Philosophical discussions can be daunting. This is because there are so many areas of philosophy, so many competing ideas, and so many concepts that really push one to think deeply about issues, sometimes trivial and sometimes important, that makes philosophy challenging.
There was a time when I thought philosophy amounted to little more than sophistry, arguing over nothing, thinking deep philosophical thoughts about irrelevant questions, that it was all semantic word games and esoteric nonsense. I felt that anytime a philosopher gave their opinion they were obviously just full of it.
About six years ago I began re-reading the works of Immanuel Kant at the behest of my friend John J. who recently became an ordained priest and is a theologian. At that time I was getting back into linguistics as well, so I picked up Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
I don’t know what it was, but over the years my taste in literature matured and I developed a love for reading non-fiction, and I grew to appreciate philosophy.
What I learned helped me re-evaluate the importance of philosophy. Philosophy literally means the ‘love of wisdom’, and who couldn’t afford to grow a little bit wiser?
It seems I may have been wrong about philosophers. They weren’t deliberately trying to be sophists, they weren’t trying to bamboozle or hoodwink me, it was just that the language philosopher’s employed was foreign to me and, furthermore, it wasn’t that they were unintelligible to me because they were all quacks, but they were unintelligible to me because I simply couldn’t speak their language.
Now a days, whenever I engage with anybody in a philosophical discussion, I try to keep this in mind. Many people find philosophy confusing or difficult to grasp as I once did because, like I was back then, they simply don’t speak the language.
Even so, I try to go out of my way to explain things as simply as I can in a manner which will relay the same concepts and ideas but without resorting to exclusively esoteric language. Instead of just speaking about properly basic beliefs, for example, I will first relay what a properly basic belief is and what it means and why it matters for the discussion we’re having.
I do this because I think that when we are confused we tend to talk past one another, and it’s hard to find common ground when you keep missing each other at the halfway point. Philosophical misunderstandings are rather like formation skydivers whipping around uncontrollably, never quite getting in sync. It can be a dizzying affair.
Recently, a theist reader, whom we’ll simply refer to as “Rocky,” had some trouble with what I was saying and accused me of having a “vacuous blog.”
I’m sorry he feels that way.
It seems Rocky had several problems with the way I worded some things, and the fact that I dismissed one of his questions outright (I mean, I wasn’t deliberately trying to be mean, I dismissed it because it was irrelevant to the conversation. But now I see that in retrospect how it might have seemed like I was dismissing him as not worth bothering about). He went on to say that
“You operate on a basis of contempt for those who disagree with your (limited) assessment that God does not exist. You operate under the misassumption [sic] that your limited intellect can finally decide the question.”
Clearly, we were talking past each other, and like the analogy of the formation skydivers spiraling out of control, so too the conversation went.
I wasn’t dismissing Rocky’s belief that God exists because it’s not a valid philosophical topic, I was dismissing it because it wasn’t valid to the topic of the conversation, which was the logical validity of ignosticism.
At any rate, I amended my language to better reflect the fact that I wasn’t trying to be mean to him (or other theists) by not taking his beliefs seriously but that, in this case, his presuppositions and heart felt convictions simply had no baring on the conversation at hand.
That said, his long response to my response raised some interesting tangential philosophical concerns that I would like to address here in the spirit of the philosophical discourse. After all, the only way we can ever make sense of philosophy is to keep having these kinds of conversations.
Forgiving the tone of the language (since I obviously had inadvertently upset him), he went on to say:
“You have provided no substantive response to fundamental questions yet you still hold to your intellectually arrogant position: First: you have utterly failed to provide a logical foundation for the ultimate and singular efficacy of empiricism as the only basis for logical argument while using rationalism (logical argumentation) as the basis to simply STATE that empiricism is the only viable means. That ignores hundreds of years of rationalist thinking, and a subject with which Kant strove mightily in his attempt to wed rationalism and empiricism. I must have missed your treatise that trumped Mr. Kant.”
A couple of things are worth mentioning here.
First, anyone who is familiar with my writing on this blog knows that I am a staunch defender of Kant and that when it comes to discussing metaphysics I take the Kantian view more often than not.
So Rocky’s assumption that I am somehow anti-Kant is simply mistaken.
