits to the kind of knowledge that can be had. Some things cannot be known. It is difficult to see how origins can be known, even conceptually, as to know an origin presupposes being able to see behind that origin to its starting point, before and after. The material universe and the conceptual universe seem to be bound in very particular ways that to get behind them and be able to point their origins is an impossibility. Quantum scientists may be able to get right back to a fractional place just after the big bang but how they could ever get back to before that point seems an intractable problem.
So there are clear limitations to knowledge. We are always blind-sided to other possible realities. Transcendency by definition is unknowable. There could well be many realms of alternative existence that lie inaccessible to our conceptual apparatus (why would there not be?) but they remain on the other side of the tracks. To speculate on the nature of other realms will always be inconclusive. God or anything like God is therefore unknowable. He may exist or he may not. Impossible to know. If God actually is behind everything we are about then that is a matter for God and not for us to even waste time speculating. We should drop the silly notions of religion. They can tell us nothing real about the world. They have the same value as story-telling, fantasy and Santa Claus. They have their benefits no doubt in that sense but should not be taken any more seriously.
we can't have knowledge of what
lies outside our conceptual reference