Tuesday, August 25, 2009
There's a cartoon by, I think, the sublime B. Kliban which shows an anguished man crouched in a cave. On the wall behind him is a sign which reads, 'Do not read this sign'. Of course, the fact that he's crouched and anguished means that he has read the sign and is awaiting the consequences and/or he is trying desperately not to read it again.
Now say, bear with me, the sign is God and the man is an atheist. Now his predicament is that he doesn't want to have anything to do with the sign, but, having read it, the contents are, so to speak, inside him. In his head he is constantly reading the sign or, in my version, thinking about God, which, for an atheist, must be damned irritating. But, of course, that's what atheists must do if they are to continue to be atheists - if they stop thinking about God, they stop being atheists.
I think there are elements of Anselm's Ontological Proof in this. Or, at least, there was something about this proof - discussed here by Nathan Schneider - that evoked the cartoon. What is most interesting about the Schneider piece (aside from the glorious fact that it is on a newspaper web site, long live the NYT) are some of the comments. I think that it is these that evoked Kliban's man in a cave. Typical is the one from Jack Walsh - 'Eeek. Will you all just stop it?? This is all just crazy talk about nothing. Nothing. Read your Wittgenstein!!! Aaaaaarrrrrgh. Otherwise sensible bright people wading through cant. Just stop it.'
I think Jack should reread Wittgenstein. But, anyway, these are clearly the howls of a man who has read the sign or possibly one with his fingers in his ears yelling, 'La-la-la, Can't hear you.' Schneider's piece is tinged with sentimentality, but it does make the point that, whatever you think of Anselm's proof (in fact, it wasn't just Anselm's), it is clear that it says a great deal about the way language and the human mind work. God as the greatest possible concept is a perfectly reasonable way of assessing our thoughts, intuitions and, most importantly, our art. Consider it as the square root of -1 in mathematics. You can stop thinking about it if you like, but then you won't understand maths or, in the case of God, people who, you see, have all read the sign.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:53 am