Wednesday, July 8, 2015

In Defense of Ignosticism

A theist by the handle of rockhound570 theist has raised several objections to ignosticism. 

About a month ago he raised a litany of issues he felt rebutted ignosticism or else felt showed where I failed to logically defend ignosticism. I would have responded sooner, but the truth is I've simply been too busy as of late to find time to respond (writing for a living takes up all my spare time reserved for writing!). 

But, low and behold, I found a few moments to respond. So what follows will be my best attempt to reply as clearly and concisely to his long email comments as possible and to do my best to answer his criticisms and concerns. 

Hopefully this exchange, taken in the spirit of a cordial discourse, will help clear up any confusion regarding ignosticism and, more importantly, may be of use to those who continue to grapple with the big questions. 

(Just for convenience, I shall refer to our theist has "Rocky" while I will just be "Me".)

Rocky: What you are really claiming as foundational postulates are 1: empirical knowledge is the only valid form of knowledge that an ignostic will accept; 

Me: True. An ignostic need not accept any metaphysical assumptions as valid as ignosticism deals with real world grammar of common nouns. It is a linguistics (semantics) argument.

I am not saying that I, as an ignostic, deny other forms of knowledge. I am merely saying than when making an argument from the position of an ignostic no other forms of knowledge are required for the argument to be logically valid.

As an atheist and a skeptic, I leave room for the possibility of other forms of knowledge.

Rocky: 2: that the human intellect IS the final arbiter of the intelligibility of the universe (that our minds can come to ultimate conclusions about things that may transcend them and are possibly not fully available to said minds, and if they are not, such things then acquire inherent meaninglessness because our limited intellects, which were very probably never fully capable of describing them, simply cannot include those things within its subsets of rationality); 

Me: What other intellects did you have in mind? And can you prove they exist?

As for the limits of the human intellect, what would that be exactly? I'm not sure that line has been clearly drawn. 

I acknowledge the human intellect is not unlimited, that there are conditions which do limit it, and biological factors we must consider that may hinder our intellectual potential. But we also have valuable tools, such as science and technology, to help aid us in overcoming many of these limitations. 

So what the exact limitations are on humanity's intellectual capacity (or potential) isn't necessarily all that clear, except that we can always find them out and list them. It would be a massive undertaking to define, list, and catalog all our intellectual limitations. 

That said, the semantic argument I offer here is only concerned with understanding basic terms in relationship to the common noun in which these terms are invoked. The etymology of "noun" after all comes from the late Middle English stemming from the Latin nomen or 'name'. It literally means to name the thing itself. This is why when dealing with nouns, especially nouns said to be substantive (meaning: having a firm basis in reality and so important, meaningful, or considerable) I stress the importance of describing the referent, i.e. the thing itself.

There is no abundance of intellect required to verify whether or not the description of the noun as given matches the person, place, or thing it is assigned to. This is why I point out that the easiest way to check for the validity of any given description of a person, place, or thing is to find that thing and simply have someone else describe it too. 

If our descriptions match to an overwhelming degree, then odds are we have described the same thing! If not, and our descriptions diverge, then there is a semantic problem. 

In my explication of ignosticism, I point out that ignosticism offers two solutions which address why our descriptions (in this case descriptions of God) might not align themselves. They are as follows:

  1. God is a conceptualization, or rather a series of concepts applied to a theological template. This being the case, ignosticism holds that people assume too much about God otherwise the descriptions of God would align more often than they do.
  2. Descriptions of God are dependent on the prior presuppositions of the believer, thus any description of God will grow more convoluted over time since believers usually change their descriptions of God to fit better with their presuppositions, thus necessitating a tendency for descriptions of God to grow more discrepant over time as well.

These two considerations are explanations for why people's definitions of God do not match, because they are, in essence, describing their own ideas and concepts of what they think God should be, not what God actually is should such a being exist.

If God was a substantive noun, and there was a referent to derive an adequate description from, then our descriptions would match. With matching descriptions we would know what it meant to speak of "God" any time we invoked God language. This not being the case however, we can be fairly certain God is not a substantive entity. Rather, by all appearances God seems to be exactly as we would expect if God were a conceptualization that gets convoluted the more theists try to force him to fit into their ideal image of what God should be.

