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Friday, June 29, 2012

Theological Noncognitivism, Redux

I want to consider the idea that there are three different common uses for each the following sentences:

(1) God does not exist.
(2) God exists. 
I will outline a version of theological noncognitivism (TN), which is normally taken to entail the belief that (1) and (2) are neither true nor false.  The idea of noncognitivism in general (be it theological, moral, or what have you) is that the concepts in question are not propositional, which is another way of saying that they cannot be evaluated as either true or false.  TN implies that (1) and (2) are non-truth-evaluable under religious usages of (1) and (2).  However, what I will argue is that TN can acknowledge truth-evaluable versions of (1) and (2), and that noncognitivists can even assent to common uses of (1) which are truth-evaluable.

It might look like I'm trying to mix noncognitivism with cognitivism, but that's not entirely true.  It also might look like I'm trying to tweak noncognitivism to make it more adaptable to atheism, but that's definitely not true.  I'm trying to find the best way to understand how people talk, theists and atheists alike.  I think a lot of atheists, and some of the most prominent ones, might be noncognitivists in just the way I am about to describe.

The three ways of using (1) and (2) might all raise interesting philosophical and psychological questions, but I'll try to keep it simple.  Let's call the first way the mythological way.  In this way, people use (1) to truthfully assert of a mythological character that it is not a real entity.  Thus, we might say that Zeus does not exist, and only mean that Zeus is a character of mythology and not a real intelligent agent acting in the world.

The first point I want to emphasize is that, in using (1) in this sense, we do not have to have a coherent definition of God as an intelligent agent acting in the world.  The point is rather that God is defined as a mythological creation.  This is a coherent definition with cognitive content.  For example, we can analyze Zeus as a mythological character, and we can discuss and analyze the implications and importance of Zeus in many ways.  So, "Zeus does not exist" does not require anything more than a stipulation that "Zeus" is the name of a fictional character.  Thus, if we take the God of Christianity as a mythological character, we can say (1) and only stipulate that "God" is the name of a fictional entity, and not a real intelligent agent.

The second point I want to emphasize is that the mythological usage of (1) is not a direct rejection of religious belief in God.  A person can be a theist and still claim that (1) is true under the mythological reading.  In other words, a theist can assent to (1) and (2) simultaneously, but under different readings of "God."  Of course, a theist would not normally assent to both (1) and (2) without trying to explain what they meant.

(2), when used to express a religious or theological belief, does not assert that a fictional character is real. The theist, when uttering (2), is not saying of a fictional character that it is a real intelligent agent. (That would be an obvious contradiction, since fictional characters are by definition not real intelligent agents.)  Rather, the assent of (2) under the mythological reading is the claim that the myths are depictions of some real intelligent agent, without attributing any specific characteristics to that agent.  Thus, a theist might claim that the Bible is the word of God, and that it details the reality of God, without having any conception of what "God" might denote. Perhaps this is the way children first think about biblical stories, before they develop a theological attitude towards religious language. Thus, (1) can be a direct rejection of their mythological belief.

Another way of using (1) and (2) is theological.  The theologian takes "God" to denote an existing entity and claims that God exists in the actual world.  Theists, at least of the more intellectually advanced variety, have theological tendencies. They therefore normally appeal to some definition of "God" to explain their religious belief, though I don't think most theists demand that a clear and coherent definition is available.  They are often, perhaps even most often, satisfied with what they think is their own, personal, and incommunicable understanding of (2).  They suppose that, if somebody doesn't understand it, then that person is spiritually lost.  Still, this theological use is made in an attempt to say something true.  It is an attempt to express a proposition.  The theological noncognitivist has a problem with this, as I'll explain.  But first, let's look closer at what the theist is doing.

The theist also has a religious way of using (2) in addition to the theological one.  According to TN, religious expressions of belief are noncognitive.  They do not express a proposition.  TN takes the religious use of (2) as something other than a statement which might be true or false.  So what is the theist doing when (2) is voiced in the religious mode?

The religious use of (2) produces in the speaker certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards the world which may not so easy to define. It may also produce in the properly conditioned audience similar emotional or psychological attitudes.  It may be an expression of group loyalty, or maybe that is oversimplifying it.  Generally speaking, the religious use of (2) is a noncognitive action: by claiming that God exists or that one believes in God, one presents themself in a particular way as one who is subservient to an incomprehensible authority, and one simultaneously imposes the force of that authority on others.

