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Is it Impossible to Know Anything About God?

February 29, 2024

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Immanual Kant is one of the most important philosophers who ever lived. Kant did believe in God, yet he was skeptical of the ability of human reason to know anything about the Transcendent, including whether God exists. Why did Kant hold this view?  

In his notoriously difficult book Critique of Pure Reason, Kant drew a distinction between the reality of things in themselves (noumena) and things as they appear to us (phenomena). Our concepts apply to the appearances of the world, since our concepts are derived from these appearances. But we cannot know the reality of things in themselves, so our concepts cannot give us knowledge of that reality. 

How does God fit into this distinction between appearance and reality? If our concepts don’t help us to know the reality of things in themselves, then our concepts cannot help us to the reality of God in himself. God does not appear in the world like an elephant explored by blind men. Our concepts can properly apply to the appearance of the elephant, which we can see, touch, and smell. But our concepts cannot apply to what does not appear to our senses, such as God. Thus, if Kant is right about how our concepts relate to appearance and reality, our concepts cannot give us any knowledge of God. The great University of Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga summarizes Kant’s point as follows: “God, who is reality in excelsis, is so far above us, or beyond us, that our puny minds can’t reach him at all. Our minds, and our thought, our language simply have no purchase on God.” So, since our arguments and thoughts use our human concepts, it is impossible not only to argue for the existence of God but also for us to know anything whatsoever about God.

We can use words derived from God’s creation to tell us something about God. 

But Plantinga points out that there is a problem with this view: “The statement that we can’t think about God—the statement that God is such that we can’t think about him—is obviously a statement about God; if we cannot think about God, then we can’t say about him that we can’t think of him.” In other words, to say, “I can say nothing about God” is in fact to say something about God. Plantinga continues, “Perhaps there are things we can’t think about, maybe things in some other part of the universe. If so, we can’t pick out any of those things and say of it that we can’t think about it.” So, this Kantian argument provides no good reason for believing that we cannot think about God.

Another problem arises. Either our concepts do help us know the reality of things in themselves or they don’t. But if we really cannot form concepts to think or talk accurately about the reality of things in themselves, then we cannot in fact know the distinction between the reality of things in themselves and the appearances of the world to us. The reality-appearance distinction transcends mere appearance. If our concepts don’t give us understanding of the reality of things in themselves, we cannot use these concepts to draw the distinction between the reality of things in themselves and the appearances of the world to us. So, the Kantian distinction is self-defeating, undermining itself. As Kant’s great critic Hegel pointed out, “The very fact that something is determined as a limitation implies that the limitation is already transcended.” In his Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed a similar thought: “In order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought).”

In other words, the concept of a distinction between the reality of things in themselves and the appearances of the world to us is not an appearance of the world to us. So, if our concepts apply only to the appearances of the world, then we cannot have a concept of the distinction between the reality of things in themselves and the appearances of the world to us. But we do have a concept of this distinction. So, we can have concepts that go beyond the appearance of the world to us.

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But if our concepts do help us to understand the reality of things in themselves, then we can form concepts about what goes beyond the appearances of things. So, the fact that God doesn’t appear to us like an elephant is no reason to think we cannot use our concepts to think or speak accurately about God. 

How would St. Thomas Aquinas respond to the claim that human concepts cannot be used about God? Thomas agrees that our human concepts and language about God cannot capture the divine essence. For this reason, Thomas thought that we can move toward a greater understanding of God by removing misunderstandings of God. This is called remotion or apophatic theology or negative theology. The most accurate speech about God is by means of denial of what God is not. God is not finite. God is not a body. God is not created. 

However, while it is true that our finite minds cannot perfectly comprehend an infinite God, that does not mean that we cannot know anything at all about God. We can come to know something (not everything) about Michelangelo by examining his fresco The Last Judgment. We can know something (not everything) about Emily Dickinson by studying her poem “Because I could not stop for Death—he kindly stopped for me.” So, too, we can come to know something (not everything) about the Creator by examining the creation. Since God’s creation tells us something about God, we can use words derived from God’s creation to tell us something about God. 

Some people say, “It is impossible to do metaphysics after Kant.” But I say, it is impossible to take Kant’s critique of metaphysics for granted after Plantinga.