Some Things Just Can’t be Known
Hooray and Hallelujah
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Epistemologically speaking, the UCTAA’s First Article of Faith: “The existence of a Supreme Being is unknown and unknowable,” pretty much says it all. But then, so are a lot of other things unknowable (and therefore unknown), that is.
Why someone would get upset because someone else said they don’t and can’t know about the existence of some supposed Supreme Being is more a matter for psychiatry than philosophy. All I can say is that anyone who would get upset about that, ain’t seen nothing yet.
Knowing the existence of something anything just isn’t as easy as most of us tend to take for granted. This is partly due to the fact that just what it means to exist is not so easily defined as “common sense” would have it. Or in other words, and as our Patriarch has reminded us, a former U.S. President observed, it all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is. 
Does God exist? Does the world? Do you, I? Believe it or not, these are all in pretty much the same epistemological boat. Their answers not only depend on what one might mean by “God,” “the world,” “you” and “I” but also on whether any of them are within even the possibility of our really knowing. The answer to that is easy. Given our most common understandings of these things and a strict definition of knowledge, they aren’t none of them!
Proving the existence of anything is a tricky matter, one with a long history of controversy not only in theology but also in philosophy and in science. In addition to the criteria I outlined in Meditation 645 (or “a quarter to seven”) for what it is, in general, to know something, it is also commonly held and accepted that there are only two ways we humans have of knowing anything at all: either by experience or through reason, or some combination of the two. Without going into a detailed history, and as every survivor of a comprehensive introductory philosophy course knows, attempts to prove and therefore know the existence of many of these things have proven quite problematic, to say the least. In fact, much stronger evidence has been given for not knowing them in some cases, even for the impossibility of knowing them.
More than a few epistemological whiz kids (wise guys?) have pointed out the impossibility of proving/knowing by experience the continued existence of the external world when it is not experienced (duh!) and the impossibility of proving the existence of anything at all by mere logic alone. The upshot of this is that we cannot know that the world exists when we are not experiencing it. Similarly, notwithstanding Descartes’ cogito (and without committing a logical fallacy), there is no guarantee of even my own existence as a “thinking thing” when I’m not thinking (conscious). If I cannot know for certain the continued existence of even myself or the external world, how in epistemological heaven can I be expected to know the existence of a God who is supposed to have created them both? The sheer fact of the matter is, I can’t. All of them are and must be taken on “faith,” if at all. This does not mean however that they should all be considered to be on the same ontological or epistemological footing. For while what evidence there is cannot conclusively prove the existence of any of them, given what evidence there is, there is more for the world’s continued existence than for mine (your’s), and more for mine (your’s) than for God’s.
So, as I understand it, the UCTAA’s First Article of Faith (even if a bit redundant a fortiori) is therefore a statement of epistemological fact and the only people who might feel threatened by it are those “know-it-alls” who want to impose their own views about such matters on everyone else and insist upon taking umbrage at the UCTAA’s indifference to giving deference to their particular notions about some supposed “Supreme Being,”
There are many ironies inherent in the idea (as well perhaps reality) of the UCTAA, not the least of which is its name. In answer to a question regarding whether the UCTAA is really a “church,” the Patriarch (as well as a discussant) admirably explained and defended its right to be regarded as such. Among the things he noted and I find interesting is that while many have questioned in what sense the UCTAA is a church (or for that matter apathetic, or agnostic), no-one has raised an issue about its claim either to be universal or triumphant. This might be because taken on their face, those appellations appear so outlandish and “overblown” as not to be taken seriously which should be a clue not to take any of it too seriously which I take to be at least part of the “message.” However, for those missing the requisite mirth monitor, I think a not entirely tongue-in-cheek (and therefore without risking having to bite one’s tongue) defense of the church as being both universal and triumphant could indeed be given.
The UCTAA is certainly universal in at least the senses of being open to everyone willing to accept its tenets as well as in the universality of its statement (aka “Article of Faith”) regarding the un-know-ability of the existence of Supreme Being(s). It is also triumphant in at least the sense of maintaining and advocating again ironically a superior religious attitude by questioning the attitudes of superiority held and imposed by others, and by taking joy in and celebrating in the doing of it. Hooray and Hallelujah for the Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic !!!
* aka Paul W. Sharkey, PhD, MPH, MPG (See Meditation 645).