Presumably, this misconception that I reject Kant arose because he thought I was dismissing his religious beliefs on the basis that I reject supernaturalism. But this doesn’t in any way mean I dismiss metaphysics. The two are different, after all. As such, I disregard supernatural suppositions that do not carry with them an demonstration for their validity, and I just happen to reject certain kinds of metaphysical assumptions because I don’t find them convincing, especially when they have no relevance to the conversation at hand. And so that’s what I did.
The second thing I want to say is that I never said that empiricism was the only viable means of attaining knowledge. I actually can’t know this, nobody can. In fact, this was Kant’s very objection to Hume! The truth is, I remain open to the possibility of an underlying metaphysical reality (in the Kantian sense), but it wasn’t my intent to open up a discussion about metaphysics since, once again, it wasn’t related to the topic I was discussing. But I am more than happy to discuss it with anyone who asks me about what I think and why.
One thing I think we should try and keep in mind is that the dialectic of one person taking a side and arguing for it can often create a sense of tension between those who take an opposing side or point of view.
Just to clarify, I don’t view the other side as an enemy, which it seems Rocky may have mistook for my official stance. Rather, I think of them as a partner in the greater philosophical discourse. Their opposing views actually help me to consider the objections to my own philosophical views so I can better defend them or else reject them in light of a better understanding.
Rocky went on to add:
“Sorry, but I find Aquinas far more satisfying in his deliberations than your simple excising of God from the human concern because God can’t be described as a “noun.” This could only make sense to an English major such as yourself. You refuse to manfully wrestle with a question that has interested all thinking peoples since thought arose: that of the existence of a possible transcendent.”
I too find Aquinas highly satisfying. Not only as a theologian but as a philosopher in the truest sense of the word.
That said, I hope everyone can see that the rest of this comment represents the very point of contention where the confusion lies. I wasn’t talking about other deliberations or questions regarding the topic of God’s existance, such as transcendence, which is an entirely different discussion altogether. I was talking about a semantic argument which, in my estimation, acts as a defeater to the very claim that it is meaningful to talk about God at all!
What I mean by defeater is that, it seems to me, ignosticism nulifies the idea of God as a meaningful subject to talk about. Although I’ve talked at length on ignosticism as I’ve tried to develop it more thoroughly as a semantic argument, it’s worth repeating the main premise of the argument here. Ignosticism, in a nutshell, states that people assume too much about God (evidenced by the numerous and competing definitions of God which exist), and then states that because everyone makes their own assumptions about God that the term “God” becomes incomprehensible to us because it can come to mean anything and everything.
So, Rocky had claimed that I failed to logically defend ignosticism by not engaging with other arguments for God, and then became angered when I dismissed these other deliberations. The reason, though, I think becomes obvious given the fact that ignosticism defeats any and all arguments for God by its premise that it’s impossible to talk about God in any meaningful way.
Until this objection is overcome, I really do think ignosticism is a very strong argument against the theological position. It may not disprove the possibility of God’s existence, but it shows there is an underlying semantics problem that plagues discussions about God which needs to be overcome before such discussions can be deemed valid topics of discussion.
Our disgruntled theist however seemed to miss this point and said,
“And forgive me, I do not speak insultingly here, but the arrogance of your position is breathtaking. And to think that all of us missed it because we have trouble understanding something that necessarily transcends that which it has created.”
That’s not the case at all.
I think I have sufficiently explained above, and in the previous post as well, why I dismissed the other deliberations. Nor to I feel I am being arrogant by sticking to the argument as presented. I am perfectly fine talking about other theological points of view when that is the topic I am engaged in, but this was specifically a challenge to ignosticism and I was treating it as such.
“Well, lets just throw the whole thing away since it doesn’t fit within the human definitional capability.”
That’s actually the consequence of ignosticism, yes. Which is why I think it is such a hard hitting argument against the validity of theism.
“Lawyerly semantical nonsense.”
Well, I could see why one would think this. But it’s untrue. Semantics is literally the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning.
There are two main areas of semantics: 1) Logical semantics, which concerns itself with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication; and 2) lexical semantics, which concerns itself with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.
What I view ignosticism to be is a type of semantic argument that makes use of both logical and lexical semantics and shows that there isn’t any real meaning to the idea of God as commonly talked about. It then discusses the implications of this and shows that all presuppositions regarding belief in God are nullified, or defeated, by theism’s failure to make God into a substantive “noun” (or more generally a substantive entity) worth talking about even though this is how believers are using the idea of God as expressed by the language they invoke.
