Ignosticism and Referential Justification

By Tristan D. Vick / 10.11.2017

A Short Recap of the Ignostic Position

Ignosticism is the philosophical position that most descriptions and definitions of God are incoherent, incomplete, discrepant, or contradictory (if not all of the above) and so cannot be discussed meaningfully.

What this means is that asking questions about God, or ruminating on the nature of God, or talking about us in relation to God are all probably meaningless because we cannot know what God is like because we cannot adequately describe God. If we are all talking about dissimilar things it becomes increasingly difficult to pin-point an accurate discription for the term “God,” and so we need something additional to clue us in as to which, if any, of the descriptions are accurate or reliable.

It seems to me that this additional requisite would be a kind of evidence or support which validates any given description of God. But this we do not find, thus ignosticism says it is meaningless to talk about God in nuanced theological ways until we can have a reliable description of what it is we are talking about when we speak of “God.”

Acquiring such a description would then yeild a reliable definition for believers to point to when they invoke the term “God.” The ignostic challenges the underlying semantics behind the definition of “God” as being valid, saying we cannot know with any certainty whether any description is accurate (because we have no evidence to check the description against) and therefore holds that most (maybe even all) descriptions of God are invalid. This challenge can be summed up nicely by the ignostic question: What do you mean by “God”?

As I have developed some ideas behind Ignosticism more thoroughly, I feel their are six main parts to the Ignostic proposition. It breaks down something like this:

  1. There are numerous competing descriptions of God.
  2. These descriptions sometimes overlap, but are mostly divergent or else in direct conflict with one another, while others completely negate each other (let’s call this the problem of dissimilarity).
  3. Due to the personal nature of each religion and individual’s unique understanding of God, every description of God will always be relative to the person and their particular brand of faith (the problem of confirmation bias).
  4. Descriptions of God being relative to the individual, biased by doctrinal prejudices, give rise to even greater nuances between otherwise similar definitions of God whereby the given definition comports with religious theological premises/templates but not any tangible or testable object which could give rise to a verifiable description of said object (the problem of subjectivity).
  5. The Ignostic therefore takes the position that due to a problem of dissimilarity in descriptions of God, nearly all definitions which make up the concept of God are rendered incoherent by the fact that virtually all descriptions fail to describe what they are purportedly meant to give description to (the referential problem).
  6. Therefore no agreed upon description of the term “God” can be assigned which has any meaning in the way a description of a term would need to in order for it to be meaningful (the justification problem).

I think those who pause to think about the consequences of Ignosticism will realize it poses a rather substantial problem for theists, deists, and polytheists.

Although Ignosticism doesn’t necessarily disprove the existence of any God or gods, it does show that the descriptions provided and the definitions of any particular god do not comport to any coherent understanding of the supposed object these terms are supposed to help define in the first place.

Again, ignosticism’s goal isn’t to disprove God, per say. It merely demonstrates that the descriptions and definitions we use cannot have any agreed upon meaning with respect to what the term “God” is supposed to describe, and this problem is compounded by the fact that all religions/individuals continue to construct their own understanding of God relative to their pre-existing religious and cultural experiences as well as personal disposition. As a consequence of every definition of God being relative to personal experience, it becomes overly difficult to access which, if any, experience is a real, genuine, experience and which are not. As such, more and more competing definitions of God arise from this practice of define God relative to subjective experience rather than seeking to identify any tangible thing like a god to describe via observation (either directly or indirectly).

An interesting consequence of ignosticism is that it demonstrates that valid descriptions matter and that those who believe in a God, or anything like a god, must come to agreement with what they are purporting to describe. That is, the description has to be more than a conceptualization of what the religious individual would like God to be, rather any description provided must describe what God is (should God actually exist).

This challenge must be met in order to bypass the problem of dissimilarity, and a referent (the thing itself, in this case God) must be established so that the definition of God is accurately illustrated by the accompanying description of said referent (the thing itself).

Subsequently, having an actual referent for the object in question, all definitions of God should, in principle, converge. That is, everyone could come to agreement about what God is, and their descriptions would align thus giving way to matching definitions—regarldess of what their personal experience of this God might be.

Without any agreement about what it is a religious believer means by the definition of “God,” however, all one has is a subjective conceptualization dervied from personal, subjective experience and it is impossible to understand what it is meant when one asks the question “Does God exist?” or makes the statement “I believe in God” since the term “God” could possibly mean anything.

The ignostic, in order to be truly satisfied, must know, “What do you mean by God?” Otherwise, the ignostic holds that all you have suggested by “God” is a thing of your own imagining and not the thing itself.

