Aquinas’ via negativa is well-known. We cannot say what God is, only what he is not. Aquinas is also notorious for his Five Ways. Aquinas seeks to prove the existence of God, claims to have done so, yet also says that God’s nature cannot be known. This seems to be mistaken, however. If one claims to have knowledge that a being or thing exists, then it necessarily follows that one must also have at least some knowledge about that being or thing’s essence. If you claim that X exists, you must have at least some concept of what X is, otherwise you could not claim that X exists, since knowledge of X’s existence includes a minimum amount of knowledge about what X is. One might say that this is only true for things in the universe (contingent), and that God is an exception (necessary), yet this only makes God even more estranged from the universe, making it seem that a deist belief is as far as one can go before stretching beyond the realms of evidence or logic.
For the past century or so, the question of religious language has caused numerous problems, the biggest being whether talking of God is meaningful or meaningless.
Thomas Aquinas established the via negativa, a way of talking about God which aims not to say what God is, but what God is not. Moreover, the use of analogy is for Aquinas a way of talking about God. He uses the example of a bull to explain analogy of attribution. An expert can tell the health of a bull from its urine, but the health of the bull is not in the urine as such, and is just a reflection of the actual health of the bull. Likewise, the world is a reflection of God, and a reflection of his goodness (problems obviously arise here). The language of symbol is a way of explaining things that cannot otherwise be explained because of their nature as experienced (William James would describe them as ineffable). However, the use of religious language does not seem to get very far, particularly with skeptics or atheists, seeming helpful only to those who believe already.
A.J. Ayer used the verification principle to do away with all religious and moral statements as mere noise and nothing else. The verification principle states that ‘a proposition is only cognitively meaningful if it can be definitively and conclusively determined to be either true or false (i.e. verifiable or falsifiable).’ Moral statements are for Ayer nothing more than an expression of approval or disapproval of something, but add nothing factually to a statement (his theory is known as the ‘boo-hurrah’ theory). Since religious statements cannot be verified, Ayer claims that they are ‘evidently nonsense’.
Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that language is that of a game, and that when we speak we are partaking in a language game. We play many different language games, he argued, with many different people and in many different places. Outside a language game, the language is meaningless, but inside it is meaningful (which begs the questions whether language games is all there is, and if this is so, whether objectively all language is just primitive noise, though Wittgenstein probably would not agree with this). Religious language is another language game, but does that mean that if you are not playing the game the language is meaningless? Perhaps so.
Speaking of God is difficult, regardless of one’s belief. It remains unclear as to the meaning of religious language, and whether it holds any weight at all.
Kant’s philosophy of mind is situated in-between that of Newton and Leibniz. Newton believed that space and time are absolute and objective, separate from our mind and wholly deterministic. This determinist outlook did not appeal to Kant, since with this view Kant believed he could not argue in favour of freedom, morality, or God. At the opposite end is Leibniz, who believed that everything has a soul with a ‘set of God-given perceptions’. The universe is essentially many enclosed and isolated souls. Kant sat between these two viewpoints, and argued that time and space are wholes composed of parts, and that time and space are faculties inside our minds, like containers, and are empty, needing to be filled with sensory experience. To have any experience, time and space must exist.
As seen before in part 1, Kant was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and took from him the concept of the nature of humans as well as Aristotelian logic. Kant, like Aristotle, held that humans are by nature rational. The faculties of sensibility (responsible for ‘intuitions’) and understanding (responsible for ‘concepts’) work together to create reality. Kant relies on truth being stable, and creates categories, or pure concepts, which correspond to forms of logical judgement.
Feuerbach begins to conclude his work by writing that believers in a monotheistic God are anthropocentric and that one begins to conclude that ‘everything is nothing compared with me…for everything is only a means for me.’ A miracle, Feuerbach writes, is the accomplishment of the dominion of man over nature-‘the divinity of man becomes a palpable truth.’ God works miracles for man, and so man feels as if he has power over nature, since God, the imaginary being, does, and therefore man must too. Feuerbach says that he hopes that the time of superstition and belief in God will pass and that ‘the pure light of Nature and reason will enlighten and warm mankind.’
Moreover, God is reliant on man, since not only is he from the mind of man, but also that God relies on the worship of man to become at all relevant. Feuerbach sums up belief: to imagine that something exists which does not exist. He uses the example of transubstantiation, an utterly irrational belief, and says that belief in God is like believing the bread and wine to become body and blood-‘something which it is not.’ The only place you will find God is in the imagination and faith of man, since God is nothing but the essence of these things.
