Can Anything be Beyond Human Understanding?

Part of the Claremont Studies in the Philosophy of Religion book series (CSPR)


The answer to the question of my title, if anything could reasonably count as an answer, depends in large part on how we take ‘can’ and ‘beyond understanding’. I will come to this. But my discussion also takes place against the background of D.Z. Phillips’s remarks about ‘the vicissitudes of human life being beyond human understanding’ and about the ‘limits of human existence’. All, in turn, take place against the background of thinking about religions in a non-rationalistic Wittgensteinian manner. I will argue that there are senses in which Phillips is right in his claim that there are vicissitudes in human life which are beyond human understanding, but that these senses are of little philosophical interest. In the senses that might deliver philosophical gold, the claim is at best false.


Human Life Human Existence Reflective Equilibrium Mystical Experience Human Understanding 
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  1. 1.
    The original article, ‘Wittgensteinian Fideism’, Philosophy XLII, no. 161 (July 1967), 191–209, appears in a somewhat expanded form and with a follow-up chapter, in my An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1982), 65–133, along with my direct discussion of Wittgenstein on religion, 43–64. I pursue the twistings and turnings of Wittgensteinian fideism in my God, Scepticism and Modernity (Ottawa, Ontario: University of Ottawa Press, 1989), chapters 5–11, in my Scepticism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), 23–40, in my Contemporary Critiques of Religion (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 94–112, and in my Philosophy and Atheism (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press, 1985), 77–106, 211–27. See, as well, Michael Martin, ‘Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief,’ Heythrop Journal XXXII (1991), 369–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  20. 15.
    This claim about the incoherence of the concept of God in the developed forms of Judaeo-Christianity and Islam is articulated in the works of mine cited in note 1. David Ray Griffin, in a clearly formulated and fairminded review of my God, Scepticism and Modernity, has succinctly stated the core of my account, setting it out usefully in the form of seven propositions. He then argues that both my argument against theism and for atheism are incomplete. I argue that non-anthropomorphic concepts of God are incoherent (E), anthropomorphic concepts of God may be coherent, but they are superstitious and plainly involve false beliefs (F) and that concepts of God that are neither incoherent nor anthropomorphic are essentially atheistic (G). My case against theism is not exhaustive, Griffin has it, because the concepts of God referred to in the above theses (E, F and G) would have to be exhaustive but they are not. The non-anthropomorphic conceptions of God of traditional theism are, Griffin seems at least to agree, incoherent, but I fail to consider subtler forms of anthropomorphism in non-traditional theisms such as Tennant’s or Whitehead’s, which also reject the conceptions of God of traditional theism as incoherent without falling into a crude anthropomorphism or into atheism. Hence my case against theism is incomplete. I agree that it is not complete and that a complete case would have to consider such accounts and no doubt others as well. My suspicions here are (for now, they are no more than that) that if I did consider them I would find that (a) the God of such philosophers was at a very considerable distance from the God of Judaeo-Christianity and Islam, (b) that where their views are coherent they will reveal (as Spinoza’s conception of God does) an atheistic substance, and (c) that their distinctively metaphysical strands are, as all such speculative philosophy, at least as incoherent as traditional non-anthropomorphic theism. It is just such metaphysical thinking that we need, à la Rorty (a former Whiteheadean), to get rid of. Arthur Murphy’s ‘Whitehead and the Method of Speculative Philosophy’ is insightful here. See his essay by the same title in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Tudor, 1941), 351–80 and set it, as well, alongside his ‘Moore’s “Defense of Common Sense”’ in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of G.E. Moore (New York: Tudor, 1942), 299–317 and his ‘Can Speculative Philosophy be Defended?’ Philosophical Review LII (1943), 135–43. My case for atheism is also incomplete, Griffin contends, for I do not argue but simply assert that non-theistic accounts of the world are adequate. But that is not true for I do argue for their adequacy in my Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985), my Reason and Practice (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), my Why Be Moral? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989), my Ethics Without God, revised edition (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press, 1990), and in my God and the Grounding of Morality (Ottawa, Ontario: University of Ottawa Press, 1991). In Reason and Practice, pace Griffin, I also argue that the efforts of natural theology have failed. See part III and, more indirectly, but still crucially, part VI, chapters 31, 36, 37 and 38. See also in this connection Michael Martin, Atheism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). My arguments, no doubt, are in one way or another defective. That is not surprising in any event, but it seems to me that in the last three centuries there have been varied and cumulatively very strong arguments for the adequacy of non-theistic (i.e. naturalistic) accounts. Taken together they present a very formidable case. It is little wonder that so much of the defence of religion has turned fideistic. Moreover, and vitally, what is reasonably taken to be ‘adequate’ or not varies with what the alternatives are (what the live options are). If the God of traditional theism is incoherent, Wittgensteinian fideism is at best obscurantist, the God of crude anthropomorphism is something yielding beliefs which are just plainly false and non-crude anthropomorphism is (where non-atheistic) metaphysical moonshine, there is, if these things are really true, little in the way of an alternative to a pragmatic thoroughly non-metaphysical naturalism such as that articulated (though differently) by John Dewey, Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty. I have also turned my hand to that in my After the Demise of the Tradition (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989) and I have, as well, a bit in the tradition of Murphy and a bit in the tradition of Rorty, sought, without reliance on positivist assumptions, to undermine the claims of metaphysics (most particularly revisionary metaphysics). If metaphysics is a non-starter, then the very theological enterprises which rely on it, such as Paul Tillich’s or Reinhold Niebuhr’s or that (to quote Griffin) of such ‘nontraditional theists, such as Pfleiderer, James, Tennant, Whitehead and Hartshorne’, cannot, relying as they do on the constructions of speculative metaphysics, get off the ground. If I am right about the impossibility of metaphysics, there is little point in looking at the details of such views which are plainly metaphysical constructions. That is to say, key parts of their accounts rely on such constructions. I have argued for the impossibility of metaphysics in my ‘Broad’s Conception of Critical and Speculative Philosophy’, Dialectica (forthcoming), ‘Reconsidering the Platonic Conception of Philosophy’, International Studies in Philosophy (forthcoming), ‘Jolting the Career of Reason: Absolute Idealism and Other Rationalisms Reconsidered’, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (forthcoming), and ‘What is Philosophy? The Reconsideration of Some Neglected Options’, History of Philosophy Quarterly (forthcoming). See David Ray Griffin, ‘Review of God, Scepticism and Modernity’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 59, no. 1 (1992), 189–90. In this setting aside of metaphysics (to return to the beginning of my essay) Phillips and I, and Wittgensteinians generally, are one, though they are usually loath to put things so bluntly. But Phillips, while abandoning metaphysics, and still seeking to keep the God of Christianity, or any other God for that matter, has only left us something akin to morality touched with emotion and obscurity.Google Scholar
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    Axel Hägerström, Philosophy and Religion, trans. from Swedish by Robert T. Sandin (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 224–59.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    Simon Blackburn, ‘Can Philosophy Exist?’ in Jocelyne Couture and Kai Nielsen, eds, Reconstructing Philosophy? New Essays in Metaphilosophy (Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 1993). The exaggeration there that needs questioning is that the scrutiny of Minerva can have no causal impute. It cannot have the grand causal impute that philosophers are self-deceived into assuming. But that it has none at all would take a lot of showing. I doubt that Blackburn really wants to make such a strong claim.Google Scholar

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© Timothy Tessin and Mario von der Ruhr 1995

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