The Argument From Non-Cognitivism
What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if thou hast been able to understand what thou wouldest say, it is not God. If thou hast been able to comprehend it, thou hast comprehended something else instead of God. If thou hast been able to comprehend him as thou thinkest, by so thinking thou hast deceived thyself. This then is not God, if thou hast comprehended it; but if this be God, thou has not comprehended it.
- Preliminary Observations: God-Concepts And Divine Attributes
- God-Belief And Evidence
- The Nature Of The Sub-Arguments
- The Specificity Theory Of Meaning
- The Argument From The Meaninglessness Of The God-Concept
- Via Negativa
- Further Objections
- The Weak-Atheist/Strong-Atheist Distinction
- On The Impossibility Of A Definition
- The Scope Of The Argument
The meaningfulness of religious discourse has been a familiar subject of debate for many years. Many noted intellectuals1 have discussed and debated the subject at length in attempts to refute or defend developing arguments. Although some of these writers have considered the dispute on a lesser and somewhat dissimilar level than shall be presented in this case, the fact remains that from its origins the Argument From Non-Cognitivism (hereafter the ANC) has stood as a significant threat to the theistic position.
The argument itself (as will be presented in this article) may be generally formalized as follows2:
- There are three attributes of existants which concern us particularly, these being:
- Primary Attributes
- Secondary Attributes
- Relational Attributes.
- B as well as C are dependent upon and must be related to an existant’s A in order to be considered meaningful.
- The term “God” lacks a positively identified A.
- Because of this, the term “God” holds no justified A, B, or C. (From 2)
- However, an attribute-less term (a term lacking A, B, and C) is meaningless.
- Therefore, the term “God” is meaningless. (From 3, 4, 5)
- Therefore, the god-concept is invalid.
In this presentation, it shall be demonstrated that the ANC can actually provide a compelling case for the Strong-Atheistic position when considered from the intended approach held to in this article. It shall be shown that to say, “A God exists” insofar as it attempts to construct itself as a proposition is false because the term “God” does not refer to an actual concept3, and therefore to posit such a statement supposing that it does and that this referent exists in reality as something is an untrue positive declaration.
Finally, a discussion on the Strong/Weak-Atheist distinction will be considered, discussing what conclusion should be made due to the meaninglessness of religious discourse. The Strong-Atheistic position will be here justified supposing the validity of the ANC, as this stance may view the term “God” solely from the position of it being a meaningless term, and not as a possible existant or instantiation. To even posit that, “A ‘God’ might exist, however improbable” would be to consider the term as meaningful from this particular approach – a view that shall be argued here as a false assumption.
II. Preliminary Observations: God-Concepts And Divine Attributes
Prior to laying the foundations for this argument, it is necessary to first understand the scope of what this presentation claims in regards to religious discourse as meaningless. As both Nielsen and Martin have observed, to say that the ANC could apply to all god-concepts is false.
Martin explains Nielsen’s position to us as follows4:
...Nielsen does not maintain that all religious discourse is factually meaningless. For example, he says that the unsophisticated discourse of believers in an anthropomorphic God is not meaningless; it is merely false. Consider the view that God is a large and powerful spatial-temporal entity that resides somewhere in the sky. A sentence expressing this is not factually meaningless. We understand what it means and, according to Nielsen, know in the light of the evidence that the statement it expresses is false. What troubles Nielsen is the discourse of the sophisticated believer who says, for example, that God transcends space and time, has no body, and yet performs actions that affect things in space and time…
It has been disputed as to whether or not a spatial-temporal God has been really disproven in modern day, but those who would dispute such are a minority, and usually only seem interested in their dispute due to the desire to avoid any intellectual laziness. Examples such as Greek and Babylonian mythology are, however, considered as out-dated, and will be treated as such. Thus, we must agree with Nielsen’s point. The primitive god-concepts of the past are not to be held as meaningless, but false. Rather, one must question the modern, more sophisticated conceptions of the term “God”—a particular subject that has been devoted attention by numerous intellectuals5.