Finally, Feuerbach writes about how the Greeks had limited gods because the Greeks themselves had limited wishes. So, Feuerbach writes, the God of Christianity in particular is unlimited because of the unlimited wishes of Christians themselves-‘their wish is a heaven in which all limits and necessity of Nature are destroyed and all wishes are accomplished.‘ Feuerbach says that ‘happiness and divinity are the same thing’ and that this is the ultimate goal of belief-to be indescribably and infinitely happy. Feuerbach finishes his work by summarising this point succinctly:
‘He who no longer has any supernatural wishes, has no longer any supernatural beings either.’
Ludwig Feuerbach 1804-1872
Feuerbach counters the argument that the preservation of the world and of mankind is some act of God which accords with his will. He says that nature has little care for single individuals-‘thousands of them are sacrificed without hesitation or repentance in the plenty of Nature’. This argument calls upon the existence of evil, especially natural evil, to present Nature’s merciless nature. Furthermore, since Nature does not care for us, and does not provide for us as we would like, Feuerbach says that at this point people turn to God ‘whose eye shines upon me just where Nature’s light is extinguished.’ When things are not going our way and nature can provide no help, it is then that we turn to God. Feuerbach also claims that God owes his existence to two things: fear and hope. It is these two feelings that rule our imagination of the future, and so we may find ourselves believing in God because of our fear and hope of the future since it is these two that sway most of our decisions.
Feuerbach argues that the existence of God stems from man’s desire to be like God: unlimited, self-sufficient, always good, immortal. God and humanity have the same rules of life, only that God has no exceptions or limitations, which is what we desire to have, and if we worship him, then we can be like that too-‘the Deity is the destruction of the deficiencies and weaknesses in man which are the very causes of the exceptions’.
In the final part, Pt.4, the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Religion will be concluded.
Feuerbach writes about humanity and its relation to nature, saying that what we are as humans, God is also, just not ‘fallen’ like ourselves. We are rational, therefore God must be, and we separate ourselves from nature, so God must be separate too. He writes that one should be ‘courageous and consistent enough to give up God altogether, and to appeal only to pure, naked, godless nature as to the last basis of your existence’ because God, Feuerbach argues, only exists in our mind.
Another line of argument Feuerbach goes down is the idea of teleology, and the way that the world was designed is magnificent and clearly intellectual. He combats this, saying that due to the fact that humans have an intellect, ‘the unintentional effects of Nature appear to him in the light of his intellect as intentional ones, as ends and purposes.’ Nature is full of accidents, but due to our intellect, we perceive and interpret these accidents as purposeful. Moreover, Feuerbach uses the example of a bird to argue that the flight of birds is not founded on art or intellect. He believes that the view that thinking birds must have been designed and detailed by an intellect with intention is absurd. He says that ‘a bird cannot fly otherwise than it does, nor is it at liberty not to fly; it must fly.’ From this point Feuerbach then writes that it is our intellect that causes theoretical problems, and so what appears to be deeply intellectual and defined is, for nature done without any intellect or any difficulty caused by the intellect.
In Pt.3, further arguments by Feuerbach will be put forth.
Feuerbach was born in Bavaria in 1804 on 20th July. He was a humanistic philosopher, most famous for his book Essence of Christianity, written in 1841. The Essence of Religion, compiled in 1851, is made up of a group of lectures Feuerbach gave throughout his career. The key idea of this work is that rather than man being made in the image of God, as put forward in the book of Genesis, God is made in the image of man. There are a few certain ideas put forward by Feuerbach which I would like to touch upon.
Feuerbach points out that religion makes God an invisible being, rather than a sensual being, so that criticism and proof against the existence of God cannot be shown. It is easy to show that no blood flows through trees, as is Feuerbach’s example, because all one has to do is cut one open, yet God exists in the mind, and Feuerbach says that this is how religion escapes strong contradictions and disappointments.
A second concept that Feuerbach argues for is that God is a realization of human intellect, and its desires. The human being is limited and finite, yet God is infinite and an absolute being, and Feuerbach says that this is because monotheism makes the ‘essence of intellect, will and imagination the most real, absolute, supreme being.’ What man desires yet cannot have, God is. A further discussion of Feuerbach’s thought will continue in the next post.
Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99BC, and died in 55BC. He was a Roman philosopher and poet, who influenced the likes of Virgil and Cicero.
Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is most famous for his work de rerum natura (On the nature of things). In this poetic work, Lucretius defends the Epicurean philosophy, and argues in favour of many topics such as atomism, no life-after-death, why the gods (or God) do not care for us, and the concept of ataraxia (freedom from fear, or serenity). It is on this last point, ataraxia, that I will focus on.
The term ataraxia (ἀταραξία) was defined by Sextus Empiricus as ‘an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.’ For Epicurus, and consequentially Lucretius, this state was a state of happiness. How, then, could one reach such a state? Firstly, the satisfaction of basic desires, such as hunger and thirst must be fulfilled. Lucretius was adamant, though, that one must not overeat or overdrink, since this will lead to addiction and a dissatisfaction. We must, Lucretius maintains, only eat what we need. As Cicero said, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat.’ Two other crucial things that Lucretius says that we should avoid are religion and romantic love. Religion involves fear of the gods, and we may be constantly irritated by the fact that the gods are watching carefully and judging our every move. Moreover, by thinking that the gods can influence our lives, we may spend unnecessary time exerting ourselves in order to gain help from the gods. This just isn’t the case, Lucretius says, and it’s nonsense. Once we realise that the gods do not care for us, we can get on with our lives. Secondly, romantic love should be avoided. This is not all love, just the specific kind of love which again, like religion, may irritate us and bug us constantly. We become attached to someone in such a way that a glance to another person may make us jealous, or we may think that our lover doesn’t really like us so we buy them unnecessary gifts and try to impress them with all kinds of effort. This again prevents us from attaining ataraxia.
Fear of death is perhaps the main reason ataraxia is so hard to attain, but Lucretius is adamant that fear of death is unreasonable and should be avoided. Once we accept death can we be free of the fear that comes from it, and from this can we become calm. Ataraxia is the absence of pain, and though this sounds so simple, it is in fact most difficult to reach, especially in today’s frantic world.
So how, then, in today’s society, could one attain ataraxia?
Perhaps you would have to move, with a group of friends, to the country, like Epicurus himself did, and detach yourself from the worldly life, living virtually off your own back and surrounding yourself with friendship, goodwill, and virtue. But this isn’t really at all possible for the majority. Maybe we will never be able to reach ataraxia in its fullest, if such a thing is even possible, but we may be able to at least have glimpses of it. Late at night, we ponder on the world and our life, and think about how sub specie aeternatis, we are quite insignificant, and that the majority of our troubles of our everyday life are in fact quite comical. We may, at times, find ourselves accepting death, and thinking that even though we will die at one point, we still have time now, which we can use to build the relationships with the people around us, and to seize the day. We may come to believe that the gods (or God) do not care about us, and that we are left to our own devices. We don’t have to despair about this. Rather, we can recognise the immense responsibility that we have, and that we can only rely on ourselves to influence the change we wish to see.
If Epicurus and Lucretius were right, and that ataraxia is indeed happiness, then although we may never be able to fully attain such a state, perhaps due to the way society has developed over the centuries, we may, at least, achieve glimpses of such a state, and, after some time, come to realise that a glimpse is all we really need.
This is the final part of the question ‘is life meaningless?’ We have discussed that God may or may not exist, but it is up to ourselves to make life meaningful. God’s existence is, ultimately, irrelevant. Moreover, we have seen that even if there was life after death, it would not necessarily follow that life therefore has a purpose. Furthermore, if there is not life after death, this should not lead to despair, but should act as a spring-board to throw our lives into action. Not only does a recognition of death provide a greater appreciation of now, since we know it will not last, but it may also spur us on to use the limited time we have on earth to do something worthwhile. Finally, then, I am going to look life in society, the life we live today, and whether the lives we lead are meaningless. This post will mainly focus on consumerism, and the variations of culture.
Perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is ‘are we living?’, and further, ‘are we living in the ‘real’ world?’ Of course, we could spend lifetimes discussing what ‘real’ is, but for the sake of this discussion, we will be talking about the levels of reality of a consumerist society, and moreover how much, if any, of our lives is ‘real’.
