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How Should We Speak of God? A Response to Daniel Linford

Linford

Last December, an article by Daniel Linford entitled "Do Atheists Reject the Wrong Kind of God? Not Likely" appeared at Scientia Salon. Certain recent "popular books,” according to Linford, have advanced a "mystical" notion of God, arguing that contemporary atheists have directed their disbelief only toward "smaller" conceptions of the divine. Three contemporaries are singled out: Karen Armstrong, John Haught, and David Bentley Hart.

On what Linford denominates the "mystical" view, God is radically transcendent, not a being within the cosmic order, and cannot be circumscribed by human language. Many of the atheist assaults are directed against a God who is, more or less, a being among beings, and a person much like us. Linford believes that sophisticated thinkers have sought to outflank such arguments by moving to higher ground, positing a God who escapes our language and ways of thought.

But the higher ground strategy fails, according to Linford, for three reasons. In the first place, it is unclear (to Linford) why God must transcend our language and our concepts, rather than having some other sort of transcendence. Instead of expanding on this objection, Linford merely directs the reader to arguments made elsewhere by Alvin Plantinga.

The second reason the retreat to mysticism fails, according to Linford, is that God’s revelations to us cannot be trusted if we cannot really know God’s character for truthfulness. After all, if we must deny that God is good or true in any sense that we can recognize, we can't very well claim that our defective notion of God's goodness or truthfulness precludes divine trickery (for leading one to err is precisely what a defective understanding of something does).

As a third ground for rejecting the notion of a radically transcendent God, Linford claims that God's absolute unknowability deprives us of any criteria with which to determine what phenomena would count as evidence for God. In the case of a more anthromorphic God—a God who is good like us, compassionate like us, thinks like us, and so on—we could know what would count as evidence for his activity. If we know what God is like, we can know what God is likely to do. But if we cannot know God's nature, then we cannot know what God would do. We could not determine in advance what effects such a God would render in the world, and therefore, could not know what to look for.

I suspect some readers will find these arguments puzzling on their face. I do. Who, for instance, thinks that assertions of God's transcendence of space and time, the web of language, or finite minds is limited to mystical theology? In fact, the vast majority of the great theistic traditions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, many forms of Hinduism, certain forms of Buddhism, the classical philosophical tradition, and so on—regard God as transcendent in precisely such a sense. The misapprehension that belief in God's transcendence is a recent concoction from university educated theologians who have modified theology to their more sophisticated tastes—or to escape atheistic criticism—is almost as widespread among popular atheistic tracts as the notion divine transcendence is in the theology, spirituality, scriptures, etc. of the great theistic traditions. Aside from the Mormons who doggedly visit my home with some regularity, I know of no religious believers who believe God to be a finite spirit within the imminent order—with the probable exception of the aberrant (historically speaking) tradition of theistic personalism.

But these are mere quibbles compared to the real difficulty with Linford's case. Linford confuses the claim that what God is, God's essence, cannot be captured in language with the claim that we can have no knowledge of God whatsoever. Put in a more technical vocabulary, Linford confuses the claim that earthly minds cannot have quidditive knowledge of God’s essence with the claim that we cannot have any knowledge of God.

Over and over again, one finds Linford supposing that God is powerful or loving "in no way that we can understand ...," or that God's goodness "cannot be understood by finite humans," or that if "the mystical theologians wish to say that God is truthful and trustworthy ... this would involve knowing things about God's goodness which the mystical theologian maintains we cannot know."

But do mystical theologians claim we know nothing about God? Let's consider the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, apparently regarded by Linford to be a mystic. Linford claims that Aquinas believes that "we do not even know what it means to say that God exists," and he cites the Summa Theologica Ia, Q. 3, prologue as proof. Such a claim seems, to anyone who has read Aquinas, misleading at best. The prologue Linford cites runs as follows:

"Once we have ascertained that a given thing exists, we then have to inquire into its mode of being in order to come to know its real definition (quid est). However, in the case of God we cannot know His real definition, but can know only what He is not; and so we are unable to examine God’s mode of being, but instead can examine only what His mode of being is not….
 
By excluding from God certain things that do not befit Him, e.g., composition, change, and other things of this sort, it is possible to show what His mode of being is not. So, first of all, we will inquire into His simplicity, by which composition is excluded from Him (question 3). And because among corporeal things the simple ones are imperfect and mere parts, we will inquire, second, into His perfection (questions 4-6); third, into His infinity (questions 7-8); fourth, into His immutability (questions 9-10); and fifth, into His oneness (question 11)." - ST Ia, Q. 3, Prologue (Freddoso Trans.)

The very text that Linford cites as evidence that "we do now even know what it means to say that God exists" says that we can know that God exists, is metaphysically simple, that he is perfect, infinite, and one. Linford's unwary readers might, I think, feel misled. If we know nothing of God, how can we know God is simple or infinite? The answer is that Aquinas hardly believes we don’t know what it means to say that God exists, but rather that we don’t comprehend God’s essence. This sort of misleading conflation is foundational for Linford's whole argument.

Such logic fails even for our finite, worldly knowledge. No one would say, for instance, that the pre-moderns knew nothing of water, even though they did understand its essence (H20). Nor did the ancients grasp the essence of the stars, but they could nevertheless predict celestial movements. One can lack knowledge of the essence of a thing while still observing many of its properties, characteristics, effects on other things, and so on. One can know quite a bit about something without grasping the thing’s essence.

Linford's mistake seems to come from a misunderstanding of how negation works in theology (mystical or otherwise). He recognizes the alternation between apophatic and cataphatic movements briefly, but misses what is going in the dialectic. One can affirm, for example, that God is like the sun (in that he brings life) but then deny that God does so as a physical entity without going back to square one. The original affirmation is preserved; its limitations denied. Or again, to affirm that God is good, but not good as we are (as relatively fragile beings that must achieve perfection or beatitude from a certain poverty in our being) does not simply negate the whole of the original sense of God's goodness. It only negates the limitations in the original sense, while preserving the affirmation.

Perhaps this sounds more of the soft strains of poetry than the more substantial power of reason. Linford's primary target is Karen Armstrong—though he cites others, such as David Hart and Denys Turner—and Armstrong does sometimes overemphasize the apophatic way beyond what is metaphysically reasonable. However, the central insight that God is radically transcendent, not an entity in the cosmic order, etc. is not only the cornerstone of mainstream theism, it is eminently susceptible rigorous metaphysical accounts. By way of illustration, let us reconsider Linford's three objections.

Response to Linford's First Objection

Linford's first objection to the transcendence of God is that it is unclear why "God has this sort of transcendence—the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God—and not some other." Yet, it is immediately and abundantly clear why God—at least the God of classical theism—transcends the sense of ordinary words. Our language is adapted for finite entities and their relations. When we say X is Y, for example, we generally mean that some determinate thing, a this or that, has some relatively determinate property. Gold is yellow, rather than some other color, for example. Ordinary language relies on the finite determinations of finite things.

We use language, then, in light of the finite mode of things, their properties, and their relations. But God—what the great theistic traditions mean by God—is not finite. God is qualitatively infinite, meaning that his nature is not limited or qualified in any way. If there is a God, then, it is perfectly clear why he would transcend our ordinary linguistic habits. The inadequacy of language to express God’s nature follows straightforwardly from the ontological difference between finite and infinite being.

Response to Linford's Second Objection

Linford's second objection is that the restrictions of our knowledge of God on which the "mystical" theologians insist render any revelation unreliable. If we cannot understand the truth or goodness of God, how can we appeal to God's goodness or truthfulness to secure the authority of revelation?

It will be immediately evident to the reader that this again trades on the conflation of essential knowledge, or perhaps perfect knowledge, and non-essential, or perhaps imperfect knowledge. I know hardly anything about tapirs, and certainly don't grasp precisely what it is that makes tapirs tapirs, but I know they do not read Shakespeare. Or, to use a previous example, though premoderns did not understand water in its essence, they knew that it existed and what it could be expected to do. Similarly, we may not fully grasp God's goodness, but this hardly means we have no idea of God's goodness or what it means for us. Our notion of God’s nature can be inadequate as essential knowledge, but nevertheless more than enough to ensure the trustworthiness of revelation.