Further, there have been numerous observances within the philosophy of religion on the matter of “God” ’s secondary and relational traits, inquiring as to what the theist means when he asserts that “God” has such particular capacities—i.e. how these characteristics relate themselves to “God” ’s metaphysical identity. For example, Sidney Hook writes6:
...The reflective believer in God knows that the epithet ‘person’ or ‘father’ cannot be literally applied to God, that God isn’t a person like other persons or a father like other fathers. Nonetheless he finds no difficulty in praying to ‘Our Father in Heaven’. He would, however, deem it singularly inappropriate for anyone to refer to God in prayer as ‘Our Nephew In Heaven’. Why?
Michael Martin also supports Hook’s observances, noting7:
In the first place, when terms like “is loving”, “is forgiving”, and “brings about” are applied to God, they seem to mean something very different from what they mean when they are applied to human beings. For example, when we speak of a mother as being loving, we are referring in part to her behavior, and in particular the way she responds to her children. When we say that Jones brought about a fire, we are referring to certain of his bodily actions, such as his carelessly throwing a match onto a pile of paper. But when we say God is loving or God brought about a miracle, we cannot be referring to the behavior or bodily action of God, for He has no body.
Finally, George Smith comments8:
All of the supposedly positive qualities of God arise in a distinctively human context of finite existence, and when wrenched from this context to apply to a supernatural being, they cease to have meaning.
It is consequently this modern conception of God, particularly in the Abrahamic sense of the word, that this article will be concerned with questioning. There are a large number of attributes commonly applied to this specific god-concept, the term “God” being something which is:
It is of course recognized that not all interpretations of this modern conception of “God” need include all the attributes of A—K. Some may view “God” as simply being C—H or A—H or only C, D, and H. This is accepted, and will not be problematic for the argument.
In summary, we have seen thus far that it has been particularly the modern view of “God” that has become problematic to certain philosophers, with the god-concepts of the past being merely rejected as false. We have also seen that the attributes commonly applied to the modern view of “God” (e.g. “person”, “father”, etc.) are not meant to be applied in their usual meaning. So what, precisely, does the theist mean when he says these things? And, we shall further question, how can they be justified?
With this purpose in mind, we can continue with establishing the foundations for the Argument from Non-Cognitivism.
III. God-Belief And Evidence
A prerequisite of considering the ANC is the recognizing of a distinction between two methods of upholding god-belief as concerned with the evidence supporting the theistic position. It is not argued here that the two methods are dissimilar to each other in regards to the actual belief itself9 (all theists believe in “God”, obviously), but rather is it shown that the way by which individuals hold to their belief in a deity as concerned with the epistemic justifications for their position may be recognized as differing in two assorted methods.
I will apply the following titles to said methods:
1. Maintained God-Belief (MGB)
This method by which the theist upholds their belief in “God” is by way of their acceptance of the existence of that deity as a starting point—or as an initial premise, and then looking to or observing the reality around them and attempting to point to certain facts about the environment or universe which might provide as evidence toward justifying such belief.
2. Obtained God-Belief (OGB)
This second method is the opposite of the first. Instead of accepting belief in a deity as a starting point, the individual first looks to their surroundings and, feeling that their observances require a particular explanation, apply the term “God” as a title to an hypothesis, consequently holding to “God” as a conclusion. Instances of this are definitions of “God” as being, “whatever that is which created the universe”, or “whatever that is which provides design to the universe”—(observing classical apologetics10).
The reader might ask as to why such a distinction deserves recognition. Why should we care that these two methods exist? The recognizing of these apologetical methods is significant in a number of ways, and not limited only to this argument. Firstly, it can be said to have contributed to the rise of the current Presuppositionalism vs. Evidentialism debate, although certain arguments in that particular arena are dissimilar to the point.
It is written in presuppositionalist literature, however, that while “God” is necessarily a foundation for knowledge claims, one may still point to particular aspects of the universe in an attempt to show that god-belief is truly the best fitting as the explanation, in accordance with the MGB method recognized above.