Really, at its most basic, ignosticism is defeater to the theist position that it is in anyway meaningful to talk about God.
I suppose from the perspective of a believer who takes for granted their presuppositions, this might look like arrogance to them. They often site the biblical passage Psalm 14:1 that “The fool in his heart says there is no God.”
But this isn’t the case. There is no arrogance here. It’s simply a logical argument that raises very real, very devastating objections to theism (and more broadly speaking to god belief in general).
“Your argument sounds as though you gave birth to an intellectual child you simply can’t give up.”
That’s merely because nobody has had a good answer which addresses ignosticism’s objections to theism. You don’t give up a successful argument and solid logic simply due to the fact that others have failed to come up with an adequate defense against it.
Another question our theist friend asked was:
“If God does not exist, what do you, through empiricism, propose as an alternative to explain the birth of the universe from nothing?”
I consider such questions a red herring. It also makes incorrect assumptions about my position, which means it’s also a bit of a strawman.
After all, I never stated ignosticism is disproof for the existence of God. It is proof of the unintelligibility of God. As such, it invalidates theism on the basis of a semantic argument, which can be empirically justified.
I have called ignosticism a justification for atheism in the past because, it stems to reason, we have to know precisely what it is we are talking about in order to talk about that thing in any meaningful way. It if is incomprehensible to us, we simply could not talk about it, and so it might as well not exist in the first place.
Additionally, for a thing to be substantive, that is having a firm basis in reality and so important, meaningful, or considerable, it needs to be verified as such. Ignosticism is the attempt to verify the theistic position that God is substantive and finds that theism fails.
It fails because, when put to the task to show that there is a direct link between any given description of God and the meaning people imbue this God with, they cannot do it. The implication is, God is not a substantive entity. Now, God may be a conceptual entity, or a conceptualization. Yes, I know, it’s a fancy way of saying God is imaginary. But that’s the consequence of theisms failure to justify a basic substantive noun, which makes ignosticism a truly devastating semantic argument.
It’s the same as saying the theist cannot substantiate their belief in God because the thing they say they believe in is rendered incomprehensible when asked to do one simply task–provide a referent for the thing itself so that a third party (someone other than the believer) can come along and describe it in such a way that the two descriptions align and thus allow us to empirically check our descriptions against one another to see whether or not they relate back to the same thing. This would be the easiest way to falsify ignosticism. But nobody has been able to do it!
Ignosticism proves God is not a substantive entity, thus justifies the atheist’s skepticism of theism. In other words, because ignosticism shows there is no substantive entity, the atheistic assumption that there is no God is rationally warranted.
What I have detailed above is how atheism relates to ignsoticism. So my dismissal of God, in this case, isn’t because of my consideration of the strengths or weaknesses of other theological considerations. Although I have considered many and find them lacking for various reasons seperate from this issue.
As for my idea of what caused the universe, and how something could come from nothing, I think Lawrence Krauss said it best when he noted that nothing is unstable.
But this would require a long discussion of the underlying physics, and although I am familiar with the theories and could relay them, I would actually recommend consulting with a real physicist, maybe even reading Krauss’s book, A Universe from Nothing.
“Of course, you’ll just retreat into a science of the gaps response indicating that, given enough time and knowledge, the (adequate) human intellect will finally be In a position to decide. (as though something finite could ultimately grapple with something that transcends it.)”
Actually, to address this concern, I find the opposite is true. Theists hold that God transcends the universe and is needed to explain the universes existence. But a scientist cannot say this as there is no evidence that God created the universe because there is no empirically valid evidence for God. Science only seeks to explain the forces, called physical laws, the govern the universe we live in. As such, it’s not an argument from ignorance. The opposite is true. Not knowing how the universe came to be, theists posit God — precisely because they don’t know. This is a true argument from ignorance.
“I’d like to see a defense of the contention that just because something is too difficult for or ultimately unavailable to human reason, that thing is of no concern to us since we cannot process it. That sounds just like cavemen denying that bacteria causes disease.”