Response to Linford's Third Objection

Linford's third objection is only slightly more substantial than the first two. Since we do not know what God is in himself, then—so Linford argues—we cannot know what would count as evidence for God. Were "made by God" coded into the genetic code of living beings, we could not use this as evidence of God's existence unless we know that God is the type of deity who would do such a thing. This objection, like the second, conflates essential knowledge with accidental knowledge, and fails for the same reason.

This objection is interesting, though, because it provides an opportunity to illustrate how we can reach negative knowledge of God. Consider the following argument from contingency by way of illustration. Note that by “contingent being,” I mean any being whose essence does not explain its existence.

Premise 1: only contingent beings have a restricted mode of being (i.e., have a determinate, finite, way of existing, e.g., existing this way rather than that).

Premise 2: the existence of a contingent reality caused by a set (whether finite or infinite) of solely contingent realities is inexplicable.

Premise 3: nothing exists inexplicably.

Premise 4: a non-contingent cause must be posited to explain the existence of a given contingent thing (from premises 2 and 3).

Premise 5: there can be no more than one being with an unrestricted mode of being.

Conclusion: there exists one infinite (i.e., unrestricted) being who causes contingent things to be (from 1 and 4).1

I hasten to add that this argument won't be compelling without auxiliary arguments to establish the premises. The point is to see how an argument for God can move from the existence of contingent beings to the existence of a qualitatively infinite, absolute being (or beings) negatively. If the premises are defensible, one can infer the existence of an infinite being without ever needing to conceive of the essence of that infinite being, simply from the inadequacy of finite being's ability to account for itself. If it is evident from a consideration of the finitude of contingent beings that contingent beings cannot account for their existence, then we can infer (by negation) the need for non-finite, non-contingent being.

On such an account, it would be clear what would count as evidence (indeed, conclusive evidence) for God’s existence: the existence of any contingent, finite thing. And this without the need to grasp God's essence, except apophatically—understanding God as neither finite nor contingent. And, indeed, this "negative way" is often how God's simplicity, infinity, perfection, and absoluteness are traditionally established.

Conclusion

Well, I have complained that Linford has made elementary mistakes about divine transcendence. What constructive suggestions have to offer? How might the interested reader get a foothold in the notion of divine transcendence?

Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses is a wonderful account of the ascent to God by apophatic spiritual practices, using the story of Moses as a metaphor. Readers interested in learning about the more Eastern, mystical notion of God would do well to start there. For those seeking a more philosophical account, Pseudo-Dionysius' Divine Names and Mystical Theology are a wonderful statement of the metaphysics of the East.

Those who prefer a more familiar philosophical style could consult W. Norris Clarke's The One and the Many for a lucid argument for the existence of God using the Thomist categories of essence and existence. Clarke both argues for the existence of God and offers a clear account of the relation of the finite to the infinite. For the more advanced reader, Erich Przywara's recently translated Analogia Entis is perhaps the best statement of God's transcendence. Przywara employs Thomist categories but engages with philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger, who still loom large on the philosophical scene.
 
 
(Image credit: Telegraph)

Notes:

  1. See Karlo Broussard’s argument for the existence of God on Strange Notions. Note, however, that I believe there to be an implicit and highly questionable premise in the second step, and have offered what I consider to be a more sound version of that step here: http://thinkingbetween.blogspot.com/2014/09/simplicty-of-god.html
Thomas M. Cothran

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Thomas M. Cothran is a writer that lives with his wife and son in Lexington, KY. He blogs occasionally at thinkingbetween.blogspot.com.

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  • Loreen Lee

    Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein

    • Mike

      Scientists, "real" scientists, are not allowed to contemplate things that don't "actually" exist ;).

      • Loreen Lee

        Hi Mike: There is some interest by scientists with respect to 'what' is mysticism - last paragraph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mysticism And what about those quanta. I understand it's pretty difficult to determine how, when they exist?

        • Mike

          I wonder if they're "allowed" to not reduce mysticism to chemicals in brains...or does everything have to be "explained" via naturalism.

          • Loreen Lee

            Well, maybe just for a moment, (to combine the 'religious/spiritual with the scientific) I think of all those neurons dancing around in my brain, as billions of gods, whose existence I am unaware of. I don't know what thoughts they are carrying around with them, for instance. So they can be compared to the 'subconscious' of Freudian psycho-analysis. Or the Buddhist meditative practice of becoming aware of all those thoughts, and then, doing nothing, but just letting them slip away - out of existence. There's such a thing as 'transcendental mysticism, too, but I've never got that high up in the echelons, like with the Christian mystics in their ecstatic states, or Buddhists and Hindus finding a nirvana/heaven of peace. But from my experience, in examining this continuity of thought, I find much more correspondence between my thoughts and what we would call external reality or scientific experience than I used to have before becoming friendlier with those 'gods of the underworld'! grin grin.

          • Mike

            If there are other gods 'controlling' our thoughts then that would square with what naturalists say about our intentions and free will: that they are just the visible effects of billions of pre-determined chemical and neurological causes and effects all operating according to the laws of physics nothing more.

          • Loreen Lee

            Not sure of that Mike. Henry James (wrote The varieties of Mystical/o rather Religious Experience etc.) the philosopher said, My first act of free will is to believe I have free will. It's related (Hegel) to knowing or the recognition of 'necessity'. This would take it out of the context of determination, in the sense of causal relations between contingencies. In the process, you gain power by taking on the 'responsibility' of the choice. Like even regarding your own birth (was taught this by the Buddhists) as something that you chose. This squares in a way with Spinoza's thought too.

  • Anyone throughout history, who swam or drank a glass of water has a greater appreciation of the essence of water than an inorganic chemist as such who may have a greater appreciation of the chemical symbol for water.

  • With respect to the first objection, I do not understand the response. The discussion seems to be this:

    Apologist: Atheists keep knocking down straw men of gods, creatures in the world. What we believe in is a transcendent deity.

    Linford: can you describe this transcendent deity so that we can see if there is evidence for or against it existing.

    Apologist: A little but because he is transcendent we would not be able to describe him with limited human language

    Linford: That could be the case I suppose, but I see no reason why transcendence is necessarily not describable by language, how do you reach this conclusion? Have you understood this transcendent nature in such a way as to understand that it cannot be discussed in language?

    Apologist/Cothran: No, we just are saying that it is not impossible that it be the case that it is transcendant in a way that is not communicable by language.

    I just do not see where this gets one side or the other. I see the move to a vacuous transcendent God to be a fair counter some atheist arguments about their understanding of what a god is. Linford is pointing out that this is a weak claim for God since they cannot explain what the nature of the God is, or why they cannot explain it.

    • Loreen Lee

      So the apologists resort to arguments by analogy: i.e. arguments dependent on language which may result in: a) contradiction, b) empty tautologies. Wish I could study enough to find out whether these are indeed the 'real' possibilities.

    • David Ondich

      I believe the argument rests of Aristotle's observation that all language is based on analogy- if God is unique and transcendent, we cannot fully describe him since we have no analog. This is why God (or the gods) become incarnate (Christ, Hindu avatars,etc.). We can only speak of God in metaphor. In the Old Testament God presents Himself in the form of a bush imbued with divine light- the ancients only knew light from the sun, moon, stars, and fire- hence the bush is described in metaphor as a burning bush. The transcendent is not easily described. Try describing joy, beauty, justice- we must use either metaphor or concrete examples.

      • I see nothing in those metaphors that suggests anything transcendent or non-being. They are also counter-acted by many other descriptions of God as a non-transcendent being "walking" in the Garden of Eden, talking to many people, fully taking human form and being capable of death.

        In any event, what these metaphors do, is inform us of God's essence through language, something claimed impossible by the mystics. They provide us with properties which we can compare to reality.

        • David Ondich

          God walking in the Garden of Eden, etc, are precisely the incarnate manifestations I'm referring to, of course my examples are not about 'beings', but transcendent realities that cannot be directly described, only alluded to by metaphor or concrete example, we have to describe his incarnations (some would argue that God is not 'a being' but the source of all 'becoming'), A mystic would rightly challenge any metaphorical description of God by saying , 'He is something more than that', or 'Don't even try-He is beyond description!' or 'He is not like that' giving rise in the last case to apophatic theology.

