God is "Unknowable," "Incomprehensible," or "Mysterious"

doctoro
doctoro's picture
Posts: 196
Joined: 2006-12-15
User is offlineOffline
God is "Unknowable," "Incomprehensible," or "Mysterious"

From George H. Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God"

Smith first cites Leslie D. Weatherhead in order to express the theistic argument:

'How can man, an insect on a wayside planet, which is itself of no size or importance, amid a million galaxies that baffle the imagination, put the tiny tape of words around the doings of this august and unimaginable Being who created all that is in the heavens and the heaven of heavens?'

---

My commentary: This is the topic at hand. When theists claim that God is unknowable, incomprehensible, or mysterious, what implications for their theistic position does this have? [ie "God works in mysterious ways."] Is it damaging, helpful, or indifferent for them to use this argument?

Smith refutes the argument:

"The belief that god is basically unknowable is the most important epistemological element of theistic belief. It is shared by all theists to some extent, who disagree only with regard to what degree, if any, god's nature can be known.

We must remember that theism maintains not just that god's nature is unkown to man at the present time, but that god's nature is unknowable in principle. Man will never understand god, which is expressed by such terms as ineffable, inexpressible, transcendent and unfathomable.

The most extreme version of this belief is religious agnosticism, which holds that the nature of god is completely unknowable...

[explains agnosticism]

First, we must ask: If god cannot be known, how can god be known to exist? Quoting Nathaniel Branden, "To claim that a thing is unknowable, one must first know that it exists--but assert the existence of the unknowable is to claim knowledge of the unknowable, in which case it cannot be unknowable."

Second, if god cannot be comprehended, then none of his attributes can be known--including the attribute of incomprehensibility. To state that something is by nature unknowable is to pronounce knowledge of its nature, in which case we are agian involved in a contradiction.

When one claims that something is unknowable, CAN ONE PRODUCE KNOWLEDGE IN SUPPORT OF THIS CLAIM? If one cannot, one's assertion is arbitrary and utterly without merit. If one can, one has accomplished the impossible: one has knowledge of the unknowable...

To claim that god is incomprehensible is to say that one's concept of god is unintelligible, which is to confess that one does not know what one is talking about. The theist who is called upon to explain the content of his belief--and who then introduces the "unknowable" as a supposed characteristic of the concept itself--is saying, in effect: "I will explain the concept of god by pointing out that it cannot be explained."

Atheists have long contended that the concept of god is unintelligible, this being a major reason why it cannot be accepted by any rational man. The theist who openly admits this cannot expect to be taken seriously. The idea of the unknowable is an insult to the intellect, and it renders theism WHOLLY IMPLAUSIBLE."

END QUOTE OF SMITH

My commentary:

There is a spectrum of "unknowability" that will be claimed for different positions. Suppose we have a theologian on one end of the spectrum who claims that God can be intelligibly and rationally deduced, and on the other side of the spectrum, we have a true agnostic who claims that the question of God is completely unknowable.

Most theists lie somewhere in between the idea that God can be completely known or totally unknowable.

And we MUST differentiate and get away from layman's terminology. There is a STRICT DICHOTOMY between what is EMPIRICALLY knowable through sense experience and what is RATIONALLY knowable through logic and mental thought. I think all of us will agree, theists, atheists, and agnostics, that there is really no empirical proof for God's existence. Even the argument from design is a reason-based "a priori" argument in disguise. Some will claim that personal experience is empirical proof, but it's not testable or demonstratable to others, so it is really not empirical, just anecdotal.

So what we must focus on here is our ability to determine God's existence solely on the basis of reason. For instance, some theologians claim that the cosmological argument of requiring a "first cause"proves God's existence.

The same theist that advocates the cosmological argument will then pull a 180 degree flip on you later and tell you "god is mysterious" when you pose a tough question that requires a rational response that need not be based on empirical proof.

My favorite is theodicy. If god is all-good, how can natural disasters occur and kill people? Some theists will claim it's the fall of man from paradise (which is a bullshit answer), but others will tell you, "oh, God works in mysterious ways". Especially in cases like little kids being run over by buses. This is a deal-breaker for me.

