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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Two Arguments for Theological Noncognitivism

If we define atheism as either a lack of belief in God or as the rejection of belief in God, then theological noncognitivism qualifies as a variety of atheism. Specifically, it is the belief that the term "God" is nonsensical and, therefore, that statements of theistic belief (e.g., "God exists" and "I believe in God") do not express propositions and so cannot be rationally considered. According to theological noncognitivists, belief in God is not a rational option for anyone. Thus, if somebody says they believe in God, they are not expressing a rational belief in a particular entity. They may mean any number of things: that there is an extra-biological justification for life, that they are loyal members of a clan, etc. Theological noncognitivism does not regard statements of belief as meaning anything in particular. There need not be a single thread which defines religious language as such. Theological noncognitivism is only a position on what statements of religious belief are not: they are not statements of belief in a particular entity which may or may not exist.

I will now present two arguments for theological noncognitivism. The first is found at strongatheism.net, here. The basic idea is that the term "God" is not defined by any primary attributes, so we have no means of understanding what it means. For example, we can understand the phrase "a brown chair," because the secondary attribute (brownness) is being attributed to a chair. Chairness, in this example, is a primary attribute. However, we cannot understand the phrase "a brown echo," because an echo is not the sort of thing you can attribute brownness to. The primary attribute of being an echo precludes certain secondary attributes. With God, we have no primary attribute(s), so we cannot understand how to apply other attributes to God. The result, according to this argument, is that we cannot understand the term "God" at all.

I find this argument interesting, though it leaves some room for a response from theists. Some theists might claim that God does have a primary attribute: God is atemporal mind, or spirit, or love, or perhaps simply the only entity which can be assigned those secondary attributes which define God as such. I don't endorse any of these claims, but they seem like possible responses to the first argument for theological noncognitivism.

The second argument is the one I prefer, and it doesn't require any distinction between primary and secondary (or other) attributes. The argument is that the common phrases used to define "God" are meaningless. I'm referring to the phrases "creator of the universe," "all-knowing," "all-powerful", "morally perfect," "absolute good," and "atemporal mind." I know that many people--theists, agnostics, and many atheists--believe that these phrases are meaningful. However, that isn't reason enough for me to believe it. People are known to think all kinds of nonsense make sense. So, until I see some sense in these expressions, I have no choice but to take the position of theological noncognitivism.

To present my argument fully, I would have to explain why each of these phrases is apparently incoherent. I have yet to do so systematically, and I'm not sure anyone else has, either. For now, I am happy to debate the points with a shared understanding that the argument for my position has yet to be fully realized. Though I also hope it is understood that no argument against my position has been fully realized, either. (This means that I do not take "but people think these phrases make sense!" as a valid counterargument.)

My challenge is this: present some explanation for what the defining characteristics of God are, so that the meaning of the relevant phrases is clear. I do not think this challenge has been met. Some theists believe that the challenge cannot be met in principle, and that God is simply beyond rational comprehension. This only makes it that much easier for me to be a theological noncognitivist.