  • With respect to the second objection, keep in mind the context of the discussion. It is that that atheists point out certain seeming contradictions in the theist understanding of what God is. For example we say "your belief that God is all good, is inconsistent with the suffering we observe, which we would expect him to significantly reduce." The answer we get from mystics is that we atheists are applying a "human" version of goodness to a God that transcends this concept. A "Goodness" that we don't understand and could not be captured by words. This is why we are puzzled by the apparent lack of concern God has for the amount of seemingly gratuitous suffering, because we lack the transcendent ability to see or understand the true nature of "Goodness", no one could even explain it in words, it is so beyond us.

    If this is the state of affairs, Linford is asking how we can know anything at all about God, even if he does exist. God must have some properties that distinguish him from non-God, i.e. the small gods that we are accused of attacking as straw men. The properties that distinguish the mystic God, are such that they cannot be communicated to us through language. If this is the case, how can we say that any of the properties that distinguish God have been communicated to us through divine revelation. We need to believe in these distinguishing properties of mystic God to believe in Him. But if we cannot conceive understand what they are, we can't rationally claim to believe in them.

    A better question would be if I were to propose to you that "all donkeys are heroes". You say that this is an extraordinary claim and that you could bring evidence to show that this is not the case. I respond that I am using the words "donkey" and "hero" and also "all" and "are" in a different and transcendent way, that neither you nor any human understand how I am using them, or, indeed really grasp the concept, would you agree that "all donkeys are heroes"? Or would you seriously question how the heck I say I can make this claim, since I too am human and cannot grasp this concept or understand how I am using the words?

    • Mike

      Are you insisting that "understanding God" has to work out to the same thing for every person? Why can't there be at least some room for interpretation for something one might label a "relationship"?

      • No I'm not suggesting that. I'm suggesting that to actually believe in something you have to have some cogent idea of what it is.

        • Mike

          Can you have hope in something without having a "cogent idea" of what that hope is?

          • Yes, but you would not know that you have "hope". But to consciously believe something exists, you need to have a cogent understanding of what you think it is.

          • Mike

            So the 'hope' would be some kind of an illusion or it would be illusory?

            I guess it turns on the defn of "to believe", i mean, i believe that God exists and that JC was God incarnate but i 'believe' it i don't "know it" in the same way i know where my house is or that my father was this person not that; i 'believe' it like i believe that...

            every beginning has an ending;

            that 'love' is more 'important' than 'money'

            that a palm tree 'is' mean to be a palm tree and couldn't've been a 'rooster'

            that 'logic' is logical

            that truth 'exists' or it doesn't in which case it does

            that "i" exist

            that 'i' am 'more than' the chemicals in my body.

            that 'nothing' is not 'something empty'

            that good and evil 'exist'

            that 'language' is 'more' than vibrations of 'air' molecules

            that 'belief' is as natural to being human as is breathing

            that even accidents can not happen purely by accident

            and that "this" is not an 'accident'.

            Something like that.

          • Damon

            I guess it turns on the defn of "to believe"

            I think most discussions between believers and non-believers turn on this definition. It's why when you say that you believe in God, I don't really know what you mean by that.

            If you said you believed in Zeus, I would know what you meant by that. Likewise if you said you believed in Odin or Cernunnos I would still know what you mean. But if you said you believed in the Hindu Brahman, or the Chinese Tao, or the Buddha's Nirvana, I would not know what you mean. Likewise when you say that you believe in the transcendent Yahweh of Christianity and Judaism. All these concepts exist on a level preceding logic, and if I can't comprehend or at least experience something, I certainly can't believe it.

            In order for me to believe something, to accept something as true, I must be able to comprehend or experience it. If I can do neither than I cannot accept it to be true, at least not without twisting all sense out of the word "belief" and divorcing it from its proper Bayesian context.

            So I guess my question is, when you say you believe in God, what do you mean by that? Are you saying that you comprehend the idea of God and the reasons why this idea is true, or are you saying that you experience God, and from your experience with Him you have learned that He is this way and not that? Or are you saying something else entirely?

          • Mike

            Good q:

            1. what I mean is i think it's the most LOGICAL "explanation" of "reality" and everything that entails which is alot. Logic imho "leads me" to the conclusion that there must be some "first mover" some "ground for existence" that kind of thing.

            2. Then there is a personal dimension in that from my "interior" it seems like "my life" has some purpose like i am being 'guided' towards things and away from things, almost like 'someone "loves" me', in some weird way i don't feel 'alone' inside which is weird.

            3. i've 'looked into' all the major world views: eastern atheist etc etc and found that roman catholicism seems to be the "least wrong" or more right - it has a peculiar ability to make sense of things to me.

            4. i say this all the time but i also finally WANT i mean really really WANT justice for the millions of ppl who will get none here and so i want to have HOPE that there is more to our existence than 'animated matter' and then 'heat death of universe'. So i WANT the christian God to exist now.

            4b if atheism is true then it won't matter that i've 'wasted my time' hoping bc we'll all be gone for ever...so why not? what have i got to lose? nothing it seems but everything to gain.

            something like that.

          • No, you can have hope but just not know that what you have is "hope". In the same way that you can have cancer without having any cogent idea of what it is.

            But this is a side track. Neither you nor the author of this piece have the same vague mystical theism that the Linford attacked.

            So I don't know how much use this discussion will be.

            I am basically ok with your definition of belief. I think it should be pretty agreeable that you need to have some cogent understanding of what it is you believe in, before you say you believe in it. I understand that Linford was responding to some apologists who want to both say they believe in God, but when asked what God is, they pretty much say, I don't know and even if I did I could not express it to you.

  • linford86

    Ha. I seem to have caused quite the discussion here! This is good; it's exactly what I meant for my original article to invoke.

    I don't have time right this moment to provide a substantive response, but two things.

    First, I've always hated that photo of myself! It's from an interview that I did with the Telegraph, but I think it makes me look rather less attractive than I do. (I told you I didn't have time for a substantive response at this moment!)

    Second, my goal in this article was to respond specifically to Karen Armstrong and others in her genre. Although I am an atheist, I don't have any sort of pretensions that all theists are in such broad agreement with her that my arguments would do just as well against their gods. Furthermore, I made no claim that mystical theology is somehow new. Notice that I cited Aquinas; I could also cite pseudo-Dionysus and Maimonides. Indeed: mysticism is very old. My only claim was that a particular form of the mystical position has been used to respond to atheists in recent years.

    Cothran could just as easily have claimed that Armstrong misunderstands mysticism and made many of the same arguments. It remains mysterious to me why he chose to attack me (I suppose that this is because I interpreted some of Armstrong's claims in light of Thomism, to which he is, apparently, personally invested). I'll add that Cothran beef with me over how to interpret Thomism could just as well have been a beef with Denys Turner on how to interpret Thomism, since many of my claims about Thomism were written in light of Turner's work.

    • Mr Linford, the person who runs this site is looking for good atheist articles, would you be willing to submit one? Perhaps on some positive atheist arguments such as divine hidden-ness or the evidential problem of evil?

      • linford86

        Brian -- Sure! Also, I'd be interested in providing a response to Mr. Cothran's article (I was originally going to post it to my blog, but I could submit a response to this page instead).

    • Denys Turner is quite careful not to conflate essential knowledge with God with the ability to know truths about God. He makes the distinction quite clearly in his book "Faith, Reason, and Existence":

      "[Readers] will find that I do say – following Thomas – that ‘we do not know what God is’. But they will not find me saying, any more than Thomas says, that we can know no truths about God, or that we have no way of removing falsehoods." p. xiv.

      It is precisely this distinction, made by Turner and Aquinas, that was not made in your original article. Recognizing this distinction, in my opinion, entirely deflects your argument.

      • Time-honored, tradition-established distinctions between divine attributes and essential nature, ad extra and ad intra and so on are totally missing. Much of the argument is a literal, fundamentalistic (mis)interpretation of orthodox Christianity.

  • GCBill

    This essay concedes that "Armstrong does sometimes overemphasize the apophatic way beyond what is metaphysically reasonable."

