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Thursday, September 19, 2013

What a theological noncognitivist can say

Imagine a community called Storyville, where there are no religious institutions per se, but where various stories are circulated which we would call "religious."  Let's say these are stories from the Bible, such as the story of Job.  In Storyville, the questions might arise:  Are these stories based on facts?  Do they represent some features of the world or our history?  Does the character of Job represent a real person who lived some time in the past?  Does the character of God represent a real person who lived in the past?

A denizen of Storyville might respond, "Job may have been a real person, but what sort of person could God have been?  I don't think God sounds like a person at all.  Is God supposed to represent some abstract quality or force of nature?  Maybe God is supposed to be both:  a person, but also some other kind of force of nature, or some quality inherent in nature.  It doesn't seem to make sense, but it's just a story, so it doesn't matter."

This denizen of Storyville is only talking about whether or not a character in a story is supposed to represent something (or things), and what sorts of things that character might be intended to represent.  They do not have a coherent idea of what the character is supposed to represent, if it supposed to represent anything at all.  All they have are ideas about what it may or may not represent.  And those ideas are coherent:  For it is coherent to talk about people, forces of nature and qualities inherent in the natural world.

Nothing our denizen of Storyville has said contradicts the view known as theological noncognitivism, which is the view that theological language has no cognitive content--that is, that theological concepts do not denote anything at all (not even possible objects) and have no logical sense (which does not stop theology from having emotional appeal and other forms of currency).  Thus, I suppose that this denizen could be a theological noncognitivist.

Now let another denizen of Storyville comment:  "I think God exists.  God is real, and not just a fictional character."  Theology has thus surfaced.

The first denizen responds with skepticism:  "What sort of being is God, then?  Is God a person and a quality inherent in nature?  How does that even make sense?"

"I don't know, but I feel it in my heart that he exists.  Don't you believe in God?"  Religion has thus entered Storyville through a social pressure to adopt theological language.

Now the first denizen is annoyed.  "How can I believe in God when I don't even know what sort of thing God is supposed to be?  Without a coherent definition of "God," I can't believe in God."  Our first denizen sounds very ignostic.

"Ah, so then you can't say you don't believe in God, either."

Our skeptic responds, "Sort of.  It's true that I can't say I have any beliefs about God if I don't know what God is supposed to be.  But I certainly don't believe I have any beliefs about anything called God.  Hmm.  Maybe I do.  Is God that bushel of strawberries over there?  If that's God, then I certainly do have beliefs about him.  I believe he's yummy!  But since I don't know if the character of God is supposed to represent that bushel of strawberries, I don't know whether or not I think God is yummy."  

"So you can't say anything about God at all, right?" 

"Well, I can say that God, as a character in a story, may or may not be meant to represent some real quality or aspect of nature, or some person.  And I can say that I don't believe it does represent anything at all.  But if there really is something it represents, if there really is something real called God:  I still have no idea what that's supposed to be.  It seems incoherent to me.  I don't think there's really anything there to talk about at all.  I think it's just a story.  God doesn't exist."

So my view is this.  Our skeptical denizen of Storyville, who ends by denying the existence of God, is a theological noncognitivist.  Even though the word "God" is used, the theological noncognitivist denies that the word "God" has a coherent meaning, apart from naming a character in some stories.  This does not prevent the theological noncognitivist from talking about that character or what that character might (or might not) represent.  It does not prevent the theological noncognitivist from denying that the character represents anything at all.  Theological noncognitivists can be strong skeptics about the truth of Biblical stories without assuming that the word "God" in those stories is coherently defined.  The last line, "God doesn't exist," just means that the word "God" names a character in some stories, and not a real entity or property of the world.  I think a theological noncognitivist can say that.

(See Theological Noncognitivism, Redux for a more thorough discussion of my point of view.)