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What Makes a Thing or Concept Unthinkable?

Is the Absolute (e.g. God) Unthinkable?

ABSOLUTE [adjective] not qualified or diminished in any way; total : absolute secrecy, absolute silence, the attention he gave you was absolute; viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things; not relative or comparative: absolute moral standards.

ABSOLUTE [noun] a value or principle that is regarded as universally valid or that may be viewed without relation to other things: good and evil are presented as absolutes; (the absolute) Philosophy that which exists without being dependent on anything else; (the absolute) Theology ultimate reality; God.


‘A thing is true’ means that it is known and knowable, known to the absolute spirit, knowable to the spirit that is not absolute.

Josef Pieper

At the centre of the human heart is a longing for an absolute good.

Simone Weil

Suffering is, in its own way, an absolute; insofar as it is going on, there is no comfort; if there were, it wouldn’t be suffering.

Michael Mason

The more absolute the authority, the more it tends to “disjoin remorse from power.”

Alistair Cooke

The real self is as hard to arrive at as the real table, and does not seem to have that absolute, convincing certainty that belongs to particular experiences.

Bertrand Russell

Would the conviction that kindness is better than cruelty be a good example of a moral absolute?

[What is an absolute—such as God or goodness—is not necessarily unthinkable, and what is unthinkable—such as a married bachelor, a square circle, or the largest number—is not necessarily an absolute. Agreed?]

Our knowledge, even when refined by the mathematics of science, must remain tentative. One of the chief functions of philosophy is to remind us of the shallowness of our understanding of things and the massive background of our ignorance. Absolute truth lies quite beyond our reach and the very idea of truth brings upon us a sense of humility.

Newton P. Stallknecht

There are certain words which possess in themselves, when properly used, a virtue which illumines and lifts up towards the good. These are the words that refer to an absolute perfection which we cannot conceive. Since the proper use of these words involves not making them fit any conception, it is in the words themselves, as words, that the power to enlighten and draw upward resides. What they express is beyond our conception. God and truth are such words. Also justice, love and good.

Simone Weil

There is not a single science that has not been radically revised or extensively added to within living memory; and every well-known philosophy has familiar shortcomings. If we really do absorb into our thinking the fact that only fragmentary knowledge and partial understanding are available to us we shall stop making the mistake of supposing that everything can be explained in terms of categories of understanding that happen currently to be available to us—and therefore that anything not thus explicable is in some sense supernatural. The idea that we have now come into possession of all the explanatory means required to make sense of everything is, on serious examination, so silly that I am at a loss to know how anyone can believe it, yet it is a widely held assumption, and held most confidently of all by people like philosophers and scientists.

Bryan Magee

Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.

Thomas Nagel

We are prepared, on the one hand, for the sort of reality that Naturalists believe in. That is a one-floor reality: this present Nature is all that there is. We are also prepared for reality as “religion” conceives it: a reality with a ground floor (Nature) and then above that one other floor and one only—an eternal, spaceless, timeless, spiritual Something of which we can have no images and which, if it presents itself to human consciousness at all, does so in a mystical experience which shatters all our categories of thought. What we are not prepared for is anything in between. We feel quite sure that the first step beyond the world of our present experience must lead either nowhere at all or else into the blinding abyss of undifferentiated spirituality, the unconditioned, the absolute.

C. S. Lewis

[In this part of the famous 1948 BBC radio debate on the existence of God and the origin of morality, Fr. Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell wrestle with the question of whether everything has a cause and, in particular, whether it is legitimate to ask whether Nature has a cause.]

COPLESTON: Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn’t one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?

RUSSELL: Because I see no reason to think there is any. The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things; I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that the total has any cause whatsoever.

COPLESTON: Well, to say that there isn’t any cause is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn’t look for a cause. The statement that there isn’t any cause should come, if it comes at all, at the end of the inquiry, not the beginning. In any case, if the total has no cause, then to my way of thinking it must be its own cause, which seems to me impossible. Moreover, the statement that the world is simply there, if in answer to a question, presupposes that the question has meaning.

RUSSELL: No, it doesn’t need to be its own cause, what I’m saying is that the concept of cause is not applicable to the total.

COPLESTON: Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls “gratuitous”?

RUSSELL: Well, the word “gratuitous” suggests that it might be something else; I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.

COPLESTON: Well, I can’t see how you can rule out the legitimacy of asking the question how the total, or anything at all comes to be there. Why something rather than nothing, that is the question? The fact that we gain our knowledge of causality empirically from particular causes does not rule out the possibility of asking what the cause of the series is. If the word “cause” were meaningless or if it could be shown that Kant’s view of the matter were correct, the question would be illegitimate I agree; but you don’t seem to hold that the word “cause” is meaningless, and I do not suppose you are a Kantian.

RUSSELL: I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy. Every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn’t a mother—that’s a different logical sphere.

COPLESTON: Well, I can’t really see any parity. If I were saying “every object has a phenomenal cause, therefore, the whole series has a phenomenal cause,” there would be a parity; but I’m not saying that; I’m saying, every object has a phenomenal cause if you insist on the infinity of the series—but the series of phenomenal causes is an insufficient explanation of the series. Therefore, the series has not a phenomenal cause but a transcendent cause.

RUSSELL: That’s always assuming that not only every particular thing in the world, but the world as a whole must have a cause. For that assumption I see no ground whatever. If you’ll give me a ground I’ll listen to it.

COPLESTON: Well, the series of events is either caused or it’s not caused. If it is caused, there must obviously be a cause outside the series. If it’s not caused then it’s sufficient to itself, and if it’s sufficient to itself it is what I call necessary. But it can’t be necessary since each member is contingent, and we’ve agreed that the total has no reality apart from its members, therefore, it can’t be necessary. Therefore, it can’t be—uncaused—therefore it must have a cause. And I should like to observe in passing that the statement “the world is simply there and is inexplicable” can’t be got out of logical analysis.

RUSSELL: I don’t want to seem arrogant, but it does seem to me that I can conceive things that you say the human mind can’t conceive. As for things not having a cause, the physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.

COPLESTON: Well, I wonder now whether that isn’t simply a temporary inference.

RUSSELL: It may be, but it does show that physicists’ minds can conceive it.

COPLESTON: Yes, I agree, some scientists—physicists—are willing to allow for indetermination within a restricted field. But very many scientists are not so willing. I think that Professor Dingle, of London University, maintains that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle tells us something about the success (or the lack of it) of the present atomic theory in correlating observations, but not about nature in itself, and many physicists would accept this view. In any case, I don’t see how physicists can fail to accept the theory in practice, even if they don’t do so in theory. I cannot see how science could be conducted on any other assumption than that of order and intelligibility in nature. The physicist presupposes, at least tacitly, that there is some sense in investigating nature and looking for the causes of events, just as the detective presupposes that there is some sense in looking for the cause of a murder. . . .

RUSSELL: . . . If there’s a world in which most events, but not all, have causes, he will then be able to depict the probabilities and uncertainties by assuming that this particular event you’re interested in probably has a cause. And since in any case you won’t get more than probability that’s good enough.

COPLESTON: It may be that the scientist doesn’t hope to obtain more than probability, but in raising the question he assumes that the question of explanation has a meaning. But your general point then, Lord Russell, is that it’s illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world?

RUSSELL: Yes, that’s my position.

COPLESTON: If it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it?

RUSSELL: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say—shall we pass on to some other issue?

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