Hick’s Ineffability Argument

I have been inspired by Xavier to post some stuff on John Hick that I haven’t though about in a while. Here is Hick’s argument for the ineffability of God on which I spoke to a youth group one time.

1) God’s being transcends the categories of human thought.
2) Any being which transcends the categories of human thought cannot be accurately described.
3) Therefore, any description of God will be inaccurate

Is this a good argument?

Premise 2 seems unproblematic and true.

Premise 1 has at least 2 problems:

a. Self-defeating—one cannot know that God transcends the categories of human thought without knowing something about God that doesn’t transcend the category of human thought………
b. If it is true then it is false.

But are there any more problems?

a. Hick adopts a Hindu conception of God—that God is beyond any human conception. He is neither personal or impersonal, good nor evil.
“Theologically, the Hindu distinction b/t Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman is important and should be adopted into western religious thought”
-(Hick, “Religious Pluralism and Ultimate Reality,” 513)

1. The problem here, of course, is that no religion is supposed to be more valid than another, but Hick has elevated Hinduism to being closer to the truth!!!
2. If he is elevating this view of Ultimate Reality is he then excluding other different or contradictory views?

I hope this spurs some good dialogue. Please share your thoughts, whether positive or negative.


7 Responses to Hick’s Ineffability Argument

  1. Susan says:

    Would it be a problem to say that God is unfathomable, but not unknowable? There are some things we can indeed comprehend and therefore describe about God, but our comprehension is limited to those attributes He has designed us to comprehend, so that we are able to enjoy relationship with Him.
    Anselm’s ontological argument did not render God entirely unknowable, just other in His ultimate attributes (those which fall beyond the pale of human comprehension).

  2. Clint says:

    It depends on what you mean by unfathomable. Sure, it seems obvious that we as finite beings cannot know God in any exhaustive sense. But I believe, and would like to stress, that we can know more about God than we sometimes think we can.
    In his book Simply Christian, N. T. Wright says “to speak of God’s action in the world, of heaven’s action (if you like) on earth-and Christians speak of this every time they say the Lord’s prayer-is to speak not of an awkard metaphysical blunder, nor of a ‘miracle’ in the sense of a random invasion of earth by alien (‘supernatural’) forces, but to speak of the loving Creator acting within the creation which has never lacked the signs of his presence. It is to speak, in fact, of such actions as might be expected to leave echoes. Echoes of a voice.”
    It is exactly this sort of active being that we have access to and can experience on a personal level.

    On the flip, there are those who note that whatever properties God has, he possesses them in a maximal sense. Thus, for you and I, with a limited concept and experience of, lets say what justice is, we do not have maximal knowledge of it. So, in this and in many other areas God is not fully fathomable. I might not say unfathomable, and if so, I would say it with much reservation. It seems that it is an ambiguous term which could be misconstrued to cast a negative light on the rational abilities of humanity. Though, there are many who might disagree with me on this point.

  3. Susan says:

    Well, according to the dictionary what is fathomable is what can be understood thoroughly; therefore, what is unfathomable cannot be understood thoroughly. The idea is that of depth of understanding, not understanding at all.

    In my veiw, creaturly constitution by nature limits the depth of knowledge possible about anything, not just the Creator, and I find nothing disparaging in such a confession. I know there are many who do, however, and take the position that imago dei means a potential for knowledge such that creature and Creator dialogue as peers, as it were.

  4. Clint says:


    On your view would we as humans be limited in our ability to know certain logical truths such as the law of non-contradiction or excluded middle? Can we know these sorts of things any fuller than we know them? I have not thought of this much so I am not sure, but it would seem that we know some things perfectly well in an exhaustive sense.
    Take for instance proposition Q: 2+2=4. What more can be known about such a proposition? Maybe I am begging the question, because if there is anything more to know about Q, then I am letting on that I have no idea what it is. Thus, the situation I am in would be exactly where I would be expected to be if I couldn’t fathom it fully, or anymore than I already have.

  5. Susan says:

    So this lands us up with a choice: either
    1) All we know about something is all there is to know about it.
    2)We cannot know whether we know everything about anything.

    Is there some middle ground?

  6. Becky says:

    Clint and Susan: Thanks for the stimulating thinking here.

    I want to ask if it matters re: the type of “somethings” we’re talking about. For example, the laws of logic are necessary (or in Kantian parlance, analytic) truths, by which I mean (the obvious) they are not contingent on my perceiving them (or, frankly, contingent on much else). If a proposition or a class of propositions is/are necessary, it doesn’t seem that there is anything more to know about them. Another way of thinking of this is that there may not be any further layers of information contained in the laws of logic although they might lead to us finding additional information about something. There are things that we can know fully, and are therefore fathomable.

    With respect to necessary propositions the first horn of Susan’s dilemma is satisfied. W/r/t laws of logic and other analytic truths (bachelors, triangles, etc) what we know about some general thing is all there is to know in the strong sense of what it means to know something. In addition, I might say that the depth requirement is also satisfied: we know with as much “depth” or as fully as possible what one needs to know about bachelors, for example.

    If our knowledge of God consists in necessary propositions (and I want to say that Anselm gives this a shot), then by “accepting” the proof, we know exhaustively that God is a maximally perfect being. However, I would venture to say that it is contingent in some way, one possibility being as a result of our finite nature…but I think that is a cop-out and there are better reasons for thinking why our knowledge of God is contingent.

    I’m not sure if this has gotten anywhere, but that’s the beauty of blogs, right? Thanks!

  7. Clint says:


    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this. I have not been able to access the internet for the past 4 days or so. Your comments are insightful and I agree with you on the the idea that the laws of logic can be known in a full sense. If you could please explain to me what exactly you mean when you say, “I would venture to say that it is contingent in some way”. What is the “it”. Is “it” the state of knowledge possessed by the knower and thus this knowledge is contingent? Sorry, if this seems picky. I just want to make sure I can “fathom” what you are saying :).

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