Mark Vernon calls bullshit on Stephen Law's calling of bullshit. Vernon:
I suspect - having read Humanism: A Very Short Introduction - that apophatic theology counts as bullshit for Stephen. As he writes there: 'The view that we cannot say what God is, only what God is not... has it's attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never say what God is, you can never be contradicted.' Touché.It's difficult to see where Vernon finds any support in his ocean-as-apophatic god analogy. Demonstrating the ocean's existence to skeptics would require nothing more than walking the skeptics to the nearest beach and letting them look, smell, taste, touch, and reason for themselves. Even if that proved impractical -- say, because because it's too long a walk for too lazy a group of skeptics, or because they're all deathly allergic to sea salt* -- it should suffice to appeal to what they already know about puddles, ponds, creeks, and lakes but apply modest, comprehensible qualifications like "saltier," "larger," and "subject to wave action."
Only, clearly rational theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, who are also big on apophaticism, show that it's quite straightforward to talk about something only by saying what that something is not.
Imagine you have lived all your life in a landlocked country, where there is no talk or sight, let alone comprehension, of the sea. There's not even the word. Then, one day, you venture across the horizon and after a long journey reach the end of land. And you see it. The sea. Astonished, you contemplate the view for a while and then you head back to your fellows. You try to describe what you've seen. It's not land, you begin. It's not hilly or mountainous, you continue. It's not possible to walk across it. It's not covered with grass and trees. It's a bit like that lake, only it has no apparent bounds and it does weird things like approaching the land and then retreating from it, day by day.
You take the point. Quite a lot can be said negatively, by saying it's not like what the landlocked peers are familiar with, and by using some analogies with a negative twist. Similarly, as Aquinas says of God, it's not that mere mortals can have no knowledge of God, but because by definition what God truly would be lies beyond comprehension, that knowledge will always be provisional and hedged with mystery.
What Vernon has done here, it seems to me, restate and then misapply Plato's cave allegory. The cave allegory works because the sunlight-aware fellow can simply ask the lifelong cave dwellers to get up and follow him in order to verify his 'wild' claims, and Plato's reader can readily identify with the contrast between the shadows cast by candle light on a cave wall and objects illuminated in direct sunlight.
Unlike the slinger of apophatic theology, the sunlight-aware fellow from Plato does not insist that the exotic realities he recounts are, in principle, unknowable. Instead he points to a significant reality -- without necessarily claiming to comprehend its every particular -- and invites others to experience and explore it. Whether this collective exploration will arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the new-to-them significant reality is a separate question, one that cannot be answered in advance of the investigation. The invitation is to get up and examine the available evidence and begin excavating the conclusions that can be drawn about it, not to accept profundities that are, at the same moment as part of the same gesture, declared unreachable.
* That would be terrible. I hope it isn't even possible.