It may be the evidentialist’s claim, however, that one can certainly maintain epistemic autonomy (i.e. the view that the human mind is the final criterion for assessing truth-claims) and observe the universe themselves first, coming to a conclusion of God, rather than using god-belief as a starting point. This is in accordance with the OGB method.
The relevance of this distinction as concerned with the Argument From Non-Cognitivism, however, is that the Strong-Atheist’s case itself presents two sub-arguments, which attempt to address both of these apologetical methods of theism. These two sub-arguments I will call (1) Definition-Based Non-Cognitivism; and (2) Process-Based Non-Cognitivism. The approach of these two cases argues for the meaninglessness of the god-concept as a whole.
IV. The Nature Of The Sub-Arguments
A. Maintained God-Belief And Definition-Based Non-Cognitivism
As observed, MGB is a method of upholding god-belief by which the theist first assumes or begins with the existence of God, and then points to various features of the universe and/or necessary features of human understanding as evidences that justify such belief. The question that arises from the ANC, however, is: “What is God that such features are evidences of its existence?”
It is important to note that the question is particularly, “What is God?”, rather than inquiring as to the capacities, actions, or character traits of such a thing. The inquiry posed by the ANC demands a comprehensive presentation of the identity of whatever that is which the theist is asserting. This is necessary for two reasons:
Firstly, if one were to say that, “The dress is beautiful”, and I were to respond by asking, “What is a dress?”—it would hardly be a help to me for that individual to respond, “It has a nice design and is comfortable”. While it being comfortable and being designed attractively may play a factor in its being called beautiful, my question has not been answered. I have not asked for further secondary characteristics of the dress, but rather what the dress is itself that it has the capacity to be called “beautiful”.
Similarly, when the Strong-Atheist inquires, “What is God?”—the theist’s reiterating of the various capacities and secondary character traits found in scriptural texts and elsewhere is insufficient. The question inquires specifically into what “God” is, rather than what “God” can do, likes to do, or has done.
Secondly, it must be recognized that saying what something can do, likes to do, or has done is dependent entirely on knowing or observing what it is, for if you cannot identify what a thing is then you have no justification in applying any secondary traits or characteristics to that particular concept whatsoever, because no relation could possibly be established. George Smith observes this point with the following:
Aquinas applied such terms as “knowledge”,” “life,” “will,” “love,” “justice and mercy,” and “power” to the concept of God, and these qualities are clearly positive in nature. But we still have serious problems. Most of the positive qualities commonly attributed to God are of secondary importance because they refer to God’s personality rather than His metaphysical nature as an existing being11.
Wisdom, love, knowledge, power—these may be fine qualities, but just what are they qualities of? What is the nature of the being possessing them? Affirmative theology, if it is to rescue God from the oblivion of the unknowable, must accomplish more than list secondary characteristics. If it cannot, affirmative theology is, at best, a useless device12.
As observed here, this approach of the ANC asks for a sufficient definition of “God”, and is consequently called Definition-Based Non-Cognitivism. Further into this presentation it shall be shown why the theist’s failure to meet this approach will result in the meaninglessness of the term “God”.
B. Obtained God-Belief and Process-Based Non-Cognitivism
Considering OGB, one might very well feel that particular aspects of reality require explanations (e.g. the existence and complexity of the universe, etc.), and thus the individual may arrive at theism as the answer, holding to the idea of “God” as their conclusion which would provide as an adequate explanation to the questions at hand.
Process-Based Non-Cognitivism concerns itself with showing why “God” is not to be considered sufficient or valid as an hypothesis. I myself, however, will only be concerned with arguing for Definition-Based Non-Cognitivism in this article. A defense of this second sub-argument of the ANC may be found in Francois Tremblay’s article entitled, “Process-Based Noncognitivism”.
Supposing that the arguments against a god-hypothesis stand firm, the only way for a theist to present their belief in God is via the MGB method. Thus we must consider what the theist means by “God” specifically, and whether or not the objections provided by Definition-Based Non-Cognitivism stand to scrutiny.