I can remember a day about 6 years ago when I was running for exercise and I saw a little girl with a bandana on her head -- and I could tell she had cancer because she had no eyebrows. Killed me inside. That was one in a long line of occurrences that forced me to examine my faith. At that point, I had been going back to Catholic services after a long hiatus. I think I even sat down with a priest to discuss some of my issues with the church.

This "God works in mysterious ways" business is a crock. If one is able to use reason to deduce certain aspects of God, we need a very clear means by which to explicate why some attributes are knowable and some are not.

In this way, the traditional, average theist (who is a moderate on the spectrum of knowability on God's properties) cannot explain an intelligible version of God.

If one is not able to enter a debate with a case to debate, then what's the point? It's ambiguous gibberish.

So my position is not so much that ALL theists have poor arguments on this topic or that all theists suppose that God is unknowable. I am saying that theists who use this argument about incomprehensibility INCONSISTENTLY in the realm of a priori deductive reason really damages his case.

Any time someone uses the terms mentioned in the subject, you should raise your ears and inform them that they are doing their position a great deal of harm.

Either we can know the properties of God or we can't. It is not permissible for us to say he has certain properties and then say the justification for such assertions is "beyond human comprehension." The reasons for saying God has certain properties has some origin -- and if it's an idea cooked up by a bus driver hopped up on LSD, then we scarcely have any need to give creedence to a person espousing such a version of God.

 

Every argument has an origin. Figure out what it is and uproot it. Nothing about a theistic concept of God is unknowable, except the delusionally created version of God accepted by some theists.


todangst
atheistRational VIP!
todangst's picture
Posts: 2811
Joined: 2006-03-10
User is offlineOffline
This should be very

This should be very interesting! It turns out that I have far less of a problem with what is here than I thought I might.

doctoro wrote:

From George H. Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God"

Smith first cites Leslie D. Weatherhead in order to express the theistic argument:

'How can man, an insect on a wayside planet, which is itself of no size or importance, amid a million galaxies that baffle the imagination, put the tiny tape of words around the doings of this august and unimaginable Being who created all that is in the heavens and the heaven of heavens?'

Well, this begs the question that a god exists and that those who question theist claims are 'questioning god'.

But atheists are not responding to 'god', they are responding to god claims. And a claim can be incoherent. And that is all anyone does when they hold that 'god' is incoherent - i.e. that god claims are incoherent.

Quote:

---

My commentary: This is the topic at hand. When theists claim that God is unknowable, incomprehensible, or mysterious, what implications for their theistic position does this have? [ie "God works in mysterious ways."] Is it damaging, helpful, or indifferent for them to use this argument?

A christian who holds that anything defined as beyond nature is beyond comprehension, is being rational, because he is forming a tautology.

The problem only occurs after, if that theists go on to make further claims about this 'god' once he has declared that is incomprehensible by definition.

The theist also goes on to have a problem if he insists that this 'god' exists', for the theist can only hold to such a belief on faith - theistic faith, non contingent faith: unjustified belief.

Quote:

Smith refutes the argument:

"The belief that god is basically unknowable is the most important epistemological element of theistic belief. It is shared by all theists to some extent, who disagree only with regard to what degree, if any, god's nature can be known.

We must remember that theism maintains not just that god's nature is unkown to man at the present time, but that god's nature is unknowable in principle. Man will never understand god, which is expressed by such terms as ineffable, inexpressible, transcendent and unfathomable.

The most extreme version of this belief is religious agnosticism, which holds that the nature of god is completely unknowable...

[explains agnosticism]

First, we must ask: If god cannot be known, how can god be known to exist?

Well, he cannot be known to exist. In fact, we can't even refer to 'god' as an existent.

But negative theologians deal with this by agreeing with it, and then conceding that this belief must be taken on faith. So in this sense, they are logically consistent (in that they concede that they are irrational (!))

Here is how a negative theologian answers:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophatic_theology

From the site:

"One should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; nor should we say that God is nonexistent.We can only say that neither existence nor nonexistence applies to God, or that God is beyond existing or not existing."

and

"Exemplars of the via negativa, the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists."