    How so? Your own examples (the Aquinas passage that Linford cites and your own response to his third objection) necessarily proceed apophatically, drawing all their conclusions from this method. So I'm not sure what you mean by "overemphasize."

    Now I am not familiar with Armstrong's work, so I can't tell you how it compares to this response. So I'm requesting an example (from her work or elsewhere) that you consider to be an "overemphasis" of the apophatic method. IOW, I'd like to apophatically grasp it's proper use.

  • With respect to the third response, he concludes that the existence of contingent beings proves the existence of "qualitatively infinite, absolute being (or beings)".

    I don't think it does, but even if it did this goes nowhere to defending what Linford was attacking, a description of God as transcendent and essentially inconceivable to us mere humans.

    Here Cothran includes some properties that mystic theists would not accept. Namely that it is infinite and a "being". An infinite being may be impossible, but it is not inconceivable and it can easily be described by language. I think he can retreat from the use of the term "being", but this may cause additional problems for his syllogism.

  • Luke

    Our notion of God’s nature can be inadequate as essential knowledge, but nevertheless more than enough to ensure the trustworthiness of revelation.

    The author is operating off of the assumption that God has no ulterior motives in what it reveals to humans. Why should I trust that God is telling us the truth about its nature? Couldn't God be selectively and consistently revealing to us only part of its nature?

    • Mike

      Do you suppose that God may be evil? or at least a trickster?

      • Luke

        When it comes to conceptions of God, anything's possible. I don't think that an evil God makes much sense, as it could have created a much worse existence for us if that was its desire. A trickster God, however, is much more plausible to me than an omnibenevolent one.

        • Krakerjak

          Perhaps like Q on Startrek? :-)

        • Mike

          I agree; but what if there were no evil at all do you think that that would mean that a good god was more likely?

          • Luke

            Yes. The likelihood that if God exists, God is good, would surely increase in a "good-er" world.

          • Mike

            "if God exists" so are you implying that his "existence" doesn't depend on the amount of evil and good but is independent of that?

          • Luke

            That depends on whether God is omnibenevolent. An omniscient, omnipotent, but not omnibenevolent God's existence would not depend on the amount of evil and good in its creation.

          • Mike

            So you're saying that if God is all good then there shouldn't be any evil, but since there is evil he can't be all good right...thx for that.

          • For some, certain god attributes would be less counterintuitive, more intuitive, but that wouldn't make the reality of god more probable, only more plausible. Conversely, given logically valid and coherent god conceptions that are already available, the reality of evil doesn't make the reality of god less probable, only less plausible if one defines evil differently from Augustine, for example.

    • William Davis

      My study of history and the Bible has convinced me that the Bible is simply the work of men trying to get people to do the right thing. Moses (assuming he existed) likely grew extremely frustrated trying to get the Jews to "do right", and found they would not listen to him, he was just "some guy". Bring in a few tricks with snakes and other magic showmanship, his is now "the mouthpiece of God" and people actually listen. I don't blame Moses or other Biblical writers for doing what they felt needed to be done, to lie for the greater good. "God" only serves the purpose to establish authority for a proposed set of moral doctrines, and obviously we have come a long way in evolving morality since then. If there was absolute morality from God, he would have given Moses the "right" morality from the start. Paul's invention of "Original Sin" is documented evidence he was willing to play fast in loose with the truth. His idea of original sin is clearly not in the Genesis account. He "made it up." I like the apostle Paul, and sympathize with what he was trying to do, but I have a much higher standard for what I call "truth".

  • Before the issues raised herein ever become distinctly theological, they are essentially metaphysical regarding any notions related to putative primal or ultimate realities.

    We cannot a priori determine which properties of our proximate realities --- primitives like space, time, mass, energy; axioms like thermodynamic laws, gravity and quantum mechanics; emergent realities like life, itself, and consciousness --- are to be predicated of primal realities equivocally, analogically or univocally, apophatically or kataphatically.

    To halt infinite regressions, some have proposed transcendent causes, analogically predicated. To avoid causal disjunctions, some have proposed unitary being, an immanence, univocally predicated.

    Orthodox approaches balance the exoteric dogma, myth, cult, ritual, doctrines and fellowship with the esoteric practices, mysticism and contemplation.
    The encounter of the wholly incomprehensible is thus, at the same time, not utterly unintelligible, as we observe effects as would be proper to no known causes. What's at stake is a relationship to an unknown cause, the effects of which speak vaguely but significantly to its character.

    Any overemphasis of the apophatic and speculative results in encratism. An overemphasis on the apophatic and affective amounts to quietism. An overemphasis on the kataphatic and speculative gives us rationalism. An overemphasis on the kataphatic and affective is seen as pietism.

    At first reading, Linford has critiqued encratism. I know Jack Haught and his work, which ain't encratistic.

    At the same time, to the extent he has questioned the move from mere methodological stipulations to robust metaphysical necessities regarding such as the principles of causality and sufficient reason, I have no serious quibble there. I'm not suggesting that such Aristotelian Thomist stances are not unreasonable, only that they aren't conclusive. Sometimes, it seems that some imagine that what's merely ontologically suggestive is clearly ontologically decisive?

  • These objections seem very frail to me. The distinction made between imperfect knowledge and no knowledge gets you nowhere without telling us what is known or *can* be known about this being. The author here puts nothing on the table, instead choosing to retreat into the mystical cocoon of unfalsifiability that Mr. Linford critiqued so well in his post. Consider this statement by the author here:

    "Our notion of God’s nature can be inadequate as essential knowledge, but nevertheless more than enough to ensure the trustworthiness of revelation."

    How? What? Who? So many blanks and lines left disconnected here. What revelation(s) have there been? What criteria might we use to determine which ones are trustworthy and which ones aren't? What, pray tell, constitutes knowledge of this being or God you're trying to defend? In the end, the author here doesn't tell us, perhaps because he can't tell us, and his effete objections ultimately raise more questions than they answer.

    • Mike

      "his effete objections"

      What do you mean by "effete"?

    • Daniel:

      In this piece, I've merely argued that essential knowledge is not required to secure the trustworthiness of revelation. This article does not attempt to make an argument that revelation is in fact trustworthy, or that we possess the knowledge to judge it so.

      Chastising me for not proving something I never set out to demonstrate is rather like criticizing a basketball player for never scoring a touchdown.

      • It might help if you clarified what you mean by "essential knowledge". I am unable to find a reference for this in SEP, OEP, etc.

        • Comprehending an essence.

          • OK, so you don't think we can comprehend God's essence. What do you think we *can* know about God's nature? I don't see how your objections to Linford's piece clarify anything at all. If anything, I actually think his post is STRONGER *after* reading your rebuttal.

  • A rock comes flying over the bushes into one's yard and kills one's dog. One does not know how this happened. From what can be known about the effects, one might proceed abductively, drawing inferences about the cause, yet unknown.

    One might consider the distance, velocity, acceleration, direction, force, momentum on impact, marks on the rock, it's weight, shape, density, geologic type and such. In one's search for an adequate explanation, one would employ both kataphasis and apophasis, which share the same epistemic valence because they both increase descriptive accuracy, whether by observing what a reality is or is not, univocally, or
    is like or not like, analogically, or that a given reality or attribute seems to transcend present knowns, equivocally.

    Through alternating conjecture and criticism,
    which proceeds via alternating kataphatic affirmations and apophatic negations, variously through univocal, analogical and equivocal predications, and through an inferential cycle of abductive hypotheses and deductive clarifications, one narrows down one's choices.

    Might the rock have been spit out by the blade of a lawn mower? Might the neighbor's daughter have mischievously launched it from a baseball pitching machine or tennis ball machine? Might the neighbor's son have thrown it? The younger son or necessarily the older one? Perhaps it was flung by a slingshot? Oh, this was in an epoch that preceded even slingshots? Maybe it was an invader from a rival tribe who threw it? Or even was dropped by a swiftly flying large bird of prey, when it realized it was not edible?

    Thus the periodic table of the elements slowly filled and the Higgs Boson inferred.

    As we proceed through observed properties and effects to unknown realities and causes, our epistemology doesn't change, whether physics, highly theoretic speculative physics, metaphysics or natural theology. The ontological landscape changes as we proceed from proximate realities, many novel and emergent, to the initial, boundary and limit conditions of the cosmos, and beyond, even, to putative primal and ultimate realities.

