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Jan 24 2010

“Unknowable” basically means “who cares?”

Occasionally we’ll hear a believer define his god as an “unknowable” being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that’s a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be “closed-minded,” then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don’t know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces “god” to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our “feeble” human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us “feeble” minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you’d do well to point out he’s pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here’s part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I’ve been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.


The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you’ve done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It’s like new-age people who call “the Universe” God. All they’ve done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I’d have to concede his “god” exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he’s just happy worshiping it as God, then he’s simply come up with another word for “sun.” What you’re demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don’t otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, “God” is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because “you can’t prove it DOESN’T exist!”)

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you’ve simply come up with a new word for “the totality of everything.” My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling “the totality of everything” a “god” increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label “god” contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I’m eating right now are somehow “god”? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is “something that simply does not exist”. If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one’s intelligence can be measured by how correct one’s views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I’ve not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I’m ‘closed-minded’. Terms like ‘closed-minded’ and ‘open-minded’ are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don’t think they understand the terms. It is not ‘open-minded’ to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not ‘closed-minded’ to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it’s the ‘mind’ in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it’s problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the “proof” you think. First, you simply slap the label “god” on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is “god,” then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god “inherently unknowable,” something “we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of.” Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really “inherently unknowable,” then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven’t even got any justification to say god is “an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others.” Because to say that means you’re claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. “Inherently unknowable” means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an “inherently unknowable” thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn’t proof that something unknowable couldn’t ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

“God” is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world’s religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that “god is a
placeholder for ignorance”. Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit “we cannot possibly understand” as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you’ve seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you’ve slipped the qualifier “completely” into the sentence above.)

You’re basically saying this: “There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called ‘god’ that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood.”

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don’t know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is “I don’t know,” and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it “god.”

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We’re still talking about this “god” you say is “inherently unknowable,” right? Sorry, but you’ve singly failed to explain how we can “live better lives” by choosing belief in some “unknowable” concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn’t exactly take much “comfort” in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the “unknowable” offer a “better” life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Lurker

    Touché.

  2. 2
    Magicthighs

    Saying something is inherently unknowable is itself a claim about the nature of that something, which means it's self-contradicting./Sven

  3. 3
    FurieMan

    Everything that is detectable is knowable. And even if something is undetectable, we can se if it exist due to it's interaction with something else. Like how we cant detect darkmater atm other then by seing how its gravity effects everything around it. By the same token, even if could not detect god itself, we would be able to detect its interaction with the universe. So if god is truly undetectable, it can not interact with the universe. if it doesnt interact with the universe, it doesnt exist in the universe.But you know this.

  4. 4
    Tristan D. Vick

    I find that no matter how ludicrous Christians claims are, the best retort to their bald faced assumptions and unsupported claims is simply to ask "Based on what?" Let them spiral in circles until they crash and burn with failed logic. Not that anybody who cares about being well informed has time to listen to regurgitated rhetoric and bad apologetics, since more often than not, we're busy with our erudite efforts to learn what they refuse to. However, I have to hand it to them for persistence though. They never relinquish their position of ignorance, and I don't know whether that sort of devotion is admirable or just plain old sad. But I must agree with Kant’s dictum: dare to know. Anything less would not be worth knowing if you found out that’s all you could ever know and nothing more.

  5. 5
    magx01

    He lost it as soon as he stated this:I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.That sounds like some mucked up version of the ontological argument mixed in with some new age nonsense, with, as you rightuflly pointed out, absolutely no explanatory power whatsoever. And then the whole thing is self refuting, as you Lurker pointed out.

  6. 6
    Ron Strelecki

    I've had this conversation before (though I can never state things nearly as elegantly as you have here). It always ends the same way, with the "believer" (whatever that means) shaking their head and mumbling, "You just don't get it… You just don't get it…" and then talk about "humbling" because I am "so arrogant."I'm arrogant? Not you, the one who is claiming to have secret, yet un-knowable knowledge about the "creator" of the Universe?

  7. 7
    Aardvark

    You do realize he isn't going to respond to any of that, and that's if he even reads it!

  8. 8
    Ing

    "I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god."Ok, so God is knowable. and right off the bat we can rule out the "god is good" hypothesis. If god is the totality of everything he is all good and all evil making him amoral. He's as much Ghandi as Jack the Ripper.

  9. 9
    Ing

    "I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists"Parallel universes are an explanation for how fairies can existA ghost wave spectrum (unidentified spectrum outside EML) is an explanation for psionicsNeither are proof.

