I am having a conversation with a person who goes by the name Rockhound570 theist about ignosticism and the implications of it as it relates to God.
He brought up a point that many people, in my experience, often seem to be confused about. It seems there is an ongoing debate in theology as to whether or not we can fully comprehend God, should such a being exist. Or, as some contend, God is so far beyond our understanding that we cannot grasp him.
Before moving on, let’s not forget that the first question relating to ignosticism asks, “What do you mean by God?”
This is a fair question, and a good starting place I might add, since human experience tells us that humans have invented a wide range of religious customs and beliefs, have erected competing religious ideologies, and have subscribe belief to a seemingly endless supply of supernatural deities and gods.
So, as you can see, “What do you mean by God?” is a very good question to ask before getting too deep into theological discussions.
Now here’s the thing. Ignosticism says it should be relatively easy to find an agreeable definition for God and what the term “God” actually means. Ignosticism holds that if God is real then all we need do is look at the referent (the thing itself) and simply describe it. If everyone’s answer matched, then we’d all have a working definition for God. But this doesn’t appear to be the case.
So, naturally, theists like Rockhound (or Rocky for short) suppose that God simply isn’t comprehensible. We just cannot understand or perceive God fully enough to explain in any greater detail. As such, we can only perceive God dimly, or as St. Thomas Aquinas suggested, we can only recognize him why what he is not — sort of like feeling out the empty space in a room and determining that it is the ever illusive elephant in the room.
But I have a different suggestion. My suggestion holds that, if ignosticism is correct in its assessment, the reason nobody can agree as to what they mean when they talk about “God” is *not because they haven’t fully comprehended God but because there are different competing definitions for supposedly the same thing.
In response to my article on Ignosticism being the best argument against God, Rocky stated that
I don’t care about human definitions of God. I care about whether or not God exists as a reality independent from the capability of humans to adjudicate. That is a more fundamental question than any you have asked. That requires clarification from you before you can logically proceed.
Earlier, I suggested that all definitions of God are conceptually derived. In my book titled Ignosticism, I explain that we have two ways in which we ultimately settle on definitions. There is the first method, in which definitions are pragmatically derived — that is, we observe a referent (i.e., the thing itself), like an apple, and then we test and examine it thereby supplying the information we all need to recognize and reasonably describe what an apple is.
As such, “apple” is merely the name we assign to the referent (the thing itself), and the description of its features or characteristics supply us with a working definition for it. In this case, we have a crunchy, juicy, greenish / or redish / or yellowish fruit with a delectable sweetness or sourness and an easily recognizable fragrance, which all people can agree upon whenever they stumble upon the thing in person, and can say quite emphatically that it is an apple.
I have mentioned that other cultures, and other languages, will name the referent (the thing itself) differently. This is to be expected. Thus, in Japanese, an apple is called “ringo.” But the fact remains, the description of an apple, whether you are American, Japanese, or Russian, will always match everyone else’s description since we are all reliant on the same referent (the thing itself) that we must derive our description from.
Hence, we have pragmatically derived a proper definition from the referent (the thing itself) by observing, testing, and examining it.
Now, there is another kind of definition which is derived, not from any object, but from an idea or concept.
These sorts of definitions are not explaining anything in the real world but, rather, these definitions are the combination of ideas and concepts which, together, form a conceptual framework in which we can better understand said ideas or concepts.
An example of this would be the concept of a Democracy. Democracy isn’t a thing unto itself that has any referent in the real world. Instead it is a political ideology regarding how we ought to organize societies and what rights citizens ought to be allowed in such societies. The democracies that exist today do not supply us with the definition of what constitutes a democracy, rather, the definition of a Democracy gives us the ability to descern and recognize what constitutes working democracies.
What this means is that the concept of a Democracy is a collection of specific, yet recognizable, political philosophies and ideologies collected together to form a conceptual framework for what we mean by the term “Democracy.” Therefore, whenever we see a system of government that contains these specific political philosophies or ideologies, we will call it a Democracy.
This is what I call a conceptually derived definition, since we lack a referent to describe but we have, in essence, a well established or elucidated concept or idea.
During our conversation, it seems that Rocky took umbrage at my suggestion that the term “God” was conceptually derived, although I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Allow me to explain.
All definitions of God, if derived from a referent (the thing itself) would presumably match — that is, they would be in agreement with one another about the thing they were seeking to describe — just as we saw was the case with apples. But this we do not find.
