A few times I’ve referred to my view about “the God question” as “radical agnosticism.” I thought it might be fun to work through what this means.
For the purposes of this discussion, by “God” I shall mean follow Hart’s definition of God as “the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things” (The Experience of God, p. 30).
Next, I shall stipulate that our assertions about the world fall into two classes: those that take a truth-value in all possible worlds and those that take a truth-value only in the actual world. This is a contemporary version of “Hume’s Fork”: there are “relations of ideas”, “truths of reason”, analytic a priori claims and then there are “matters of fact”, “truths of fact,” synthetic a posteriori claims. (There are some reasons to be skeptical of this neat distinction but I’ll leave that aside for now.)
Whether or not God exists would therefore seem to be either a “truth of fact” or a “truth of reason”. I shall therefore now argue that it cannot be either.
Truths of fact are either directly observable phenomena or they are posited phenomena. (Though the boundary is strictly methodological and shifts over time.) But there are many presumptive truths of fact — claims with truth-value about the actual world — which we know have turned out to be false. And we know that because of empirical inquiry, and in particular, in the collection of techniques of inquiry called “science”. (I shall not insult anyone’s intelligence by assuming that there is a single thing called “the scientific method”).
Central to disciplined empirical inquiry, including and especially the sciences, is the act of measurement: intersubjectively verifiable assignments of quantitative variation across some interval of spatio-temporal locations. (It might be said that “the Scientific Revolution” is the historical period during which measurement slowly becomes the dominant conception of objectivity.)
But with that notion in place, it is perfectly clear that it is not even possible to take measurements of a perfectly transcendent being. A being that transcends all of space and time cannot be measured, which means that no claims about Him can be subjected to the tribunal of scientific inquiry. And hence no matters of fact about God can be verified one way or the other. That is to say that all claims about God that are restricted to the actual world have an indeterminate truth-value: they cannot be determined to be true or false
The epistemic situation is no better when we turn from a posteriori to a priori claims. In a priori claims, the tribunal is not science but logic, and the central epistemic concept is not measurability but provability. Can the existence of God be proven? Many have thought so!
But here two things must be pointed out: a proof, to be deductively valid, consists of re-organizing the information contained in the initial assumptions. One can generate a logically valid proof of the existence of God. (Gödel, for example, has a logically valid version of the Ontological Argument.) The process of proof-construction is not going to give you more information in the conclusion than was present in the premises.
Logic is limited in another important way: there are multiple logics. What can proved in one logic can be disproven in a different logic. It depends on the choice of logical system. Once you’ve chosen a logical system, and you’ve chosen some premises, then of course one can prove that God exists. But neither the premises nor the rules are “self-evident”, inscribed on the very face of reason or of reality, etc.
Hence we cannot determine that God exists or does not exist on the basis of logic alone, since provability is no more reliable here than measurability is.
On this basis, I conclude that it is not even possible for beings such as ourselves to assign any truth-value at all to the assertion that God exists. This yields a radical agnosticism. Whereas the moderate agnostic can accept the logical possibility of some future evidence or reasoning that would resolve the issue, the radical agnostic insists that beings with minds like ours are completely unable to resolve the issue at all.
Radical agnosticism is at the same time compatible with either utter indifference to the question of the existence of God (“apatheism”) or some quite definite stance (ranging from theism to pantheism to deism to atheism). All that radical agnosticism insists on here is that all definite stances on the God-question are leaps of faith — no matter what direction.