V. The Specificity Theory Of Meaning
When the inquirer asks the theist, “What do you mean by ‘God’?”—what, exactly, are we asking? Once we understand what the inquiry itself is, we can observe whether or not theists can meet such a question, and then finally come to a conclusion about religious discourse.
As noted, should I ask, “What is a dress?”, I am not looking for further secondary characteristics of the dress as much as I am inquiring into specifically what the dress is itself that it may be said to have any secondary characteristics. I am looking for a sufficient definition of the term “dress”. A definition, according to the dictionary, is “an expression of fundamental character13.”
This is what we are asking for when we discuss the meaning of the term “God”. Meaning, then, is the specified value of a property – or, in the case of a concept, properties. We can also observe this in basic logic. According to the law of identity, all existants in reality are proprietors of a particular nature individually (A is A). That is, each existant in reality is something particularly, which allows it to do certain things and take up certain traits to its character. The identity of a thing is, in other words, what that thing is and does. And a term is meaningful if it provides a sufficient explanation of a thing’s identity. Therefore, in the case of a well-written definition, the definition and the meaning of a thing will be precisely the same.
Smith, again, puts it this way:
To say that an ‘unie’ possesses wisdom in proportion to its nature—while stipulating that such wisdom is different in kind from man’s wisdom14 and that the nature of an ‘unie’ is unknowable—contributes nothing to our understanding of ‘unie’ or to the meaning of the attributes when applied to an ‘unie15.’
To say that God is ‘good’ or ‘wise’ is to say nothing more then some unknowable being possesses some unknown qualities in an unknowable way16. [Original Italics]
It is here where I must establish a few new terms for clarification. In regards to identity (or “Form” as others have called it), we shall provide the following definitions to the kinds of attributes an existant has which comprises its overall identity:
- Primary Attributes—or fundamental character of a thing, may be defined as the basic nature a particular thing is composed of. What a thing is, specifically, that it may do particular things or affect those around it in a particular way. The following two types of attributes provided below can only be applied to a thing if they can be related to an existant’s primary attribute and the primary attribute is positively identified (this will be explained more extensively later in this article17).
- Secondary Attributes—the character traits or abilities a particular thing may enact or possess. examples: being generous, kind, powerful, wise.
- Relational Attributes—(or ‘Contextualizability’) This is the ability of an entity to relate to other things; to interact, affect, or be connected in some such way. Causality, for instance, is an example of relationships between objects. Comparison is another (ex: that tree is ‘taller’ than me). Further examples would include the descriptions of a thing as “superior”, “inferior”, or “creator”.
In regards to the statement in (1), the inquirer may ask why it is that (2) and (3) are dependent upon the recognition of (1). As mentioned, this is because no possible relation could be established between a concept and its properties if the existant’s metaphysical identity, or primary attribute, remains unidentified. This can be expressed more clearly by the following propositions:
Proposition #1: The chair is brown.
Observing this statement, one may recognize that it is in fact entirely possible, as we know that chairs themselves are made out of certain materials which can possess colour (wood, plastic, steel, etc.). The metaphysical nature of the chair as an existant, or the primary attribute of a “chair”, is something which is capable of possessing colour as a secondary characteristic.
Proposition #2: The sound is brown.
This proposition is recognized as not being possible, as sound arrives to us in the form of sound waves, which do not have colour. Again, it is observed that what secondary properties a concept or thing might possess is dependent on what that particular thing is. We understand this is a category error because we can identify the fundamental character of the provided example, and thus know that it is not a thing which may possess colour as an attribute.
Proposition #3: The soul is brown.
This proposition is meaningless, since the primary attribute of the term “soul” is unidentified. At best, spiritualists have postulated that a soul is “immaterial”—but, and as will be explained later, this description simply tells us what a “soul” is not, not what a “soul” is, and thus there is no connection established between a “soul” ’s metaphysical nature and any secondary properties that one should wish to attach to it. If a term’s primary attribute is unidentified, we cannot say what attributes can be applied to it or not applied to it, because we are unable to say what it is that it may possess any particular characteristics at all. Consequently, this statement is meaningless.
