I suspect that churchless skeptics who are drawn to question traditional belief systems also enjoy the feeling of an elevator suddenly descending, when it seems like the floor has fallen away from under your feet.
At least, this is a sensation I frequently have now that I've stopped being a True Believer.
It isn't disconcerting, because after an initial jolt of finding that one more unquestioned assumption needs to be closely examined, it feels good to have discarded an additional piece of conceptual junk which doesn't deserve the prominent positioning it used to have in my Philosophical Display Case.
This morning I made my way through another chapter, The Pre-Socratics, in the challenging yet stimulating "Philosophy in the Flesh." Authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss how the notion of Being came to be.
I've always liked that word, Being. It's sort of like the classic definition of pornography offered by a Supreme Court justice: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Meaning, I have no idea what Being might be, but I've always assumed that it must be something, and I had a chance of recognizing it. After all, if Being (or Existence, which seems more or less synonymous) didn't exist, how could anything else?
Lakoff and Johnson point out that theological interpretations consider God as Ultimate Being. Science doesn't see a need to ascribe divinity to Being. However, in their search for a Theory of Everything, scientists also assume that there is some root essence to the cosmos.
The main point of "Philosophy in the Flesh" is that humans habitually use metaphors derived from our bodily experiences to understand supposedly abstract or higher-level facets of reality.
Rarely, though, do we try to understand where those understandings come from. We take certain assumptions for granted, then run off with them as we proclaim, "This is how the way things are!"
Well, maybe. But maybe not.
Take Being, for example. Lakfoff and Johnson say that this notion is founded on four folk theories that all the pre-Socratics shared, and which have been passed down to us moderns.
(1) The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World
The world makes systematic sense, and we can gain knowledge of it.
(2) The Folk Theory of General Kinds
Every particular thing is a kind of thing.
(3) The Folk Theory of Essences
Every entity has an "essence" or "nature," that is, a collection of properties that makes it the kind of thing it is and is the causal source of its natural behavior.
(4) The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category
There is a category of all things that exist.
Here's how #4 is explained:
From the Folk Theory of Essences, it follows that this all-inclusive category has an essence, and from the Folk Theory of Intelligibility, it follows that we can at least in principle gain knowledge of that essence. This all-inclusive category is called Being, and its essence is called the Essence of Being.
...As we will see below, there is a profound problem that arises from this ultimate metaphysical impulse, as defined by these four commonplace folk theories. They lead us to ask a set of questions that may not be meaningful. And they give us a view of the world and of knowledge that may be misleading.
...Someone who believes all those folk theories will, of course, assume that the Realm of Being is real and that the problems of metaphysics (concerning the nature of Being) are real problems.
This is pretty damn Zen'ish, though intellectually spoken.
Remember that Being/God are essentially the same, notwithstanding the secular/religious connotations associated with these words. "Being" and "God" are considered to be ultimate reality, the essence of the cosmos, the infinite ocean of no-thing within which all discrete things float.
Well, who says? Us embodied human beings, who come up with theories about how the world works based on our human experiences.
So billions of people believe that a holy book or enlightened person can be trusted when a claim is made: "Being/God is ___________ (fill in the blank)"
Love. Consciousness. Energy. Grace. Whatever.
What's more important than the words used to describe Being/God is the fact that (1) this all-inclusive entity is believed to exist, and (2) it has an essence that can be known, even if imperfectly, by humans.
Again: Maybe. Maybe not.
This whole notion of Being may not be valid. "Being" could be a concept with zero substance. Or even if substantially real, there could be no essence associated with the substance -- no what to go with it's is.
So to ask "What is Being?" or "What is God?" could be meaningless questions. These are metaphorical concepts that spring from assumptions which usually go unexamined. We assume the existence of an ultimate entity, then struggle to figure out what Being or God is like.
I just lifted my cup and had a sip of coffee. It tasted pretty damn real.
Much more real than any airy-fairy idea of Being or God. Each to his own, but I'm inclined to focus my attention on stuff that can be demonstrated to actually exist -- not abstractions conjured up by human minds.