The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › The Unknowability of a Singular God

The Unknowability of a Singular God

user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 165
This is a concept I've been thinking about recently. Let me know if this makes any sense.

Premise 1: Everything known we know through comparisons. No concept can be known separate from all other concepts.
Premise 2: Concepts for which no comparison can be made are unknowable.
Premise 3: God is a singular entity which is so unique that there is nothing we can compare her to.
Conclusion: If god is an incomparable singular entity, she cannot be known.

I think the structure of the argument works just fine, the only problem is whether or not the premises hold true. Keep in mind that this does not speak to the existence of god, merely whether or not god can be known.

P1 seems fairly solid to me. It seems obvious that we know everything by comparisons. We know of light and dark because we can compare the two. P2 seems a bit shaky to me but it just might work. The idea is that if our knowledge is made up of a web of connections, then singular concepts which cannot be compared to anything would be, by definition, completely separate from and inaccessible to that web. Such a concept would seem to be inaccessible to knowledge.

It may be possible that P2 can be partially false. That is, such things cannot be known completely but if a concept has parts which can be compared to other things, then those parts (and only those parts) could be known. The thing with the god concept is that it is quite unique. This god is supposed to be so far beyond anything and everything we know that we cannot ever hope to understand anything about her… mysterious ways and all that.

Also worth noting is that if these premises hold true AND god is knowable, then she would not be an incomparable singular entity. That is, there would be something which is like god, but not god, that we can compare her to.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 343
This is an interesting question but I'm having trouble wrapping my head around what it could mean. Maybe you could help clarify what you're asking.

One problem I have has to do with where you say that this question is separate from the question of whether or not there is a God. But if there is no God, then there would be nothing for us to know separate from the contents of the various concepts of God, and it seems that those contents would be knowable since human minds are their sources. It would be like asking "Is the concept of Pegasus knowable?" or "Santa Claus" or unicorns, etc.,? Even assuming that human minds conceive of God as an utterly unique and singular object, God would still not be unknowable because there would be no separate reality to God independent of human concepts about him, and so nothing about him that human understanding could fall short of grasping.

If there is God, then for that concept we have [God] to be able to mean anything, it seems like it has to line up at least to some large degree with the reality or else the reality would not be something that anyone could correlate with the concept. Otherwise, how could anyone say with confidence even that "God is a unique and singular reality"? In other words, either the reference between the concept and the reality is lacking, in which case then even God's unknowability could not be known, or else the concept [God] does refer in some sense to the reality in which case God would be knowable to some extent. To the extent that he is not knowable, then the reference breaks down and so does the unknowability.

If people discover some day that the reality of God is radically different from any of the contents of the concept [God], then we'd realize we were mistaken and that the concept really didn't have a referent, so that [God] would be nothing more than a human invention and so it would have been knowable all along (as a concept). But if people did discover 'God's' true nature, then that nature would have been knowable after all. And if people will never be able to discover anything about God's true nature, then his unknowability would never be knowable either.

I realize that what I've written here is confusing because it is an attempt to track my own confusions!

Also there are possible equivocations about the word 'know,' but I've graced you with a large enough pile of incomprehensibility for tonight. Fascinating question. Thanks for posting it!
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 166
I understand that we can come up with concepts of god, I'm not disputing that. Basically, what I'm getting at is that if god is so unlike anything else that there literally cannot possibly be anything like god other than god, then there is no referent to start from.

A Pegasus is like a horse with wings. Santa Claus is like a giving immortal with the resources and ability to deliver presents to every child in the world in one night. Unicorns are like horses with a single horn on their heads, possibly with supernatural powers. That is because we have things we can compare these concepts with.

Consider a universe where there is no light. From our perspective, we can say that such a universe would be filled with darkness. However, from within that universe the concept of darkness would be unknowable because it can only be known by comparison to light.

Now, perhaps I can look at a teacup and say "that's not god" but the literal god would be beyond conception because the best we could come up with would to say "god is not like a teapot, not like Pegasus, not like Santa, not like unicorns, not like a father, not like ice cream..." because being unique and singular in every conceivable way, then every quality god possesses would lay out of reach of our web of knowledge. This would leave us unable to access any referent through which we could understand any aspect of god, and therefore god herself.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 344
My guess is that if God is not real, then all we have are the various conceptions of God, none of which can fall short of any knowability standard since; if there is any such standard at all, the God concepts themselves would set it. So it seems that the question of unknowability would hinge on whether or not God is real. No further analogy between God and Pegasus, Santa or unicorns was intended.

