Is the Phrase "God Exists" a "Meaningful" Phrase?

The Internet Infidels blog Secular Outpost 6/09/10

A discussion is launched by Bradley Bowen over the concept of alleged incoherence of the statement "God exists."

In The Coherence of Theism (original:1977, revised ed.:1993), Richard Swinburne argues that the sentence “God exists” is a meaningful indicative sentence that expresses a coherent proposition. He does this by raising objections to arguments that have been given against this view, and by also making a detailed positive case.

For the negative or defensive case, Swinburne starts out by raising objections to some general arguments against this view, and later in the book he raises objections to more specific arguments that focus on the alleged incoherence of specific characteristics or combinations of specific characteristics that are used to define the word “God”.

The main general argument against his position that is examined by Swinburne is a logical positivist argument about the sentence “God exists”, derived primarily from A.J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth, and Logic (1936).

This is how Swinburne interprets the skeptical argument presented by Ayer:

(1) If the sentence "God exists" expresses a coherent statement, then the sentence "God exists"
expresses either an analytic proposition or else it expresses a synthetic proposition.
(2) The sentence "God exists" does not express an analytic proposition.
(3) The sentence "God exists" does not express a synthetic proposition.
(4) It is not the case that "God exists" expresses a coherent statement.

The logic of this argument is fine, and Swinburne accepts premises (1) and (2), so his focus is on the question of whether premise (3) is true or well-supported.

This skeptical argument is basically a modern version of Hume’s fork. Hume divided claims into two categories: (a) relations of ideas and (b) matters of fact. Hume argued that all claims fall into one or the other category, so since metaphysical sentences do not express either “the relations of ideas” or “matters of fact”, such sentences do not express claims or propositions.

It seems unclear to me why this would have anything to do with Hume's fork. This concept says that one cannot derive an ought from an is. This would seem to have nothing to do with the attempt to make a coherent metaphysical statement. Moreover, the idea that metaphysical claims do not express relations of ideas seems absurd and ridiculous. First of all if that were true than science si incoherent. We have known since days of A.E. Burtt and well before that, that scinece is based upon metaphysical assumptions. See Burtt's great famous book The Metaphysical Foundations of Early Modern Science. Most aspect of modern knowledge relate to metaphysical assumptions, any attempt to organize an understanding of the world and group sense data under pre conceived categories is basically a metaphysical assumption. In this connection one might enjoy Edward Feser's commentary on "Recovering Sight After Scientism."

Nor is it logical that Metaphysical claims cannot be matter of fact. If that were the case then scinece would be unable to assert matters of fact. The assertion of materialism (physicalism) is a metaphysical assertion. Come to to that the assertion that Metaphysical claims cannot be matters of fact is a metaphysical claim. The whole concept is meaningless and the reason for this is because one runs a huge risk when basing one's views on Hume. Atheist worship Hume as the great thinker who launched modern atheism not realizing the was the considered the Derrida of his day. That is to say an opportunistic game player more concerned with his own greatness with truth, and hankering to be known as a genius at all cost, and advocating radical concepts he could not pull off. He was brilliant, but not serious, not truth seeking, obsessed with his own advancement. Moreover, Hume's take on religion is nothing short of amateurish and bombastic and nonfactual. In fact I would use the term "propaganda" in relation to this description. Most of the great ideas Hume stumbled on to came from Bishop Berkeley whom he admired (even though he was a Christian so even atheist in that day could recognize that Chrsitians were intellectually valid). Hume set's forth an empiricist understanding that defines religious thought in straw man terms as jaundiced and silly but takes the most absurd view as it's point of attack. Where does he come off asserting that metaphysical claims are not matters of fact when his assertions of empiricism must of necessity be metaphysical? The Empiricist brackets all knowledge but his own perceptions and that is a metaphysical move because it asserts that all sense data but be herded into pre conceived categories.

The concept of an analytic proposition can be viewed as a clarification of Hume’s notion of statements that express “the relations of ideas”. The concept of a synthetic proposition can be viewed as a refinement of Hume’s notion of statements that express “matters of fact”. Given the assumption that all coherent propositions can be categorized as either being an analytic or a synthetic proposition, a dilemma simliar to Hume's fork can be constructed for the sentence "God exists". Posted by Bradley Bowen at 9:27 PM

There are some problem's with using Hume's categories. One such problem is was well before the problems of positivism and A.J. Ayer so he was totally out of the loop when Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) proved that the verification principle caused to wither everything other than the verification principle, including scinece, history, knowledge in general. There's a good article by Thomas F. Torrance on Polanyi's Christian faith. That move spelled the beginning of the end for the Ayer form of positivism as a force able to accomplish its task being so valuable to scinece.. See Polyani's book Personal Knowledge: Toward a post critical Philosophy. Hume lived before any of this, before Phenomenology, before positivism and before the modern and post modern understandings of philosophy of since. In fact it's monumentally crucial that Hume never knew anything about Heidegger's Metaphysics. In Hume's day Philosophies and skeptics were reacting against Scholasticism and agaisnt views of the Church that had been shaped by Austine and Aquinas. They were not cognizant to any degree of the people of science and knowledge, they were trying to dig themselves out from under the middle ages. They were busy destroying the intellectual roots of Western culture which were planted firmly in the soil of the Christian faith. So I suggest that Hume's categories are antiquated and that is pronouncements are irrelevant.

This further bit is in the comment section. Bowen talks about Swinburne's philosophical background.

Bowen in Comment section:

Bradley Bowen said...Uzza said...

does Swineburn ever define what he means by "god"?

Swinburne is a modern analytic philosopher. When he was a student of philosophy, he took courses from Ordinary Language philosophers, including John Austin.