And

"God's existence is absolute and it includes no composition and we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute... still less has He accidents, which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute whatever. The negative attributes are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe... When we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible; it is living - it is not dead; ...it is the first - its existence is not due to any cause; it has power, wisdom, and will - it is not feeble or ignorant; He is One - there are not more Gods than one… Every attribute predicated of God denotes either the quality of an action, or, when the attribute is intended to convey some idea of the Divine Being itself - and not of His actions - the negation of the opposite." (Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed, 1:5)

So these negative theists are being 'rational' in that it is correct to concede that anything defined as beyond nature can only be discussed negatively, as it has no ontology.

So ironically they are rational in that they concede that they can only hold that this definition is true through faith.

So they avoid the contradiction that takes place when a positive theologian turns to negative theology as a defense, but of course, n the end, there is no functional difference as faith is by their own admission necessarily irrational!

Quote:

Quoting Nathaniel Branden, "To claim that a thing is unknowable, one must first know that it exists--but assert the existence of the unknowable is to claim knowledge of the unknowable, in which case it cannot be unknowable."

I like Branden, and quote him at times, but he's making a few errors here, and basically oversimplifying the issue.

First, to define something as unknowable does not require that you "know" that it exists. So his 'gotcha' fails for this reason. The only contradiction that could occur was if someone claimed inductive knowledge of an unknowable entity!

Next, Negative theologians don't claim to know that 'god' 'exists', they accept that it must be taken on faith.

On Luther: http://www.candleinthedark.com/luther.html

Luther states clearly that no man can have knowledge of god, save for revelation - natural symbols such as the bible, or jesus.

Luther's Theology

Luther maintained that God interacts with human beings in two ways -

Through the Law - as in the commandments (legalistic morality) and through the Gospel. However, our understanding of the law (God's Commandments) are always distorted by human sin.

Luther held that God makes himself known through earthly (limited) forms rather than in his pure divinity. Thus, God revealed himself in Jesus Christ; he speaks his word to us in the human words of the New Testament writers and we experience his "body" through the Eucharist. [b]Human beings are only instruments of God, who works in the world through them, as tools, they are incapable of apprehending God by means of their methods of understanding the world, such as philosophy or ethics; they must let God be God and see him only where he chooses to make himself known.[/i] God reveals his wisdom and his power through suffering, and the secret of meaningful life through Christ's death on the cross.

So theologians like Luther and Kierkegaard agree that one cannot know there is a god, because any causal argument can only work within nature. So they accept that one must make a leap of faith from evidence to 'something' beyond a point where evidence can point.

So Braden is right at the end... the theist cannot know any of this, but the negative theist doesn't actually claim knowledge, he claims to accept this definition on faith. It is only the positive theist, who turns to this negative argument, who has the problem Braden delineates (at least at THIS step)

The negative theologian only runs into a problem at the next step: holding that 'faith' is a legitimate 'grounds' outside of reason.

So, some might say "big deal, we still end up with a claim that is taken without any grounds, todangst!" Agreed. But some theists admit this up front, so Braden is slightly off the mark here

That's all.

 

Quote:

Second, if god cannot be comprehended, then none of his attributes can be known--including the attribute of incomprehensibility. To state that something is by nature unknowable is to pronounce knowledge of its nature, in which case we are again involved in a contradiction.

Again, the error is that the theistic claim is not an inductive claim, but in fact, a definition that holds that 'god is unknowable'. Of course, this renders the term 'god' meaningless, incoherent... but let's leave that problem aside.

The contradiction can only come if one says "I have examined X inductively and concluded that X cannot be known inductively"

The negative theist makes no reason based claim about the nature of a god. Instead, the negative theologian holds that 'god' starts out as beyond nature, ergo unknowable.

 

Quote:

When one claims that something is unknowable, CAN ONE PRODUCE KNOWLEDGE IN SUPPORT OF THIS CLAIM?

No, of course not. And the negative theologian himself told us this first!