That is about all the intellectual complexity required to validate ignosticism and its objections.

Nothing more is needed for ignosticism to be accepted as a logically valid argument.

Rocky: 3: the verisimilitude of the scientific approach can ultimately adjudicate all of reality, including those things very probably beyond the scope of its methodology, whether or not it can ever offer full, nonnebulous descriptions of that reality

Me: No. That's scientism. Scientism isn't foundational. But I'd be remiss if I didn't at least add that the scientific method is necessary for us to ultimately make sense of reality. That is, we cannot just throw science out of the window and hope to make sense of it all. It is a requisite tool, and a highly useful tool, in helping us to understand the world. 

Rocky: 4: nothing that is unavailable to the human senses can ultimately find any traction within ignosticism.  If possible, can you supply me with short, direct answers to these questions?  Just acceptance or rejection of said postulates?

Me: I think this is correct (note: substitute anything for nothing to avoid the double negative, and then your meaning becomes clear). I would add that if something is unavailable to our human senses, however, we would not know it except, perhaps, indirectly. Like dark matter, for example. But then again, even dark matter is indirectly observed via our sense of vision when we look for gravitational lensing effects it has on light. I suppose if something was completely unavailable to our senses then we would not know it exists, and therefore it might as well not exist.

Granted, this doesn't mean that something which is unavailable to our senses couldn't possibly exist. Anything is possible, but not everything is plausible. Since it would seem to not exist, being unable to perceive it, and we would have no way to prove it did exist, not even indirectly, then to talk about it as something which exists would be illogical. It would also, as a consequence of its imperceptibility, be rendered completely irrelevant thus a moot topic ergo meaningless.

As far as ignosticism is concerned, we need not worry about things unavailable to our senses. Ignosticism deals only with things we can generate valid descriptions of, whether substantive or conceptual.

As such, we could say that substantive descriptions, being substantive, wouldn't diverge from one another (at least not enough to cause any concerns) whereas conceptual descriptions will diverge since every conceptualization is created differently, thus contains differing features, which thus explains any dissimilarities we might find between competing conceptualizations of the same thing.

If "God" was a substantive noun, we'd be able to all describe God in the same way. But this doesn't seem to be the case. Most descriptions of God diverge. And this divergence can be great or miniscule, but the trend of the descriptions assigned seem to be conceptions derived not from the observation of the thing itself but as a means to create a conceptualization in lieu of the things absence.

Wherever the conceptualizations seem to overlap we can safely assume they do so because the conceptualization itself shares features, called templates, but not because they have derived these features from what they purport to describe. They have simply made up a template which they find appealing, and others might generate similar templates, and this describes the overlap. But the templates themselves are still divergent -- that is, instead of moving toward any agreement they continue to grow dissimilar. 

Rocky: Next, if God exists and is foundationally exterior to the universe (its root cause), why would you expect that our understanding of God to somehow become more illumined by processes of understanding that have to be limited by finite minds that must necessarily operate at a lower level of complexity or awareness? 

Me: In the hypothetical you propose, you make the following assumptions: 1) God exists; 2) God is foundational to the existence of the universe; 3) God is the cause of said universe; 4) God is beyond human understanding.

I don't think I need to explain why we should not waste our time on addressing these particular presuppositions in a discussion about ignosticism. After all, ignosticism's position is that you cannot know what it is the term "God" even means! So we cannot even begin to talk about these until this issue is resolved. That's the argument at hand.

(Note: I am not being dismissive here simply to be mean to believers. I am dismissing these topics because they are defeated by ignosticism's premise. Separately, apart from a discussion on ignosticism, they may be fine theological and philosophical topics of discussion. These topics have their place and time to be discussed, certainly, but here I am mainly concerned with defending ignosticism and laying the foundation for a logical argument from semantics against the comprehensibility of God.)

Rocky: Are you asserting that God, if it exists, must avail itself of full human comprehension? Explain why that should be a criteria of assessing whether or not the concept of God should be discarded.

Me: The reason that God's comprehensibility is a requisite of whether or not the concept should be discarded is precisely that if God did exist yet was completely incomprehensible then there would be no way to make sense of God's existence or talk about God in any meaningful way.

