Over the last month I’ve run a series titled “Why they don’t believe”. I drew the current series to a close with the final entry from Tristan Vick two days ago. In the earlier installments I offered a few comments at the end of each entry. But given that Tristan’s contribution was significantly more substantial, I decided to publish it independently and then offer my response in a follow-up. As you might have surmised from my title, this is that response.
Tristan begins by telling us that
this is one of the arguments which can be toted in favor of atheism. That is, believe it or not, it is a positive claim for the reasonableness of a lack of belief in God.
I feel atheism can be more rigorously defended than most religious beliefs.
Tristan then goes further by asserting that the reason he will provide for atheism is the strongest argument he has yet seen:
I found that there are many strong reasons *not to believe in God, but instead of listing them all, I’ll simply give you what I feel is the strongest argument against the existence of God.
Needless to say, Tristan sets himself up to meet some high expectations here. If we trust his ability to evaluate the strength of arguments, and if we assume he has at least a passing familiarity with other major arguments against God’s existence, then we have reason to believe the argument he presents is stronger than any of these other arguments. So the atheists should hope Tristan doesn’t disappoint.
What is the argument? It starts with a surprising claim:
I literally feel that the term “God” is without meaning.
At first blush, this has a whiff of logical positivism about it, at least insofar as the logical positivist declared that all metaphysical, theological and ethical statements are meaningless. Needless to say, error theories of this sort which claim that common terms of reference are literally without meaning begin at a significant disadvantage. So what reason does Tristan offer to think that the term “God” is without meaning?
In response, he points out:
there are too many competing God-definitions.
There certainly are many. Of course, there are many definitions of other familiar terms like “person”, “the good”, “love” and “reality”. But what reason have we to think that there are so many competing definitions of God that the term itself will be pushed over the threshold into meaninglessness? And if God does somehow reach this threshold (and Tristan can establish this) then what about these other terms: person, the good, love and reality? Are they meaningless too? (And, to borrow a title from Hilary Putnam, what about the very “meaning of meaning”? That too is disputed. Is meaning thereby rendered meaningless? And if it were to be, what would that even mean?!)
Perhaps we better start by getting more clarity on this position called “ignosticism” that Tristan is defending. He explains:
Ignosticism holds two interrelated views about God. They are as follows:
1. A coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed.
2. If the definition provided is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.
I presume that this is not merely a question-begging claim which is arbitrarily restricted to “God-talk”, but instead offers a more general criteria of assertability (i.e. the conditions to make a coherent assertion or truth claim). Let’s start by considering an unrestricted expansion of these terms:
Ignosticism assumes a general theory of language which includes two criteria of assertability. They are as follows:
1. A coherent definition of x must be presented before the question of the existence of x can be meaningfully discussed.
2. If the definition of x provided is unfalsifiable, then the question of the existence of x is meaningless.
Let me note that the first criterion of this general theory is obviously false not least because everybody begins with ostensive definition, i.e. arriving at definition through the identification of token examples that fit the definition. For example, mom says “Ball” while pointing at a spherical object.
The second criterion is also false. Let me note a couple examples to illustrate why. First, a mathematical conjecture may be unfalsifiable, but it doesn’t follow that it is meaningless. Granted this is a proposition rather than an entity, but insofar as these principles are generalized to propositions, that presents a serious problem. Second, the multiverse hypothesis is unfalsifiable since it posits the existence of an infinite number of universes separate from our own. So this criterion would render meaningless the most popular attempt to escape cosmic fine-tuning.
So presumably what Tristan wants is a set of criteria of assertability which don’t arbitrarily apply only to God-talk, but yet which are not universally generalized so as to give rise to these problems. But what would these partially restrictive criteria look like? Perhaps he could try to identify criteria which only restrict language of non-sense perceptible entities. That would presumably include God. It certainly would include numbers and other so-called abstract objects as well as subatomic particles. But even if he can proffer coherent principles restricting discourse of some entities including God, he would also have to provide good reasons for us to think these principles are true. Needless to say, he has not even begun that task here.
Let’s now return to the essay. Next, he notes that adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
all claim to believe in the same God, the God of Abraham. But their definitions of this God vary drastically. Christians positively say that God begot a Son, Jesus Christ, whereas Islam affirms that God does not beget Sons—no way, no how.
So if it’s the same God, then why are the definitions all in conflict? When I describe an apple, and a Chinese person describes the *exact same apple, it is safe to assume, our descriptions of that apple will match up exactly, even if we call it by different names.