Another example that can illustrate this clearly is my stating that, “Paul has finished his math homework.” Understanding that Paul is an average human being of the age of nine, we can say that this idea is entirely plausible. Why? Because we understand that human beings of this age are entirely capable of doing math. Thus, it is shown that we must first look to what a thing is before we can apply further characteristics or traits to it’s being.
Finally, the most important thing to recognize about this whole subject is the importance of specificity. A thing, in order to be sufficiently meaningful, must necessarily be defined or expressed with the appropriate amount of specificity. By specificity, I mean the proportion by which a meaning identifies the referents of a term. A meaning which specifies the referents of a term and nothing else is completely specific, and is thus sufficiently meaningful. A meaning which does not permit us to identify the referents of a term, however, lacks specificity, and is therefore inadequate—or lacking of sufficient meaning. We will observe examples of the necessity of specificity in Section VII.
VI. The Argument From The Meaninglessness Of The God-Concept
With our provided theory of meaning, let us take a look at how the theist answers our question of what, precisely, they mean when they use the term “God.”
There are a number of answers that are provided, due to the subjective coherence amongst person to person. The general responses, however, can be summed up with the following descriptions.
- The Most High
- The Creator
- A Supernatural Being
- That Being Whose Power Is Equal To His Will18
- Our Father
- Our Redeemer
- The Most Beneficent And Merciful
- The Ruler Of The Universe
As we’ve seen, however, none of these descriptions actually answer our question. (1), (2), (5), (10), and (11) are all relational attributes—dealing with comparisons between whatever the theist means by the term “God” and the universe, or humanity in general. The remaining premises are secondary in nature, observing what abilities or characteristic traits “God” has as a result of His metaphysical nature as an existant. But what “God” is as a metaphysical being—the primary attribute of the term itself, remains unprovided.
Thus, we can see that the term “God” suffers from the same problem expressed in Proposition #3, concerning the term “Soul”. It is because of this that the theistic position fails on a fundamental level, as the term they are expressing has been provided no referent with which we can judge it’s coherency. Without a primary attribute applied to the term, no relational or secondary attributes can apply. One can speculate on the attributes of the term “God” if they are defining the term via route of hypothesis, but supposing that Mr. Tremblay’s critique of such a position stands firm, they cannot do this. So, from the position of Definition-Based Non-Cognitivism – it simply makes no sense to apply attributes such as “unicity”, or “loving”, or “all-powerful” when one does not know whether or not undefined referent of the term itself is even capable or related to such things by virtue of its fundamental character.
We can illustrate this very simply by the graph below.
One cannot posit the existence of something if that something means nothing. The term itself, without referring to any specific concept or possible instantiation, holds no actual or even potential place in reality. In truth, it is amusing to note that the theistic position is unwittingly equivalent to the atheistic position, as to posit belief in “God” actually means “belief in nothing” – the stance of atheism.
VII. Via Negativa
A. The Non-Accomplishments Of Negative Definitions.
In this section, the insufficiency of negative definitions to provide meaning to the god-concept will be discussed, which will provide further understanding toward the need of specificity in identification.
The theist, in attempt to provide meaning to the term “God”, may object to this argument by saying that we know “God” to be infinite, limitless, and immaterial. These descriptions, however, amongst others, do nothing to help their position. This is because these descriptions are not identifying in nature—they are “negative definitions”.
A negative definition is a definition which tells us what something is not, rather than what something is. It is a description which critically lacks specificity—not telling us what is meant by a term that we may apply any secondary traits, but informing us only of what it is not, which doesn’t help our situation at all.
For example, consider the following identification:
“I am not George W. Bush, Jr.”
Now, while it is true that I am not George W. Bush, Jr., this particular identification tells you virtually nothing about me. All it tells you is that I am not one particular person. It still leaves the possibility of me being any other individual on earth, or even any other responsive entity in the universe. As such, it critically lacks specificity.
Observing the information given to us about the term “God” – we can see that such identifications (infinite, limitless, and immaterial) are all negative in their meanings. “Infinite” is to be without a restraint of time, “Limitless” is to be without boundaries (perhaps in action, such as “omnipotence”), and “Immaterial” is to be lacking of a material substance.
