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

The Unknowability of a Singular God

Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 346
Tim: The way I tend to think about it, concepts probably emerged holistically and not in a sequential order. I see them as more web-like and less linear, but that's just me.

Nathaniel: I understand you to be saying that if our concept of God is that she is unique and singular, that she is therefore unknowable. ( I have no investment in gender so I'll go along with your use.) But for the argument to work, then the term 'God' must refer in some way to something, either to the concept itself or to something independent of the concept. How can the concept refer to anything outside of itself if that thing is unknowable? For the argument to work, the reference has to work, but if the reference works, then the argument doesn't work. Why would the reference hold only so far as to suit your argument and no further, without special pleading?

Yes, there are known unknowns, but that doesn't mean that nothing is knowable about them; it means that there are major gaps in present knowledge about those things, although in some cases we could come to fill them in eventually. For something to be a known unknown means that beliefs about it fit into a wider belief web. There has to be enough there to fix the reference or else the reference fails and we have an unknown unknown, and the argument fails.

You're saying that the reference holds with no further implication about what can be known about it by us. You haven't established why that would be the case. Even if it's agreed that God is unique and singular, she would not be uniquely or singularly so in every sense of those words. 'Unique,''singular,' and 'know' are all potentially equivocal terms that can be used in many different ways. The senses in which these terms are being used have to be established first. It doesn't follow that just because many features of a thing cannot be known that nothing at all ( beyond that fact)about that thing can be known. Knowledge is not a simple univocal term. There's analogical knowledge, experiential knowledge, etc, that resist translation to propositions. All this means is that people know much more than they can say, that what is articulated depends on what cannot be articulated.

The kind of God you're describing sounds like it's the traditional notion in which uniqueness and singularity are not antecedent traits but derivative of more essential features: for instance, in this conception, God is essentially eternal. Does that mean 'eternal' is unknowable? Even if it's understood as 'existentially eternal,' and even if it's accepted that God would be unique in that respect ( if god were real), does that mean that that concept is unknowable?

Similarly, a god would be a god even if we cannot know what that even means.

If the reality has no connection at all with any of our concepts, then we can no longer call that reality "God" or "god" - the reference fails and so any argument depending on the reference does as well. So to predicate anything about this thing, such as God IS x ( unknowable, etc) is a mistake. Why not say Bip or glurg is unknowable? Or fralm quib loonx?
A former member
Post #: 5
A thought exercise

Premise 2: Concepts for which no comparison can be made are unknowable.

A child is born blind, deaf, and dumb. He is also of normal intelligence. By the age of 4, most children are aware of their surroundings and curious about the world. Would this child in question have a concept of the darkness in which he lives even though he doesn't understand the concept of light?
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 168
Tim/Vic: I think Jim makes a good point about knowledge being gathered holistically rather than one little bit at a time. I also think we start out with some knowledge, instincts, which are gained through the sheer brute force attack of evolution. Such knowledge is close enough to get us started even if it is often wrong. The concept of the blank slate has been proven to be just plain wrong time and time again. Because of evolution, we hit the ground running, in a cognitive sense that is.

Vic: ugh, now I feel like I'm arguing that if we define a god as unknowable, then such a god would be unknowable. I suppose that the concept of unknowablity might be tied into the way that I've set up the definition of uniquely singular. I don't quite like that, it doesn't sit well with me because it seems almost like an argument for definition.

Jim: Obviously, we can know about god concepts. Quite a few people have them. Right now, I am working with a god concept which seems to point to an unknowable god (whether or not such a god exists). I know about the concept, not the god to which the concept may or not point. I think some arrived at this type of god concept through a process. The gods of the past were most certainly knowable. They were powerful immortals with very human tendencies even if they had supernatural abilities and duties. They had hands, feet, heads and hearts. They had thoughts, emotions, vices, virtues and flaws. They were often surrounded by fellow gods and/or other supernatural entities. As science peeled back the veil of ignorance, many of these gods were proven to not exist or at the very least they don't exist as they've been purported to. This killed many god concepts and caused others to adapt. Those concepts best suited to live in the changing social/philosophical climate survived to the next generation. Eventually, the concepts began to exploit a new niche, one which is beyond human reason. God concepts began to refer to entities so far removed from everything we know that logic could not touch them. I think this also castrated these gods, leaving them completely irrelevant... but that's another story entirely.

When it comes to god concepts, we can know them through comparison to other god concepts as well as mundane concepts. The uniquely singular god concept is known by the former, probably not the latter. It should be kept in mind that just because we have a concept of something, doesn't mean that concept points to a real thing.

As it concerns the eternality of this concept, she is purported to be beyond time, existing outside of it. After all, you can't create time from the inside. I understand the concept of enduring through time. I've done it for several years. I can have a concept of existing for an infinite duration, although it's a rather fuzzy conception. Once we break free of time, however, the concept breaks down entirely.

The only way I can think of that such a god could be knowable would be if something could bridge the gap. If we could see the fingerprints of god, for instance, then we could infer a thing or two about her. If there were mediators between god and us that shared aspects with god in such a way that they could fix the concept in their web of knowledge. We could then weave this web through them to god. This would explain profits, who would have supernatural knowledge of god, or angels who would have many of the same supernatural qualities as god. Assuming that we experience profits and angels and they confer some degree of access to this god concept, then that god becomes knowable at least to the extent to which references can be made.