This action might have other effects as well.  A person can create an alibi for their inability to ground their individuality or moral sense in their experience and knowledge. This act of commanding authority via an alibi is meaningful, and that's what I take the religious use of the word "God" to do.  I'm open to the possibility of there being other psycho-social dimensions to religious language, but my supposition is that, whatever those dimensions are, they are noncognitive.  The religious use of "God" has no cognitive coherence.  It does not describe an entity which may or may not exist.  It does not circulate as a denoting term at all.

Theology is the attempt to rationally and systematically reveal or discover the nature and truth of religious belief. Theologians thus try to iron out the inconsistencies in various meditations on God and spirituality. They try to construct a consistent view of God and the world, usually in conformity with holy texts.

TN also attempts to make sense of the use of religious language. However, it is unique in that it does not stipulate that there is any religious truth to be found. It claims that religious language has another function. Thus, TN rejects cognitive forms of theology as confusing the very nature of religious language. According to TN, if a theist tries to interpret (1) or (2) in the religious sense as being either true or false, that theist is making a category error. They are making a mistake about the sorts of things (1) and (2) express in the religious mode.

Theologians have tried for ages to provide a coherent definition of "God," such that God's existence would seem self-evident, rational or even necessary.  Thus, we have a theological usage of (1) and (2) which does not faithfully represent the religious usage and which is distinct from the mythological usage.  According to TN, there is no coherent theological definition of "God" such that God could be said to exist.  In other words, the theological idea of God is not a logical possibility.  It's just incoherent.

This might be best elucidated with possible world semantics.  The basic idea here is that when we speak about what is or is not possible, we are describing possible worlds.  Possible worlds are not actual worlds.  It is a given that there is only one actual world.  Yet, if some x is conceivable, it exists in some possible world, which is to say that there is a coherent description of a world which contains x, even if that world does not exist.  With that in mind, consider two possible readings of (1) in what I call the theological sense:
(1.1) God does not exist in the actual world.
(1.2) God does not exist in all possible worlds.
According to TN, (1.2) is true, where "God" is taken in the theological sense.  Noncognitivists can deny the existence of God, disbelieve in God, and so on--all the sorts of things atheists do.  In so doing, the noncognitivist means that God is simply a logical impossibility, an inconceivable concept, which certainly does not denote anything in the actual world, since it does not denote anything in any possible world.

To summarize the TN position which I am advocating:


  • There is no coherent theological definition of "God." 
  • Theological cognitivism is an unfaithful representation of religious language.
  • We may speak of God as a mythological figure.
  • Atheism, as the rejection of religious belief in God, is justified.
It follows that theological noncognitivists can assent to (1) in three different ways.  In the first way (the mythological way), they can mean that "God" is the name of a fictional character and not a real intelligent agent.  In the second way (the theological way), they can mean that the theological definition of "God" is inconceivable, and that God therefore cannot possibly exist.  In the third way (the religious way), the noncognitivist is rejecting the religious use of (2), denying the assertion of moral authority advanced by the theist.

I think many atheists, and some prominent ones, might be open to TN as I have described it.  Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued against the probability of a certain conception of God, and he has been criticized for turning God into something subject to the laws of science.  Dawkins' reaction is to claim that, if God is outside the bounds of a scientific definition, then he thinks the whole idea is meaningless.  That is not explicitly the noncognitivism I advocate, but it might be close to it.  Daniel Dennett also seems very close to noncognitivism when he claims that religious belief is not belief proper.  The implication is that religious belief is not a propositional attitude, which would suggest noncognitivism with respect to religious belief.  Generally speaking, it is quite common to find atheists who claim that religious language is incomprehensible, that theists don't have a coherent notion of God to begin with, and that religious institutions manipulate emotions rather than engaging intellects.  It seems to me that TN is already a large part of atheism today, but perhaps one that has not fully been realized.

As a final note, I'll mention that there is room for debate about what justifies the conclusion that theological definitions of "God" are inconceivable. Some say that, if the definition of "God" is not obviously self-contradictory, then it is coherent. However, I think the meaning and coherence of terms (or the lack thereof) is not always obvious. The fact that somebody thinks an expression makes sense does not necessarily mean it makes sense. While different people tell me that various definitions of "God" make sense to them, and therefore seem to denote possible entities, I remain unconvinced. I'll discuss why in another post.