The problem here is that none of these terms actually identify what “God”’s primary attribute actually is, and thus our inability to grasp or understand what we are talking about—i.e. what it is that we are discussing, remains.
Thus, we can see that not only does this objection fail to provide meaning to the term “God”, but also that it enforces the need for specificity in concept identification.
B. The Presuppositions Of The Apophatic Tradition.
The Apophatic Tradition19 is also called “negative theology” amongst theologians. It is the position that we cannot refer to God in conceptual language. Many supporters of this employ the use of “via negativa”, or the Negative Way, in an attempt to provide us with the possibility of understanding what we mean when we speak of “God”.
The method itself is employed to point out all of the things that “God” is not, and thus limiting us to a certain boundary of what “God” can possibly be. It means to provide a positive identification to the term “God” by a complete weeding out of those things which cannot be applied to the term.
While this is at least an honest approach to the question, it actually defeats itself on a fundamental level. George Smith expresses the point as follows:
...Negative Theology presupposes the validity of affirmative theology; the negative predicates are possible only if it is possible to know their positive counter-parts. If God cannot be known in some positive way, God cannot be known at all…
The truth of the matter is that the theologian cannot point to a thing and say, “This is not God”, without first understanding what “God” is. It makes no sense for me to point to a table and say, “This is not a dog”, if I have no clue what a dog is. Thus, negative theology requires that we can positively identify what we mean when we say, “God”, and thus they must answer our question. This is not a valid way to get around the problem of the meaning of religious discourse.
VIII. Further Objections
A. Illusion Of Coherency
Once presented with this argument, some, in their confusion, might respond back with something akin to, “Well, it has to mean something.” This mistaken assertion comes about because of our every day use of language, where when we automatically observe a new word or term we immediately begin speculation on what it might mean.
For instance, to throw out another random meaningless term, let us consider the word “plagouthurk”. Some individuals, due to their developed presuppositions of having words always meaning something rather than nothing, might produce certain images in their minds as to what “plagouthurk” might actually mean. In truth, however, this term means nothing. It is a free word – not referring to any specific concept whatever. The existence of these summoned subjective images, however, leads us to the next possible objection.
B. Subjective Meaning vs. Objective Meaning
Many people, when presented with the term “God”, immediately produce images in their minds as to what the word might actually be referring to. One might think of a large, tall guy in a glowing bathrobe and a magic wand in hand, whereas others might view it as some vague emotional force in the universe that dwells within everyone. These subjective images lead to a common counter that posits the term itself as having a coherence and meaning to each individual.
While this is certainly true, it misunderstands the argument in that one is confusing an objective positive identification with inter-subjective meaning. Of course the word “God” can produce an infinite amount of different images and ideas from person to person – many of these stirring powerful emotions and feelings. However, despite this, the term “God” itself lacks an objective, positive identity, and thus the argument stands.
IX. The Weak-Atheist/Strong-Atheist Distinction
There is much dispute on how the ANC relates to the distinction between weak and strong-atheists. Various philosophers, such as Michael Martin20, feel that the meaninglessness of religious discourse refutes strong-atheism21, where-as Ted Drange feels that Non-Cognitivism should be considered a completely different position altogether22.
While I disagree with Drange, due to my standing with George Smith on the semantic issue of what the word “atheist” actually refers to, I would like to briefly go through the disputes, and consider what conclusions should be made.
A. Weak-Atheism And Meaning
If the Weak-Atheist should say that we cannot disprove “God”, presupposing that the term holds meaning, then I would say that the ANC is completely antithetical to this. The Weak-Atheist holds no more ground here than the theist.
Many weak-atheists do make this claim, because the possibility of a “God” ’s relation to reality remains within the realm of weak-atheism. As commonly recognized, the weak-atheists only lacks belief in any deity—they do not deny the existence of them.