But whether God is real or not, the fact that people can have a concept called God means either that there are features of reality independent of the concept that the concept corresponds to, or there aren't. If there is nothing that can even be analogized to God, then the concept would have no referent. If the concept has some sort of referent, then the reality can at least be analogized. So it would seem to me that in none of the conceivable scenarios would God be utterly unknowable. There are scenarios that no one can conceive of but those would have to remain for now outside of our speculation, although kept as a reminder of our cognitive limits.

I don't think it necessarily follows that if God is unique and singular, he would be utterly unknowable in every possible way.
A former member
Post #: 1
This conversation is difficult to follow because it is crossing back and forth from the original epistemological question to the metaphysical. If I correctly understand the original question, it is whether or not it is possible to know anything as unique as a god since there is no comparison.

Even granting the first two premises, Premise 3 gives me cause for pause: God is a singular entity which is so unique that there is nothing we can compare her to.

The premise describes something with the following knowable comparable attributes. It:
is a god
is a singular entity
has absolute uniqueness
has a gender

The premise itself has me thinking that if there is even a notion of the existence (or better stated, the non-existence) of something, then it is knowable. But now I'm treading on Anselm's turf :)

Edit: Just to clarify, the point that I'm making is that the notion that something is unknowable is knowledge of that thing. And we can take that out infinitely...the knowledge of the notion, or the notion of the notion...

So I have to conclude that even if we're thinking that there's something that we can't think of, then that is knowledge of that thing.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 345
Thanks Vic. You make somewhat the same points I was making. I was only touching on metaphysics as a way of illustrating that under no metaphysical scenario that I could imagine would the epistemology allow for an utterly unknowable divinity. Either the concept 'God' does not refer to anything independent of the concept, or it does refer, but in neither case would 'God' be utterly unknowable. It seems to be a self-refuting claim to say that there is something that we know that we can know nothing about. Those things that we can never know anything about would be things that we would be unable to know that we cannot know anything about.

But maybe it's not as easy as that. Let's say that we have the concept of a theory (T) explaining how consciousness arises from physical matter. What could fill in that concept of T may be inaccessible to any human mind although no one will ever be able to know for sure that that is the case. But if T is inaccessible to human minds, then it is unknowable even though no one will ever know that it is. Just having the concept of a theory (T) is nothing more than an empty placeholder for what no one can ever know and doesn;t really give us any knowledge of T. But T and God may not be analogous since the God idea has content and is more than a mere placeholder for what is not currently known.

BTW, the gender of God I understand as just a matter of convention without necessarily filling in the concept.
A former member
Post #: 15
I'm having trouble with the first premise amd I am a little surprised no one else mentioned this but...

Premise 1: Everything known we know through comparisons. No concept can be known separate from all other concepts.

Question: How do you get the first concept then?
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 167
Alright, perhaps I should define and clarify a few things.

First, I was using the female pronoun out of personal preference. I do not use it to mean that such a god would have gender. It's mostly a reflection of the fact that most god concepts are personal, so using "it" wouldn't be appropriate. I'm also somewhat rebelling against the male dominated god concepts while nodding at the fact that historically most creator gods were female.

Second, any thing will be itself. A bip is a bip regardless of what it means to be a bip. Similarly, a god would be a god even if we cannot know what that even means.

Also, it is not unheard of that god would be such a uniquely singular entity. Furthermore, the qualities she possesses are often claimed to be so far beyond their mundane and finite counterparts that we can't compare the two. In fact, I have heard these claims a lot from apologists and philosophers alike, from both sides of the theism/atheism divide. I'm not totally out of bounds for commenting on this. Let me be clear as well, this is the only type of god concept I'm currently talking about. I suppose I'm implicitly making the claim that gods who are not uniquely singular are potentially knowable, but that's about it. I don't want to argue about the nature of god, merely that IF god possesses such a nature as I'm describing (and have heard described countless times) that such a god is unknowable.

