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Conifer's Refutation of Noncognitivism Examined

by Francois Tremblay



Noncognitivism, the argument that religious language is meaningless (see our articles on the topic, “The Argument from Non-Cognitivism” and “Process-Based Noncognitivism”), is the most devastating and profound argument against theism and theistic worldviews. Steven J. Conifer, an atheist, has written a refutation of noncognitivism, in an article entitled “Theological Noncognitivism Examined”. Due to the paucity of criticisms against noncognitivism, and Conifer’s skill, it seems appropriate to examine his arguments.

First, he presents two conceptions of noncognitivism, one being that religious language expresses unthinkable propositions, or that it does not express a proposition at all. He rightly rejects the first view on the basis that all propositions must have a truth-value.

In answer to the second, he presents various interpretations of what “God exists” might mean. Here are the definitions that I will examine with Conifer in this article, since they all follow from (G8), the most specific definition on his list :

(G1) “God” = “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe”
(G6) “God” = “the personal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, eternal creator and ruler of the universe”
(G7) “God” = “the personal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, nonmaterial, eternal creator and ruler of the universe”
(G8) “God” = “the personal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, nonmaterial, atemporal creator and ruler of the universe”

First, he examines the idea that God is Creator, on the basis of his definition (G1). Here Conifer shows how he doesn’t actually understand how noncognitivism is justified at all. He says :

“With respect to the property of being the creator and ruler of the universe, it is difficult to see how even the most steadfast noncognitivist could regard it as incoherent. After all, there is no unclarity in the concept of a being who creates a cosmos per se, for nearly everyone understands perfectly well what it means to create something and a cosmos is just a very big thing (or collection of things). Likewise with the concept of ruling something. Indeed, I am not aware of any noncognitivist who objects to sentences like ?God created and rules the universe? as unintelligible save on the grounds that ?God? refers to a being who is disembodied and/or outside time and the notion of such a being?s creating something is incoherent.”

The point of noncognitivism, as he himself states early on in his article, is to demonstrate that the word “god” is unintelligible. Yet here he is telling us that the notion of “creating the cosmos” and “ruling the cosmos” are “clear”. But that is absolutely irrelevant to determining if these attributes are intelligible or not !

Whether they are “clear” or not is completely relative. But whether they communicate actual meaning or not is the issue. And both attributes are relational. “God created the universe” is a relational attribute between God and the universe, and tells us nothing about what God is. Likewise for “God rules the universe”. These are both relational attributes, which tell us nothing about how God is supposed to be intelligible. So Conifer fails to show how these two attributes communicate anything meaningful.

Conifer then describes what omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence are said to mean, on the basis of his definition (G2). However, his definitions presuppose that God cannot do illogical things. As he states :

“Most theists, like most theologians, would probably agree that God?s actions are constrained by (at least) logic and consistency with His other essential attributes.”

But we have already shown that this is invalid reasoning (see The Divine Non-Contradiction Principle and Why it Fails). Therefore we cannot use this as a limit on the possible definitions of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.

But let us grant him these definitions. He then attempts to prove that these are intelligible by saying :

“In any case, they clearly do not turn “God-2 exists” into patent nonsense”

Conifer’s strategy seems to be nothing more than arguing by naked assertions. What meaning do his definitions communicate? On this, he remains silent. Our contention is that these terms are negative, i.e. they express what something is not instead of what something is. All they tell us is that God is not limited in power, knowledge or benevolence (or in Conifer’s definition, love). They once again do not communicate anything meaningful.

Conifer’s definition (G6) includes personhood, and he claims that we should be able to imagine a personal being that does all of the things we have already seen. But once again, this is a naked assertion : imagination does not indicate possibility. One can imagine all kinds of incoherent, and even meaningless, concepts, such as an invisible pink unicorn, phlogiston, or even a kookyklak. I can perfectly imagine all these things. Does that mean they are meaningful? I am sure even Conifer would not claim this to be the case.

Personhood is, in fact, a positive attribute, but it also presumes the existence of a mind. What is the nature of a god’s mind? Can it even have a mind? Since its supernatural substrate is undefined, we cannot answer that question. Conifer certainly does not try to answer it.

The next attribute, from (G7), concerns nonmateriality. Here Conifer again argues from naked assertion by stating that (G7) “expresses a proposition” and that therefore noncognitivism based on it is invalid. But he fails to prove that (G7) expresses a proposition. “Nonmaterial” is another attribute which is defined negatively : all that it tells us is that a god is not material, not what it actually is. So it also falls under noncognitivism.

Finally, Conifer examines atemporality, with (G8). This also falls under negative defining, as we have just seen. It tells us that a god is not subject to time, but not what it is subject to. His answer, that (G8) must be a proposition, is equally arbitrary as his last answer.

Why does Conifer not recognize the unintelligibility of the concept “god” as he defines it? I think it stems from his assertion that :

(1) I can imagine X.

Entails that :

(2) X is intelligible.

But as I mentioned, we can imagine all kinds of unintelligible things. Being able to imagine something does not give it any meaning, or communicate any such meaning. The noncognitivist is not committed to the proposition that (1) is false, but rather to the proposition that :

(3) X has no objective meaning.

If (3) is true, then X cannot be a proposition, as Conifer would surely concede. Therefore, we have to dismiss his arguments as arguing from imagination. Anyone who wants to attempt refuting noncognitivism must try to give the meaning of the divine attributes he is examining, not appeal to the imagination.

Last updated: August 13, 2004