St. Augustine wrote:


What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if thou hast been able to understand what thou wouldest say, it is not God. If thou hast been able to comprehend it, thou hast comprehended something else instead of God. If thou hast been able to comprehend him as thou thinkest, by so thinking thou hast deceived thyself. This then is not God, if thou hast comprehended it; but if this be God, thou has not comprehended it.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote:


‘Since Moses was alone, by having been stripped as it were of the people’s fear, he boldly approached the very darkness itself and entered the invisible things where he was no longer seen by those watching. After he entered the inner sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he was in company with the Invisible. He teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.’

—Gregory of Nyssa

These theologians agree that there can be no reason based claims about 'god' in the first place.

So Braden's point misses the mark just a bit. He's right that no one can define X as unknowable, and then go on to make a rational claim about X. But negative theologians already concede that their further claims are faith based claims.

Now, one can say "ok, so you concede that your position is not rational'. I further deny that faith 'works' in any way. Faith is merely delusion.

I would agree that this is the case. However, it is important to recognize that this means that Braden's complaint is slightly off the mark, although, in the end, there's no functional difference.

Braden's comments are valid if a positive theologian turns to negative theology as a defense, only to return to holding that one can have god knowledge. In this case, one is clearly committing the contradiction he points to...

Quote:

If one cannot, one's assertion is arbitrary and utterly without merit.

As per reason. The negative theologian agrees.

He however, holds that there are other ways: faith.

Is he wrong? I think so. But this is his actual claim.

And it differs, slightly, from Braden's point.

Quote:

If one can, one has accomplished the impossible: one has knowledge of the unknowable...

The negative theologian asserts that faith allows him to 'do the impossible!" I.e. he concedes that reason cannot get him to 'god'

So the actual place to hit the negative theologian is at his positon on faith.

Quote:

To claim that god is incomprehensible is to say that one's concept of god is unintelligible, which is to confess that one does not know what one is talking about.

This does seem to get closer to what negative theologians do say.

Quote:

The theist who is called upon to explain the content of his belief--and who then introduces the "unknowable" as a supposed characteristic of the concept itself--is saying, in effect: "I will explain the concept of god by pointing out that it cannot be explained."

The problem is that he's special pleading. And negative theologians would concede this, whereas the positive theologian IS in trouble!

Does conceding this make things better? That's for you to decide.

Quote:

Atheists have long contended that the concept of god is unintelligible, this being a major reason why it cannot be accepted by any rational man.

Well, some theists would agree that reason cannot take you to god.

Quote:

The theist who openly admits this cannot expect to be taken seriously.

On a rational basis.

Is there any other basis to be taken seriously on?

I don't think so.

Quote:

The idea of the unknowable is an insult to the intellect, and it renders theism WHOLLY IMPLAUSIBLE."

END QUOTE OF SMITH

I thought that was all Braden. It certainly reads like him... i.e. nearly dogmatic...

 

Quote:

My commentary:

There is a spectrum of "unknowability" that will be claimed for different positions. Suppose we have a theologian on one end of the spectrum who claims that God can be intelligibly and rationally deduced, and on the other side of the spectrum, we have a true agnostic who claims that the question of God is completely unknowable.

Most theists lie somewhere in between the idea that God can be completely known or totally unknowable.

I think so too. And some go back and forth, in a very dishonest manner... by makign assertions for god, and then defending 'god' by hiding 'god' beyond reason.

 

Quote:

And we MUST differentiate and get away from layman's terminology. There is a STRICT DICHOTOMY between what is EMPIRICALLY knowable through sense experience and what is RATIONALLY knowable through logic and mental thought.

And some theists concede that 'god' cannot be known by either. The 'definitions' are a priori, but are taken on faith.

Quote:

I think all of us will agree, theists, atheists, and agnostics, that there is really no empirical proof for God's existence. Even the argument from design is a reason-based "a priori" argument in disguise.

Rational arguments for 'god' cannot demonsrate a 'god'... they can only end in conclusions for a first cause, or a necessary being -These are naturalistic entities.

So the theist must still take a leap from first cause to 'supernatural'

And some theists are even honest enough to concede this.

Quote:

Some will claim that personal experience is empirical proof, but it's not testable or demonstratable to others, so it is really not empirical, just anecdotal.

Also, one cannot move from the natural to the supernatural by definition, as this would rely on a causal argument, and to be causal is to be natural.

