2.2 The Argument from Incomprehensibility

Christian Godhead

There is a strong theistic tradition that holds that our ability to comprehend God is limited. Our concepts are derived from our experiences, and our experiences are of flawed and finite existence; we therefore lack the conceptual tools necessary to understand what God is really like. God is incomprehensible to us.

According to this tradition, when we apply our human concepts to God, describing him in terms that we have derived from our experience of the world, we must take great care. For God is neither flawed nor finite, and so our standard categories of thought do not apply to him. When we say that God is good, for example, we must remember that divine goodness is not the same thing as human goodness. Because God’s being transcends our experiences of the mundane, he transcends our understanding, and we can describe him only in borrowed language which fails to accurately describe him.

In stressing God’s incomprehensibility, the distance between his being and our categories of thought, this tradition gives ammunition to the agnostic. To the extent that God is beyond our understanding, knowledge of God is presumably also beyond our understanding. The greater the distance between God and that which we have known, the more difficult it will be to answer the question as to whether or not God exists. If God is truly incomprehensible, then how can we affirm either theism or atheism?

Blaise Pascal, famous for his pragmatic argument for belief in God, Pascal’s Wager, offered an argument for agnosticism along these lines. Though Pascal thought that belief in God was justified because it is in our interests, he thought it impossible to establish God’s existence by reason.

Pascal first argued for agnosticism concerning God’s nature:


We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of a unit can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is. Is there not one substantial truth, seeing there are so many things which are not the truth itself?
[Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Section III]


Having argued that we cannot know God’s nature, Pascal then argued that this agnosticism should be extended to the question of God’s existence:


We know then the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.
[Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Section III]


This argument for agnosticism is, of course, ultimately set aside by Pascal. We can, he suggests, believe in God’s existence by faith, and we can be justified in our faith on pragmatic grounds. Nevertheless, his argument that our finitude prevents us from knowing of God’s existence is independent of his pragmatic argument for belief in God, and is the kind of argument that underpins much agnosticism.


Labels: , ,