Knowledge Problems

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Unknowability of God In Jewish Rationalism IV: Why Unknowable?

In this section I will try to review some of the rational arguments for the unknowability of God that arise in particular from subscription in whole or in part to the Aristotelian system of the predicables described previously. Granted, the system that was inherited by Jewish thinkers had already been pawed over for hundreds of years by Neoplatonists and Islamic thinkers, but a certain degree of core commonality with Aristotle's original system remained. I will certainly not attempt to revisit every medieval rational theological argument, but only those that relate to God's unknowability.

So, now, what are the arguments the medieval Jewish rationalists give as to why it is necessary that God be unknowable? I will sketch out a few that I have seen, but it will imminently become clear that these are not independent arguments, rather variations on a single argument. I somehow feel, though, that the core epistemological issue here is eluding me. I want to find the cornerstone of these arguments — the singular fact from Aristotelean epistemology that positively requires God's unknowability — and I can't quite get it. I had thought that writing the previous post on the predicables would make it immediately obvious to me what the key issue is, but I was mistaken; it is still not clear to me. Perhaps a reader more familiar with Aristotelian thought will be able to provide the missing link for me. If so, I will hope to revise this section at some later time.

At least one common theme that I was able to see is that in the eyes of the medievals, having "knowledge of God" means knowing God's attributes. Thus, for God to be unknowable is for God's attributes to be unknowable, and most of the medieval arguments therefore focus on demonstrating the unknowability of God's attributes. As it turns out, this usually becomes a problem of demonstrating the nonexistence of God's attributes.

In a sense, though, I'm presenting the problem backwards: Unknowability is generally a consequence which falls out from more primary theological concerns, or at least that is how matters are presented. However, I am interested here in Unknowability in a primary sense, and I suspect that this may have been the interest of several medieval authors as well, although they do not say as much. (A completely cynical view would suggest that there is a very keen social imperative to establishing God's unknowability, since people who think they have intimate knowledge of God are often found to act in the most offensive ways toward their fellow humans. This sociological factor was I'm sure not lost on the Jewish thinkers of the middle ages, and thus even if we dismiss the cynical view as too cynical, I doubt that Unknowability can be regarded entirely as a by-product of other theological considerations. There must have been some desire on the part of theologians to establish God's unknowability as a bulwark against the nation of prophets actually behaving like a nation of prophets.)

On the assumption (i.e., my tentative assumption) that it is Unknowability which is a primary fact the medievals sought to demonstrate, it might be noted that there is a certain excessiveness in stripping God of all attributes. Isn't it enough to claim for the purpose of Unknowability just that we humans don't or can't know God's attributes, while yet allowing God to keep His (unknowable) attributes? Is it really necessary that God have no attributes? This seems to have been the position of Philo and his school, and it seems to have been the position of Aquinas as well. He writes in Summa (kreeft_90, p.115):

It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power. For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature. If therefore the mode of anything's being exceeds the mode of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of that object is above the nature of the knower....


The implication here is that "unknowability" is a status that applies only to a set of two entities: (1) a knower and (2) a thing to be known. For a given knower and a given thing to be known, if the capacities of the knower are inadequate to know that particular thing, then we have a state of "unknowability". On this view, it would seem possible to allow unknowability of God without making Him completely naked of all attributes. We could say that God possesses attributes, but that our intellectual capacities fall short of being able to know these attributes. This, however, was not the tact of the Jewish medieval rationalists (with perhaps a couple exceptions). Rather, their approach was to equate unknowability with the complete absence of divine attributes, denying God even the attribute of "intellect" (cf. Maharal, mallin_carmell_75). As Rambam writes (GP I:50), "you must know that He, may He be exalted, has in no way and in no mode any essential attribute, and that just as it is impossible that He should be a body, it is also impossible that He should possess an essential attribute." The reasons behind this extreme position on unknowability seem to have been laid out already by Bachya ibn Pakuda, who gives us our first argument.

The problem of attribute priority


Bachya ibn Pakuda's argument for our essential inability to attribute properties to God is that, being the creator of all attributes, God cannot possess any of these same attributes Himself: "...whatever we could say about Him would refer either to His Essence or His properties, and the Creator of essences and properties cannot be described the way they are described" (pakuda_96, ch.9). It seems to me that what Bachya is saying is that if we were to suppose that God did possess an attribute of some kind, then we would be forced to conclude that God could not have created that attribute. To say otherwise, on Bachya's view, would be absurd. Thus, God cannot have any attributes.