Rather, definitions of “God” tend to vary drastically, since people are using religious templates to create their ideal God based on subjective experience, usually through the lens of their culture and/or religion, of what they feel or believe God to be. In my mind, God is clearly a conceptually derived idea.
We know this precisely because we can ask anyone what it is they mean by “God” and what it is any particular definition of God seeks to describe? If there was actually a referent (the thing itself) which people could experience first hand, as with apples, then whatever they might call God, whether it be Yahweh or Allah or Vishnu, at least they would be explaining a tangible referent (the thing itself) and their definitions would align. But this we do not find. Which, I feel, is a big indicator that we are absent a referent and are in all likelihood dealing with competing conceptualizations.
Rocky went on to add that
You say that I must supply a third party referent. That implies that the human psyche can fully and adequately grasp the concept of God so clearly that all humans will agree upon it. How do you know this is so?
Naturally, my suggestion that a third party should be capable of describing a referent (the thing itself) in virtually the exact same way was to point out that regardless of culture or background, everyone knows how to describe an apple to someone else of a different culture or background — and that between the two of them they can agree on what apples are.
But when it comes to God, this kind of semantic agreement is virtually lacking. Why? Because there is no centralized source to derive a common definition from. Rather, it seems to be the case that all definitions of “God” are conceptually derived, thus lending to a divergence in opinion on what “God” is or what attributes he (or she) has. What this means from the point of view of the ignostic is that God is a semantically confused term.
Continuing in our conversation, Rocky goes on to say:
That just leads me back to what I asked before. How do YOU know that such a definition is even possibly attainable? Why is such a definition needed if the real project is to try and decide if a transcendent reality that gave rise to all that exists is possibly there. By implication, it must be, or God is just an individual concept. OK. Well and good. That is a truth implication that you must clarify before we can proceed. If you cannot, your thesis is founded upon a non-provable supposition and it fails. I am quite certain that I can supply more challenges than this first simple one that comes to mind. If just really seems that you are trying to evade the deeper question of God’s existence simply by citing the cloud of confusion of defining something that may not be fully available to limited human perception.
To which I replied:
**We know, at least, that humans can recognize other intelligent minds. If God is not an intelligent mind, of a sort, then what is it you claim to be experiencing — when by your own admission it is not comprehensible?
If it’s incomprehensible to you, and you cannot makes sense of it, then how do you know it’s God? If it is truly incomprehensible, then I have to say ignosticism is justified by the very fact that what is incomprehensible cannot also be coherent, since the prior nullifies the latter.
In other words, you cannot have a logical and consistent argument for that which is incomprehensible except to say that it is incomprehensible, and you’ve gotten nowhere. Are you saying God is incomprehensible? If so, the problem seems obvious. There can be no suitable definition for God, since any experience we may have of him would be meaningless since it is incomprehensible to us.
If, on the other hand, God is comprehensible, then my prior claims with how to approach this information still holds. If God is comprehensible, then we should expect, at the very least, to be able to come to agreement of that which we have comprehended. Otherwise, the problem of dissimilarity arises all over again, and we just come back to God being incomprehensible, and thus irrelevant to human experience.*
Please keep in mind that ignosticism doesn’t disprove the existence of God, per se. Rather, it simply observes that there is an undeniable semantic confusion, and that in all likelihood this confusion is caused by God being conceptually derived rather than pragmatically derived.
One possibility is that all anyone has are their individual conceptualizations, in which case, God is a figment of human imagination, a mere fancy. On the other hand, there is a real possibility that God exists but there is simply no way to know him, that the referent (the thing itself) is out there but simply beyond our perception or understanding, in which case the ignostic’s claim would revert back to the theological noncognitivist’s position that it is meaningless to talk about something which cannot be talked about meaningfully.
I think that addresses the theist’s confusion as to whether or not God is comprehensible. If the theist is to believe in any God that is a Personal being or a Perfect being, then God has to, by his very nature, be discernible to us. Otherwise we could not know him and he would be rendered irrelevant to human experience. Similarly, anything said about such a God, such as him being a God of love, or him being a transcendent being, would all be lies. Unable to know anything about God, we wouldn’t know anything about his basic attributes except to say he was supremely illusive. And such a God cannot be anything but irrelevant to us.
I rather think the simpler explanation, however, is that God is a type of conceptualization — and people simply have conceived of different, often competing, ideas and concepts for what they feel God is and what the term “God” means to them personally.