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.
‘Yes, much bitter dying must there be in your lives, you creators!’ Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
Creation is one of the unique things about human existence-without creation existence becomes difficult and tiresome, perhaps even completely pointless. Marxist theory suggests that a life devoid of creation is the reason why people turn to religion. Many jobs involve little or no creation, and Marx believed that this lack of creation leads people to religion as a form of consolation, an idea developed later by Freud. Nietzsche said ‘Creating-that is the great redemption from suffering’. Creation is painful in itself, but through this painful creation there is a salvation from suffering. Nietzsche combats the way which people turn to religion for salvation, and entreats that we should rather create in order to save ourselves. Why, though, must creation involve ‘bitter dying’? Because that which precedes creation is self-destruction. Sacrifice must be had if we want to create. Pain and death, then, can give rise to a redemptive and greater form of life.
This is a question which has been asked for centuries, but is there any definitive answer even now? The most common debate is that of relativism and absolutism, whether there are things which are universally right and wrong at all times for all peoples, making morality objective, or whether everything is relative, either culturally or individually, and therefore subjective.
Morality presupposes freedom. If we are not free, then there is no actual morality, just an idea of what it should be like. There is no doubt that societies cannot function without this idea of freedom, otherwise the judicial system would collapse, since nobody could be blamed for anything, since no actions are made freely. However, just because societies would not be orderly without the concept of freedom and objective morality, this does not necessarily mean that freedom and objective morality are actualities. Free will may just be an illusion, and merely provides a basis for responsibility and a system of justice, as well as our brains tricking ourselves into thinking that we are making choices when really we aren’t.
Again, the objectivity of morality seems somewhat absurd. How does one know what is actually right and actually wrong? The general claim is that morality comes from God, thereby making it objective, but what kind of morality is it that comes from God and how do we find this out? There are so many different interpretations of scripture, and religions differ and oppose each other constantly in moral beliefs, all claiming that their own morality is the divine one. It seems to me impossible to reach past our subjective nature to any objective truth about morality. Even if there was a right answer as to what to do, how would we attain this answer without the trouble of subjective interpretation arising?
Morality keeps society orderly and maintains a system or justice, but this system of justice seems based on a set of subjective principles which are then proposed as objective from a standpoint of power. A moral statement seems to be a preference or opinion put forward as a fact. Yet this solves nothing, and the question of what is right and what is wrong may go forever.
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.
It might seem easier or less trouble or more polite to approach ideas, opinions, and belief systems with sensitivity. It may even seem right to do so. Yet logic is not discrete or caring. Logic is logic. Today’s society is obsessed with accepting other people’s opinions and letting them be. But simply letting people be will get us nowhere resulting in no kind of progression or evolution. Questioning and deliberating is necessary for progress to be made. Questioning is what gets us somewhere, rather than nowhere. Of course, some people ask questions, and some don’t, and some societies work like that, but if no questions were asked at all, then we wouldn’t get anywhere. That is what society today is partaking in-the withdrawal of questioning, the withdrawal of rigorous skepticism.
It is thought that approaching an idea mercilessly and wholly rationally is dangerous, but it is in fact the other way round. If we fail to attack an idea, we will fail to discover what the idea holds and the potential of it, which could lead to a damaging idea growing and developing. It is not dangerous to attack an idea, but it is dangerous both to leave an idea to grow without doubting it, and also to refuse an idea even in the face of proof (whatever that is).
Many of us are asleep. This isn’t stating the obvious, this is stating that even when ‘awake’, many of us are still asleep, not really aware of where we are or what we are doing. We are the products of millions of years of evolution. Millions of years of toil and suffering has produced you and me. Not only that, but our lifespan is completely negligible compared to the time spent evolving before our existence began. If you’re not careful, life will pass you by without you realising, you’ll have wasted years of time, filled with regret, and you’ll be old, near to death. The cessation of life is a reality we all have to face, and it is perhaps the most important of all realities, and perhaps the only one. Yet in spite of all this, we remain where we are, asleep and half-conscious, dazing through life like a zombie-doing, but not really living. Nietzsche had this idea, that life is usually rejected, and rather than striving for greatness, we settle with mediocrity. His idea was to create an Ubermensch, an overman. This target is a target of greatness and of evolution-to make something better of ourselves, parting from ‘herd instinct morality’, and simultaneously becoming life-affirming, in essence-waking up. And once we do wake up, asleep will never appeal again. We just have to fight ourselves if waking up is what we really want.
