Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The “ineffability” argument for the existence of god — the modern-world version of the “god of the gaps” — yet another logical failure

A stout charge, indeed. How do I justify it?

First, as a recent discussion board at Pharyngula has demonstrated, “ineffability” appears to be the holdout of the modern ardent theist, one who may well accept some version of evolutionary theory and a Big Bang-dated age and proximate cause of the universe, but still believes in a theistic creator behind it all.

Such a person will often claim, as part of his or her defense of theism, that “emotion/aesthetic value/value judgment A” is ineffable. The first minor premise of the syllogism (not long enough to be a sorities) is that something ineffable cannot have a naturalistic cause. Intermediate conclusion is therefore that ineffability is a mark of supernaturalism. The second minor premise is obviously that a cause that transcends nature has a final cause in a theistic creator. (Note: The same claim and chain or argumentation may be made, and is, about morality or ethics, but as the discussion at Pharyngula focused on appreciation of the arts and enjoyment of nature, I don’t want to lose a tight focus.)

But, this argument has a number of holes in it, both from definitions and from strength of reasoning. Let’s read through them, from left to right in the argumental chain, both warrants and reasoning at the same time.

First, the whole question of what it means for something to be “ineffable” must be examined carefully. In part, ineffability is, per modern theories a mind, an issue of private mental states. Ergo, what is ineffable for you may well NOT be ineffable for me. Therefore, to sound scholastic, ineffability is a particular, not a universal. Under general standards of informal logic, if one particular instance of ineffability can be shown (with reasonable scientific polling/sampling work) to be ineffable for less than 50 percent of people, then the ineffability argument, at least for this particular class of ineffable mental states, is invalid.

The second problem is the failure to recognize the temporal specificity of many ineffable mental states. In short, what is ineffable today for John Doe or Jane Roe may well not be so tomorrow. Again, the 50 percent rule holds true — if “ineffable mental state A” eventually becomes effable for more than 50 percent of the people in such a state, the argument is invalid.

The third factor involves human psychology. Contrary to such rationalist standard-bearers as the associates of the Cato Institute and other denizens of modern political libertarianism, humans by and large aren’t rational economic actors. Economists from the generally libertarian-touted University of Chicago have taken the lead in painstaking demonstrating this.

Political angle aside, and the “brights” nomenclature of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins aside as well, we homo sapiens aren’t that rationalistic about a lot of our behaviors.

Where is this headed?

Well, the person who believes that Event A is ineffable, or, as I phrase it, the person who is in mental state of ineffability, is usually acting emotionally. Ergo, he or she may not be conducive to rational persuasion. Now, even in informal logic, one probably can’t assign percentages of truth value to such ineffable belief except in the roundest of numbers. However, there’s probably enough evidence to list this as no better than weakly inductive.

Next, we have a question of epistemology, one in which “ineffabologists” are eventually hoist on their own first-minor-premise petard. For, if ineffable experiences ultimately have a supernatural cause, then how can “ineffability” be defined in terms amenable to naturalistic explanation, discussion and analysis?


Acceptance of the first minor presence as essential to the argument automatically lifts it out of the world of science.

In short, this “argument from ineffability” that appears to developing into more a stock of trade is as logically invalid as its many predecessors.

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