Unthinkable: What makes humans valuable if not God?

You can’t escape religious or metaphysical thinking, argues William Desmond

‘There is something about what we are which incarnates unconditional worth.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘There is something about what we are which incarnates unconditional worth.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Talking of metaphysics brings to mind the Dara Ó Briain line about herbal medicine: “We tested it all, and the stuff that worked became ‘medicine’.”

Metaphysics – defined as “what lies beyond physics” – is widely regarded as a bogus science. Its footprint in academia is dwindling, part of which can be traced to the Enlightenment, and part to the more recent marketisation of education, which places little to no value on a question such as “Why are we here?”

For more than 40 years, William Desmond has been an unapologetic metaphysician. The Cork-born academic, who is professor of philosophy at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, will this week receive an honorary doctorate from Maynooth University in recognition of his international standing.

In discussions on the “meaning of life”, Desmond references the Christian notion of “agape” – or transcendental, universal love – thus prompting today’s idea, taken from his book Ethics and the Between: “Beyond immanent excellence we are pointed to some sense of transcendent worth, expressed in the community of agapeic service.”

Metaphysics appears to be disappearing from academia. Should we mourn its loss?

“True, metaphysics is in bad odour with some philosophers today, but this is an old story dating perhaps from Kant’s influential critique of metaphysics.

“I would defend metaphysics as a living option, and have developed what I call a metaxological metaphysics. This claims to offer a logos of the metaxu (Greek for ‘between’): a wording of the between. Nothing is defined through itself alone. Beings are defined in a rich ontological intermedium of happening, and are both other-relating and self-relating.

“One of the older words for metaphysics was simply ‘first philosophy’ (Aristotle). Perhaps a particular kind of metaphysics is something of the past. But in all we think and in all we do, and in every effort to make intelligible sense of things, we presuppose certain basic orientations to being. We continue to require a reflective consideration of these basic senses of being.

“Even those philosophers who talk about ‘postmetaphysical thinking’ (Habermas) themselves bring some of these basic senses to bear on reality. The postmetaphysicians themselves, perhaps unknowingly, cannot escape metaphysical presuppositions.”

Is the idea of God necessary to metaphysics? Put another way, can you be an atheist metaphysician?

“Those who, like Heidegger, say that philosophy must be atheistic seem to me dogmatic. One could be an atheist metaphysician, yet there is something about asking the ultimate questions in a metaphysical sense that inevitably puts us in mind of some idea of the divine or God.

“If one is genuinely astonished about the givenness of being, it will be hard to avoid raising genuine perplexity about the divine. My worry is that many intellectuals today take for granted what I call a ‘default atheism’. Once, many thinkers were theist by default. Now they tend to be atheist . . . Once the atheist had to mask their atheism; now thinking believers might feel that they have to put on the mask.

“But consider the atheist philosopher, Schopenhauer, who writes about the metaphysical need in the human being. The great world religions express in an imagistic or symbolic form what philosophy tries to articulate in more reflective concepts. The relation between an atheistic metaphysician and religion need not always be hostile.”

What makes human beings valuable?

“In the first instance, we do not make ourselves valuable. If we do ‘make’ something of value, this comes second. There is something about what we are which incarnates unconditional worth. We do not make this. It is an endowment, not a construction.

“Kant talks about the human being as an end in himself, but this is a secularised vision of the human being that, in the longer religious tradition, is ultimately grounded in God. We often speak about humanity’s unconditional value, but are we drawing from a religious deposit that, so to say, has been ‘cleaned out’? If so, the cheque for infinite value will eventually bounce.

“Generally, the modern world picture has tended to denude the world, and all things in it, of any claim to unconditional value. Strangely, this reduction to a kind of valueless thereness tends to be accompanied by an elevation of the human being into the only source of value in the world.

“The ecological crisis, as we now name it, is a reflection of this reduction and elevation. But if we too are part of the valueless whole, can we justify the exception we make of ourselves? Are we sawing off the branch on which we sing our songs of self? It seems to me we have to reconsider the question of the source(s) of value more ultimate than the human being, not only in nature as other to us, but also as in the ontological origin greater than us.”

Can you describe God to me?

“Not easily; perhaps not at all. Perhaps God is not an object amenable to the language of description; language perhaps more suitable to finite objects and processes. One is being asked to describe the indescribable. Even Moses on Mount Sinai was permitted only to see the back of God. As we know from literature, sometimes it is easier to describe hell than heaven.

“I am not trying to evade the question but to finesse the sense of it. I would say that one might attempt to speak of God on two different tracks: one more religious, one more philosophical. The former tends to stress the personal nature of God, the latter something more impersonal.

“On the philosophical track, I would prefer to speak of the transpersonal, since the impersonal can suggest something beneath the personal, whereas the transpersonal could well pass through the personal to something not just ‘merely’ personal. I think these two approaches can be justified, and perhaps they need each other. Without the personal sense, the intimate communication between the human being and God tends to disappear. Without the transpersonal, we easily reduce the otherness of God to the mirror in which we only recognise our own ‘human all too human’ attributes.

“We need both the intimacy of the divine and the mysterious strangeness of God’s otherness.”

philosophy@irishtimes.com

Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now by Joe Humphreys is available from Irish Times Books on irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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