While simple, Bachya's presentation of the problem seems to me to anticipate many of the later discussions. Maharal (mallin_carmell_75) seems to echo this idea when he writes that "Once we realize that all entity originates from His being, we understand that it has nothing in common with Him." We cannot attribute properties to God because doing so gives those properties an existence which is outside the creative control of — and in some sense prior to — God Himself.

On the other hand, Bachya's position is not completely convincing. If we were to say, for example, that God has "hands," does that logically imply that "hands" are somehow prior to God? It seems to me it does not. It is just a description of the way God is. To say that a bird possesses feathers is not to say that feathers exist independently and prior to the bird in question. The property "having feathers" is just a description of the way the bird is. In the case of God, it does not seem logically necessary that a property's existence requires the property to have existed prior to or outside of God (in some Platonic realm, for example), and if that's correct, then Bachya's argument loses some force on this account.

However, while the existence of the property in question (e.g., "hands") independent of God may not be logically implied, by naming a property (or by merely stipulating the existence of such a property in God) we do immediately raise the question of why God has this property instead of some other property, i.e., the question of why God is the way He is. This is a broader understanding of Bachya's question, I think. If God indeed has hands, then why does God have hands, instead of wheels or flippers? The same question would apply to psychological attributes as well. If God is indeed angry, then why is God angry, rather than silly or dopey? Since the medieval inclination was to see agency behind everything, in order to answer such question it would evidently be necessary to stipulate the presence of an agent, independent of God, who is responsible for God's having the attributes He has. Even without appeals to agency, unless one were to resort to brute facts (God is the way He is just because), the existence of particular attributes in God would still require some process to explain their presence there.

And if the attributes we attribute to God are shared by other entities as well, matters are actually even worse. Aristotle (Posterior Analytics, mure_01, p.120) informs us that "to know a thing's nature is to know the reason why it is," and that "we possess scientific knowledge of a thing only when we know its cause" (mure_01, p.112). In general, the knowledge that we seek about entities (why they have certain properties) is provided by identifying the superordinate category that endows those entities with the properties in question: "The proper function of science is to provide explanations, the canonical form of which is something like 'Xs are F because they are G.'" (hankinson_95). If an attribute which we apply to God is also applied to other entities as well, and we have scientific knowledge of those other entities in Aristotle's sense, then we will have genuinely identified a superordinate entity (i.e., class description) which is the "generator" of the attribute in question. In this case, since we do indeed "explain" the attribute in question by invoking an ancestral generator to which God as well as the other entities sharing that attribute would owe their properties, we would most likely be realizing Bachya's worst fears.

In summary, as I read it, attributes require explanation, and any explanation of God's attributes will have unacceptable theological consequences. Hence God cannot have attributes. We cannot escape by claiming that God possess attributes that are unknown to us, because whether they are known to us or not, their very existence implies an entity or entities which exist in some sense prior to God. This seems to me to be the liberal reading of Bachya's position.

The problem of compositionality


A second problem with the existence of attributes (and hence with knowing them) is that they introduce a kind of multiplicity into God. Many writers go on at great length about this issue. Rambam, for example, writes (GP I:50) that "no composition whatever is to be found in Him and no possibility of division in any way whatsoever." About God-as-He-is-in-Himself, Ramchal in Derech Hashem similarly tells us that "It is likewise necessary to know that God's essence is absolutely simple, without any structure or additional qualities whatsoever. Every possible perfection exists in Him, but in an absolutely simple manner." Albo (husik_29, p.128) also writes that God's attributes are unified in Him, while in us they are distinct (although his meaning is not clear to me).

It is likewise not entirely clear to me whether the insistence on divine unity is a philosophical imperative or a theological imperative. Aquinas (kreeft_90, p.83) writes that God cannot be composite because composite things must have a cause which causes them to unite, thus again setting up a problem of priority. If there are multiple attributes, we would be forced to seek both the reasons for the particular attributes instantiated in God, as well as the cause of their present combination in that subject. Aryeh Kaplan puts it this way:

The logic behind this is that any additional quality that we would ascribe to God would add an element of plurality to His being. Thus, for example, let us assume that we wish to speak of God's intellect as an entity in itself. We would then have to speak of two concepts, namely God's essence and His intellect. Since this would imply an element of plurality within God, it must be rejected. This is true of any other attribute which we may wish to ascribe to God, and therefore we must say that no such independent attributes exist. But if we cannot ascribe any attribute at all to God, then we must conceive Him as being absolutely simple. This indeed is the consensus of opinion among our great thinkers. Nevertheless, His very simple essence implies every attribute with which God rules the universe (kaplan_90).


