Knowledge Problems

Sunday, July 22, 2007

How Is God Unknowable?

As I suggested earlier, in order for us to consider "unknowability of God" to be a coherent notion and to subject it to further examination, we need to be able to offer at least a tentative formal characterization both of the concept "knowable" and the concept "God". The failure or unwillingness to do this is, in my opinion, a tacit admission that such claims really have no meaning at all. As a first step in this direction, we have to be clear that when we use the term "unknowable" we are actually talking about a state of knowledge — a relationship that obtains between two entities, a knower and that which is to be known. This would appear so obvious as to not even need saying; after all, to what could a term such as "unknowable" refer if not to a state of knowledge? However, it seems to me that religious thinkers often feel at liberty to use terms without specifying the context within which those terms have meaning, and in particular I have often seen the term "unknowable" used independently of any knowledge representation framework that would grant it a concrete and fixed meaning. And so I stress that "unknowability" is a state of knowledge, and that therefore the term has a meaning only within the context of a knowledge representation system. This all seems straightforward to me.

Thus, as I say, we need a formal characterization of (1) knowledge, (2) knower, and (3) that which is to be known, before we can claim to understand what it means for "that which is to be known" to be "unknowable." Now, jumping ahead, since this essay is about the "unknowability of God," in the final analysis "that which is to be known" will be not just any phenomenon, but the phenomenon we call "God." However, the issue of unknowability extends far beyond the particular issue of knowing God, and by approaching the matter of knowledge representation formally, we can examine in detail issues concerning the general notion of "unknowability" without specifically making claims about God. In a sense, therefore, the question of whether and how we can know God is ancillary to the larger issue of whether and how we can know anything. So essentially we will be examining the consequences of allowing God to be a member of the class "unknowable," once this class is suitably and formally defined.

Not to belabor the point, but again, the approach here is not to declare God knowable or unknowable, but rather to examine what it would mean for God to be knowable or unknowable in a certain capacity, and what consequences would follow from such a status. Indeed, if we were to foolishly declare God to be unknowable, we would be invoking the very knowledge that we claim it is impossible for us to possess! Heschel (heschel_51) in fact has it right that "... he who insists that God is in every way unknowable claims to know that what he says cannot be known." This alone would seem to make many of the classical statements on God's unknowability and incomprehensibility highly suspect. Our goal in science and philosophy, as Nagel writes, is "... to reach a position as independent as possible of who we are and where we started, but a position that can also explain how we got there." And, as Heschel suggests, the matter of "how we got there" is the very first challenge that must be raised against the position that "God is unknowable". Simply, how do Rambam and Ramchal and Steinsaltz and Kaplan come to a position where they know that God is unknowable? In adopting this position, they are in fact professing a knowledge of God that is far more sweeping than what any of their opponents had ever claimed. To be able to assert that "it is inconceivable that man's understanding should be able to penetrate to the essence of the Infinite" (berkovits_04) would seem to itself demand a transcendent theory of both "man's understanding" and the "essence of the Infinite" that is far beyond anything that any thinker has ever offered. Likewise, to argue that "we have neither the words nor the mental processes that would enable us to actually describe God or understand Him" (Kaplan) would seem to require one to posses God-like insight into the structure of the Mind of Man and Mind of God.

Our purpose in this essay, therefore, is not to make such allegations, and our little project will hopefully not fall victim to such presumptions. (It will fall victim to other presumptions, however.) The current project is not to declare a particular entity (i.e., God) to be knowable or unknowable to human beings, but rather to provide a mathematical framework for discussing such questions intelligently, and one that might provide some general insights into the issue of knowability that will allow us to use the concept in a meaningful manner.

Still, one matter that must trouble the reader as we proceed is how we can possibly propose to obtain a formal characterization of the concept of God, or rather, how we can allow God to be subsumed in a class (i.e., the class "unknowable") that admits a formal characterization. Doesn't the very possession of any such formal characterization immediately make God knowable, so that whatever we might then prove about God's knowability would have been trivially assumed from the start? In other words, by the very act of formally specifying those three elements, (1) knowledge, (2) knower, and (3) that which is to be known, and then assuming that a process called "God" can be represented within the specified system, haven't we already committed ourselves to the idea that God is knowable?

Yes and no. And maybe. It is difficult to answer this question in the abstract, so as we go along I will try to be very clear on exactly what assumptions I am making about the entity or phenomenon known as God. And while almost all of the assumptions will be heretical according to someone, they are also so weak that it would be difficult to claim that these assumptions alone constitute knowledge of God.

So then, what does it mean, formally, to say that something can be know or cannot be known? There are a thousand legitimate answers to this question, for a thousand conceivable knowledge representation systems. In the next section I will review a very elementary knowledge representation scheme, and review a straightforward definition of unknowability that can be used within that system to express the issues we are talking about.


  • Have you ever read Heschel's "The prophets"? His discussion of divine pathos, and the prophet's ability to "feel" it, should be relevant to your discussion.

    Enjoy your well though out blog, though it'a a bit difficult to follow at times.

    By Anonymous wolf2191, at Jul 24, 2007, 6:03:00 PM  

  • Thanks for sticking with me, Wolf! I started "The Prophets," a couple years back, but I don't think I liked the way he was going with it. I will definitely try to approach the book again, soon, sometime... Thanks.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jul 25, 2007, 10:01:00 AM  

  • 90% of the time, that I have read, in Jewish texts, We say that G-d is unkowable. We then therefore begin to talk about G-d's interaction with the world, which then becomes knowable on some level, and in the more esoteric texts, they say that certain non G-d aspects of the spiritual world can be known, and they discuss those.

    G-d then becomes a shorthand for, "The aspects of the creations of G-d which we can know to be aspects which we should view G-d as"

    By Anonymous Daganev, at Aug 29, 2007, 9:30:00 PM  

  • Well, we say many things. Not all are intelligible. I am trying to see what statements about such a dichotomy between knowable and unknowable are actually intelligible by expanding the issue in formal terms.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Aug 30, 2007, 8:49:00 AM  

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