Sunday, January 6, 2008

"The Meaningfulness of Religious Language"


In Chapter Two of 'Atheism' Dr. Martin discusses the topic of 'God Talk' and whether it is defensible that human language can even discuss God—whether it be regarding His attributes or His actions. It seems to me that this is a great starting point for discussing the warrant of agnosticism vs. revelational theism; however I do not see that such a discussion could, of itself, support atheism at all. In fairness, it seems that Dr. Martin does recognize this—as indicated by his conclusion that losing 'God talk' diminishes the positive argument for atheism as much as it diminishes the positive argument for theism. I commend him for this honesty. Nonetheless, he felt it necessary to discuss in his philosophical justification of atheism, so I will evaluate it here.

Martin begins this chapter by giving an overview of the problem of using language to describe God (which I will flush out in the next section). He continues by giving a description of logical positivism, the philosophical system by which he intends to derive his answer for the problem. Then he makes a distinction between meaninglessness (no syntactical structure or express a true or false idea) and incoherence (expressed statements that entail a contradiction). He correctly notes that a statement cannot be both incoherent and meaningless at the same time. He then proceeds to give an account of what he believes to be a strong critique of 'God Talk,' that of Kai Nielson. Next, he outlines and critiques the defense made by theist Richard Swinburne. Next he briefly discusses two theories of observation, a physicalist theory and a phenomenological theory. After that he gives an account of several 'theistic' attempts to show the confirmability of theological statements, followed by his critique of each position. Finally he concludes his chapter by admitting that the court is still out regarding the possibility for God talk and because of this he vows to write the rest of this book as if it were potentially feasible. However, he does believe that, in light of current evidence, the only position that is currently justifiable is negative atheism (which seems to be a form of agnosticism). Though he does not mention so, I believe that his position—if it were correct—would also allow for an existentialistic fideistic theism to be considered justifiable as well. Of course, I don't think he is correct.

*Note: I will assume that his assessments of other people's theories are correct and I will evaluate on this assumption. If there are mistakes, I do not wish to be held responsible.

Summary of Martin's Claims

Martin begins this chapter by asking "Is God talk meaningful?" He correctly notes that language, when used of God, seems to have an entirely different application than it does when applied to temporal entities. Things predicated of God are essential, unchangeable, and non-retractable; whereas the same things predicated of temporal entities are not so. He seems to argue that since we do not know things in such a way that we cannot correctly say such things of God. What is more, according to Martin, is that the very notion of God itself is ambiguous because of its "varied and inconsistent uses." He then argues that the classical understanding of God as a non-spatio-temporal being negates the meaningfulness of 'God Talk' since referring to something requires a spatio-
temporal scheme.

After these preliminary criticisms of 'God Talk,' Martin makes his case against it. He cites as a jumping off point David Hume's argument that "only synthetic a posteriori (matters of fact) and analytic a priori (relation of ideas) statements are legitimate propositions." He then defers to the more detailed working out of this formula presented by logical positivism which is (albeit briefly):

A statement has factual meaning if and only if it is empirically verifiable
A statement has formal meaning if it is analytic or self-contradictory
A statement has cognitive or literal meaning if and only if it has either formal meaning or factual meaning.
A statement has cognitive or factual meaning if and only if it is either true or false

Martin admits his belief that disavowing the meaningfulness of 'God Talk' based on positivism is defensible since statements about God are not verifiable, analytic, or self contradictory and hence meaningless. He then critiques some common theistic attempts to defend itself against positivism including: 1) arguments for the empirical verifiability of the faith, 2) arguments for a non-cognitive interpretation of belief, and 3) arguments against the verifiability theory of meaning.

Next, Martin presents Nielson's argument. Nielson holds that all God talk is not meaningless, since some is just factually false. However, he does hold that 'God Talk' about the classical theistic God is meaningless, since the idea of a transcendent being acting in time is nonsensical. He continues to argue that we should count such statements as meaningless since they are not confirmable or infirmable. He cites as evidence the facts that believers often have doubts. He claims that since we can support the verifiability theory with some statements then we can use it to judge other more controversial ones. He then proceeds to argue that a statement can only be considered meaningful if it can be proven wrong.

After this, he begins critiquing different theistic positions. He begins by assessing the analytic arguments of Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, which I will not summarize here since they are not relevant to my position. He then goes on to critique several confirmability theories, which are also irrelevant to my position (though I think that Crombie's position may be defensible as far as it is portrayed).

Agreements and What I Have Learned

To begin, I couldn't agree more with Dr. Martin that talk about God has an entirely different way of being predicated to its object than the same language would have of a temporal entity. I think that this fact would be very useful to modern theologians who tend to look over it so non-chalantly. I actually think that flushing this out a bit more is a stronger argument against God Talk than that of logical positivism, though I believe that it is so on a false presupposition, which I will address in my critique. I definitely appreciate his distinction between meaninglessness and incoherence, and I will try to remember it forever. I agree that Nielson's formulation of positivism is more sophisticated than other forms, though I still think it is unsubstantiated. I appreciate that Nielson rejects Wittgensteinian fideism, but I think that this rejection logically results in a difficulty for the atheist position as it relates to teleology. Finally, I agree with his final assessment that IF his conclusion were true that it only eliminates positive theism and positive atheism. I also appreciate that he has admitted that there is still a jury out.


First, I don't see how it is an epistemological problem that things are predicated of God in a unique way. All that such a fact tells me is that I don't understand exactly how the subject and the predicate are related; but I see no reason why I couldn't correctly tell that they are related. Second, I think that he begs the question when he states that "referring to something requires a spatio-temporal scheme." He never explains why, but I would be interested in hearing an explanation. Third (and I think this is the greatest criticism of this whole section), it seems that Hume and the logical positivists are working from self-defeating arguments. Hume states that "only synthetic a posteriori (matters of fact) and analytic a priori (relation of ideas) statements are legitimate propositions." But this statement doesn't pass its own test since it is neither scientifically demonstrable (synthetic a posteriori) nor logically necessary (analytic a priori). Likewise the positivist claims are not: 1) factually meaningful since they are not empirically verifiable, 2) formally meaningful since they are not analytic or self-contradictory, or 3) cognitively or literally meaningful since they are not formally or factually meaningful.

Now, I do not discredit the usefulness of verifiability theories, I think that verification is a tremendous tool. However, I do not believe that it is necessary to be able to verify something for it to be meaningful. Thus the statement "God loves us," while not directly verifiable can still be meaningful and, in fact, true. Finally, I would like to say something about testability. I think that I would agree with anyone who claimed that we should not accept a non-testable system as true. This would be tantamount to blindly jumping into an open elevator shaft hoping that the elevator is at your floor. However, there seems to be nothing wrong with accepting non-testable facts as true within the context of a rationally defendable system. For instance, I am not rationally justified in believing that God loves me because I feel good about that idea. The ground for my belief is not testable since my feelings can not be tested. However, if I believe that God loves me because Jesus said that He does and proved that what He said was true by predicting His death and resurrection and then accomplishing that feat then I have believed something based on information that can be tested. The grounds are the historically verifiable events of the life of Christ.

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