It cannot even be said that God is therefore "one" in the numerical sense, because "quantity" too cannot be meaningfully predicated of God (cf. Cordovero, Rambam, etc.). As ibn Gabirol phrases it in Keter Malchut, "Thou art One, and at the mystery of thy Oneness the wise of heart are struck dumb, For they know not what it is... Thou art One, but not like a unit to be grasped or counted, For number and change cannot reach Thee" (zangwill_23, p.83, Ch.2).

Again, note that both here and with respect to Bachya's argument, the conclusion is not just that we cannot know God's attributes. The conclusion is that God cannot have attributes at all. Independent of what humans can or cannot know, if God were objectively to possess attributes, this would set up the objective theological dilemmas of attribute priority or multiplicity described above. On this account, the impossibility of knowing God is entirely self-evident: There is simply nothing to know. Since our knowledge of things is exclusively by way of predication — by attributing qualities to entities, if an entity is assumed objectively to have no qualities, then there is genuinely no possibility of acquiring knowledge about it.

And here I will pause to issue my first heresy alert: This notion of divine unity or structurelessness is one which I will most likely be forced to reject in another few posts. It is simply not possible to speak meaningfully of a dynamic entity which has no structure or no qualities. Ramchal already warns us that "admittedly, this is something far beyond the grasp of our understanding and imagination, and there hardly exists a way to express it and put it into words," but the fact remains that if we wish to explore the nature of God and his involvement in the universe, we simply cannot accept the notion of His structurelessness. The idea of objective structurelessness makes God into a nothing. Not a nothing in the sense that He has no describable attributes, but a nothing in the absolute sense that there is no possibility of His interaction or relationship with the universe, physical or otherwise. On Ramchal's account, God would be far less that a piece of chalk or lump of clay. Indeed, a wisp of tissue paper would be infinitely more powerful than God were we to insist upon his complete structurelessness.

The much-overtaxed excuse that God's structurelessness is "far beyond the grasp of our understanding and imagination" provides no remedy whatsoever. If we are willing to here admit into our theology an idea that is positively absurd on its face, then we might just as well do so whenever we please, and there is no longer any sense in which the process can be considered a rational theology. We could just say that it is "far beyond the grasp of our understanding and imagination" that a universe can create itself, and be done with it right there. If we are to pursue any kind of rational theology, then God must have structure, which means that God must have composition and/or attributes in some sense. This is simply an unavoidable heresy. As to whether such a view makes God contingent on his components or attributes, and thus gives those components or attributes priority in some sense, it may do. On the other hand, it may also be the case that the components could not exist in isolation, and that (like our own bodies) the constituent parts are in most respects inferior rather than superior to the whole. We will have more to say about this when the time comes.

The problem of subsumption of God within a class


Another problem with attributes as applied to God is the resulting subsumption of God within a class. I have not seen this problem directly expressed in this form by a medieval writer, but it has certainly been attributed to them often (and I assume correctly) by modern writers. Here is Aryeh Kaplan's version which I quoted in an earlier post:

Since everything conceivable — including any category of thought that the mind can imagine — was created by God, there is nothing conceivable that can be associated with Him. Let us say that I want to think about God. There is, however, no category in my mind in which I can place Him. Therefore, trying to depict God is like trying to see without eyes. When I try to see where there are no eyes, all I see is nothing. Similarly, when I try to think about God, all that my mind can depict is nothing (kaplan_85, p.89,90).


Kaplan's first statement simply echoes Bachya's position. The second line seems at first to suggest something different, though — that we cannot understand God because we have no category for God. However, as we mentioned earlier, classification is predication and predication is classification. Therefore, all that Kaplan is saying here is again that God cannot have attributes, the reason being that which Bachya has already laid out.

