A limit question

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And that 'limit' question is: 'Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?' It is, Thomas thinks, a question the rational mind opens up to naturally, yielding to the pressure of its own native energies as reason, which is to wonder about causes.5 This is the question with which 'reason' reaches its limits, for it is a question the answer to which must in the nature of things defeat our powers of comprehension, so that in its encounter with the necessity of asking that question, 'reason' achieves its apotheosis as 'intellect'. But now we must in turn interrogate the question itself, since in our times it is much doubted that it is a genuine question at all. For at the prospect of a question whose answer must be incomprehensible to us the mind might boggle, and we are constrained to ask: how unintelligible can a question be allowed to get? At any rate, degree and kind of 'unanswerability' would seem to be one test of intelligibility. As Wittgenstein says, 'doubt can exist only where there is a question: and a question only where there is an answer';6 and how could an answer beyond our power of understanding be an answer? Moreover, in general it is thought - and in general it is true - that questions also, and not just answers, should be tested for sense, for, as Richard Dawkins rightly says, 'the mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate or sensible to do so',7 and being unanswerable might seem to

5 Aquinas, In I Metaphysicorum, lect. 3, 55.

6 Wittgenstein, quoted in Derek Parfit, 'Why anything, why this?', in London Review of Books 22.2, 22 January 1998, p. 24.

7 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, London: Phoenix, 2001, p. 113.

be as clear-cut a way as any of a question's failing the test of legitimacy, however generously that test may be conceived. Smart, however, also an atheist, disagrees: 'I do think that there is something ultimately mysterious', he says, 'in the fact that the universe exists at all, and that there is something wrong with us if we do not feel this mystery',8 even though, as he adds, it is a question 'which has no possibility of an answer'.9 Hence, even if the question must be interrogated for sense, so must the test of unanswerability itself be interrogated, for it is neither self-evident a priori what kind of 'unanswerability' rules out a question's bearing sense and what does not, or that, on the contrary, every question you can seem to answer one way or the other does make sense.

On the one hand, then, just because you can answer a question it does not follow that the question is well asked, for crooked questions will yield deceiving answers. Fergus Kerr appropriately notes how the question 'Can a machine think?' may have all the appearance of innocence, but is in fact question-begging. The question makes sense only on the supposition that it is possible to conceive of an activity called 'thinking' independently of what body that activity occurs in, and that is already to suppose a challengeably 'Cartesian' and 'dualist' conception of 'thinking'.10 The question could make no sense to Aristotle, for whom it is inconceivable that what humans do by way of thinking could be done otherwise than by animals with a certain kind of body, so that for him to answer 'yes' or 'no' would be equally misconceived,11 just as to be forced to answer either way the counsel's question 'Have you stopped beating your wife yet?' is manifestly unfair. The question 'Can a machine think?' itself needs to be challenged rather than answered.

On the other hand, if it is to be said that the question 'Why anything?' is 'unanswerable' except in terms which defeat our powers of comprehension, we need to clarify in what way this is so. After all, an atheist who has persevered through all the preceding argument of this essay, and has so far been persuaded by the 'apophatic' emphases of that argument to

8 Smart and Haldane, Atheism and Theism, p. 36. 9 Ibid., p. 35.

10 Fergus Kerr OP, Theology after Wittgenstein, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, pp. 185-6.

11 My guess is that an 'Aristotelian' answer to this 'Cartesian' question would in fact be: 'In a sense, yes; that is, in so far as, and to the extent that, a machine is a true replica of a human body, we can speak intelligibly of a machine replicating some aspects of "thinking"; and in a sense, no, because a machine is only ever a replica of a human body, so the machine's thinking is a more or less passable imitation of "thinking".' But you can get a sensible answer to the Cartesian question only by starting from a notion of 'thinking' which is intrinsically tied in with its relation to real human bodies, not by starting from a notion of thinking severed from any relation with either a human body or a machine. For on that account it is as sensible to ask, 'Can a human person compute?' as it is to ask, 'Can a machine think?' And that is plainly silly.