    Some suggest that it's a dubious notion to take reality, mereologically, as a whole, to observe its known effects and properties and infer something regarding its unknown causes, those effects and properties being proper to no known causes. Of course, without knowing whether a concept like "nothing" successfully references reality, all one can devise is a tautology, which provides no new information but may or may not be true. When dealing with humanity's ultimate concerns, it certainly isn't unreasonable.

    Only the most facile of caricatures would isolate Jack Haught's apophatic predications over against the rest of his theology of nature. He employs a process approach and affirms a panentheist God-conception, both immanent and transcendent. That some aspects of God's essential nature are utterly incomprehensible doesn't mean that all divine attributes are wholly
    unintelligible.

    Haught doesn't have rocks in his head and the literary one tossed at his head missed. Judging from its arc, it had no chance of even coming close. Fundamentalistic misinterpretation it was.

    • Krakerjak

      A nice little scenario, but is this merely a comment, a drawn out analogy, an article meant to support a bias, or is it an exercise in obfuscation?

      Pardon my bluntness.....but I really have little patience for those on both sides of any issue who seem to deliberately obfuscate within their comments to support a bias.

      • I apologize that I lapse into jargon. But, do realize, jargon reflects precision, specificity and disambiguation for specialized fields of study. It's needed as we try to normalize gravity and quantum mechanics. Discussing putative primal realities a step beyond is mot going to be less but more complicated. Still, I try to put everyday, commonsensical examples to help translate the ideas.

        I added an addendum. I hope it helps.

        My major thrust here has been that over against an extreme rationalism or radical empiricism, which is the playing field of so many dicussions between religious and Enlightenment fundamentalists, FAITH entails something else!

        • Krakerjak

          Besides, from the tone and tenor and implicit confidence many of you
          place in your arguments and counters, I wouldn't expect you to consider
          yourselves so ill-prepared to move beyond superficial engagements.

          Ahh yes that is so..we are so ill prepared to engage beyond the superficial as to be unworthy of engagement with those who are wearing the emperorer's new clothes while riding their high horse.

          • Just show your work, Krakerjak.

          • Krakerjak

            Jargon reflects precision, specificity and disambiguation

        • Chad Eberhart

          Johnboy, do you believe that if people who do not believe as you do (w/ culpable knowledge) will suffer eternal perdition? I.e., are you Catholic?

          • I don't believe that anyone will suffer eternal "whatever one calls it". I am a practical universalist and a catholic but don't identify as anglican, orthodox or roman, mostly resonating with episcopalian sensibilities.

          • Krakerjak

            I don't believe that anyone will suffer eternal "whatever one calls it"

            Ahh...plainly spoken without needless jargon...am in agreement with you there.

          • BTW, since I don't believe God would coerce anyone into a relationship, I remain open to the theoretic possibility that one could live in eternity "estranged" from God should they so desire, but not that such would be equivalent to sadistic torment. Some early church fathers subscribed to apocatastasis, which entails a practical universalism, i.e. that one can reasonably hope that everyone attains the beatific vision. This is not a heterodox stance in the Roman tradition. It's just the belief that so called culpable knowledge doesn't likely refer to any real life situations, ever.

          • Chad Eberhart

            Thanks for you reply, JBS. Sorry for my delay. One of the reasons I left the Catholic Church is because it's never been really cleared up whether hell is a place of eternal torment (punishment) or merely a self-chosen estrangement from God. Moreover, even if hell is a state of being where one has chosen their own estrangement it seems to offend justice to say that there can never be a return to your creator if you find out eternity without God is something that you realize is not what you really want. Also, since "universalism" is a minority position and one I think that is condemned (while Balthasar's "reasonable hope" is allowed), I could never bring myself to accept it and it caused much psychological distress. It's difficult for me to believe a person takes their faith seriously who this does not cause significant psychological trauma. To me, from a Catholic perspective anyway, this "reasonable hope" stuff sounds rather blasé for something that to me is incredible serious with eternal consequences. We better get this right, right? I cannot bring myself to genuinely love a God that coerces me with threats of eternal damnation, and Who thought it fit to allow damnation for those who didn't get it right on this temporal plane. To my knowledge this is the majority Catholic position.

          • I don't believe in a lot of the same things you don't believe in. I suspect most believers share the same theological intuitions we do even though they might not explicitly articulate them. At some level, they are perhaps unconsciously competent in living as if the teaching has just got to be much more nuanced than appears on the surface. Whatever the hierarchical cohort happens to be saying on this, that or the other, often even a supermajority of one billion plus catholics seems quite comfortable, resisting infantalization, acting adult-like and enjoying the primacy of their own consciences. Still, I'm with you on the importance of getting this stuff right, so very deliberately took my children aside and told them to forget about hell for all practical purposes (because, as popularly conceived, it's total poppycock). I quit identifying as roman per se but love my catholic faith, resonating much more with anglican and orthodox sensibilities.

    • Krakerjak

      Through alternating conjecture and criticism,which proceeds via
      alternating kataphatic affirmations and apophatic negations, variously
      through univocal, analogical and equivocal predications, through an
      inferential cycle of abductive hypotheses and deductive clarifications,

      blah,blah blah.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvwhEIhv3N0

  • It seems to me that Linford's piece takes the theological noncognitivist approach (otherwise known as ignosticism) to understanding and conceptualizing God. With God, even the principle of analogy is useless; we literally have nothing by which we can compare 'God' to, no frame of reference which may guide us.

    The author here seems to object to this by saying, well we may not be able to know much about God's nature, but we can know some things, mainly of an apophatic nature. OK, so then what are these things that can we can supposedly rule out? From my reading of this, none are forthcoming. Citing Aquinas doesn't help unless you have some criteria by which to determine whether Aquinas's claims were on the mark or not. So how is this in any way a proper rebuttal to Linford's piece?

    • Ignosticism proves too much. It can't consistently be applied to philosophical theology without being applied also to metaphysics. I appreciate that many do apply it to both but such a radical empiricism and logical positivism has self-subverted, imploded philosophically. Those who would annihilate metaphysics will inadvertently also do away with the natural sciences.

      • Huh? Ignosticism doesn't "prove" anything. It says that talk about God isn't meaningful enough for rigorous, substantive discourse. We have no knowledge of God's nature or what it would even mean to obtain knowledge of such a thing. Until this situation changes, all discourse on the topic is boundlessly ad hoc and speculative.

        The natural sciences on the other hand deal with things inside the natural world and so are by definition observable, at least theoretically if not already. What metaphysics is required to study nature?

        • Daniel, are you familiar with logical positivism and logical empiricism. It's an interesting story in 20th century philosophy. Ignosticism is indistinguishable from them. It merely arbitrarily applies them to theological concepts.

          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_positivism

          • Yes, I'm familiar with logical positivism, but it seems I was proceeding under the assumption that it is distinct from ignosticism (or theological noncognitivism). After thinking about it some more, though, I'm not sure how it is different. So I think you are right. We would need a special reason for claiming that theological concepts should be rejected for lack of cognitive meaningfulness to the exclusion of all other philosophical concepts. And I'm not so sure I could defend one.

            Thanks for your comment. I obviously will need to mull this over some more :)

          • Daniel, I recommend http://forums.philosophyforums.com/ for pretty rigorous thinking and relatively civil exchanges.

    • It seems to me that you haven't followed Linford's argument, or mine. Linford says that "mystical theologians" -- including contemporaries like Armstrong and Hart and more traditional sources, like Denys and Aquinas -- believe that one can know "nothing, really" about God. But -- so Linford argues -- if we could know nothing about God, then we could not know what would count as evidence for God's existence, or whether we could trust divine revelation, etc.

      The mistake I have pointed out is that no-one -- mystical theologian or otherwise -- says that we can know "nothing" about God. They do say we can't comprehend God's essence (i.e., that which makes God what he is). But one can have knowledge about something without knowing a thing's essence. For example, ancient Babylonians were mistaken about what stars were, but they knew an enormous amount about their movements. Or, again, ancient peoples did not understand water as composed of hydrogen and oxygen, but they did know that when it was cold, it froze; and when it was hot, it turned to steam.

