Friday, 7 February 2014

Reading Wittgenstein on God

Engagement with the great questions - of death, of meaning of life, of self and its destiny - are what constitute the important themes of great philosophers. And all great thinkers have provided almost similar answers though emphasized different points, or in their own ways. And these largely agree with the answers provided by prophets and saints across cultures. It is sad to note that so few religiously oriented people and scholars take note of this point, and have been suspicious of philosophy. Philosophers help to understand grammar of theology or scripture better and are best antidote to sectarianism and ideological battle fought in the name of religion. Both religious and secularist fundamentalisms are best tackled by philosophers. I know lay critics of philosophy who think we don’t need it as the Prophet is the greatest philosopher, so why go elsewhere. My answer is: all genuine philosophy is illumined by the prophetic lamp and what is not or what contradicts it is not what traditionalists  would advocate. Philosophers help to understand deeper meanings of prophetic wisdom and those who dispute this should explain how one can dispense with use of illumined reason in approaching scripture. Iqbal’s remark that it is myopic for a legalist to see mystics as rival can be extended to imply that rivalry with philosopher is also unfounded.
Great thinkers have nothing to preach but simply invite us or help us to identify our prejudices and presuppositions, transcend our conditionings, and think hard, very hard for ourselves. (Right use of reason and actualizing intellect is all that prophets sought from us.) If we do this we reach the same conclusions and that explains  the perennial appeal of great thinkers and remarkable agreement on key issues (especially ethical and spiritual) amongst great thinkers, artists and saints across tradition our conclusions would not be much different. Today we explore the meditations of Ludwig Wittgenstein on God and belief.
For him the metaphysical self that constitutes us transcends the world, the urges that move us point beyond the world, experiences that we most cherish are of the world beyond the ordinarily familiar world, our ethical and aesthetic dimension is anchored outside the world. For him both the willing subjects and the knowing subjects are one and both are outside of the world, and are the source of our language and world-cognition. However, as in mystical traditions, transcendence/union with God is not consummated; it remains an unfulfilled quest. It is movement, perpetual movement and not reaching anywhere. It is the limit that can never be reached. The Absolute is inexhaustibly rich. Man must perpetually travel. Experiences are open ended. It means one can never stop worshipping or glorifying God and travel on the plane of servitude or perfect his surrender or state of innocence or vulnerability to reality. Mystics, as true practitioners of philosophy (as traditionally understood activity) are always striving to remove the veils of language and thought in order to reach the still centre of existence that transcends language and thought.
His characterization of scientific-technological civilization as dark ages places him squarely with other great religious critics of Enlightenment thought. He lamented that Russell, Carnap and many others who were so close to him didn’t really understand him and those who claimed to be his followers didn’t make spiritual endeavour  to share the spiritual vacation that moved him. For Wittgenstein God approached more as an attitude than a proposition in experience of wonder, of mystery, of eternity, of the ethical or unconditional goodness or urge for it or order of the world (as how things stand) is the case and only the fools or the utterly wicked say in their hearts that there is no God.
Wittgenstein is to be read alongside great traditional philosophers that saw the Good above everything, had little use for fashionable pursuits of today, considered ethics as first philosophy and metaphysical discoveries as fruits or realizations of real ethical life. Like them he is God-centric rather than man-centric and saw quintessentially human in living up to the divine image in him, in transcending himself.
All his work was dedicated to the “glory of God” as he once said to his friend Dury – an expression quite unexpected from modern profane philosophers. He didn’t like philosophizing as a speculative/analytical  exercise, as an academic pursuit as is the case now in modern academies or universities but something that Plato would appreciate or other ancient traditional philosophers would prescribe as a way of life. That he wanted his legacy to be of changed attitude towards ethics is hardly surprising.  “I am by no means sure that I should prefer a continuation of my work by others to a change in the way people live which would make all those questions superfluous.”
Wittgenstein rejected theological representations as many others before have done but he never rejected what they sought to symbolize. He said there is no theoretical content in religious doctrines (so sectarian fights are often simply errors of grammar or pointless). Though one may wish to qualify it somewhat, it is, in a way, easily understandable. God is not a thing, an entity, a being among other being or existence. “God is not” as Eckhart would put it. Godhead is Nothing (not nothing) as Buddhism would put it. God is all that there is as Sufism and Taoist mysticism see it. Samsara and Nirvana are really one. Time is the moving image of eternity as Plato put it.
In fact mystical is the case for him and needs no arguments. The unrepresentable shows forth. It is there to be contemplated, breathed and enjoyed. God is everywhere and nowhere. Man is not.
For Wittgenstein what can’t be said is the case. The world is not explained by science or philosophy or anything that employs language. He asks us to consent to unlearn.
The fact that Wittgenstein had personal mystical experience is well attested. His description of being absolutely safe and seeing creation as a miracle are so compelling that we hardly need to entertain any second opinion about the mystical in him or his encounter with the mystical. The cognizance of the fact that there is a world is enough to make one dance with ecstasy and wonder. Wonder is the beginning and end of human wisdom. It is what is implied in the opening verses of the Quran that defines believers as those who are rightly oriented towards the Transcendent Mystery (Al-Gayyib). There is great mystery at the heart of anything or everything, of being as such. Have humility to keep wondering and you will never be bored, never be complacent, never be arrogant, never be dogmatic. I conclude by quoting Wittgenstein’s concluding statement of his Tractatus “Of what one can’t speak, one should be silent”  and the caution that it implies.  Let those who invite us to their theological schools tell us what can they say about the “Indescribable,” of that which no eye has seen, of the “Gayyib-ul Gayyib.” When someone assumes to be advocate of God or his private secretary dispatching people not of his liking or school to hell I recall Wittgenstein. If you have any doubt regarding such things as after life, prayer, grace, fate, have a look at Wittgenstein’s understanding of them. They may not tell the entire story but do open a fresh vistas and leave you almost dumbfounded. He is mostly convincing because he has nothing to sell, nothing to seek conversion to. He invites us to mystery of being, to be humble, to attend to things as we engage with them in concrete action rather than how language treats them, to see groundlessness of all narratives as far as they invoke concepts or language, to renounce what is dearest to us – our self and will – and above all to silence the humdrum of mind and take seriously what can’t be thought about but what is seen or felt or sought  or God in short.    For him philosophy is an activity and in one sense a cure for the fever of the mind that asks philosophical questions forgetting that answers are in ethics and religion and in understanding the use or grammar of language. I wish we apply Wittgenstein to Deobandi-Berelvi-Salafi-Jamaati debate or to theist-atheist debate to see pointlessness of much of the debates.

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