A closely related assertion that is often made is that God cannot be known because God cannot be defined. This would appear to be a weaker assertion than the previous, because definitions are a subset of the predicables. If we have already ruled out the applicability of any attributes to God, then we have certainly also precluded definitions. However, a weaker position might leave open the possibility that some attributes of God could be known, provided they are not essential (i.e., definitional) attributes. In any case, Louis Jacobs (jacobs_57) explains the problem this way:

God cannot be defined for definition is genus plus differentia. If, for example, man is defined as a rational creature, there is first the statement of the genus — the group to which he belongs — and then the statement of how he differs from other members of that group. We say that man is a member of the group 'creatures' and that by possessing reasoning faculties he differs from all other members of that group. But on any advanced view of Theism, God cannot belong to a group, for this would imply that the group to which He belongs is greater, i.e. more embracing than He.


Because in Aristotelian philosophy a definition requires specification of a genus, and genera are (as Porphyry points out) in some sense "generative" of their constituent species and therefor prior to those species, it is not possible that God has a genus. It may be noted that in Aristotle's system not everything actually needs a definition, since obviously such a demand would invoke an infinite regress. But nevertheless, for something to possess a definition requires that particular something to possess a genus, and therefore God cannot be said to possess a definition. Moreover, on the view of many, it cannot even be said that God belongs to the genus of "existing," since long-standing tradition dating to Aristotle asserts that "existence" is not a legitimate genus. As Albo writes (in typically muddled fashion),

In reality, however, it [existence] is neither a definition nor a description, God having no definition. For a definition is composed of genus and difference, but the word existent is not a genus which is predicated of all its subjects synonymously, as a genus is... For there is no genus in the world which includes God and another. The word existent is not applied synonymously to God and to other things. God's existence is real (absolute), whereas the existence of other existing things is acquired from His existence. But if existent is not a genus which includes God and other things, He has no difference (husik_29, p.36).


If the above explanation of God's resistance to definition is not adequate, Aquinas provides another. Aquinas (kreeft_90, p.81) points out that every member of a genus must have a difference, but yet possess the same quiddity (which is contributed by the genus). Hence, existence and quiddity must differ. But this is not so in God, and therefore he cannot have a genus. Whether this reasoning is entirely circular, which I believe it is, we will leave for another blog. The main point is that God cannot be known because God cannot be classified. The reason why God cannot be classified is again, at root, because any attribute when predicated of God (which immediately establishes a class in which God is a member) would in some Aristotelean sense assume precedence over God, which is theologically unacceptable.

The idea that God has no genus also has significant fallout for the notion of similarity between God and other entities. Aquinas (kreeft_90, p.89) puts it very simply by stating that entities in different genera cannot be compared, and since God has no genus, and hence no entity is in the same genus as God, there is not any possibility of comparison between God and other entities. Simultaneously, the lack of genus has consequences for relation between God and other entities, as Rambam points out (GP I:56):

Know that likeness is a certain relation between two things and that in cases where no relation can be supposed to exist between two things, no likeness between them can be represented to oneself. Similarly in all cases in which there is no likeness between two things, there is no relation between them. An example of this is that one does not say this heat is like this color, or that this voice is like this sweetness. This is a matter that is clear in itself. Accordingly, in view of the fact that the relation between us and Him, may He be exalted, is considered as nonexistent — I mean the relation between Him and that which is other than He — it follows necessarily that likeness between Him and us should also be considered nonexistent....


We may pause here to ask how convincing such arguments should be to a contemporary theologian. We no longer give metaphysical significance to predicates or categories, and thus for God to be subsumed in some arbitrary category would seem to hold little theological danger. If God were to be a member of the class of "things that have hands," would we consider this category to be somehow greater than God? Many categories may be constructed based on arbitrary feature conjunctions (Barsalou_83), but which have little or no ontological significance. The mere fact that "sitting on a yellow swivel chair in New Jersey within reach of a black coffee mug, purple pen, and unpaid credit card bill" defines a definite category which includes myself, some other people, and perhaps some animals, there is no deep ontological significance to this category. It is just an arbitrary grouping of entities that does not correspond in any way to the deep structure of the world. Most such categorizations have no deeper meaning, so merely belonging to a category does not by itself carry much epistemological weight.