I don’t think anyone is making such a claim here. Besides, cavemen didn’t have science and didn’t understand cause and effect, certainly didn’t know about the importance of hygeine, and didn’t know how to evaluate evidence because they didn’t have the tools of science. We do. So it’s really not a question of dismissing the unknown, it’s whether or not the claims of the theist can meet the burden of proof. All our theist friend has done is simply shift the burden of proof, I’m afraid.
“If you claim that the universe was not birthed from nothing, then you must come to grips with the logical absurdities generated from the presupposition that the universe has existed in some form (multiversal or otherwise) for eternity. Note that any response you might make here to arrive at a comprehensive and satisfying answer must presume the fitness of a finite human intellect generated from chaotic and random inputs to adjudicate an eternal truth.”
Sometimes in philosophy there is a point where you want to continue engaging in a philosophical conversation, but you run up against the limits of your philosophical understanding. I think our friend found his wall.
I don’t mean this disparagingly, but the above paragraph illustrates another problem with we can run into when dealing with big philosophical concepts, inevitably we are going to run against the limits of our understanding. Although our friend tries to make use of the philosophical language that he wants to discuss, it is clear he doesn’t quite know how. Either the ideas are unfamiliar to him or too esoteric to adequately express, and this leads to a kind of word salad that has no clear meaning. He jumps around from the topic of the universe’s origins, to the limitations of human intellect, to multiverses, back to eternal truths, and so on. All these things are interesting topics of discussion, but here they are seemingly thrown together at random.
In all fairness, everyone is prone to making this mistake. I’ve done it too. It happens to the best of us!
“Third: your arguments smack of special pleading. Ignosticism, by definition, denies the efficacy of the undefineable. At its root, it does. One could replace the word “God” with any other ill defined word, and ignosticism would be laughed out of existence for its juvenile insistence on the human desire for categorization and preoccupation with forcing any other aspect of reality through such a narrowly defined filter.”
Actually, I would say he is on the verge of grasping it.
In my book title Ignosticism, which is about ignosticism, I use an analogy that if we replace God with any other substantive noun, in my example I use suggest using an apple, we can empirically verify the referent thereby validate, or rather substantiate, that noun as a real thing that exists in reality and is important, meaningful, and therefore significant.
“It is very unclear to me how materialism can explain just those things that ARE available to supplemented human senses.”
I don’t think that is in the scope of materialism. Materialism is just a consequence that falls out of naturalism, if naturalism is true. It certainly seems that metaphysical naturalism is true. So, what we can explain must be capable of being explained within this purview, at least until otherwise hitherto hidden purviews are opened up to us.
“Are you honestly going to claim that you never doubt your doubt (or certainty) that something transcendent very possibly brought this universe into being?”
Yes, I am going to strongly doubt that. Not because I don’t find it an interesting consideration, but it is one I must remain highly skeptical of because I see no possible way to substantiate let alone justify such an assumption. It’s interesting, but finding it interesting doesn’t make it true. And unable to prove it true, I have no recourse but to remain skeptical.
“The privilege of the theist is that we don’t have to feel guilty about acknowledging said doubt. Just wondering if you ignostics ply the same waters. Just hoping here that your intellectual arrogance can be restrained enough to answer honestly.”
I don’t actually think doubting is the problem here. If theists doubted enough to be skeptical of the theistic claim they’d become agnostics. I think the problem is certitude one places in their convictions. Contrary to the accusations made against me, I am not making such arrogant claims that I know with any certainty that God does not exist. I believe this, which is why I am an atheist.
But if I were tasked to prove it either way I know that I can’t. As such, I am also an agnostic. I cannot prove God exists, nor can I prove he doesn’t exist. The existence of a God is possible, but given the world we observe it just doesn’t seem very plausible.
I remain an agnostic atheist precisely because I recognize there is a difference between what I choose to believe and what really is. Since I can’t know what really is, I take the skeptical view because I find that believing in something which cannot be demonstrated is an irrational position to take. If you cannot prove something, then uncertainty is the natural conclusion. Not knowing. Yet it seems to me that the privilege of the theist is pretending to know everything while not being able to substantiate any of their claims. I mean, there’s not a nicer way to say it because that’s exactly what all theists do.
Or, think of it another way, if the theist could demonstrate God’s existence, then the question of God’s existence would be a moot point. It would be like having a serious philosophical debate over the existence of bananas, which we do not do. We know bananas exist. We do not doubt their existence. Yet when it comes to God, well, doubt it seems is all we really have. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.