Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why I am a hard agnostic

I believe that the nature of deity is both unknown and unknowable (by humans).

As I understand it, "the nature of deity is unknown (and may or may not be knowable)" equals 'soft' or 'weak' agnosticism, and my position is 'hard' or 'strong' agnosticism. I was a soft agnostic up until relatively recently.

(Quick aside: that terminology bothers me because it's possible to be a strong weak agnostic -- i.e. you believe very strongly in the soft-agnostic position -- or a hard soft agnostic, or also a soft hard agnostic ("I'm pretty sure the nature of deity is unknowable as well as unknown"). Not sure what would be good alternative terms, though. Also, hard agnosticsim != militant atheism.)

I've been fairly sure for many years that the nature of deity is unknown, what with implausible theologies and the power of science, etc etc, blah blah woof woof -- this argument has been made, and people have responded to it, a million times.

There are two possible arguments, I think, for why we cannot know the nature of deity (as opposed to merely "we don't know it, but we might figure it out"). One is the "perverse liar god" argument, and it's sort of tongue-in-cheek. If there's an omnipotent deity, then it could make itself unknowable, never mind why it would want to. It could even put on an understandable mask while leaving its true nature hidden.

The other possible argument is "fundamental limits of human understanding". The human brain may be the most amazingly complex awesome thing in the universe, capable of conceiving arbitrarily complex and abstract ideas... but is it capable of understanding something omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-everything, possibly vaster than the universe? I highly doubt it, given how hard it is to truly grasp (say) the sheer size of a galaxy. (And I do mean truly grasp. Saying "oh, it's so many frillion light years across" does not count.) A galaxy has got to be a lot smaller than an omni-deity.

You'll note I said "fundamental limits of human understanding", not "fundamental limits of any understanding". I don't doubt that an omnipotent deity could understand itself perfectly well. It's perfectly possible that there are forms of understanding out there that are orders of magnitude more powerful than our piddling little thoughts, or maybe even have a completely different basis -- call them "super-understanding". But given that humans are limited to human understanding, can we understand super-understanding? I doubt it.

(For a very readable, math-flavored analogy to the topic of super-understanding, see Scott Aaronson's fabulous essay Who Can Name the Bigger Number?, which you should read anyway. He discusses Turing machines and Super-(Super-Super-...)Turing machines, among many other fascinating topics.)

And by the way, I have high standards for what I'm willing to call understanding deity. I'm not willing to settle for a grammatical string of English words, or a bunch of math, or whatever, that describes deity perfectly. I am perfectly capable of 'understanding' (sneer quotes!) a sentence like "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth", in that I know what all its words mean and I can parse the sentence, because that is perfectly fine English. But can I fully appreciate the impact of a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in its being, wisdom, power, etc? Can my body generate a sufficiently large visceral/emotional reaction to the import of that idea, or will it run out of neurotransmitters first? Can my humble heart and mind contain the infinite? I think not.

Now, since I'm feeling a bit Hofstadterian, try this one on for size: "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, truth, abstraction, recursion, subtlety, and inscrutability." Can this new, improved sentence give us a true, visceral understanding of an omni-deity? It's certainly an improvement.

(God-sentence is from Chapter 7 of Anne of Green Gables. I love that book.)


  1. It's interesting how you bring up expressing God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section actually devoted to that question. You can read the English version here: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s1c1.htm#39

    Essentially it is this: we use human language, which because of it's nature as human means it cannot completely express God, what we say are essentially metaphors. Metaphors that we, as the Catechism states, we continually refine, but metaphors nonetheless.

    And I wonder about your second sentence: "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, truth, abstraction, recursion, subtlety, and inscrutability."

    Why add the last four terms? The Lord is not always subtle (working from a Catholic standpoint), witness Jesus raising people from the dead. That's not subtle. That's waving a big-ass flag saying "Hey, Hey! Son o' God here!" And I'm just wondering what abstraction and recursion have to do with being the Lord.

  2. Since so many people misunderstand the term "agnostic", I say I am Atheist. Except people misunderstand Atheism too. Anyway.

    I don't know if God exists, I don't know if man could ever understand him, I'm not even sure what an existing God would be. In any case, true, an all-powerful being could put on a mask, but that doesn't mean it has.

    Of course, the idea of an all-powerful being doesn't make sense to me. Classic "can he make a rock so huge that he couldn't lift it?" argument.

    As for the previous commenter, the last four words may be struck if one is Catholic, but this is not true for everyone.

  3. @ robert:

    I agree that human language is a rather limited medium for expressing God. But I think there are other media, 'more powerful' than language in some senses. For example, mathematical statements. I'm not saying that math is definitely better suited than language to expressing deity, but it's a possibility, and certainly there are many media that deserve consideration.

    Abstraction and recursion, I just stuck in the sentence because they're fun ideas and because I was in a Hofstadter mood. And re: subtlety -- well, perhaps the acts of God are not all subtle, but God's nature is immense and probably not very simple.

    @ piper:
    Interesting, I've never run across the idea that 'all-powerful being' is an inherently illogical concept. Am tempted to invoke Godel's incompleteness theorem or something.

  4. I used to be agnostic...circumstances converted me into an atheist. It's better that way; not to offend anyone, but religion seems like escapism.

  5. Of course an all-powerful being is inherently illogical. If it didn't have the power to defy logic, it wouldn't be all-powerful, would it? :P

    I call myself a "little-a atheist," meaning I believe there's no God but I know I can't prove it (this is as opposed to Dawkins-type, big-A Atheism). It's in the same vein as strong agnosticism, because both share the belief that we cannot know whether or not God exists; we merely differ in our extrapolations from that basic premise.

    ahana datta, religion can indeed serve as escapism; however, the flip side is that religion can serve as a motivator as well.

  6. The best way to think of God (in terms of omnipotence etc, if you wish to apply Logic to him, because, frankly, the Catholic Chruch's statement "fuck you all, he's outside of space and time, touch him now bwhahahahaha [it's not sacrilegious cause i'm catholic =)]) is that he posses the most of all qualities.

    God is not simultaneiously both the most good and most evil, or the most prolific truthsayer and most prolific lier, infinitely big while infinitly small, but rather, there's a bunch of scales. a scale for, we'll use the term, Quality of Moralness, and God is at the top. he is the 100th percentile. or 101st percentile if you wanna get all romantic about it (wuv you God). same with size, thought, etc. You don't have contradictions, just pure essences and pure lack there of the opposite.

    Personally I think bringing up language in any type of logic argument not directly arguing an aspect of language is futile. 1=1 whether we express that as "one equals one", express that as "bazookameat jumbltard bazookameat", ein entspricht ein, um iguala um, uno iguala uno, KTÓRYŚ IS KTÓRYŚ, одно приравнивает одно, κάποιος είναι ίσος με ένας, 1つは1に匹敵する, 1개는 1를 같게 한다, and here's the important part, even if humans aren't sentient yet. "one equals one" is still a tautology. (Massive props to my polyglot friend)

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE trying to prove and disprove God. slash Deity. slash higher intelligent being. Because its the ultimate human exercise (philosophy that is). But from a religious standpoint, here's my view: By trying to prove God, you no longer have, and here it is, *faith* in God, therefore he doesn't exist to you. You can't prove God because part of God is one having faith in God.

    I dunno how much philosophy you've taken, but the only truly priori argument is by Anslem, a Bishop of Canturbury in the 11/12th century, and the ontological argument is just SO beastly. I fapped. It's beautiful.

    Hope that helped a little. Or at least made 5 minutes of your life less stressful.