So, should a weak-atheist object along the lines of the term “God” being meaningful, then the Non-Cognitivism very much refutes their position. Agnostic atheism, as a friend of mine has noted, can be concluded to be, “self-referentially incoherent”.
B. Weak-Atheism And The Meaninglessness Of Religious Discourse
However, the weak-atheist may not object to strong-atheistic assertions along such lines. They may, as Michael Martin observes, hold to weak-atheism because to say “God” exists or does not exist is factually meaningless, as “God” is not a term which refers to anything which may do either.
I don’t see any significant problem with this approach, and an analysis of it with Strong-Atheistic Non-Cognitivism will be discussed in sub-section (E).
C. Strong-Atheism And Meaning
As Martin has noted, to say, ”’God’ does not exist”, presupposing that “God” is a meaningful term, is false when considering Non-Cognitivism. Strong-Atheists which hold to the ANC as a valid argument may, however, continue to argue arguments that point toward the non-existence of a deity—presupposing meaning—for the sake of argument. Strong-Atheism.com does this, and there is nothing wrong with doing so.
D. Strong-Atheism And The Meaninglessness Of Religious Discourse
The Strong-Atheist, however, just as the weak-atheist, need not defend their position along the lines of the term “God” being meaningful. If a term refers to no thing which may possibly exist, then obviously the term has no application to reality. Thus, the Strong-Atheist might say that, “God does not exist”, concerning him/herself with “God” as only a word, and not a concept.
I also see no significant problem with this approach, and thus we must question as to what conclusion the ANC should lead us.
E. The Argument From Non-Cognitivism And The Strong/Weak Atheist Distinction
Consequently, with the analyses of (B) and (D) provided, we are lead to a choice. I do not see a major problem with either, and both seem equally reasonable. Therefore, until a difficulty with either is brought to light, I am content to conclude that an individual may take either road when considering this argument.
X. On The Impossibility Of A Definition
We’ve established that the word “God” is meaningless, and thus that atheism is a justified position. This is, however, only until a theist should provide a valid definition. While I will not leave out the possibility of a god-believer doing so, George Smith does provide an argument against the prospect when considering the secondary characteristics theists would wish to apply to the term “God” thereafter23.
Smith develops his argument by noting many of these character traits that are applied to the term—specifically omnipotence and limitlessness. Considering these attributes, he argues, defining “God” is an impossible task.
Why? Smith argues that this is because of the consequences of a thing’s identity. To have an identity, Smith observes, is to be presented with various limits. Things one simply cannot do by virtue of its nature. However, since a “God” is supposed to be both omnipotent and limitless, a valid definition for the term itself is unattainable.
Consequently, it may be said that insofar as the term “God” is not properly defined, atheism is justified, and insofar that it is defined—it is not really “God”.
XI. The Scope Of The Argument
The main point of this article is not merely an evidential argument about “god”, but rather it explains the fundamental incapacity of the theist to have an actual position. There is a tremendous difference of degree. Insofar as a concept is meaningless, it is outside of any human awareness whatsoever, and the weak-atheistic position as observed in the above sub-section (A) is meaningless also.
In that context, only the proposition “gods cannot exist” is meaningful, because it refers to “god” as only a word, not as a being or an instantiation. The lack of even a concept puts the burden of proof squarely on the theist. Positing a god as possible without even a meaning gives it an even greater burden of proof than incoherency, which only requires one to show coherency within a meaning. There is nothing there to even make coherent in the first place. The proposition “a god may exist” is a conceptual zero.
To better demonstrate this point, observe the following list concerning knowledge claims:
Steps To Knowledge Claims:
- Syntaxically Correct—expressing a coherent sentence structure in one’s assertion. To say that, “did not Bob food today eat” is not a syntaxically correct statement. The statement “Bob did not eat food today” is a syntaxically correct statement. Simply, it is a statement made in accordance with the rules of language.
- Meaningful/less ness – At this point, one must prove everything. One must prove that the term (s) in the proposition that they are presenting forward has actual referents to its formalization that can be all be meaningfully explained. If not, such terms may automatically be rejected.