Even so, it may not be possible to completely rid ourselves of the problem of class subsumption. While we can think of many categories with no ontological significance, many of the attributes on the basis of which such categories are formed would have been considered "accidents" — attributes which might have been and might yet be otherwise. The medievals were forced to reject such attributes of God for another reason (next post). Because of this, the kind of ad-hoc category contrived above is not the kind of category God could ever belong to. Therefore we are left asking whether we should still be troubled by the predication of essential attributes to God and what this entails for class subsumption. As it turns out, though, we can't really answer this question. In modern thought, there is not really any notion of "essential attributes," and so we are just returned to the question of whether God can have attributes at all.

So how persuasive is this argument of "unknowability due to unclassifiability"? It doesn't seem to me that this argument can any longer carry the weight it once did. By placing God in a category (or, more likely, a set of categories), we do not automatically promote those categories to an ontological status superior to God. The very notion of placing God in a category cannot therefore be offered by itself as providing a definitive demonstration of God's unknowability. However, if we do allow God to be classified in some fashion, we can still not escape Bachya's dilemma regarding the sources of God's attributes. There is no solution to that problem, but there may not need to be.

23 Comments:

  • Very nice work!

    Re attributes: I believe Bahya is saying that as God is the cause of material existence or physicality He cannot be material. Rambam sees that as a singularity as it is counterintuitive for what in our perspective is no more than a concept to be the cause of material existence. Attributes are descriptions of physical ability and activity. An immaterial God therefore cannot have attributes. Which brings us to compositionality. Division is an attribute of a material entity. Only material things can be limited. Immaterial can only be unique by definition. Immaterial does not take up space.

    Your conclusion therefore that God is unknowable and must therefore not "exist" is correct. "existence" as related to God is a term we use for lack of a better one. Rambam uses in his hebrew Yesodei Hatorah 1:1 a term "Sheyesh Sham Matzui Rishon" There is "there" a First extant. The term "there" is trying to negate space and materialism by making it sound vague.It also weakens the word extant "Matzuy" that follows.

    All we know is that there "is" "something" "there" that caused all but we have no way of knowing that He even "exists" in our terms.

    That is the basis of the concept of Olam Haba which is the attainment of that knowledge (or better unknowledge) to the best of our ability at the moment of transition to our own non existence. (see MN 3:51) You might want to read Knowing the unknowable God by David Burrell.

    Enjoy the trip!

    One more thing. I am sure you are aware that "existence" of a First Cause does not immediately translate into a personal God. The latter with the religious obligations that follow are there to keep us focussed on our quest to try to understand the unknowable and find meaning to our existence in that quest.They are all tools that have served humanity (at least western society) well by keeping the issue of God in our sights.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at May 1, 2007, 5:10:00 AM  

  • Thanks for the response, David.

    Division is an attribute of a material entity. Only material things can be limited. Immaterial does not take up space.

    I guess this is where I take my leave of you and RJM. I don't think either of you have laid out the difference between "material" and "immaterial" to a degree that would allow you to make such claims. Without meaning to be cruel, it sometimes seems to me that this distinction is drawn purely for the purpose of making ridiculous claims without embarrassment or consequence: We can say anything preposterous and incomprehensible as long it regards the "immaterial". Sort of a metaphysical bogeyman. Maybe you can explore your evidence for this basic distinction in a future post.

    I think I've seen Burrel's book before, but I will request it again from the library to make sure I have not overlooked something crucial (which I always feel I have). Thanks very much.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 1, 2007, 10:42:00 PM  

  • what happened to the conway post? i wanted to reply but I dont remember what you wrote. did u take back your whole position on this issue?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 2, 2007, 11:10:00 PM  

  • once we say that there needs to exist something which does not have any material attributes, it doesn't even matter if we cannot lay out the differences in details. The main point is is that we know such a thing MUST exist because there is no way to explain the existence of the universe any other way. We know there is a first cause but not knowing about the first cause does not mean we cannot prove its existence.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 2, 2007, 11:13:00 PM  

  • Sorry, Anonymous. It was a temporary post, and since a few days went by, I figured the discussion was done. I didn't mean to close the door on you or anything. Let me see if there's anyway to retrieve those comments. (I didn't archive anything, so I'm afraid it must be gone.) But I will check. If I recall, my last challenge to you was just to walk me through the argument step-by-step, and we will see where we disagree.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 2, 2007, 11:15:00 PM  

  • I understand where you object but I do not feel its a good objection to begin with. You admit that its possible for something to exist and not know anything about it. So what is the problem?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 2, 2007, 11:16:00 PM  

  • Sorry, I didn't see anyway to retrieve the post or comments.

    once we say that there needs to exist something which does not have any material attributes

    Just saying that something exists is not enough. If you believe that there are two classes of entities, material and non-material, you need to demonstrate (or at least specify) the difference between them. Otherwise they are in fact the same class of entities.