Everybody says they want to be free. In the west, freedom is a value which is viciously fought for and supported, yet the freedom we talk of so highly is, in practice, not so sought after as it may at first seem. All around us are things which tells us what to think in the form of advertising, telling us that this is what makes you happy, this is what makes you feel free. The feeds of social media are also places of a certain slavery, in which we are told what to think, who to follow and how to think. The television, our phones, our shopping centres, all of these are places proclaiming and heralding false freedom. These are mediums which tell us-‘look here, if you do this, buy this, watch this, you’ll be free and you’ll be happy’. We consequently believe them and gradually we become hooked on these actions, and what we once thought would make us free now holds us down as a slave caught in an addiction. We say we want freedom, but the way we act suggests we desire quite the opposite. Another form of this rejection of freedom seems to be religion, an organization which likewise says that following the religion will lead to some form of happiness and freedom, be it redemption, salvation or satisfaction. The problem with both of these is that they are things outside of ourselves-they are external to us. We make the fundamental mistake of thinking that freedom will come from something out in the world, when in fact genuine freedom comes from the internal-within yourself. It may come in the form of detachment or the recognition of what is in your control and what is not or the way in which you prepare for and deal with loss and suffering, because once we find a fool proof way of dealing with suffering, then true satisfaction can come, and the only way that works effectively at all is in your own mind. I can’t just tell you this. The only way is to discover this for yourself. And why is it that we fear freedom so much? Because of the responsibility it brings, the unknowns it will show, and the fear of becoming lost. Yet, if we prepare ourselves, we can find freedom, within ourselves, and from there recognise that we will not become lost but we will rather find something worthwhile and good.
An argument greatly in favour of religion is the one which claims that it enables us to be moral, and that without it we would become immoral human beings. People claim that morality comes from God. Everybody recognises today that the Bible is not a moral book-it is literature, rather than a guide on how to live. A common phrase is that without God or religion, how could we be good? How could we even know what was good? Religion has made a fundamental mistake here. It claims morality came from elsewhere and was put into our minds by God. But in fact it is the opposite-morality came from our minds and was then put into religion. What a religion dictates to be right and wrong is not divine revelation or Biblical quotation (although, sadly, some of it is), but is based on what appears to be reasonable. It is thus right reason which dictates to us what is truly right and wrong, rather than God or any so-called religious authority. There is one basic law of morality, and that is to treat others as you would wish to be treated. This comes in different versions, from the Buddha to Jesus to Kant, and it is a law formed by reason. Kant said that two things awed him most: the starry sky above him and the moral law within him. Moreover, he said that great minds think for themselves. This isn’t true because Kant said so, however. It is true because it is reasonable, based on right reason and natural law. The answer about what is right and wrong is not out there, in the external in the forms of dogma or the Bible or religion, rather it is inside us, but only when we allow our right reason to govern our minds through the course of the natural law.
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived in the third century B.C., and was a massive influence on the Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius. Epicurus was an atomist, who believed everything, including the mind, was corporeal. One of the greatest questions Epicurus asked was ‘how do we live a good life?’ For Epicurus, living a good life also meant becoming happy, yet what was it that Epicurus believed consisted in the good life?
One of the crucial acts in the art of happiness is, according to Epicurean philosophy, the renunciation of the gods and no fear of death. It is fear of death and fear of the gods that keeps us from becoming happy. Epicurus wrote that because death is without sensation, it is nothing to him, simply because it is without sensation and so cannot truly mean anything to him-the fear of death is irrational.
Pleasure is the absence of pain. The limits of pleasure go as far as pain can be removed, both mental and bodily and so this is a negative view of pleasure. Moreover, Epicurus believed that bodily pain is not continuous, and bodily pain is not usually greater than bodily pleasure, and if it is, it is uncommon and does not generally last for more than a few days. No pleasure is bad in itself, yet pleasure may at times cause disturbances much worse than the pleasure itself, so we must be careful.
To live pleasantly, we must be sensible, noble and just. Likewise, to be sensible, noble and just we must be living pleasantly-they are dependent on each other.
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