      There's some more complex issues revolving around different types of negation, but hopefully that helps you see the main issues at stake in the debate.

      • As I've already replied to you in an earlier comment (to which you have thus far ignored), you've done nothing to clarify the issues raised by Linford. You say that we cannot comprehend God's essence, but that there are "some" things we can know. Again, WHAT are they? You've offered no criteria whatsoever by which we can determine what would constitute knowledge of this entity you're defending.

        All you've done is offer a weaselly analogy to premodern cultures that were ignorant of natural phenomena. Except you didn't complete the circle. What is it that we can know about this entity today? You secondly punt to Aquinas, as if that is case closed. You offered no criteria to determine whether Aquinas *himself* was on the mark or not.

        So, no, we've understood your piece just fine. It's just that it hasn't remotely addressed what it sets out to do. If anything, I actually think Linford's post is STRONGER *after* reading your rebuttal.

        • Daniel:

          You continue to insist that I write an article on a different topic.

          It's as though you've gone to a Mexican restaurant and decided they had a bad selection because they don't serve sushi. You've gotten quite mixed up somewhere along the way.

          I never set out to show that revelation is trustworthy, just that the incomprehensibility of God's essence doesn't necessarily entail its untrustworthiness. These are two distinct claims, and I have only asserted the latter.

          Fortunately for you, I have written at length about truths that can be known about God here: http://thinkingbetween.blogspot.com/2014/06/roadmap-argument-existence-god.html

          • Aye yai yai. Please get some better analogies. Look, I have no horse in this game. I read Linford's piece and came over here looking for a compelling response. This isn't it. I think there could actually be one, but I don't find this persuasive.

            I would also argue that those two claims are not as distinct as you seem to suppose. To show that the two claims are different, it seems to me you would need to show that there are things that we *can* indeed know about this entity. Otherwise, no knowledge (essential or otherwise) is indistinguishable from incomprehensibility, because in both cases we are left with zero information. How could we tell the difference?

          • Daniel:

            Generally, one either grasps a distinction or doesn't. This one is quite clear, so I'm a little puzzled you can't see it. (Linford does grasp the distinction quite clearly in his article. His, like mine, is limited in scope.) But it can be made even clearer, because the truth of one does entail the truth or falsity of another.

            Consider the following:

            Statement A: Revelation is trustworthy.
            Statement B: If God is incomprehensible, God's revelation is not trustworthy.

            It involves no contradiction to assert that A and B are both true (in the event that God is a trustworthy and comprehensible, say on the theistic personalist account). Nor is there a contradiction to assert that A is false and B is true (Linford probably believes this to be the case). Nor is there a contradiction to believe that Statement B is false and A true, as classical theists would hold. Nor is there a contradiction in believing that both A and B are false, as perhaps a philosophical, non-religious theist would say.

            In short, the two statements are (rather obviously) entirely logically distinct, in that the truth or falsity of one of one does not immediately commit you to the truth or falsity of the other.

            It should also be quite clear that Linford and I have not debated Statement A. In fact, I could deny statement A and still have written the exact same article. Linford could affirm statement A and have made precisely the same argument (as does Alvin Plantinga, a Christian from whom Linford got most of the argument).

            Hope that clears both Linford's argument and mine up for you.

          • How would you determine whether God is comprehensible or not without a revelation?

          • I haven't argued in this article that God's essence is incomprehensible; just that classical theists think it is. That's sufficient for my purposes in this essay.

            But I've argued elsewhere that God is infinite and incomposite: http://thinkingbetween.blogspot.com/2014/06/introductory-remarks-to-argument-for.html

          • "In my view, an argument can be made that establishes that the existence of God is satisfactorily certain"

            Why do the vast majority of philosophers disagree with you? Have you stumbled upon something the rest of them haven't?

          • A philosophical argument is not assessed by polling others. Any good philosopher learns to think for him- or herself. Disregarding an argument because others disagree with it is at best intellectually slothful. Philosophers (when they're being good philosophers) think for themselves.

          • Yeah I read your link. Hitchens was way more convincing. Keep trying, though.

  • Papalinton

    How should we speak of god? I don't think we should speak of god at all. Gods are purely culture-loaded literary artifices around which an early oral narrative was weaved that sought to explain the origins of the universe, the world, and humans, and their relationship to the environment. It was an explanatory paradigm forged in a time when ignorance, superstition, illiteracy, magic and sorcery were the predominant explanatory paradigms used to make 'sense' of the world. While there have been innumerable advances across much of humanity's knowledge and understanding about the universe, us, the world etc, this cannot be said of theological apologetics. As an explanatory tool, Cothran's piece continues that interminable and obscurantist tradition of apologetics, predicated on the utterly groundless and risible notion that our intellect, our finite knowledge, and the limits of language are apparently incapable of adequately defining and understanding what a 'transcendent god' is. Theological explanation is as porous today as it ever has been over the past two millennia. And should anyone misguidedly pre-empt, longevity of belief is not a substantiation of truth or fact. One need only recall the Egyptian religion lasting some 3,000 years; 2500BC-500AD, before it was finally consigned to history.

    Cothran's article must be seen for what it is; a delimited explanation targeted at an increasingly smaller audience of staunch adherents. Its impact as a veridical explanation simply does not translate beyond the Catholic perimeter.

    • Mike

      WOW! That was awesome!

    • >>> While there have been innumerable advances across much of humanity's knowledge and understanding about the universe, us, the world etc, this cannot be said of theological apologetics.<<<

      Because those other realities are proximate, probabilistic, evidential, falsifiable, while putative primal or ultimate realities (primal origin, primal being, primal causes) are not. Hence Hawking's observation that there are Godelian-like constraints to formal accounts known as Theories of Everything.

      In short, you haven't located epistemic deficiencies, methodologically, only ontological obstacles, metaphysically. Our ignorance derives from the nature of the putative realities being inferred and not because of deficiencies in modeling power. As we approach T=0 near the Big Bang, our modeling power gets weaker.

      It's interesting that, while some medievals considered theology a speculative science, others, like Scotus, considered it a practical science and the broad Franciscan view was that theology was an affective science. I take the view that it's all of the above but not nearly as robustly speculative as some would like to imagine.

      • Papalinton

        "Because those other realities are proximate, probabilistic, evidential, falsifiable, ..."

        Precisely. And testable. And they are best and only veridical description coinciding with reality. And nobody denies, least of all me, that science [and anthropology, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, biology etc etc etc] is a formative working model and its results and findings remain provisional in an accumulative process of discovery and understanding. But its resounding success as an evaluative and expository tool makes it a system of extraordinary explanatory power.

        " ... while putative primal or ultimate realities (primal origin, primal being, primal causes) are not."

        Word salad, Johnboy. An unsubstantiated and problematically speculative notion of an unrealised 'reality'. 'Primal causes' and 'ultimate realities' are fanciful conjurations of our 'Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device' [HADD], an evolutionary product of our inhered genetic survival mechanism. Couple this HADD with our limitless and creative capacity for imagination, and the combined effect is that it makes the untutored mind believe there is a [putatively] live and active cosmic force out there, overflowing with intentionality and purpose.

        Sorry Johnboy, you are not correct. I think the epistemic definciencies are clear and simply cannot be erased by a cursory sweep of apologetical denial.

        • You need to brush up on the history of logical positivism, logical empiricism and ignosticism like a few other contributors:

          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_positivism

          Those who don't study the history of philosophical mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Your epistemic criteria of meaningful concepts self-subverts, taking science down the tubes with metaphysics, much less philosophical theology.

          You don't get to decide what makes for meaningful discourse by verbal fiat. There's an academic community of philosophy, in general, philosophy of science, in particular, including the original proponent of falsification, itself, Karl Popper who have more compelling stances.

          Empirical verification and probabilistic falsification provide demarcation criteria only for what is or is not science, not for what is or is not meaningful.

          • Papalinton

            "Your epistemic criteria of meaningful concepts self-subverts, taking science down the tubes with metaphysics, much less philosophical theology."

            Bunkum. In large part I reflect a Popperian perspective in my discourse, apart from the nonsense of the 3-World/dualist connotations that he held to.