abandon a merely 'parasitical' anti-fundamentalism, may well be experiencing some degree of exasperation at what he will perceive to be the theist's evasiveness as to what it is that he is now expected to deny. In that exasperation he may very well be tempted to protest: 'It is all very well your embarking upon a project of re-educating me in what I am supposed to deny, but if you, the theist, won't affirm anything comprehensible at all, and you appear to resist doing so, then why do I, the atheist, need to do any denying in the first place, since you theologians have already done all the denying there is to be done? Does not your so-called "negative theology" amount to little more than a strategy of evasion which kills God off by a death of a thousand qualifications? You say that your question "How is it that anything exists?" yields the answer "God"; and you then say, "God exists", but only to add: "in no knowable sense of existence"; is "one", but you qualify: "not as countable in a series"; is "good", but not, you say, "on any scale", not even on the top of one. Might not your negative theologian just as well be an atheist as affirm so incomprehensible a God? Only give me something affirmed and I shall at last have something to deny. All you are doing is endlessly postponing God; so all I have to do is tag along while you get on with the denials I thought it was my job to deal in and wait until you actually affirm something, which, by the sound of your pseudo-Denys and Thomas and Eckhart, you are never going to get round to doing. What sense can there be to the question when on your own account there is so little sense or content to the answer?'

It has to be admitted that the objection has some force. The theist cannot be allowed to retreat to a position of theological post-modernism, a position of endless deferral, according to which there is only postponement, only penultimacy, an endlessly contingent 'otherness', no rest in any ultimate signifier which could stabilise the whole business of signification upon a foundational rock of fixed and determinate reference. But even if the theists resist so self-destructively defensive a ploy, are they not then forced back, as once before, on to the Derridean dilemma which we encountered in chapters 8 and 9: might not they now be differently accused - precisely because they do not want to go so far down the postmodern road of an intellectual nihilism - of a form of intellectual cheating, of attempting to eat their cakes and have them, as if, on the one hand, to say with Eckhartian negativity that God is a 'being transcending being and a transcending nothingness', and on the other still to insist, with unblushing affirmativeness, that there is one such? It is all very well, it might be said, to dramatise rhetorically high-sounding metaphors of 'abysses' and 'nothings' and 'being beyond being', but must not the theist insist upon a residual affirmation, slyly inserted and left lurking there, unex-cised by all this negativity? Is there not an irreducible anomaly in saying that 'there is something outside language'? For either the 'there is' is itself inside language and we can make sense of it but with the consequence that the 'something' must be inside language too, and so not God; or else the 'there is' is outside language, and ex hypothesi we can make no more sense of it than we can of the 'something'. The theist has got to have it one way or the other. But one way is the way of 'onto-theology'; the other leaves us with no language of existence in theological use. In short, either way the Nietzschean dilemma will eventually catch up with the negative theologian - if you want God, you have got to have grammar; or if not Nietzsche's, then Derrida's - you cannot both fully deconstruct grammar, that is, deny any ultimate signifier, and keep God. But this negative theology appears to be constrained both to say that 'God exists' is an ultimately undeconstructible existential affirmation, and to deconstruct, deny of possibility, any ultimate true existential statement, lest the divine existence should be left vulnerable to an idolatrous reduction to an onto-theological 'thinghood'.

As an atheist response to the theist, this line of attack, though promising, is not yet quite fair. There is something which the theist affirms-asking the question 'Why anything?' just is its affirmation - but it is something affirmed about the world, namely that the world is created. That, as we have observed Thomas to think, is our starting point for talking about God, and so long as we remain resolutely anchored in the implication of that starting point - that in speaking thus about the world the theist is always speaking of the ultimately ungraspable, that we do not know what God is - the theist can feel justified in all manner of talk about God, and can safely and consistently allow that everything true of creation, everything about being human, is in some sort grounds for a truth about God. For in saying that what the theist affirms is something 'about the world' we are not denying that the theist is talking about God: saying that the world is created is, on the contrary, how to talk about God. The negative theologian still has plenty to say about God, more than enough for the atheists to get their denying teeth into.12 Negative theology does not mean that we are short of things to say about God; it means just that everything we say of God falls short of him.

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