    You admit that its possible for something to exist and not know anything about it.

    True. You have to believe this unless you are an idealist or solipsist. But if you are going to make statements about that something, you are going to need to know something about it...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 3, 2007, 12:26:00 AM  

  • I am not just saying that something exists. We can prove it logically like Rabbi Maroof has shown. Even if we cannot demonstrate or specify the difference between them this does not mean that it is not true and that it is in the same class of entity. This is because we can prove that it exists but we just don't know details about the cause.

    So you admit that we can know something exists and not know anything about it. Since you do agree, then you can see why we do not have to know anything about it in order to prove its existence. We do not make any positive statements about this cause, because we can only say what the cause is not. Once we use positive descriptions, we are speaking of it in material terms, which it is not. Once you admit that you can know something exists after proving its existence then it is unneccessary to know something about it if we can't.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 3, 2007, 1:00:00 AM  

  • Not to be unkind to Maroof, but I don't think he's proven anything.

    We do not make any positive statements about this cause, because we can only say what the cause is not.

    By saying — which we will ultimately need to — that this other kind of "stuff" is not susceptible to causality, we are making a very definite claim. Whether we formulate it negatively or positively makes no difference. The equivalence of positive and negative propositions is basic to the coherence of our language, and cannot be disregarded. Ralbag and Aquinas both make this clear.

    Here's my position: Sure, there can be things outside our knowledge (and there may be many reasons for this state of affairs). I will get into some such reasons in a later post. But, if we are going to make claims about those things that are outside our knowledge, we have to be very careful. I'm not saying it's impossible because, for example, in mathematics it is possible to prove existences without providing examples, but in mathematics you are working in a very constrained framework, and the existences we are proving are of entities with specific properties; a function that is uncomputable, a coding scheme that is optimal, etc. These are not "unknowables"; they are, in the worst case, "un-exemplifiables".

    It seems to me that what you want to do is to declare a class of entities to be completely beyond our knowledge, and then to go on and say a number of nice and convenient things about it. It won't work. In the case of "form," or "organization," as I prefer to call it, we cannot in any sense say that it is "unknowable". We have seen organization, and although we may argue about its ontological status (I think it's just a property of matter), we certainly observe that it has its causes just like everything else. So if you want to declare "form" to be the other kind of "stuff," you will need to explain how it manages to evade causality. It is plain based on experience that "form" is as susceptible to causality as is "material". Is that not your experience?

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 3, 2007, 11:18:00 AM  

  • great stuff !!! I'm looking forward to the next episode !

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at May 3, 2007, 8:49:00 PM  

  • Thanks BA! Much appreciated.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 3, 2007, 9:52:00 PM  

  • "By saying — which we will ultimately need to — that this other kind of "stuff" is not susceptible to causality, we are making a very definite claim. Whether we formulate it negatively or positively makes no difference. The equivalence of positive and negative propositions is basic to the coherence of our language, and cannot be disregarded. Ralbag and Aquinas both make this clear."

    This is not true because we are not saying anything about this cause, we are just saying what it is not. That is not a positive statement about the cause. Saying what this cause is not saying anything positive about the cause.

    Also, according to your example why should Mathematics be any different?

    "It seems to me that what you want to do is to declare a class of entities to be completely beyond our knowledge, and then to go on and say a number of nice and convenient things about it."

    I am not saying anything convenient about this cause. I am not making any statements about it or explaining it at all actually. All I am saying is that we can prove it exists.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 4, 2007, 3:54:00 PM  

  • Anonymous, I will get back to you after shabbos. I'm in a rush now. Have a good shabbos.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 4, 2007, 5:03:00 PM  

  • Saying what this cause is not saying anything positive about the cause.

    Let's say you have a feature F which can adopt one of the following set of values: {a,b,c,d,e}. If I say the feature value is "not a," then I have explicitly stated that the feature value is "b or c or d or e". That much should be plain, so that can't be our disagreement.