- Coherent/Incoherent – this next step requires one to make certain that their claims are not self-defeating or contradictory in nature when compared to any other given or known facts. Incoherency breaks the laws of logic, thereby falsifying the statement, while coherency allows one to move on to the next step in proceeding toward a knowledge claim: hypothesis.
- Hypothesis – A tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation. Because it is a meaningful proposition that does not contradict itself, this stage admits the given proposal as being a possible truth or fact.
- Probable – reaching the point where the majority of evidence available seems to point to one’s own provided conclusion.
- Known – where all the evidence on hand points conclusively to the given proposition as being correct, solidifying the proposal into a positive truth-value.
In this article, I have argued for the meaninglessness of religious discourse. A theory of meaning has been provided on the need for specificity and positive identification of a thing’s nature as an existant, allowing and providing a broader resource for theistic apologists than the alleged difficulties of Logical Positivism which many have had problems with.
With objections addressed, the meaninglessness of religious discourse may provide as a strong argument for the Strong-Atheistic position, despite the objections raised by agnostics discussed in Section IX. God-talk is to be rejected on a fundamental level, revealing itself to be nothing more than simply a system of empty, inter-subjective word games. Until such a time where the theist rises to the burden of proof, it is concluded that “Gods do not exist” is a justified statement.
1 Familiar examples are: Michael Martin, George Smith, Kai Nielsen, and Swinburne. The particular approach applied in this article may be considered somewhat akin to Smith’s argument in his renowned work, Atheism: The Case Against God.
2 This formalization is unique. While Smith plays on God’s transcendence throughout his argument, a particular theory of meaning is provided in this article, more advanced then Smith’s argument, but still harmonious with it.
3 Note that I use the term “referent” not to mean an actuality in this case, but rather the concept or specific thing that a term is applied to. From this point of view, it may indeed be said that Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny both have referents, but that these referents are not actualized. Applying this terminology with the argument, it is to be observed that should a term have no referent—i.e., no specific concept or thing that the word itself applies to, the term can obviously have no application to reality because it refers to no concept or thing which may possibly exist.
I should hope that no serious objections come from this, as this is not very important to the argument at all. The term could easily be used in its usual sense and be perfectly harmonious with the argument provided, but I use it in this particular way for convenience on my part.
4 Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 1.
5 Peter Angeles, Critiques Of God: Making The Case Against Belief In God (Prometheus Books, 1997), Chapter 2.
6 Sidney Hook (A Critique Of God), for instance, has observed that, “Many people will heatedly discuss the question whether God exists—without displaying any concern over the fact that they are encompassing the most heterogeneous notions in the use they make of the word ‘God’.”
7 Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Chapter 1.
8 George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1979), Chapter 3.
9 This has been a misconception at times. I am not presenting the idea that theist’s have essentially different beliefs, but rather that the way in which they go about believing can differ—specifically that they might follow either of the two methods explained. These two methods, of course, may be said to apply to a number of different ideas and concepts, not just God.
10 Classical apologetics may of course be used by both methods. For example, the believer may hold as a starting point that God exists—i.e. that there is indeed a Creator, and then look to the evidences provided in order to justify his position.
11 Atheism: The Case Against God, Chapter 3.
12 Ibid, Chapter 3.
14 As noted, the secondary attributes applied to the term “God” are indeed meant in a peculiarly different context then finite human existence. So, this is a very true statement made by Smith in this regard.
15 Atheism: The Case Against God, Chapter 3.
16 Ibid, Chapter 3.
17 “Primary Attribute” was at one time called “Substance” by this theory. However, the latter term seemed to confuse readers, as they believed by asserting that a thing had “substance” to it we were already assuming materialism, which is untrue. Thus, this new term has been provided, and will hopefully dissolve any further confusion for those interested in the argument.
18 This description apparently comes from Thomas Paine. It was provided in a correspondence between a friend and myself. It’s my personal favorite description, because of the following conversation that we had analyzing the consequences of it that night during our discussion.
20 Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Chapter 1.
23 Atheism: The Case Against God, Chapter 3.
October 9, 2004