Vic: Would a kid with severely limited senses know of darkness? No. Especially not at the age of four. They might be able to eventually understand that other people have more than just a sense of touch and that these senses give them access to information without their having to be in physical contact with a thing to do so. You might even be able to explain light and color to them, but it won't really stick because they have no reference for such things.
A former member
Post #: 6
Nathaniel, I'm not arguing with you, per se. I'm responding to your request: "This is a concept I've been thinking about recently. Let me know if this makes any sense."

I interpreted that to me that you would like to see if holes could be poked in your concept. However, it seems to be a moving target. For example, of course Jim does make a good point regarding acquiring knowledge holistically. However, that isn't what you postulated in your original post.

It also seems to me that you're confusing knowledge with understanding. So, to explain my position, I consider knowledge to be the reception of any fact; understanding to be the ability to do something with that fact. Hopefully, that will put an end to the dance of knowable and unknowable.

For example, it is obvious to me that the child in the thought exercise, just as any child of 4, of normal intelligence, (I don't know how much you know about 4 year olds but I chose that age intentionally) is rapidly gaining knowledge of his environment. I disagree with you when you say, "No. Not at the age of four." Listen to some 4 years olds sometime and you'll see what I mean. The intention of the exercise isn't to determine if the child would understand their darkness in the context of the knowledge of light and color. The child must have, or be developing, an understanding of his environment, including the darkness, even though his conception of the darkness would be different from yours or mine. Per my definition above, that would be knowledge of the darkness.

Hope that helps.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 347
Nathaniel: You make good points, and I agree that parts of the traditional concepts of God include her transcendence of human knowledge and understanding. My problem is seeing how this fact would necessarily mean that she would be unknowable in every way. Just because something is unknowable in its totality doesn't mean it's unknowable in every possible aspect or analogue. Singularity and uniqueness in totality do not necessarily mean singularity and uniqueness in every feature and aspect.

Unique and singular as applied to God may mean that there are truths about her that no human mind can grasp but this doesn't mean that there are no possible truths about her that human minds can grasp.

These terms may also mean that God falls under no category shared with any other thing, but if this is true, then the concept of 'God' being used in your argument would refer to nothing beyond human thought, but for the argument to be meaningful, its terms must refer to something beyond human thought. Otherwise you're saying that "This concept with no external referent is unknowable." I don't think you're saying that. And besides, the mere fact that a thing is unique in its totality does not entail that it has no particular property in common with anything else.

You mentioned 'eternal'; there are concepts of God that include both 'endless duration' as well as 'not limited by temporal being.' I think we do have some understanding of both of these - in terms of the latter, numbers and ideas. Whether these things really 'exist' or are 'real' or not is beside the point. We can understand these concepts in some sense at least.

There are features of God included in every concept about her beyond her unknowability, even in the most abstract Spinozistic concepts. But these features, in order to mean anything, correlate with our knowledge in some sense - otherwise they wouldn;t convey meaning. So every concept of God includes features that are knowable at least analogically. Whether they refer to anything objectively we agree is another matter.

To use Vic's analogy of the 4-year old born deaf and blind. Let's assume that she cannot know what 'darkness' means - I'm not saying she can't, but this is just to illustrate a point. When she uses the word 'darkness,' she really means 'a cold tingly feeling on my arms.' Let's say that there's an entire planet made up of people born blind and deaf but that they've been left with braille tablets that refer to 'darkness'. If some of them were to make arguments trying to prove facts about 'darkness,' it wouldn;t be 'darkness' they are referring to. How could their arguments make any sense or posit anything at all about darkness?

I think you incorporate knowledge claims about God into your premise in order to prove that no knowledge claims about God can be made. The burden is on you to establish how this is legit in this case. The concepts of 'unique' and 'singular' can be used in many different ways according to the context and you haven't specified how you're using these terms in order to prove that God is unknowable.

When you use the word "god" in an argument, that word is understood to refer to the various concepts associated with that word - if there are many concepts and connotations, then it's up to the arguer to specify the meaning as much as needed for that argument. Without these agreements then argument and rational discourse begin to not work so well. Even to argue about 'the unknowable' is okay because it's understood negatively, but I don't think it's legit to say that "X is categorically unknowable in every sense" if x is a concept that we know because for 'x' to mean anything, then it must correlate in some way with something, either cultural constructs or some extramental reality, and if it is the latter, then at least analogical knowledge about x is possible. So that the 'concept of an unknowable x' is like saying 'we know that x is unknowable'. It's obvious that it's not unknowable full stop - you just have to specify in which ways it may be unknowable, although even then absolute certainty seems unlikely. If something is utterly unknowable in every possible way, then it seems that it would be unknown that it's unknowable, and rational argument breaks down that way too.

A former member
Post #: 7
Jim wrote: " If something is utterly unknowable in every possible way, then it seems that it would be unknown that it's unknowable, and rational argument breaks down that way too."

Jim, this drives precisely to the point that I was trying to make: that if there's an unknowable god, and we assume that there's an unknowable god, that's one aspect of that god that is knowable. Thanks for stating it more clearly than I did.
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