See part 1
There is something that is common to all descriptions, something that is a potential stumbling block for many truth-seekers. The commonality is rooted in language, the implications of which have been a subject of philosophy, linguistics, and other fields. Neither an extensive nor exhaustive account of language’s role here is necessary. Rather, a specific relationship between the world and language is relevant; the relative exactitude of some description’s language to the referent itself; how precisely does the description convey what the universe is like?
Specifically, the key factor is that of comparison, analogy, language games, and metaphors. In this essay, I will use metaphor for a short-hand for all of these uses of language, as well as other related ideas that convey an inexact but useful description of our experiences with the world. A metaphor is a comparison of two things by use of description of one object which is intended to describe, analogously, something else. This concept encapsulates the central relationship I want to illuminate here between this tension between description and our quest for understanding. While ‘analogy’ or ‘language game’ might be more apt terms in some cases, I believe the use of one consistent term would serve the purpose not having to distinguish between these differing concepts and stray from my central thesis.
God is a metaphor
That having been said, it may peak the curiosity of my reader the nature of this thesis. Surely, it must have something to do with metaphors, and surely, something of a theological nature is at hand. More specifically, it must have something to do with this thing called ‘god,’ a concept that has presented many a thinker with a range of ideas, feelings, and conclusions. An apt question would be what we mean by such a ubiquitous term; in a world in which religion stakes a large claim of influence and divine presences are considered common, surely we must know what this ‘god’ concept refers to, right?
Quite frankly no, we don’t know what the term ‘god’ is supposed to mean. Theologians talk of the supernatural as being beyond nature or simply as unknowable. Negative theology can define what god is not, but in terms of what the supernatural might be, we cannot say. Anything we could say would be based upon experience with the natural, and thus could not hope to describe the supernatural. As a result, our descriptions of gods and other supernatural beings are nothing but metaphors to invoke a concept. But this concept is natural in origin, and thus cannot be a true description of something that is not natural.
Further, if ‘god’ were supposed to describe something natural, then the question is what it is supposed to represent is open. One could talk about the actions of god, the creative acts of god, etc. But all in all, this use of the term is, at best, a metaphor for natural processes or poorly misunderstood events ascribed to the unknown, where the metaphor of god is placed to fill a gap. The metaphor of god is placed as a quick fix to cover over the whole of mystery. That which we do not know is placed in the lap of a metaphor we call god by theists, rather than remaining a beautiful mystery. This epistemological, emotional, and cognitive band-aid is empty linguistic filler for the unknown spaces in our understanding. Further, saying that god is the beautiful mystery is committing the same fallacy of placing a metaphor over what is essentially a gap in our understanding. If we do not understand something, then filling it with “god” is meaningless.
As an atheist, I understand that I don’t understand; I know that I know nothing, as Socrates is reported to have said. As an intellectually honest person, I must admit that that which I do not know, I must not place a meaningless term like ‘god,’ but rather admit that our understanding is finite. And when we do understand, it’s usually metaphorical in nature.
What is interesting is that many theists seem to understand this too. It has been a tradition of much of Western theology to recognize the profound gulf between our understanding of the world and god’s understanding, or between our being and god’s being. Here, for example, is St. Augustine;
What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if thou hast been able to understand what thou wouldest say, it is not God. If thou hast been able to comprehend it, thou hast comprehended something else instead of God. If thou hast been able to comprehend him as thou thinkest, by so thinking thou hast deceived thyself. This then is not God, if thou hast comprehended it; but if this be God, thou has not comprehended it.
Here, it seems as if the theological tradition that comes to us through Augustine demonstrates understanding that we don’t know, but yet persists in the belief nonetheless. This is the infamous faith, in which one believes despite this ignorance, this gap, this uncertainty. It is as if, somehow, this feeling of awe, mystery, and humility somehow translates into a kind of existential significance. It is as if the great lack comprehension which we try to simulate in thought cannot be conceived of, so the brain fills it with a pattern of firing neurons that creates, accidentally perhaps, a sensation of a kind of being or meaning that provides something of great value to them.
Surely, this feeling or concept that many attain through this ignorance is very common among humans. It seems that it has deep roots in human psychology, and is often very persistent. But it’s neither universal nor necessary, as many people have never experienced it, at least not as a “god.” Sure, the non-religious experience awe, mystery, and adoration of the world. But there is something that distinguishes between an atheist and theist and their experience of this set of emotions and thoughts.
Tomorrow: part three (Atheist v. Theist, part ∞)