    As I understand it, you wish to claim that there is some entity in which exists the negation of the property C = "is caused"; that is, an entity for which ~C is true.
    You argue that making such a claim is not the same as predicating a positive attribute of that entity. Presumably, you would not be satisfied if I say that I can always create a predicate D=(~C) and then simply predicate that attribute positively of the entity. That's the equivalent of replacing "not caused" with the attribute "free" or something like that. Do you find that convincing? If not, why not?

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 6, 2007, 4:04:00 PM  

  • Im sorry it took so long to reply back.

    If i say that something is not this or that, it does not mean I am automatically saying it is this or that because in our case for example I am not claiming I know God's essence all I am saying is what God cannot be.

    So as you can see, I am not making an declarations or explaining this cause.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 9, 2007, 8:28:00 PM  

  • This is what it must have been like to have a correspondence in the olden times, by post. But it's quaint, and I like it.

    However, I've already completely lost track of the argument. So refresh my memory: What is it that God cannot be? And how do you know this?

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 9, 2007, 9:03:00 PM  

  • Im sorry once again that it has taken so long to reply back. I have been very busy recently. Anyways the argument is that God cannot be physical because physical things deteriorate and cannot be eternal because this is what we witness ourselves in this world. An infinite number of causes is impossible. Therefore, there must be a cause which was eternal but at the same time cannot be physical. It is immaterial, and is not subject to the things physical objects are subject to.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 14, 2007, 1:27:00 AM  

  • I am not saying what this cause is, all I am saying is that we know it exists. Keep that in mind.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 14, 2007, 1:28:00 AM  

  • Well, I see we can go back and forth on this without gaining much insight. What I would encourage you to do is lay out your premises point by point, such as (1) There are two classes of entities, material and non-material, (2) Every material entity must have a cause, (3) There cannot be infinite causes, (4) etc..., and to be as specific as possible.

    I think then we can see whether we have a disagreement about premises or about logic.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 15, 2007, 12:35:00 PM  

  • The argument is like RJM has mentioned in XGH's blog on one of his posts which goes like this:

    1) All material entities are contingent, i.e., dependent on external causes for their existence.

    2) The universe itself is a material entity.

    3) Therefore, the universe must be dependent upon an external cause for its existence.

    This external cause must be immaterial and independent because if it is material it would then be subject to being contingent upon something else.

    You keep saying that we must know what this cause is but I am arguing that we do not have to know that since even you admit that we can know something exists and not know anything about it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 15, 2007, 11:30:00 PM  

  • 1) All material entities are contingent, i.e., dependent on external causes for their existence.
    2) The universe itself is a material entity.
    3) Therefore, the universe must be dependent upon an external cause for its existence.


    I think you are deceiving yourself about the logic of this. First, let's release the hidden premise in #1:

    1a) There are two kinds of entities, material entities and non-material entities.
    1b) All material entities require a cause.
    1c) The "cause" of a material entity is either a material entity or a non-material entity.
    1d) [Missing premise]

    Now, let us unpack the second premise:

    2a) The universe is the set of all material entities.
    2b) A set of material entities is itself a material entity.
    2c) (Follows that...) The universe is a material entity.
    2d) The cause of a set-wise material entity cannot be a member of the set.

    And finally, it follows from (1b) and (2c) that...

    3) The universe requires a cause.

    I challenge you on the premises:

    1a) How do you know there are two kinds of entities? What is the distinction between them? If you cannot cite a distinction, then there is no distinction.
    1b) How do you know that all material entities are contingent? Have you seen all material entities?
    1c) How do you know that a non-material entity can be the cause of a material entity?
    1d) The missing premise is "All non-material entities require a cause." It's clear why you leave this out, but how can you justify doing so?
    2b) It is difficult to claim that a set of material entities is also a material entity. My coffee mug may be a material entity, but I would in no practical context consider the set {coffee mug, Moon, fire escape, Muhammad} to be a single entity. If indeed arbitrary sets of entities are themselves entities, then premise (1b) becomes almost untenable. (Incidentally, I don't believe that RJM or anyone else claimed that the universe is a material entity.)

    I therefore hold these premises not to be self-evident and not to be defensible. So, defend your premises.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 16, 2007, 5:32:00 PM  

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