            Logical positivism, also known as logical empiricism, holding that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those that can be solved by logical analysis, is bit of a sophist wank really. That's not how I see the sciences as an explanatory tool: ".. science [and anthropology, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, biology etc etc etc] is a formative working model and its results and findings remain provisional in an accumulative process of discovery, learning and understanding." There's no logical positivism contained in my view; just bloody hard work differentiating the scientific wheat from the philosophical chaff.

            I can see why you might suggest I familiarise myself with 'ignosticism'. But then, ignosticism may be construed as a gentler sibling of atheism, to which I subscribe anyway on matters of supernaturalism, mystical theology, the illusory phantasma of gods and other things that go bump in the night. That's not to say my mind is closed to the possibility. It's just that even today, any evidence of any kind, as distinct from the idiosyncratic dabbling in faith, has yet to be brought forward.

            No, Johnboy, you are caught and all bound up in philosophical turgidity, definitional constipation, meaningless categorisation and blank classification.

          • Not recommending ignosticism but was, rather, charging you with same because of your evidentialism. LOL!

            I've said what I wanted to say to you and will not bother you further.
            Let the jury of all communities of earnest inquiry decide. I have no expectation of or aspiration to convince you.

            I can only point out that I am the first to declare epistemic parity and not proven verdicts when I encounter them, regardless of worldviews or ideologies. I cannot in good faith concede that to you because all of your rhetoric and the mature of your arguments reveal to me a seriously impoverished epistemology.

            Take care.

          • Papalinton

            I am categorised as an 'evidentialist' now? ["Not recommending ignosticism but was, rather, charging you with same because of your evidentialism. LOL!"]
            And you call that self-labelling?

            "Although evidentialism states that the content of the evidence does not matter, only that it constitutes valid justification towards some proposition, a skeptical criticism may be levelled at evidentialism from uncertainty theories. One's evidence may be objectively disproved at some point or it may be the case that one can never have absolute certainty of one's evidence. Given the logic of arguments concerning principles of uncertainty and randomness, skepticism towards knowledge merely becomes skepticism towards valid justification.

            Likewise, some say that the human mind is not naturally inclined to form beliefs based on evidence, viz. cognitive dissonance. While this may be the case, evidentialists admit, evidentialism is only meant to separate justified beliefs from unjustified beliefs. One can believe that evidentialism is true yet still maintain that the human mind is not naturally inclined to form beliefs based on evidence. He would simply have to conclude that the mind is not naturally inclined to form justified beliefs." Wiki

            Johnboy, evidentialism states that "the content of the evidence does not matter". Well, that's no me, For me, the content of the evidence does indeed matter, big time. And apparently to an evidentialist, that evidence is considered "only in that that it constitutes valid justification towards some proposition from which a skeptical criticism [such as yours] may be levelled at evidentialism from uncertainty theories. One's evidence may be objectively disproved at some point or it may be the case that one can never have absolute certainty of one's evidence.

            I reiterate: "That's not how I see the sciences as an explanatory tool: ".. science [and anthropology, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, biology etc etc etc] is a formative working model and its results and findings remain provisional in an accumulative process of discovery, learning and understanding." What part of my statement doesn't infer uncertainty [formative, provisional, accumulative] or the possibility of the evidence being 'objectively disproved'?

            No Johnboy, your labelling me an evidentialist simply doesn't stick.

          • I receive your self-description as done in good faith.

            Of course, we may or may not have an impasse re: below:

            "The only epistemological impoverishment for which I plead 'Guilty, your Honour' is religious faith. Faith is a failed epistemology."

            As we move forward, dialogically, it should become clearer (despite my dense prose and jargon, I hope), that I conceive of faith as an existential leap, normatively justifiable even when not robustly warranted, epistemically. It's what we do, interpretively, AFTER our best epistemology has failed us, descriptively.

        • " ... while putative primal or ultimate realities (primal origin, primal being, primal causes) are not."

          refers to multiverse

          • Papalinton

            " ... while putative primal or ultimate realities (primal origin, primal being, primal causes) are not."

            refers to multiverse

            Where? Academic source?

          • you need an outside assist to figure out what's falsifiable or not?

  • David Nickol

    I am not necessarily saying that there is anything psychologically or intellectually wrong with people who believe the problems of the world are largely a result of the disobedience of "Adam" and "Eve," alleged to be the first two human beings from whom we are all descended. However, there is something bizarre going on, in my humble opinion, when people arguing with atheists assert the belief in "the Fall" as some kind of obvious fact. The Catechism begins, "The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man." That is not problematic, in my opinion. But it continues, "Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents." This second sentence seems to back away from the idea that the story is in figurative language and instead imply merely that the names have been changed to protect the people referred to as "Adam" and "Eve." If there really existed a first man and first woman from who we are all descended, and these two people did something that "marked" the whole of human history, why not just tell their actual story?

  • Ignatius Reilly

    God is qualitatively infinite, meaning that his nature is not limited or qualified in any way.

    Meaning? I know what mathematical infinity means, but it says nothing about limiting or qualifying the nature of a being. Arguably all statements of the form "God is X" are qualitative.

    If we cannot understand the truth or goodness of God, how can we appeal to God's goodness or truthfulness to secure the authority of revelation?

    What does it mean for a being to have truthfulness? Propositions are true, but how is it a property of being? Is God qualified to only tell the truth?

    Without a definition of good, we cannot talk about God's goodness.

    I hasten to add that this argument won't be compelling without auxiliary arguments to establish the premises. The point is to see how an argument for God can move from the existence of contingent beings to the existence of a qualitatively infinite, absolute being (or beings) negatively. If the premises are defensible, one can infer the existence of an infinite being without ever needing to conceive of the essence of that infinite being, simply from the inadequacy of finite being's ability to account for itself. .

    Except the argument is unsound, so we haven't shown that regardless of the essence of the infinite being that the infinite being actually exists.

  • On one hand we have this:
    >>>>>In fact, the vast majority of the great theistic traditions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, many forms of Hinduism, certain forms of Buddhism, the classical philosophical tradition, and so on—regard God as transcendent in precisely such a sense.<<<<>>>> "While many Christians claim divine revelation — some even claiming that the truth has been revealed to them in such a way that there's no possibility that they could be wrong — there's hardly any points of doctrine upon which all these purported conduits of divine revelation agree. Which means that some if not all of them are wrong. And if you want to know what's wrong with Judaism, you ask a Christian. If you want to know what's wrong with Christianity, you ask a Muslim. If you want to know what's wrong with Catholicism, or Protestantism, or Calvinism, Hypercalvinism, Neocalvinism, Southern Baptists, the Church of Christ, or the First Baptist Church of Memphis, you can go to the Second Baptist Church of Memphis." (-- Matt Dillahunty)<<<<<

    Bernard Lonergan defined "authenticity" in terms, expanded by Don Gelpi, of intellectual, affective, moral and social conversions. These are secular dynamics and not identical to the developmental accounts of Piaget, Kohlberg et al. I won't bore you with the details. These dispositions can be fostered by religious and secular institutions alike, realized by any religionists or those with no religion at all.

    Interreligious dialogue and comparative theology suggest to me that there are many nonpropositional aspects of all the great religious traditions, things like ascetic disciplines, spiritual practices, meditation and contemplation, that all help foster authenticity.
    They all share an essential soteriological trajectory then. This means ways and means of nurturing, growing and healing persons.

    Many would be familiar with Abraham Maslow, the great humanistic psychologist, a few with Viktor Frankl, a great psychologist and holocaust survivor. In so many words, both came to eventually believe that self-actualization is a by-product of self-transcendence, that self-actualization as a pursued end in itself will, in fact, frustrate its own aims without some form of self-transcendence.

    In a similar way, Lonergan came to believe that authenticity could only be called sustained authenticity when it was fostered by being-in-love.

    What the creedal and mythic content of the great traditions corresponds to are different ways of being in love with ultimate reality, but, often, distinctly different aspects of same. Some clearly emphasize unitive strivings and intimacy. Others seem to emphasize, for example, unitary being and identity. There are at least three other categories but I won't belabor this. These different ways of being-in-love are not to be conceived as mutually exclusive but, again, moreso in terms of de/emphases of various god attributes. These are called sophiological trajectories and they can be quite distinct.

