Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Universe, Existence, and the Ineffable

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

The universe is the sum total of all existence. If something exists then it is, by definition, a part of the universe. Consequently everything that does not exist is not a part of the universe, and everything that is not a part of the universe does not exist.

God is said to be the creator of the universe. Creators always precede their creations. God, therefore, was not in the universe by virtue of having created it. Consequently, God did not exist.

Further, although Christians may point to the person Jesus Christ as a example of God being in the universe, it is generally held among theists that God transcends the universe. If God transcends the universe, then God does not exist.

Presumably, if you believe in God, you suppose that I've tried to play a trick on you through my use of definitions. I remember a similar argument being presented to me back in my theist days, and I rejected it because I saw no reason to accept the given definition of “exist.” What, then, does the word “exist” mean? To exist is to be. I am means I exist. X is means X exists.

Language developed so that we can express thoughts. We wanted to express what was in our heads (or perhaps you say that what is in our heads is already in its own kind of language, it does not matter for this particular matter). What, though, was in our heads to express? We were surrounded by natural phenomena. We were surrounded by the universe. Our brains were reflecting, sometimes darkly, the natural world around us. When we said that something existed, we meant that we could encounter it in the world. Later on, with the rise of theology and the idea of God's transcendence, we began using the word “exist” to mean that it is but that it is not in the world.

This, I say, was an error on our part, a confusion of language. What the word was meant to express was simply being a part of the universe. By expanding the definition to include things outside of the universe, we made the word incomprehensible. What is communicated when we say that God exists? We mean to say that He is, however, we do not say that he is to be found in the world. He does not exist in the same sense that, say, rocks or people exist. When we say a rock exists, we mean to say that it can be found in the world. We might imagine that when we say “God exists” we are speaking as in an analogy, maybe we mean that God exists in His world as a rock exists in our world. That, though, presupposes that God's world is like our world, with space and time, and who really presupposes that when confronted with the idea laid out plainly?

Earlier I wrote, “We mean to say that He is, however, we do not say that he is to be found in the world.” The word “is” is just another word that means “exists,” though. By trying to say that “God exists, but is not in the world” we have made a confusion of language. Existence reduces to the state of in-the-world-ness. It would be like saying ice is cold, but does not have a low temperature.

You still suppose, I imagine, that I'm just playing semantic games. Let me then ask, what does it mean to not exist? When we say, for example, that leprechauns do not exist, we are saying that you can search the whole world and not find a single leprechaun. All leprechauns are things that are not in the world. This is not all, though. There is an unspoken connotation with this sentence. That connotation is what I want to draw out.

Let us suppose a theist says, like I have said, that the universe is the totality of existence and that God precedes it and therefore is not a part of existence. The theist has essentially said that God does not exist. Now let us suppose than an atheist says that same series of words. He too says that God does not exist. There is a difference here, though. And it is this difference that has me writing at 2:13 in the morning.

The theist, in my example, presumably does not say that God precedes existence ironically. The atheist only says that God precedes existence in an ironic way; he does not think that God precedes existence, he only says it to take what the theist believes to advance his argument. The theist sincerely believes it, though, he does not take God's nonexistence to harm his faith.

I would like to pause for a moment to clear up a possible misconception. My hypothetical theist here is not one of those who wishes to rescue Christianity from belief or something like that. He really places his faith in God. He simply agrees that existence refers to the universe and that God cannot, therefore, exist. One possible objection to my hypothetical theist is that all theists, by definition, believe that God exists. In that case, I am using the term “theist” in a technical sense to refer to people who place their faith in God rather than people who believe that God would fall in the existence circle of a Venn diagram.

Now, with my hypothetical theist and atheist saying the same words, I say that there is a difference in their meanings, a difference which makes all the difference in the world. The atheist, in saying that God does not exist, says that God is lower than existence. God is beneath the universe. The totality of the universe's facts transcend God the way they transcend unicorns or vampires. The theist, on the other hand, is saying that God transcends the universe. God is not a part of the universe because God sits higher.

This can be a confusing matter. Let me make it clear that the difference in these two meanings is not a value judgment. I do not mean that the atheist reviles God and the theist worships God. That is not what I mean by higher and lower. What I mean is that when people say that Superman does not exist, they mean that you cannot find him in reality, reality is too real for Superman, Superman has a kind of inferiority. On the other hand, when a theist says that God transcends the universe, they mean that the universe is in some way inferior. When the theist and the atheist argue about God's existence, what they are really arguing is whether God is superior or inferior to existence. Or, more properly, they are arguing whether the universe is superior or inferior to God.

It has been said that the term “supernatural” is an oxymoron. Nature encompasses everything, so to go beyond that is impossible. Nature is also a word used to refer to our universe and all of its natural workings. This second definition is what is meant in the word “supernatural.” Of course, many would say that the second definition is also in use in the phrase “nature encompasses everything,” but that's not the point of this yet. If we have a concept of the supernatural, I think that we also have an often unmentioned concept of the subnatural, which is where we would place married bachelors, wolpertingers, and the Lorax.

The crisis of those of us who live in the universe (in other words, all of us), is that we cannot really comment on the supernatural or the subnatural in any meaningful way. All we can say is that something is non-natural, or, not part of the universe. Whether that means that it transcends our reality or is transcended by our reality cannot be determined by us. God and the minotaur are both outside of the universe, that is all we know. We cannot even know that our universe is transcended by anything, it may be that our universe is on top and anything not found within it is properly subnatural.

I call all of that outside of our universe the Ineffable. I started this with that last statement in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” All we can talk about is our universe, our world. That is what our minds evolved in, that is the origin of the thoughts we want to express in words. God is not in the universe, so whether sub- or supernatural (which is actually a statement about the universe), He is ineffable.

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