Consumerist culture obviously thrives on consumption, and relies on the consumer to maintain their consumption to boost economic gain. However, what does consumerism mean for the individual? In Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club, he writes ‘people working jobs they hate, so they can buy things they don’t really need’. He further writes:’The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue.’ These are both succinct examples of how consumerism affects the individual. Are we spending time doing things we don’t enjoy so that we can consume things we don’t even need? If so, why? Before, people were addicted to pornography, now they are addicted to consumption and possessions. Society has moved from one destructive addiction to another. But why is it, we must ask, that we feel the need, the compulsion, to work for mere things? One answer, perhaps the most reasonable, is that life is meaningless, and that instead of facing this fact, consumerism acts as a painkiller, a sedative, to distract us, and give us a false sense of purpose. Not only this, but consumerist culture ignores the inevitability of death. We buy new, better, and fundamentally unnecessary things because we act as if we will always be able to work for something better, that we can replace our old phone with a new one for eternity, but this just isn’t true. Nobody likes this harsh fact, but it is a fact. No-one wants to be told that soon enough they’ll be dead, and all that will be left is a new phone or whatever. It is a form of slavery, consumerist society, and the paradox is that we’ve enslaved ourselves. We are now slaves to possessions. The most life-threatening drug out there is accessible to all. Not only this, but it is purely this drug which is supported in our education systems. Our society is a drug-induced society. We are urged to chase success, to become ‘successful’, and to achieve greatness. The problem is that success already manages to stay out of reach. We spend our lives chasing a shadow, the shadow of ‘success’, and no matter how much we achieve, we may never feel ‘successful’, since it is in the nature of a consumerist culture to never be satisfied, to always want more, to never cease. Before we do anything else, we must recognise that life does indeed cease. Only when death is recognised can the futility of consumerism be seen.
So we have established that consumerist culture is meaningless, and that in the end it is a pointless affair and a waste of a life. Are there, though, any other ways of living? How can we combat the drug of consumerism? Firstly, death must be accepted, acknowledged, and embraced as an inevitable reality. Life may be ultimately meaningless, but this does not mean that there doesn’t exist any reason not to live or any reason why life is worthwhile. Consumerism is a meaningless reaction to a meaningless existence. Think, when you die, what will you want to be remembered for? What will other people, the people you knew, and perhaps people in the future, say about you? Do people really want to be remembered as the person who owned the nicest car, the newest phone, or the biggest house? It seems that when death is at the door, nobody cares about these kind of things. At the end of the day, it is your choice how you live. It is also your choice whether you live a meaningless life, or not. All I ask is that you question what kind of life yours is.
Is death our final end?
What if death is the end? What if there is no afterlife, we die, and that’s it, we cease to exist? If death is indeed the end, then life is no doubt, objectively speaking, pointless. We live until we die would be the case. Can there even be any true justice if death is the end? No, it seems there cannot be such a thing.
But what if there is life after death? Immanuel Kant thought that due to practical reason, there must be a God, and an afterlife, if there was to be any real justice. If there is life after death, then there surely must be some kind of objective purpose to existence, even though we may not be able to know or perceive such a thing now. Could there be, however, an afterlife, yet life here on earth still remains meaningless? Perhaps, but we cannot know for sure. Nevertheless, it seems that even with an afterlife, many of the trivial things we do every day and take seriously and view as important may not be so. One thing we can almost say for certain is that material possessions will have no value if such an afterlife exists. It appears to be the case that who we are, rather than what we own, will matter. How we treated others, not how ‘successful’ we were, will matter. Sometimes, it seems, we need to remind ourselves that one day we will die, and that little things, like whether we own the latest gadget, do not really matter.
If death is the end, then we must make life on earth, it seems, more just and we must remind ourselves frequently how short our lives really are, so that we can seize the moment and make a difference in the brief period of our lives. The problem with this is that one may take the view that nothing is worth doing or nothing is right or wrong. However, just because there may be no life after this one does not mean this life here and now is not worthwhile. Our lives on earth being worthwhile is not dependent on whether there is life after death. Furthermore, acting virtuously merely for reward after death is not really virtue after all. People are treated as means, rather than ends, and so acting out of fear of punishment, or for reward from God is not a worthy reason to be ‘good’. What is a worthy reason is another question altogether, although I will mention the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre here, which may be likened to Kant’s idea of a Categorical Imperative. Sartre said that when we choose to act upon something and make a decision, we are choosing for humankind also. If we choose to get drunk on a Saturday night, we are effectively saying that we think this is the way everyone should spend their Saturday evenings. Kant taught that we should live ‘as though your every act were to become a universal law.’
It is clear that life would have no intrinsic meaning if this life is the end (although an afterlife may not mean this life was in fact meaningful), but this does not mean that life is not worth living, or that we are unable to create purpose for ourselves. Regardless of the fact that there is an afterlife or not, one should, it seems, act as if deciding for mankind, and to focus one’s life on what really matters. When you die, people will not care about the things you own, they will care about the person you have become, and the difference you have made. With an afterlife or not, surely this must be what matters.