Lets take this a bit further. If god exists, she exists in a way like no other thing exists. The existence of god is not like the existence of my car, nor is it like the existence of numbers, concepts or minds. Even though existence itself is not a unique quality, the way god exists is so unlike any other existence that the two things just cannot be compared. The same could be said about any of the other qualities one might attribute to god such as love, justice, knowledge, power, etc... I'm not saying that these are qualities which god possesses but rather that those who argue that she does possess such qualities also argue that they are fundamentally different, often due to their limitless/infinite/perfect nature.

The suggestion that the statement "god is unknowable" is contradictory since it purports knowledge of the unknowable just doesn't sit well with me. We all know what I'm talking about. There is such a thing as a known unknown. That is, there are things which we know that we do not know and there are things which we do not know that we do not know. I'm suggesting that the singularly unique (creation of special pleading if you ask me) god is impossible to know because our web of knowledge either has no connections to it or if it does, they are infinitely far away such that the distance to the truth cannot be traversed.

There are certainly god concepts which are knowable, I'm gnostic concerning Zeus, Set, and Gaia. I think these are certainly knowable gods. However, when you get into the more vague deistic conceptions of gods which are so far removed from everything we know, I argue that knowledge of such gods eventually becomes impossible. This mode of thought also gives us a bit of a way to determine if a god is knowable or not (in part or in whole) simply by asking ourselves whether or not it would be possible for any finite web of knowledge to gain access to it (it would be rather meaningless to say that god is knowable because at the very least she knows herself).

I understand that the god concept comes with a lot of baggage, so set that aside really quick and I'll go back to the bip. Firstly, the bip is a bip, but that's a truism and it doesn't matter. This bip is the only bip and in fact there is nothing which is even remotely like this bip. Any qualities which this bip possesses are so unlike any of the qualities of other things that they cannot even be compared with each other. In fact, the way that the bip possesses these qualities is also unlike the way that anything else possesses their respective qualities. Even the very existence of the bip is unlike the existence of any other thing such that while saying "the bip exists" might be true, it doesn't make sense to say "the bip exists like n" where n is anything other than the bip. There is literally nothing it is like to be the bip other than to say that being like the bip is like being like the bip. In every conceivable way, the bip is unlike any other thing we could possibly know.

Now, compare my web of knowledge to a tree. Its roots are my instincts which were tumbled upon by the brute force of evolution and start me off with a small degree of a priori knowledge (some of which is just plain wrong but close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades). From there, the branches of what I know are quite the tangled mess. It's like a large Celtic knotted tree of life. The branches turn back in on each other, connect and branch off again. The connections represent concepts and the branches represent the connections between concepts. The concept of the bip above would be infinitely far away from my little tree. So far away, in fact, that if I tried to form branches out to that concept then the branches would have to cross an infinite amount of space. Furthermore, because the bip concept is so far away that not even any light emitted or reflected (uniquely of course :P) by it could reach my little tree because the expansion of space between the two is pushing them away from each other faster than the speed of light.

How is it that we can STILL say that the bip is knowable? How does that make sense? I realize that we can say things like "ah, but we still know that it's a bip" and/or "saying the bip is unknowable is a knowledge statement that you shouldn't be able to make if it were true." But how is that anything other than sophistry? Furthermore, how can we even say that the bip has any of the qualities I've ascribed to it if it nothing can be known about it? That is, how could I possibly know that the bip exists as I say it does? The answer is, I can't.
A former member
Post #: 2
Thanks for that clarification, Nathaniel. Granting that condition of knowledge, I would agree that it's impossible to have knowledge of anything beyond the reach of our "knowledge tree". It goes almost without saying that if the premise is that it is impossible to have knowledge of a thing, that is the only possible conclusion (whether or not it actually exists).

Indeed, the term "god" carries much baggage with it. I take it that a premise is that gods are only discoverable? If that's the case, what's the difference between a god and a bip? And if a god cannot, or will not, make itself known, is it a god or just bip; would such a thing be a god at all?
A former member
Post #: 3
Tim, I agree with your assessment of the first premise (which is refuted by the second premise) but I sidestepped it. If we can only know concepts through comparison, it is impossible to know the first concept, for which we have no comparison. Subsequent comparisons, and therefore knowledge, of any concepts would be impossible regardless of the number of concepts.
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