by Andreas Saugstad
The young Wittgenstein wrote that the mystical is not how the world is, but THAT it is. The philosopher was pondering the mystical feeling that there is something existing. He was trying to grasp the Stimmung associated with the old question “why is there something rather than nothing?”
Why there is something rather than nothing is a deep and difficult question. But since there obviously is something, I think the question of what there is, is the most important. What is there? Frankly, I have to admit that I don’t know. I know that there are humans, and animals, and cars and buildings. I know that music exists, as well as the smell of roses and poems. I do not, however, know much about what humans, animals or cars are. First, I don’t know whether humans have souls or not — am I a biological being or do I also have a soul or spirit?
Hopefully, I do have a soul or a spirit, but I do not know, I sometimes wonder about this question. Some people have claimed that humans have souls, while other have claimed that they have not. Some are materialists, while others are dualists, the former claiming that man is nothing but a physical object, the latter claiming that human beings are both soul and body. Since I don’t know much about human beings, I probably don’t know much about animals either.
Soul of a Cat?
I know that my cat is a tricolor cat, with a black, white and red fur. I also know that she (my cat) knows how to open doors, and that she loves Kitekat cat food. But I cannot be absolutely sure whether she has a soul or not, I don’t whether the cat is a biological being, or perhaps something more. I have never seen that my cat has a cat-soul, but I have perceived that she doesn’t have one.
I don’t know much about cars either. Well, I know that my father just bought a black car, which is called Skoda, and looks better than you may think when I say it is a Skoda. But I know little about how the car works, I know nothing about car engines and I have no idea of how the CD or radio radio in the car works. So in total I probably know very little.
My acquaintance with physical reality is in a sense very superficial. I also know that music exists, but I am not absolutely sure whether I know what music is. Is music a physical phenomenon which produces an experience in my mind because of my brain, or is the music itself independent of my brain and perception? I don’t know, i.e., I don’t know whether music is subjective or objective. Why do certain animals perceive reality as black and white and do not see all the colors most human beings see?
Well, this beats me, and it is a difficult question which many philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer. Likewise – poetry – I do now claim to know what poetry is, although I do claim to know about what poetry is than most postmodernists or deconstructionists in France. I have not read as much poetry as some of these people, but I have avoided the the influence of the ghost of Saussure, which has made many people believe strange things about literature. Still, I don’t claim that I know what poetry is, because poetry is language, and nobody really knows what language is.
So I don’t know much about that which is. This is, of course, a bit mystical. But I do claim to know one thing: There are a certain group of people who claim to know something, but don’t actually know that thing which they think they know. I am here thinking about a certain trend in contemporary thought and intellectual life called “naturalism.”
Naturalism is broadly accepted in the academic world today, and is typically advocated by people who admire science, and perhaps have a training in science. Naturalism is that everything which exists is a part from nature, and that nothing supernatural does exist. A naturalist typically believes that science has shown that all ancient belief systems are superstitious. The naturalist thinks that old terms like “soul,” angels,” “demons,” “miracle,” “spirit” belong to a mythology, and because of science — the systematic investigation of nature — we know that these myths must be false. Human civilization has shown progression, and our theory of the world today is far better than the theories you find earlier parts of history as well as in non-western cultures. In it’s most extreme form, Naturalism claims that there is no God, some naturalists are both naturalists and atheists.
Naturalists typically believe that science is the source of true understanding of reality. One reason why we should accept science, is that science emphasizes experience, and represents as systematic analysis of what experience may tell us about reality. In the university world today, perhaps especially in the US, many academics accept that science gives us the truth about reality.
However, naturalism is a faith like most other belief systems. Naturalists place great emphasis on experience, but experience never told that there cannot be anything else than that which experience shows you. How can anyone know that there cannot be anything else than that which can be experienced? Also, naturalists seem to rely on a false principle, i.e. the principle that if something hasn’t been experienced it cannot exist. Just because the majority of professors at MIT have never experienced an angel or a miracle, it doesn’t follow that angels do not exist or that miracles are impossible. Where would the principle behind such an inference come from, from experience? I don’t know, and I don’t know if any Naturalist knows either.
Talking about experience, I must mention that many people actually claim to have veridical experiences of the supernatural — experiences of something beyond what present-day science deals with. For instance, the Oxford-philosopher Richard Swinburne, has developed an argument for the existence of God called “the argument from religious experience.” Many people do claim to have experiences of the divine, that which is beyond nature, and the naturalist should take this into account.
Most of us know very little about what there is. But, nevertheless, science doesn’t tell us that nothing exists apart from that which science investigates. To hold such a view should not be regarded as scientific. As the American philosopher Saul Kripke once emphasized: “Many people believe in Naturalism and believe they are scientific, but actually they are not.” I do not know much about nature, but I do claim to know that nobody can know that there is nothing more than nature. It is a mystery that people claim to know so much about what exists and what does not.