One might argue that it's not a black and white case. That it may simply be a case of the elephant in the room. We merely dimly perceive God, and because we can only vaguely piece together constituent parts of a greater whole, it's not that God's incomprehensibility is due to any trait of his existence but due to our limited knowledge of the bigger picture.

I understand the objection here, but it's not valid. It's not valid because if God were to exist, then our experience we have of God is the only way to make sense of God, thus the only way to talk about God, and if all we can talk about devolves into a meaningless, incomprehensible, jumble of fragmented ideas without a means to ever improve our understanding of him then you have a big problem. You are saying you are perceiving something but you can't quite make it out through the fog of imperceptibility, but yet you choose to call it God. Why? And then you're back to square one. 

As far as the ignostic is concerned, in such a case, this itself provides a valid description of God. In fact, it may be the only logically consistent description of God which believers can agree on. Mainly that God is beyond our limited understanding. 

If this is true, then what use is it to talk about God? Everything you mentioned in your list of presuppositions about the nature of God would be rendered erroneous based on your assumption that God is too complex to comprehend or is, somehow, beyond human understanding. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

Rocky: You are making some very large postulational assertions. 

Me: I don't think that I am. I would argue that I am making very reasonable objections here. 

First of all, they are logically consistent and sound objections. What about the premise that theists likely assume more than they can know about God sounds illogical to you? What about the premise that descriptions of God should be consistent and match when two believers are describing the same God sounds problematic to you? As far as postulates go, it seems these are valid.

Secondly, ignosticism is a very simple and straight forward argument. But it is not a well known one, which might explain some of the confusion people have when they first encounter it. Third, to make matters worse semantics and linguistics are confusing to those who are not accustomed to them, just as mathematics looks indistinguishable from Greek (i.e., it's all Greek to me) to those unfamiliar with it. But in the end, it's why I choose to write on the topics of ignosticism, semantics, and linguistics as they relate to God as commonly talked about in our language that uses semantics and linguistics to express these kinds of ideas.

That said, my assertions are straight forward and to the point. Two descriptions of the same thing should match. If they don't match there is a problem. There are two reasons we can point to for why this dissimilarity might arise. Accounting for these, we have to re-evaluate the question of how we use and talk about "God" in our language.

This seems to me to be a very reasonable position.

Rocky: I'd like to see defense of those in a rigorous logical sense instead of just more descriptions of ignosticism.

Me: I have provided just that. But when someone misconstrues ignosticism and ignores its objections, I think you'll find it is necessary to restate its premises, which does include describing it all over again.

Rocky: Finally, are you claiming that we can make any intellectual progress without some form of faith?  

Me: No. And I never said that.

Rocky: Every decision that we make involves an article of faith on some level or another. 

Me: It must, after all, you have to have faith in your own claims in order for you (yourself) to take those claims at face value!

Rocky: You cannot intellectually survive without faith. 

Me: It depends on what you mean by "faith." If you mean religious or spiritual faith, then I would argue this is a category error. If you simply mean confidence in our belief assumptions, in the philosophical sense, then I'd be more inclined to agree.

Rocky: Faith in the reliability of the efficacy of logic, faith in the ever predictable intelligibility of the physical universe; faith that your sense perceptions are valid enough to support your intellectual investigations, faith that every single postulate that cannot be absolutely proven in your logic train can still be universally agreed upon as valid

Me: The way you use faith here, in the philosophical sense of having confidence in our belief propositions, I would agree with you as to its fundamental importance in all of the above.

Rocky: Why should faith in God be the only suspect category?

Me: Because this isn't the same sort of faith. Belief in God is religious faith, or the belief in something based on insufficient evidence (i.e., conviction not proof -- which is the dictionary definition of faith, FYI).

Now, you might object and say, no, faith in God is an intellectual endeavor as well as a spiritual or religious experience. Well, I guess you'll have to have faith in that claim as well. But, perhaps, instead of merely expressing your strongly held faith in God, you can use the above tools of logic, knowledge of the physical universe, your sense and awareness, and your intellect, to substantiate your faith thereby take it to the point of being a veritable truth, so that instead of having faith you have understanding. 

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist