Thursday, September 2, 2010

No God only religion

Sean Kelly raises an interesting question at All Things Shining: what is religion?

Discussing a character from a David Foster Wallace story he writes
The center of religious feeling for this character is a kind of magic – the ability to believe that things one cannot verify empirically nevertheless are the case. But somehow this seems to miss the phenomenon that’s interesting. At least it misses the phenomenon that Homer describes, and that I see as in some sense or another running through various later expressions of the sacred.

As I see it, the center of Homer’s phenomenon is a kind of wonder, and occasionally gratitude, that things are as they are. When a Homeric character is overwhelmed with this kind of wonder, and immediately feels gratitude for the events at hand, then Homer describes the situation in terms of the presence of a god. This phenomenon seems to me to have literally nothing to do with the magic of believing that there’s a leprechaun behind the rock even though every time you look he’s not there. And the question whether we should feel grateful when good things happen or whether we should feel indifferent – because we know it is simply a matter of luck – seems to me more of a question about what sense of ourselves we aspire to than a question about whether all truths are empirically verifiable or not.
This seems true (as far as it can seem true to someone who doesn't remember reading the story), although I think we need a new word instead of 'wonder.' I think my feeling that I must eat the apples from my apple tree was religious. I've also had experiences that I can't describe except as religious, and these weren't feelings of wonder or gratitude--the feeling was jointly that everything was all right and that God was present or everything was one (I think these expressions do equally well at expressing the feeling, but it's been a while since I had the feeling). This is close enough to what others report that I think it's a pretty common kind of feeling, and I hope you know what I mean. I assume it's the kind of thing that Wittgenstein had in mind in the Lecture on Ethics.

It's a strange kind of feeling anyway. According to some very amateurish research I did once in high school, it can be induced by such methods as sensory deprivation and suspension from straps. So having it proves nothing at all. But it's hard not to be affected at all by this kind of thing, simply to dismiss it as a curious hallucination. And then the task is to find a way to respect it without giving in to sentimental metaphysics.

Anyone who ever had a heart...


  1. I think 'wonder' works well for some such experiences. Indeed, I have always identified with LW's desciption of wondering at the existence of the world (though I would not have thought to put it that way). What you describe about the apples seems to be a sense of obligation that lacks an obvious referent (especially if one is not a theist), unless perhaps you think your obligation was to the tree. But I get that that seems too simple somehow to capture such a feeling's (?) gravity. Sometimes I wonder whether the only way to avoid sentimentality here is to acknowledge these moments and then let them pass in silence. (And yet, I'm trying to write about something related to this, which is, at moments, maddening.)

  2. I agree that 'wonder' would be the right word. I just think it is over-used. Perhaps I've just used it in my own thinking too often.

    The thing with the apples is pretty trivial and, yes, it's a sense of obligation. But it's mysterious (to me) because there is no obvious being that I feel obliged to, as you say. It isn't the tree, or nature, or God. Perhaps it's to the apples themselves, but that doesn't sound right. What interests me about it is the (seemingly quite irrational) feeling of obligation. It seems to me both mystical and very ordinary. There is a danger of sentimentality and of losing this sense of ordinariness if you talk about it too much, but I'm still curious about it. Perhaps what's needed is lots of different examples. Or silence. Or more carefully chosen words.

  3. one thing i find interesting about stoicism is the concept of kathekonta and the inaptness of things like 'duty' or 'obligation' as translations for it. it seems that we're hard-pressed to talk about any sense of rightness of action or rightness of inaction (rightness of being or be-ing in certain ways, for example) since the prevailing understandings of right are tied to duties which principles and laws oblige us to meet (and thus which it makes most sense to bring to bear on some situations rather than others).

    of course, it doesn't help to just lift the stoic concept out of its context, especially if you're so wittgensteinian that the idea of bringing one's actions into accordance with the governing logos of the universe sounds like something out of a myth.

    i haven't yet found 'wonder' terribly useful as part of, say, my metaphilosophical repertoire, because it seems to have been debased by constant use by so many other philosophers anxious to line themselves up with aristotle. dummett uses it in his recent book as a way to condescend to gadamer for lacking a genuine sense of wonder, apparently for not having been sufficiently exercised by the thought that mere sounds can nevertheless be meaningful that he redirected his entire research program along post-fregean lines rather than the ones he did.

  4. Yes, obligation and duty are unappealing concepts, but hard to avoid. The history of these concepts is obscure to me--Anscombe has some sort of theory about it (involving the badness of the Protestant Reformation), but her history is questionable, and it isn't something she devotes a lot of time or space to. So I'm not convinced she's right, but there isn't a competing story I know of that convinces me either. I think the best way to go is probably to focus on, or start with, the experience in question (the feeling of duty, or whatever it might be), and go from there, using whatever words you have to use. These would then determine your 'metaphysics', but it wouldn't really be metaphysics, since it wouldn't be a theory at all, having no more secure or smooth a foundation than experience and what I think of as poetry, i.e. the language one calls on to express experience, or the language experience calls for. This is an approach I associate with Charles Taylor, but I think it's Wittgensteinian too. And, of course, starting with experience or phenomena is not an idea confined to them.

  5. That last comment of mine might seem very obscure. What's metaphysics got to do with it? What I had in mind is this: Anscombe thinks that talk about moral obligation implies the existence of some kind of moral law, and that a moral law implies a moral law-giver, judge, etc. The law might come from various sources (nature, society, etc.), but the only appealing source would be something like God, or perhaps the Stoic logos. So this is how you might get from a feeling of obligation to something that might look like a metaphysical commitment in the form of belief in God.