  10. 10
    tracieh

    Yes, it's amazing how much people can know about things they assert are unknowable. "Unknowable" almost always means YOU can't know anything about it, but I can. It's similar to the "god is outside of/beyond logic" statement. This usually means that whatever they think is "reasonable" for god to be/do is fine–because it "makes sense." But the moment you say, "But what about this thing over here that doesn't make sense?" they assert god doesn't have to conform to logic. God apparently conforms perfectly well to _their_ logic; but not to _yours_.

  11. 11
    David

    The only caveat I would add is that, a la Karen Armstrong, some people have a belief that God is unknowable and while you can't discover anything about God, you can have revelations about yourself and the universe while pondering the unknowable (which is, admittedly, a ridiculous task on the surface, akin to spending years of one's life contemplating one's own navel).Its a fairly twisted derivative of the Socratesian notion that it is at least as important to discover what you don't know as to discover what you do know. Somehow 'what you don't know' becomes warped into 'the unknowable'.I would, however, tentatively agree that if you sit contemplating your navel long enough, you will likely reach some useful conclusions about who you are and what you want out of life. Probably not the most effective route to self-awareness, but not completely useless.

  12. 12
    tracieh

    >if you sit contemplating your navel long enough, you will likely reach some useful conclusions about who you are…I am an innie.OHMMMmmmmmm.

  13. 13
    Magicthighs

    "I am an innie"Infidel!/Sven

  14. 14
    rrpostal

    I'm arrogant? Not you, the one who is claiming to have secret, yet un-knowable knowledge about the "creator" of the Universe?Exactly where I lose it also. How they manage to accuse others of their own biggest flaws is…just weird. The other knee jerk comment in the same vein is the "something from nothing" statement. Their claim is that everything was "poofed" into existence by a magic ill defined entity. But somehow it's me who believes "something can come from nothing"? I don't understand how they can possibly say it with a straight face. It's like my dog chiding me for licking myself and being dead earnest about it.

  15. 15
    Ron Strelecki

    "Exactly where I lose it also. How they manage to accuse others of their own biggest flaws is…just weird."I think the separation between theist and atheist can, to some degree, be attributed to a separation between an authoritarian worldview and more equitable worldview. In the authoritarian worldview, the purpose of communication is to establish rank. Once rank is established, communication ceases and commands begin. This is an effective strategy for organizing society right up to around the Renaissance. When the wolves are coming, you can't rationally discuss squaring the circle.On a personal level, people who have escaped (in their minds, at first) the authoritarian world seek to continue to communicate after rank has been established. To an authoritarian, all this "jibber-jabber" after rank has been established is just "rude". They will sometimes state it outright. they consider people outside of the world of rank to be children. They have "grown up" and accepted their place. Why don't you accept your place (beneath me) and STFU?You lose with them the second they know you are an atheist. To them, you are just "making excuses". All this talk of reason and skepticism is just mental masturbation to them. It is immaterial. You are outside the system because you are incompetent, greedy, selfish, or childish.You can tell a high ranking apologist from a striving apologist by how deeply they engage their opponent. An established apologist will offer their half-truths, dodges and solipsism and politely nod while you rebut. To them, THEY ARE THE GAME, and you are merely dealing yourself out of it. A striving apologist actually wants to convert you, and will try to "come down to your level" (from their perspective) and engage you one on one.

  16. 16
    SeanIOW

    I really don't care much for the term "unknowable" when i think about what is known now that was deemed unknowable in the past.And what people believed they knew, like in victorian times it was believed people would suffocate if they travelled at 40mph

  17. 17
    l;sdhnld;hn

    Oh noes. Not quantum god.That is not what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says. The HUP is a principle which is actually classical in nature and is to do with Fourier transforms of position space and momentum space.However people are introduced to it in quantum mechanics as it can be shown by the interactions of operators (in QM each observable of the system is given an associated operator).HUP claims that the process of observing some observable A can have an effect on the observation of the observable B at a later time (if [A,B]=/=0).I hate quantum god. It's such a pointless distraction. He may as well just done a little dance to pass the time instead of bringing up HUP.

  18. 18
    Madfoot

    As an atheist, I find the most atheists react to this argument with unwarranted hostility.In a debate, it's a cop-out. But to say it makes Christians unreasonable to believe in an unknowable being is unfair. I think we're the unreasonable ones for expecting them to take what we say at face value. We make appeals to science, but frankly science doesn't hold an opinion on the existence of God at all. The only real argument we have against God is the burden of proof. And let's be real, there's a great deal of difference between a tea cup and a man in the sky who – like it or not – make a big difference in many people's lives.

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