Wednesday, May 11, 2005

questions for you philosophical types

Assume that "ultimates," however we define them, are open, to some degree or other, to rational consideration. Let's further assume that many religious conceptions of "the ultimate" include a heavy dose of ineffability.

What tools in the philosopher's tool kit deal with ineffability? What can be said about the unsayable? Obviously a historian of religions will note that the world's religious scriptures say plenty about the unsayable; my question focuses specifically on Western philosophers in the analytical tradition, who might be keen to avoid the irony of the Tao Te Ching's claim that the Tao can't be spoken of... immediately followed by a disquisition on the Tao*.

Side question: What overlap, if any, is there between "ultimates" and "the ineffable"**? Are ultimates and the ineffable perhaps identical? Can one speak of ultimates (in the religious sense) without also speaking of ineffability?

While we're at it, I've got a bone to pick about the Kantian (I think it's Kantian, but probably not uniquely Kantian) contention that "existence is not a predicate."

The word predicate in this context means quality or attribute. Kant (or whoever it was) was saying that it's wrong to say something like, "A horse has these attributes: four legs, one head, mammalian biology, and the quality of existence." If I understand this correctly, the complaint is that we don't want to be making a claim like "a unicorn has four legs, one head, mammalian biology, and the quality of nonexistence."

But why not? We might agree that unicorns are artifacts of human imagination, but we're on the cusp of being able to create whole herds of them. Could a unicorn be an ideal Form simply waiting to be instantiated?

I think I remember once hearing that the problem with seeing existence as a predicate is that it's silly to create a chart divided into "things that exist" and "things that don't exist," because precisely nothing would be in the second column. Since those things don't exist, they can't be noted.

I disagree. The column "things that don't exist" could be subdivided into "things that could exist, but currently don't," and "things that can never exist." Assuming that physics follows the laws of logic, the only things in the second subcategory would have to be logical impossibilities, of which there would be numberless examples. The things in the first subcategory would also be numberless, but would be plausible. Does existence contain "potential" and "actual" modes? Specifically, can I claim that "unicorns potentially exist" as a sort of weak claim for "unicornic" existence? Are philosophers, especially those who want the cosmos to be carved up into neat little notional squares, freaked out by a fulsome category like "potential existence" because it violates their sense of conceptual neatness?

Bill Clinton arose from a constellation of intercausal factors. Zoom backwards in time, and he was no more than a wriggling spermatozoon in some dude's sweaty ball sac, as well as a waiting egg. Did that spermatozoon and that egg represent, at the time, a "potential president"? Could one have said, in 1910, well before said sperm and said egg existed, that "President Bill Clinton exists in potential"? If so, then could we not also say, "Fire-breathing dragons exist in potential"? As a matter of historical fact, fire-breathing dragons haven't existed and don't exist. But need this always be the case?

Part of what I'm trying to get at-- and it may not be obvious from my approach-- is that I have my doubts about the applicability of philosophical method to core religious concepts. I wonder whether philosophers are in fact equipped to face ultimates, if we assume that "ultimates" contain the ineffable. My suspicion, as you might have gathered from previous posts on this subject, is that philosophers are singularly unable to handle the ineffable. This isn't a dig against philosophy; it's simply a limitation inherent in the field. A philosopher, so moved, could construct a similar argument about the limitations of religion... but "religion" is, in my opinion, a much squishier phenomenon than analytical philosophy, and would survive such an assault largely unscathed.

*Whether this is, in fact, ironic is largely a matter of perspective. A Zennist would say there's nothing ironic about using discourse to point to that which lies in the nondiscursive realm. A meditator who attains enlightenment doesn't stop talking or thinking. One doesn't leave/transcend the world of form and pass into the world of emptiness: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Nirvana is samsara.

**"The ineffable" is grammatically singular, but the word's referent is by definition beyond dualistic reckoning. Neither singular nor plural notions/concepts/etc. can comprehend the ineffable. Or can they?


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