Quote:

So what we must focus on here is our ability to determine God's existence solely on the basis of reason.

Even this must fail.

Quote:

For instance, some theologians claim that the cosmological argument of requiring a "first cause"proves God's existence.

The same theist that advocates the cosmological argument will then pull a 180 degree flip on you later and tell you "god is mysterious" when you pose a tough question that requires a rational response that need not be based on empirical proof.

My favorite is theodicy. If god is all-good, how can natural disasters occur and kill people? Some theists will claim it's the fall of man from paradise (which is a bullshit answer), but others will tell you, "oh, God works in mysterious ways". Especially in cases like little kids being run over by buses. This is a deal-breaker for me.

I can remember a day about 6 years ago when I was running for exercise and I saw a little girl with a bandana on her head -- and I could tell she had cancer because she had no eyebrows. Killed me inside. That was one in a long line of occurrences that forced me to examine my faith. At that point, I had been going back to Catholic services after a long hiatus. I think I even sat down with a priest to discuss some of my issues with the church.

This "God works in mysterious ways" business is a crock. If one is able to use reason to deduce certain aspects of God, we need a very clear means by which to explicate why some attributes are knowable and some are not.

In this way, the traditional, average theist (who is a moderate on the spectrum of knowability on God's properties) cannot explain an intelligible version of God.

If one is not able to enter a debate with a case to debate, then what's the point? It's ambiguous gibberish.

So my position is not so much that ALL theists have poor arguments on this topic or that all theists suppose that God is unknowable. I am saying that theists who use this argument about incomprehensibility INCONSISTENTLY in the realm of a priori deductive reason really damages his case.

I'd say this only occurs if one switches back and forth from positive theology to negative theology.

Of course, a pure negative position cannot offer a rational argument anyway (!) but at least it is consistent!

Quote:

Any time someone uses the terms mentioned in the subject, you should raise your ears and inform them that they are doing their position a great deal of harm.

Either we can know the properties of God or we can't. It is not permissible for us to say he has certain properties and then say the justification for such assertions is "beyond human comprehension."

Agreed, this is the problem I just addressed in my post.

Quote:

The reasons for saying God has certain properties has some origin -- and if it's an idea cooked up by a bus driver hopped up on LSD, then we scarcely have any need to give creedence to a person espousing such a version of God.

 

LOL

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.


Strafio
Strafio's picture
Posts: 1346
Joined: 2006-09-11
User is offlineOffline
Good discussion.I read

Good discussion.
I read Smith's book recently.
The coherence of the God concept is my favoured theology topic.
When they say that God is unknowable but that you can know him through Jesus, they clearly mean different types of knowledge. The question is whether they realise this and stick to a consistent use of the words.

(btw doctoro, can I make a presentation request, that you bold the 'stage directions' like Smith says: etc...)


MrRage
Posts: 896
Joined: 2006-12-22
User is offlineOffline
todangst, those quotes from

todangst, those quotes from negative theologians almost made my head explode.


todangst
atheistRational VIP!
todangst's picture
Posts: 2811
Joined: 2006-03-10
User is offlineOffline
Strafio wrote: Good

Strafio wrote:
Good discussion.
I read Smith's book recently.
The coherence of the God concept is my favoured theology topic.
When they say that God is unknowable but that you can know him through Jesus, they clearly mean different types of knowledge. The question is whether they realise this and stick to a consistent use of the words.

 I figured you'd chime in Strafio, nice to see you here.

Yes, I suspect that they do not realize that they are making a fallacy of equivocation, seeing as many philosophers make the same sort of error over a host of different arguments even outside of theology.

Saying "X" is unknowable, but "Y" provides me knowledge anyway is a contradiction however you look at it.

The positive theologian simply contradicts himself, period.

The negative theologian 'concedes' the contradiction but special pleads that there is an 'impossible' way. 

This is an oversimplication of course, but it hits the key points. 

 

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.


todangst
atheistRational VIP!
todangst's picture
Posts: 2811
Joined: 2006-03-10
User is offlineOffline
MrRage wrote: todangst,

MrRage wrote:
todangst, those quotes from negative theologians almost made my head explode.