    The journey to authenticity, to the extent it's the same across, within and between traditions, is somewhat orthodoxic. Our journeys to sustained authenticity, to the extent they're rather distinct, are called POLYDOXIC, this over against facile, literalistic misinterpretations, which see way more contradictions than actually get discovered through deep interreligious dialogue and serious comparative theology.

    Even nonbelievers can experience sustained authenticity because being-in-love needn't be oriented, necessarily, to putative ultimate realities, but certainly includes love of others and the cosmos.
    Isn't there something poignantly beautiful when other persons persist on the journey as upright and profoundly moral and deeply in love with others and our cosmos, all without complaining and all without a promise of future rewards? That's apophatic mysticism par excellence, even if implicitly expressed, I think.

    Our world needs less proselytizing and polemical apologetics and more hugs and affirmations. So, this is a shoutout to any of our atheological cohorts, especially those without belligerent militancy, who help us chase the half-gods of radical fundamentalisms off the stage thst God might appear or, at least, Love.

  • I'll be on the lookout for Linford's response. I've flung more than my fair share of electrons here, so risk offending charity and stifiling others' contributions by sucking all the rhetorical oxygen out the room. Be well, all. Stepping aside for a spell.

  • Doug Shaver

    The theist either will or will not define what he means by "God." If he will not, then the word has no referent as far as I'm concerned. If he will, then it has a referent, and I can ask why I should believe that the referent exists. And until I get a good answer, I'm justified in not believing that it exists.

    • That's fair enough. Sounds right-headed to me.

    • Are you saying a word has to be defined to have a referent?

      • Doug Shaver

        Are you saying a word has to be defined to have a referent?

        I can't say that, because in any context, some words must be left undefined. This was most famously realized by Hilbert in his reaxiomatization of geometry. In any particular context, though, all participants to the discussion must have a justifiable supposition that they're all talking about the same thing, whatever it is. When a believer tells me that God cannot be defined, I have no reason to suppose that I know what he's talking about.

        • It seems your answer is that if we're talking about the existence of something, it is necessary to agree upon a definition for that thing.

          That is incorrect. I and a friend might agree that a certain dark figure exists that has been rummaging through trash bins on a certain street. Looking at it from a distance, we might even agree that it is a mammal. But we hardly have to agree on what the thing is--on a definition--to agree that it exists.

          Or, I could find some ancient contraption at the bottom of the ocean in the wreckage of some old ship. I could have no idea at all what it is, but, upon showing the object to another diver, we could quite rationally agree that it--whatever it is--exists. Examples could easily by multiplied.

          • Doug Shaver

            but, upon showing the object to another diver, we could quite rationally agree that it--whatever it is--exists.

            If you're holding it in your hand, you could momentarily define it as "the object that I'm holding in my hand."

            I and a friend might agree that a certain dark figure exists that has been rummaging through trash bins on a certain street. . . . But we hardly have to agree on what the thing is--on a definition--to agree that it exists.

            If you tell that it is something that rummages through trash bins, then I know one way in which it differs from nothing. When people tell me that God cannot be defined, they never say anything else about him that, to me, distinguishes him from nothing at all.

          • No philosopher or linguist (or anybody else really) could call "the object that I'm holding in my hand" a definition. Nor would that be a conventional use of the term definition.

            After all, if I were holding an apple, the statement that I am holding it in my hand would be true. But when I put it down, the purported definition would be false. Obviously something cannot be a definition if it is true of the object at one moment and false an instant later, with no essential change in what the object is.

            Moreover the same "definition" could predicated of apples, oranges, and hatchets.

            You seem to be saying that there must be a commonly understood sense to the words we use when we communicate. This is not at all the same thing to say that we must agree on a definition of an object of our communications. Virtually all classical theists I can think of endorse the former.

          • I missed this part: "[theists] never say anything else about [God] that, to me, distinguishes him from nothing at all."

            Has no Christian ever mentioned to you that they believe God is the cause of the universe?

          • Doug Shaver

            Has no Christian ever mentioned to you that they believe God is the cause of the universe?

            Sure, But they cannot then also say, coherently, that God cannot be defined.

          • You originally said: "When people tell me that God cannot be defined, they never say anything else about him that, to me, distinguishes him from nothing at all."

            But of course, theists of whatever background believe in a causal relationship between God and everything else. If something is a cause, it's obviously not nothing.

            And you're just reasserting your claim that to refer to a thing, one must define that thing. Yet I and a friend can look from a distance and disagree whether some snake is a copperhead or a rattlesnake while agreeing that it exists. We would agree that the creature exists, while differing on its definition (i.e., on how to accurately say what specific kind of thing it is).

            If your claim is true, we either wouldn't be referring to the same object, or else there would be no difference between the definition of a rattlesnake or a copperhead. Either option is absurd.

            I'll just reiterate the point that no philosopher of language that I know of would hold to this position. One hardly needs to read Frege's "Sense and Reference" to see how quickly that claim turns into a reductio.

          • Doug Shaver

            But of course, theists of whatever background believe in a causal relationship between God and everything else.

            If they say so, then "the cause of everything" is their definition of God. If they also say they are not defining God, then they contradict themselves.

          • I think we're getting hung up on the fact that I am using "definition" in the philosophical sense. To define something is not just to promulgate some true statement about something that distinguishes that something from something else; a definition is an adequate expression of an essence.

            Thus, it is no more a definition of God in the strict sense to say that God is the cause of all finite being than it is to say that in God the transcendentals coincide, or that God lacks a real distinction of essence and existence.

            In any event, it's incorrect (or at least highly tendentious) to say that only words have definitions. There is a distinction between nominal and real definitions.

          • Doug Shaver

            I think we're getting hung up on the fact that I am using "definition" in the philosophical sense.

            Which philosopher's sense are you using? Philosophers are not of one mind as to what it means to define a word.

            a definition is an adequate expression of an essence.

            That sounds Aristotelian. I don't believe in essences, or in a lot of other things that Aristotle talked about.

          • Doug Shaver

            Yet I and a friend can look from a distance and disagree whether some snake is a copperhead or a rattlesnake while agreeing that it exists. We would agree that the creature exists, while differing on its definition

            You are not disagreeing about its definition. You are disagreeing about its identity. Definitions apply to words, not to their referents. You have an agreed referent: that snake you both see. You disagree about which word correctly identifies the referent.

          • Doug Shaver

            You seem to be saying that there must be a commonly understood sense to the words we use when we communicate.

            I neither said nor intended to say anything about common understanding. When two people are talking to one another, the only understanding that matters in the context of their conversation is their own. In that context, as long as each knows what the other means, it makes no difference whether anybody else knows.

  • All should recognize that neither the best evidential approaches of science nor the best logical arguments of philosophy have taken us beyond ontological undecidability regarding T=0.

    The explanatory attempts we do have are inescapably tautological. And many of the concepts employed in those attempts may or may not successfully refer to reality. None of this means these accounts are necessarily untrue, only that they are scientifically uninformative, descriptively, and philosophically indemonstrable, normatively. These criteria are necessary but not sufficient, however, to discern whether or not an interpretive stance, in general, is meaningful, or anyone's discourse, in particular, is intelligible. That's the philosophic move that was attempted by logical positivism, logical empiricism, theological noncognitivism and ignosticism and they self-subverted, then imploded.

    Some of Linford's analyses seem too facile and literalistic, too cursorily dismissive of the types of apophatic, kataphatic and analogical predications that necessarily impinge on all hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Our emergentist accounts of physical reality similarly treat transcendence in its ontological hierarchies. One must be careful in labeling this or that god-talk gibberish or the very same criteria could be used to dismiss --- not only theology and metaphysics, but --- philosophy of mind, highly speculative theoretic cosmology and science, itself.

    Anyone who facilely employs what are highly nuanced god-concepts, such as classical divine attributes (e.g. omniscience and human intelligence), in simple syllogisms, univocally predicating those concepts between putative atemporal (God) and temporal realities (humans), to argue one's way to a syllogistic conclusion --- is just being sylly. One will have thus moved from a deep sympathy with theological noncognitivism to a practical ignosticism.