April 18, 2011

Defining “God”

I recently posted a youtube video respectfully asking atheists to comment with what their strongest argument in favor of atheism was. Then, atheists could vote on the comment they felt was their strongest argument. After 1,000 views the current #1 argument is:

'god' is not meaningfully defined, ergo, by simple tautology, it is 100% certain_ that "god" does not refer to anything that exists (or that does not).

I don't even understand what this means. I have never heard this argument before. Please help!


United States

Wow, wow, wow, wow! Positivism lives! I just shake my head in disbelief when I see how pervasive this old-line positivistic philosophy still is in popular culture despite its demise among philosophers 50 years ago. Those who roundly proclaim that we live in a post-modernist culture need to reflect long and hard on data like this.

The reason you haven’t heard of this objection, Michael, is probably because no philosopher presses it anymore. During the positivist era back in the 1920s and ’30s, it was widely thought among philosophers that “metaphysical” notions like God were meaningless. Why? Because no empirical content could be given to such notions. To be meaningful an informative sentence had to be empirically verifiable. Since it was thought that sentences like “God exists” could not be verified through the five senses, they were dismissed as meaningless. The so-called verification principle of meaning, however, was soon found to be unduly restrictive, rendering even some sentences of science meaningless, and in the end self-defeating. With the abandonment of the verification principle of meaning, the vital nerve of positivism was severed, and so it sank into the grave it so richly deserved. A new era then dawned in Anglo-American philosophy, ushering in a renaissance of metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of religion, which the positivists had suppressed.

It would be very interesting to learn what undergirds the YouTube atheists’ conviction that “God” is a meaningless word. Is it verificationism? If so, then the foundations of their conviction have, unbeknownst to them, already collapsed long ago.

It’s easy to give content to the word “God.” This word can be taken either as a common noun, so that one could speak of “a God,” or it can be used as a proper name like “George” or “Suzanne.” Richard Swinburne, a prominent Christian philosopher, treats “God” as a proper name of the person referred to by the following description: a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things. This description expresses the traditional concept of God in Western philosophy and theology. Now the YouTube atheist might protest, “But how do you know God has those properties?” The question is misplaced. “God” has been stipulated to be the person, if any, referred to by that description. The real question is whether there is anything answering to that description, that is to say, does such a person exist? The whole burden of Swinburne’s natural theology is to present arguments that there is such a person. You can reject his arguments, but there’s no disputing the meaningfulness of his claim.

The best definition of God as a descriptive term is, I think, St. Anselm’s: the greatest conceivable being. As Anselm observed, if you could think of anything greater than God, then that would be God! The very idea of God is of a being than which there cannot be a greater.

This question has relevance to my recent debate with Sam Harris on whether the foundations of morality are natural or supernatural. Following the debate my friend John wrote,

Bill, in your debate with Sam Harris you claimed God was the grounding of objective morality. That word "God" is problematic though. Until that word is defined, or until you tell us how we know what this "God" wants us to do, or what it is, what you end up saying is that there is an objective grounding to morality, and that's it. But then Sam Harris agreed with you on that score.

If you’ll look at the text of my opening statement in the debate, which I’ve posted on our Reasonable Faith Facebook page, you’ll see that I did define what I mean by “God.” I stated,

On the theistic view objective moral values are grounded in God. As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good; He is the locus and paradigm of moral value.

Since moral goodness is a great-making property, the greatest conceivable being must be morally perfect (as well as have the other superlative properties listed by Swinburne). Indeed, the greatest conceivable being will be the paradigm of moral value. Of course, it remains to be asked whether such a being actually exists. But the contentions I laid out for defense in our debate were conditional: IF such a being exists, then. . . . That’s why I think my first contention is almost obviously true. Of course, if such a greatest conceivable being exists, objective moral values and duties exist! How could they not?

The real question was whether Harris could provide an ontological foundation for objective moral values and duties in the absence of such a being. I presented what I take to be a decisive argument against his solution to what he calls “the Value Problem” (see QoW #208), as well as powerful objections to his attempt to derive objective moral duties from science and his desire to affirm objective moral duties in the absence of any sort of free will.

Finally, let me say again what I said in answer to Question #208: I do not need to provide an account of “how we know what this ‘God’ wants us to do,” since that is a question, not of moral ontology, but of moral epistemology. My concern is with the reality of objective moral values and duties; I’m open to any epistemological theories anyone wants to suggest for how we come to know the values and duties that there are.