That would make them happy, in that is their goal.... their arguments are a bit like the Koans in buddhism, they are intended to stress your thinking and shake it up, in the hopes that you 1) see the limits of knowledge and 2) so that you are willing to argue from ignorance/make a special plead that a limit means that there is '"something" behind the limit'

 What I find interesting is that some of these negative types have no problem speaking just like a positive theologian when it pleases them. Augustine is an egregious example. He even argues that god makes mistakes - for example, he holds that god ought to have put two men in the garden of eden.

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.


MrRage
Posts: 896
Joined: 2006-12-22
User is offlineOffline
todangst wrote: That would

todangst wrote:
That would make them happy, in that is their goal.... their arguments are a bit like the Koans in buddhism, they are intended to stress your thinking and shake it up, in the hopes that you 1) see the limits of knowledge and 2) so that you are willing to argue from ignorance/make a special plead that a limit means that there is '"something" behind the limit'

I see. Well, it certainly does accomplish #1, but #2 is a stretch. I guess I'm comfortable with limits. Some of my favorite parts of mathematics are Godel's and Turing's theorems showing mathematics to be incomplete and undecidable. They're shocking when you first learn of them, but it doesn't stop anyone from still doing math. I still dislike the Axiom of Choice though.

todangst wrote:
What I find interesting is that some of these negative types have no problem speaking just like a positive theologian when it pleases them. Augustine is an egregious example. He even argues that god makes mistakes - for example, he holds that god ought to have put two men in the garden of eden.

So there was one Christian who though it should've been Adam and Steve instead of Adam and Eve.


Strafio
Strafio's picture
Posts: 1346
Joined: 2006-09-11
User is offlineOffline
Godel's theorem isn't really

Godel's theorem isn't really a problem for mathematics in general.
It just points out that there are some mathematical truths that are impossible to prove and acknowledges that the consistency of mathematics can't be proved deductively. (it's been more or less proved inductively though!)

It was just a problem for particular philosophies of maths.


MrRage
Posts: 896
Joined: 2006-12-22
User is offlineOffline
Strafio wrote: Godel's

Strafio wrote:
Godel's theorem isn't really a problem for mathematics in general.

That's why I said it doesn't stop people from doing mathematics.

Strafio wrote:
It just points out that there are some mathematical truths that are impossible to prove and acknowledges that the consistency of mathematics can't be proved deductively. (it's been more or less proved inductively though!)

I'm curious, how is it proved inductively? Do you mean by the fact that it's hard to come up with a non-trivial true mathematical statement that has no proof?

Strafio wrote:
It was just a problem for particular philosophies of maths.

Yes, but it was a big blow to Hilbert's program. There was a sense of crisis in late 19th, early 20th century mathematics, especially with the paradoxes found within naive set theory. Hilbert wanted to set all of mathematics on a definite, firm grounding, but Godel & Turing's work showed there's no real certainty in mathematics, at least in principle.

Anyway, my whole point is my background has helped me not to get duped by theist in the way todangst mentioned. I don't get concerned about my limited knowledge and ability enough to have to invent a god to fill in those gaps.


Strafio
Strafio's picture
Posts: 1346
Joined: 2006-09-11
User is offlineOffline
MrRage wrote: That's why I

MrRage wrote:
That's why I said it doesn't stop people from doing mathematics.

The way you said it made it sound like "they know maths is flawed but don't care and just get on with it anyway because it seems to work"
That's why I went on with the "maths isn't really flawed" explanation.
Seems like there was a misunderstanding. Smiling

Quote:
'm curious, how is it proved inductively? Do you mean by the fact that it's hard to come up with a non-trivial true mathematical statement that has no proof?

We've yet to come across a mathematical falsehood that can be proved. (which would make mathematics inconsistent)
So I'd say that the consistency of mathematics is more or less inductively proved, even though it cannot be deductively proved.

Quote:
Anyway, my whole point is my background has helped me not to get duped by theist in the way todangst mentioned. I don't get concerned about my limited knowledge and ability enough to have to invent a god to fill in those gaps.

I see. Smiling