Friday, February 08, 2008

Reasonable atheism (6): what is acceptable to the humourless atheist?

"People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them - that does not occur to them." (Wittgenstein, 1939)

I want to explore the comment I ended my last post on the topic with, that atheism of the humourless variety not only is aspect blind to something crucial, but that, in a very real and concrete sense, the salvation of our society rests upon our being able to shift away, as a culture, from the tenets of humourless atheism. Clearly this requires some further explanation.

Let's begin by taking an example of atheist criticism of religious language, Stephen Law's criticisms (eg here). Stephen finds the resort to mystical language 'cobblers' and comments: "The appeal to mystery and the mystical has of course been a bog-standard technique of cultists and other purveyors of snake oil down through the centuries whenever they are accused of talking cobblers." I want to ask: what would count as not being 'cobblers'? In other words, what sort of language meets the standard that is being applied? I take Stephen to be a representative of the Humean tradition (if I'm wrong I'll amend this post!) so as a guess I would have thought that at least two forms of language would meet Stephen's criteria for not being cobblers: language of mathematical and symbolic logic, and language that was supported by empirical science. Do other forms of language have anything other than emotionally-expressive value (that is, it makes us feel good but has no other cognitive weight)?

If we take poetry for example, it may well be that poetic language and verse has a useful function to play within a human society, as something which gives pleasure to people, but which is of no wider interest to those concerned with 'truth'. Poetry can function in the way that football functions - it is entertainment, and might end up being economically significant, but as a discipline with the capacity to teach us truths about human nature and our place in the world it is without merit, and must give way to more scientific investigation.

My problem with this Humean perspective, however, is that it is impossible to teach wisdom with language that is acceptable. In other words, it is impossible to teach wisdom with language that is only a) logical, b) empirical or (at a stretch for the Humean) c) emotionally expressive. In order to teach wisdom - and for our civilisation to survive this crisis - we need something more.

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