Later on Tristan drives home this claim that folks across cultures will all describe sense perceptible objects in identical or nearly identical ways:
although every culture has its own word for ‘apple’ if we were to ask anyone to describe what an apple looks like, how it feels, and its taste, well, everyone’s description of an apple would be nearly identical.
Let me begin by noting that Tristan’s assumption that individuals from different cultures would provide lists of descriptions that “will match up exactly” for the same sense perceptible objects is clearly false. I have a BA in English and Intercultural Communication and I can assure Tristan that culture alters the way we sense perceive the world in some very striking ways. (I talk about this in The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails.) People from different cultures perceive sound, color, and shape in various different ways. So far as I can see, part of the problem is that Tristan seems to have a very reductive view of sense perception in which perception is reduced to basic atomic units of sense data which can then be listed in culturally neutral ways. But that’s also false. The fact is that our perceptual experience is overwhelmingly formed in Gestalt wholes, and the kinds of Gestalts we experience are formed in large part through cultural formation.
What about Tristan’s assertion that “all claim to believe in the same God, the God of Abraham”? Here we face an important difference between those philosophers of language who believe that reference depends on description and those who believe reference is communally and causally established. Tristan seems to be assuming that reference is contingent on having the right set of truth predications about the entity being referred to (hence, the descriptivist line). But most philosophers of language today would be more inclined (certainly I would be more inclined) to understand reference as established communally through an original “baptism” of naming. This is not to say that the communal/causal theory is all sunshine and roses. One common objection is that it makes reference way too easy. And I am sympathetic with some aspects of descriptivist theory. But we need not sort all that out here. All we need to note is that Tristan’s objection appears to be contingent upon one minority position in the philosophy of language. This is hardly a compelling case.
if God is real, why aren’t our definitions in sync and why are there so many inconsistencies in almost every description?
At most I see this as giving rise to a problem of divine hiddenness. I see no reason to think that such disagreement renders God-talk meaningless. Remember, I noted above that Tristan would need to generalize his criteria and show how disagreement surrounding God-talk has fallen below a critical threshold of meaningfulness while presumably other areas of metaphysical and ethical discussion have not. (Tristan’s positive words about philosophy in his essay suggest he doesn’t reject metaphysics in toto, but if he were to take that more radical line, folks would have to appreciate that his “ignostic” rejection of God was contingent on a general rejection of metaphysics and ethics.)
Next, Tristan takes issue with those who would seek to alter their descriptions of reality in various ways to accommodate alternate descriptions they believe to be correct. He writes:
When all the descriptions are different, one of the things which happens is that the believer will frequently attempt to rationalize away the perceived discrepancies and thereby force their otherwise incompatible terms match up. But this is a mistake, because it is an exercise in shifting or changing definitions.
A good example of this is the amusing cartoon of a character emphatically stating he “has a magic baseball.” When the skeptical cartoon character asks him to prove it, the first replies, “You can’t not prove that I don’t have a magic baseball!”
In effect, all the character has done is shift the burden of proof. In order to do this, his description of having a magic baseball has inexplicably changed. It has shifted from simply having a magic baseball to having a magic baseball that nobody else can detect. Naturally, this new description has safeguarded his precious magic baseball from further scrutiny by those who would like to tests its properties in order to definitively prove that it was, indeed, a magic baseball.
I must confess that I find this to be a bizarre objection. Just consider the evolution of the term “naturalism” in the twentieth century. Atheistic philosophers have exerted great effort in attempting to come up with a workable definition of the term. The jury is still out on all those efforts, but Tristan’s objection here would render the whole enterprise of defining “naturalism” to be illegitimate! This is an example of cutting off one’s nose to spite their face if ever there was one.
Or consider the struggles philosophers of mind have had in defining the term “consciousness” (or “mind”). Once again, Tristan’s objection would undercut this entire enterprise.
Of course it would also de-legitimate scientific theory formation and defense.
And now the final irony. If the evolving process of defining the God one believes in is illegitimate, then likewise the whole process of defining the God one doesn’t believe in is illegitimate. So Tristan’s objection here would undercut all the ongoing efforts of his fellow atheists to explain what it means to be an atheist and why they take that position.
I think I’ll leave things here for now. Suffice it to say, if this is the strongest objection Tristan can mount against theism, then the theist is in a strong position indeed.