- The list of things not only unknown but also unknowable is actually quite large, in fact, infinitely so. “Trivial” examples include the set of all real numbers, the final values of any irrational number [square root of two, Pi, etc ad infinitum] or the not so trivial completeness and consistency of any first order system (e.g. arithmetic), or in physics, Heisenberg uncertainty, or the precise predictability of any non-linear system (the weather, the practice of medicine, the universe?). Also, to say that something is unknowable is, a fortiori, to say that it is unknown. Hence, the “First Article of Faith” could just read: “The existence of a Supreme Being is Unknowable” (and therefor, unknown!).
- See: Q&A 159. In fact, the verb “to be” as well as the concept and terms ‘being,’ ‘exist’ etc. are notoriously ambiguous notwithstanding John Duns Scotus’ (1265-1308) theory of the “Univocity of Being” proposed as an attempt to avoid an ambiguity in predicating “existence” of both God and anything else. His “solution” was simply to assert that there is only one kind of being, though infinite in the case of God and finite in the case of creatures. All this was based upon the notion that “being” is some kind of stuff or substance, God just has more of it infinite being as opposed to other “beings” which are finite. Most of us, however, will recognize that even “real” numbers (whether rational or irrational) certainly do not exist in the same sense as love or music, nor love or music in the same sense as tables and chairs and that in any case, Scotus’ “solution”did not solve the problem of making God’s “existence” any more knowable than without it because as an infinite being God’s existence is as incomprehensible and unknowable as the final value of any irrational number -- Q.E.D. ( Oh yes, that U.S. President attended Georgetown University where he was sure to have gotten a thorough grounding in a scholastic education.)
- This is not to say that none of them in fact exist, even in the ways we commonly believe them to, but only that proving that they do (or, in some cases, don’t) is beyond our epistemological capabilities.
- The history of thought is replete with all kinds of things, from gods, angels, demons, ghosts, and UFOs to material substance, spiritual substance, phlogiston, optical ether, quarks, black holes and dark-matter, whose “existence” has been (and in many cases, still is) a matter of controversy.
- Modern ‘science’ (Latin for ‘knowledge’) combines in a fairly structured way, both reason and experience in an attempt to know and understand ourselves and the world in which we live thereby incorporating both the rationalist and empiricist traditions of western epistemology.
- I take it on trust and “hearsay” that it exists when I personally may not be experiencing it (while asleep or otherwise unconscious) but even this doesn’t solve the bigger problem pointed out by George Berkeley, David Hume, or contemporary quantum physics, to name but a few.
- As Aristotle pointed out (long before Augustine or Descartes), “to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious of our own existence.” The problem is, when I’m not conscious of my own existence (and neither of anything else), do I even exist? Certainly not as a conscious being! This has some fairly serious implications concerning the commonly held “Christian” (and others) doctrine regarding personal immortality. Just as I go in-and-out of consciousness in waking and sleeping (and therefore in-and-out of existence as a conscious being), even if I were to continue to do so for some time after my earthly existence, there is no more guarantee that I would continue to do so for eternity than there is that I will wake up tomorrow morning! There is never a guarantee that I may not simply cease to exist as a conscious being never to be conscious again at any moment! Yet many of the same people who assert their certainty in the existence of God also do so about their own immortality which, I suspect, is their real concern. Forget knowing God’s existence, your own is always a matter of faith and can never be anything else!
- This is bound to upset most “believers” who would be inclined to say it is just the other way around. However, given the evidence of history, philosophy, biology, physics, psychology and psychiatry, the world has been and will be around a lot longer than you or I or any of the gods or goddesses we have worshipedor not.
- The very idea of a Supreme Being involves not just a descriptive but also (maybe only) an evaluative dimension. It is therefore always possible to disagree about the existence of any being as being “Supreme” even if an infinite all-powerful being could be proven to exist simply by refusing to regard such a being as “Supreme.” Most “believers”seem to want to insist on the existence of such a supremely powerful being anyway only in order to try to persuade others (by implied force) to behave the way they (their “god”) insist that they do. The sad thing is, morally and spiritually speaking, they have it exactly backwards. The existence of a Supreme being is unknowable because acknowledging any being’s supremacy is not an epistemological but rather an axiological act not a question of fact, but of value, a matter of the will, not knowledge. No god is God unless regarded as such.
- See Q&A 71, 98.