Of course, many religious adherents are prone to dismiss competing definitions offhand because they don’t respect opposing points of view or have more dogmatic religious reasons for ignoring competing religious claims. But even so, the dismissal of competing claims doesn’t do away with the problem of dissimilarity, because one still must justify their description and definition of God before they can claim they believe in said description and definition as an accurate representation of said God.

As such, the problem of ignosticism can be easily solved if theists, and believers, would simply engage with other competing definitions of God.

Failing to do so would equate to failing to justify one’s own terms, and as such whatever definition the believer chooses to use to describe “God” would ever be only a empty term which carried no meaning in a discussion about God because, all things considered, we still don’t know what it is we are talking about when we talk about God.

On Referential Justification

Over the past 10 years, I’ve developed the concept of ignosticism into a formal demonstration that can either prove or disprove the existence of God.

In a nutshell, ignosticism asks you to describe “God.”

Simple enough, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds.

When a person says they have a belief in God, what is it they mean by “God”?

One might say God is three in one. Another might say none is greater than God.

Both are fine definitions.

The problem arises when competing definitions for the same God negate each other.

Three is not one.

So, what is it we are talking about? How can we talk about a self-negating concept? It’s nonsensical. We can’t speak meaningfully of it.

Hence, the ignostic holds religious people tend to presume too much about God.

The description part is to test the coherence of the object being described. Many theological descriptions of God are sophisticated but incoherent.

So, what is it we are talking about? How can we talk about an incoherent concept? It’s nonsensical. We can’t speak meaningfully of it.

Hence, the ignostic holds religious people must provide a meaningful description of God before the topic of God can carry any real meaning, regardless of the meaning they imbue their concept with before offering a demonstration.

Unable to do this, the term God is rendered meaningless and so irrelevant.

Most theological demonstrations of God’s existence or attributes are logical conceptualizations, but they often fall apart when compared to competing demonstrations which change the description of God.

The key is finding religious templates that are logical and internally coherent.

Once we have these we can test the descriptions against the referent—whether tangible or conceptual.

A tangible referent would be the physical thing itself, like an apple. A conceptual referent would be something like Democracy or Capitalism. They are concepts, but they work and they function and can be measured and have an observable effect on the societies that adopt them.

Now ignosticism is only designed to determine the immediate relevance of your description. Unable to describe God in any meaningful way undermines one’s belief in God by demonstrating that God isn’t worth discussing because the concept of God (as provided by the person of faith) is meaningless.

I take it one step further by asking one to provide a justification of their description (I call this step a Referential Justification).

There are three parts to this:

  1. Provide a comprehensible description (comprehensible so as to be meaningful)
  2. Provide a referential justification—the thing itself or a defeasible concept—for said description (otherwise it gets classified as an unreal conceptualization)
  3. Determine if your description is accurate by comparing it to the description of an impartial 3rd party (otherwise go back to square one).

Easy enough, right?

You’d be surprised!

Referential Justification is designed to help us justify our terms by showing they mean what we think they mean.

This is part of the area of English theory known as semantics–better known as the study of the meaning of words and how they come to acquire their meanings.

And this relates in an important way back to epistemology, the study of knowledge and how we know what we know. Because, when you think about the standard phrases the devout typically use when talking about God is it usually something like “I know God exists,” and “God is real” the question arises, how do they know?

Saying that “God exists” may be faith-based propositions, sure. But it’s also a truth claim. And taking such a belief for granted doesn’t prove the belief is true, even if one believes with all their heart they are.

All my advancement of ignosticism seeks to do is justify these claims as true.

And that would be a big win for the believer!

It provides a powerful tool to justify one’s terms so we can understand they are speaking about true and real things, and thereby avoid the ignostic’s criticism that a person of faith’s God-talk is meaningless.

So it is to the benefit of the believer that they should always apply a Referential Justification to their terminology so as to not run into any semantic problems where the words they are using actually don’t describe what they are talking about. Because this is where the underlying confusion lies–if the definition of “God” doesn’t mean what they think it means or it means something else entirely, then they cannot presume to know God is real or that God exists, because the term has no inherent meaning and so no value in the discussion.

This, of course, means we’re dealing with a higher order of specificity than people are typically accustomed to using when they talk about broad concepts. It means, if we are going to make the specific claim that something is real and that it has certain properties, then we must be expected to show the work.

Show the relationship between your claim and the description you want others to accept as valid so that we know you’re not assuming more than you can possibly know about the thing you are talking about.

Basically, it’s a way to check if someone is haphazardly fabricating their ideas or else actually offering us a real description of something in a way we can talk about meaningfully.

It’s not controversial. It’s necessary.

Originally published by Advocatus Atheist under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States license.