Swinburne provides a general definition of the term "God" and then also provides clarification and analysis of each word or phrase in that general definition.

One of the main tasks of his book COT is to describe circumstances in which each of the alleged characteristics of "God" would occur. He does this in order to demonstrate that each characteristic is coherent in itself, and then he procedes to try to describe circumstances in which combinations of these characteristics occur together in one person.

Here is the general definition given by Swinburne in Part II of the book ("A Contingent God"):

"In this part I shall consider what it means to claim that there exists eternally an omnipresent spirit, free, creator of the universe, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation, and whether this is a coherent claim." (COT, revised edition, p.99) That's all fine and good and I would assert that Swinburne can handle himself in a fight. There's an even bigger problem with this whole discussion and the very concept of the argument, it's a problem that would outdated even Swinburne's answer. The very question itself "the existence of God" is wrong headed and asserts the wrong concept about the nature of God of Christianity. The problem is the atheists are right here, but they are right for the wrong reason. Yes I said they are right! They don't know why they are right. "God exists" is a theologically inadequate statement, at least in the view of Paul Tillich, which I agree with. The atheists take it to mean that there is no God. But in reality it's just that existing is something that only "things" do, contingent things that is. So God is not a thing in creation, but the basis of reality. So the atheists are wright that "God exists" is not coheent as a statement but not becasue there is no God.

Duan Olson explains:

FAMOUSLY OR INFAMOUSLY, TILLICH DENIED THAT GOD EXISTS, OR THAT GOD IS A BEING, AND IDENTIFIED GOD WITH BEING-ITSELF. IN TYPICAL QUOTES, HE SAYS, “IT WOULD BE A GREAT VICTORY FOR CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS IF THE WORDS ‘GOD’ AND ‘EXISTENCE’ WERE VERY DEFINITELY SEPARATED,” AND “GOD IS BEING-ITSELF, NOT A BEING.”[III] WHAT OFTEN GETS OVERLOOKED IN DISCUSSIONS OF TILLICH’S IDEA OF GOD IS ITS THEOLOGICAL JUSTIFICATION. I BRING THIS JUSTIFICATION TO THE FORE IN MY ANALYSIS. Tillich denied that God exists, or that God is a being, in order to preserve the notion of God’s aseity. In traditional theology, for God to be “a se” means God is neither derived from nor dependent upon anything. Tillich points out repeatedly that if you take this idea seriously, then no aspect of finite reality and no category of thought can be applied literally to God[iv]. If some characteristic of finite reality applies literally to God, it means that aspect of reality is greater than God in the sense that God relies on it being there in order to be. It is unconditioned, and it conditions God. God is dependent upon it, and is not a se. Finite reality and all of its parts must be made possible by God, but if anything in finite reality is literally applied to God, or if we can subsume God under any categories applicable to finite reality, this shows that God is subject to some part of reality and is not a se.
(III:Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 205, 237. IV: Ibid, vol 2, 6).(From "Paul Tillich and the Ontological Argument" Quodlibet Journal, vol 6, no 3, July 2004).

This is aspect of Tillich’s work that really baffles and angers atheists, his denial that God “exists.” Many have claimed that he is actually an atheist, but that’s because they don’t bother to understand his ontology, it doesn’t occur to them that he’s using the term “exist” in a specialized way. Even though he doesn’t explain it this way, what he’s really saying is that “existence” is for contingent things. Contingencies exist and necessary things have being, or be or they are “part of reality.” Look at the terms he uses in the quotation above as alternatives to “existence.” He speaks of “the validity of truth of God.” Another term he uses as an alternative for God’s’ mode of being is “reality.” God doesn’t exist but he is real none the less. Existence, for Tillich is part of the “surface” of things, the level at which things merely exists. Another aspect that both skeptics and believers alike have trouble with is the notion that God is not something (he means some thing) or someone. What he means by that is that God is not a thing or an individual entity. God is not just another thing in creation alongside “things:” if we made a list of everything in the universe, stop lights, tooth brushes, swizzle sticks, fish, bananas, Petula Clarke albums, we could not then put God on the list alongside those things. Nor is God a “he” or a “she” or a “someone.” God blows away your conveniently understood categories; God defies our sense of the appropriate nature of pronouns and grammar. God transcends our understanding, there is no analogy that is totally appropriate but all religious language is analogical because that’s the only way we can approach something beyond our understanding. The idea that God is not someone is anathema to a lot of believers, and I can sympathize with them. But this does not mean that I don’t related to God as my “heavenly father” or that I don’t feel intense intimate love emotions connected with God, both from God to me and me to God. Nor does this mean that I think God has no will to be followed. The nature of God and the problem of mind and consciousness will be dealt with in a latter chapter. The important point right now is that the hall mark of Tillich’s view of God is that God is the unconditioned!

To insist upon the ordinary use of the categories in relation to God would be equally misleading, as to use Tillich specialized sense and not explain it. We can't speak of God as "existing" and properly understand God as the basis of reality, as something transcendent of thing hood. The basic problem goes all the way back to that of using Hume and his categories as a critical tool in evaluating belief in God in the first place. Hume was just ill equipped to understand the concept once the trashed the categories of Christian thought that has been set up by the original mystics who famed concepts like Being itself in the first place. The real problem here is making the assumption that if empiricism is the basis of modern scinece then it must be the only valid basis for knowledge and thus we can subject all aspects of reality that basis. The problem is you can't subject the foundations of reality to any sort of study as though the foundation is just another piece of qualia or a side effect of the whole. That really sums up the whole mistake of atheism in the first place.

Metacrock' blg Nov 9,2011


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