One of my readers, Nate, provided an extended comment in response to my essay “Ignosticism? A response to Advocatus Atheist“. Not only was it long, but it was meaty too. Indeed, it was a full course meal. I’ve decided to republish it here so that we can reflect a bit on Nate’s attempt to redeem ignosticism. Nate starts off by quoting me from my original critique:
“If this [‘one must first present a coherent description of x before the existence of x can be meaningfully discussed’] is a demand that only applies to God-talk, then Tristan needs to explain why it only applies to God-talk. He can avoid this problem by saying it is a general principle which applies to all forms of discourse. The problem there is that this is false. So the third option is to provide some middling view that restricts the principle to some forms of discourse but not others. However, Tristan would then have to explain to which forms of discourse it applies (God-talk and what else…?) and why those and not others. He’d also have to provide some reason to think this principle, so defined, is true.”
Nate then offers his own comments (which I’ve put in red font).
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This is correct, and your counter-examples demonstrate exactly why. However, I think “ignosticism” (or whatever you want to call non-cognitivism about God-talk) can be given a fairer shake, and your response is suggestive. I’ll use it as a jumping off point to see if I can’t help Tristan out.
You suggest, plausibly, that the ignosticist (?) has three options: (1) Explain why a descriptivist theory of meaning applies only to God-talk. (2) Defend descriptivism for all (or nearly all) terms in our language. (3) Provide some principled “middling view” that restricts descriptivism to a domain of discourse that would INCLUDE God-talk.
(2)’s out, not just because of the fact that we learn kind-terms and proper names ostensively, but also due to the phenomenon of ‘rigid designation’ — that terms (generally speaking) are mere “labels” that refer no matter what descriptions we associate with them. This is the well known and (now) consensus Kripke-Putnam theory of reference. Most words refer initially by virtue of some individual or community simply by pointing at something and naming it, and *we* refer by virtue of having the right causal-historical links to these past speakers, “inheriting” the reference of the term, so to speak. This is philosophical orthodoxy now.
You don’t say it, but I presume you’d say, and I’d agree, that option (1) is arbitrary. There seems nothing especially special about the sentence ‘God exists’ or ‘The Godhead is Triune’ that makes them different from ‘Apples exist’ or ‘apples are red.’ (Let alone existence claims and predication when it comes to abstract objects — e.g., ‘2 exists,’ ‘2 is prime’). It’s unfair, or at least unprincipled, to require such a double standard.
As someone with a background in the philosophy of science, however, I’d like to put in a good word for (3). This is just a sketch of a proposal, but the first thought that struck me when I surveyed these options was that ‘God’ is a *theoretical term.* Some of the work I’m doing right now is on precisely pinning down what it means for a term to be ‘theoretical,’ so I’ll just go with an imprecise working model: theoretical terms are words in our language for entities, properties, processes, causal mechanisms, and all sorts of other stuff that we can’t directly observe (due to lacking certain powers of discrimination, or whole sensory capabilities), OR such things that we could observe in theory (pardon the unintended pun), but whose existence we must infer, due to practical limitations (a good example here are exoplanets).
You say that someone who takes this route must (a) explain why this domain of language requires descriptivist analysis, and (b) why the domain would include “God-talk” or other religious language. Let’s see…
On the face of it, (a) seems problematic, because Putnam and Kripke both argued that certain terms like ‘water’ and ‘tiger’ are “natural-kind terms” that occur in natural language are also the proper domain of scientific theories, and these theories are supposed to inform us of the causal properties and structure that make these types of things what they are — the ‘essences’ of these natural kinds. For instance, water is H2O and tigers are members of a specific evolutionary lineage. If a sample of liquid boils at 100 C, freezes at 0 C, quenches thirst, etc., but doesn’t have the molecular structure H2O, it isn’t water. But, these are terms that referred back in pre-scientific times, and children can successfully refer to water without knowing chemistry, so SOME theoretical terms initially acquired their reference as most other terms do – through initial baptism and an unbroken causal chain of the term’s use.
However, there are a few defects with this model that philosophers of science have recognized, which have prompted us to re-introduce descriptivist referential machinery — these are so-called hybrid causal-descriptivist theories. Two quick reasons why we’d want to do this: (i) scientists often postulate entities on the basis of indirect evidence before they can directly ‘detect’ them with instruments or perform more decisive experiments. A good contemporary example of this is the Higgs boson — the Higgs exists if and only if there is a particle that matches *enough of* the theoretically predicted characteristics of the Higgs according to the standard model, usually so that it performs it’s essentially explanatory role, in this case, making everything else have mass. So far, the 125 GeV particle they found at CERN looks a lot like the Higgs, but we could imagine things turning out differently. Then (assuming there’s nothing out there to find), it would be correct to say after all that the Higgs doesn’t exist — nothing fits the description to a significant enough extent. (ii) These models are useful in explaining how we refer to the same entities across theory change. The modern conception of the atom has changed a lot over the past century, but we still think of people like Rutherford and Bohr interacting with and trying to describe the same entities that we call ‘atoms’ today, even though our understanding of them is much different. We don’t, however, use the term ‘phlogiston’ anymore in explaining combustion. What has happened is that our older descriptions of the atom got just enough right that each time we formulated a new atomic theory, scientists decided there was enough continuity in essential core descriptive content to justify thinking of ourselves as learning something new about the same thing (and thus keeping the word). But when we rejected phlogiston in favor of oxygen, the discontinuities in their respective theoretical descriptions were so abrupt that it is far more natural to think phlogiston doesn’t exist instead of thinking that it does, that we established reference to it through causal contact, but that it’s behavior is just radically different than we thought.
So, there is a principled domain of discourse, the theoretical sciences, where something in the vicinity of (1) holds — definitions are never fixed, but are expected to stay stable enough as theories evolve over time (and, when we go looking for the postulated entity the first time, we had better find something that satisfies the description rather well). So, does it apply to God-talk (b)? Well, I think there’s a plausibility argument to be made that descriptive considerations enter into the picture and become important whenever we leave the familiar territory of the macroscopic world around us and begin making inferences to things unseen, not just in science but in practically every domain of knowledge. You can probably see where this is going, and this post is getting long — since we can’t *point* to God, like we can’t *point* to atoms, we need some conceptual grasp on his nature before we can go about settling the question of whether he is out there. It doesn’t need to be a totally static one, but like the modern concept of an atom over the 20th C, it has to be one that is stable at the level of playing a certain explanatory function in the direction of *increasing* understanding, and continuous with past conceptions. The cosmological and design arguments (among the multitude of others) can be seen as making a God-posit, with certain core descriptive traits that any putative God-object must have.
Of course, ‘phlogiston’ isn’t meaningless, just like ‘unicorn,’ the two terms have descriptive content. We just have reference *failure* in these cases. What MIGHT make the concept of God meaningless are the worries Tristan points out… the relativity of the concept over time (referential instability), across culture (no unique descriptive model), but I think a far better case can be made on the subject of “incompatible property” arguments; that when we analyze our concept of God we find that either certain properties he must have are intrinsically incoherent (omnipotence and omniscience are two good candidates) or are incompatible with other of his essential properties (his alleged timelessness and status as creator of the universe). But that’s a whole other can of worms. I’ll leave it there and throw my hat in the wrong as a tentative “ignostic.”
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So I suggested that the best hope for Tristan to defend ignosticism is to take my third option, a “middling view”, that places God-talk within a non-cognitive category. Nate takes up the challenge:
“I’d like to put in a good word for (3). This is just a sketch of a proposal, but the first thought that struck me when I surveyed these options was that ‘God’ is a *theoretical term.*”
Nate then goes on to provide an erudite discussion of how theoretical terms in the natural sciences still require a (partial) descriptivist theory of reference, so-called “hybrid causal-descriptivist theories”. And after that he suggests that God-talk is also a type of theoretical discourse which would likewise be subject to the constraints of a hybrid causal-descriptivist theory:
“there’s a plausibility argument to be made that descriptive considerations enter into the picture and become important whenever we leave the familiar territory of the macroscopic world around us and begin making inferences to things unseen, not just in science but in practically every domain of knowledge.”
“since we can’t *point* to God, like we can’t *point* to atoms, we need some conceptual grasp on his nature before we can go about settling the question of whether he is out there.” It doesn’t need to be a totally static one, but like the modern concept of an atom over the 20th C, it has to be one that is stable at the level of playing a certain explanatory function in the direction of *increasing* understanding, and continuous with past conceptions.”
So what should we think of all this?
I think that Nate has made good progress in outlining how one might begin going about defending (3). But there are two problems. First, is this the correct way to think about God-talk? Second, if it is, then has Nate established that God-talk systematically fails to meet the basic requirements of a hybrid causal-descriptivist theory of reference?
Let me start with the second point. My simple response is no, I don’t think Nate has done this. Understood as a theoretical posit, “God” is the concept of a non-physical mind or agent who created all things through an act of will. That, at least, is a primal Hebrew conception. Over time the concept has been clarified further such that today a perfect being theologian will explain the concept like this: God is a being that exemplifies the maximal set of great-making properties. I simply don’t see that Nate has provided anything like a warranted ignosticism about this tradition of theological reflection based on his comments.
Let’s now turn to the first point. While God-talk can be theoretical talk that is a fitting analogue for theoretical discourse in the natural sciences, the question we should consider is whether it is always theoretical language.
I noted that the concept of God is the concept of a mind or agent. We might also refer to this as a person. This raises an interesting question. Do we experience persons directly? Or do we experience certain entities behaving in certain ways and infer a theory of personhood (where a person is any entity that exemplifies properties x,y,z) as a means to explain the behavior of these entities?
It certainly is possible that personhood can be thought of as a theoretical posit. But it is also obviously the case that more often it is a properly basic belief rather than a non-basic theoretical inference. I just bought a coffee at a coffee shop. I did not infer the personhood of the barista. I assumed it. (Think of the way infants-toddlers-small children are brought into the world interacting with persons. To recognize and interact with persons is hardwired into them and a natural and ineluctable part of normal cognitive development.)
So now let’s think about God the person. Just as certain domains of discourse (e.g. metaphysics) might consist of theoretical discourse on the existence and nature of persons, so certain domains of discourse (e.g. philosophical theology) might consist of theoretical discourse on the existence and nature of divine persons. But if human persons can also be entities with which we interact and about which we have beliefs in a properly basic (i.e. non-theoretical) manner, why can’t God likewise be a person with whom we interact and about which we have beliefs in a properly basic manner?
Here we really need to pay attention to the fact that religious people do not think of God or speak of God as a theoretical posit. Rather, they think and speak of God in a properly basic manner. Why shouldn’t we think they are correct?
Based on his comments, I take it that Nate will say it is because we can’t “point” to God. But truth be known, I can’t point to a mind either. Nor can I point to love. Or the good. But these are all terms of reference that we use regularly in a properly basic way and not merely as formal theoretical posits.