Friday, February 4, 2011

Theological Noncognitivism

A small but slowly-growing contingent of New Atheists (and even agnostics) are propogating the view called "theological noncognitivism." Briefly, it is a view that states, essentially, nothing is meant by the proposition "God exists." Precisely, they claim the term "God" doesn't point to any intended referent. This type of term is called "vacuous." Since one cannot explain or assign meaning to a God, they see no need to debate anything concerning a so-called God's existence. When one says "God exists," the theological noncognitivist will ask "what do you mean by 'God'?" Typically, a response is given indicating God is the creator of the universe, or the most Supreme Being, etc. At that point, the one who endorses this thinking will press for further details. At some point, it will be argued that "God" doesn't really mean anything, either because of incoherence or because of a lack of information supplied or meant by the term.

This obviously is a problem, for if the term "God" is truly meaningless, then no God exists, certainly not any that have been proffered. However, it is my contention that theological noncognitivism makes at least one of two fundamental errors. First, we must restate what the noncognitivist believes with respect to the term "God." It is vacuous. Second, we must reiterate why they think so. A term is meaningless if it is logically incoherent, or if it cannot be understood.

Next, we must agree upon a couple of quick points:
  1. One need not be able to explain everything about a concept or term in order to know something about (and hence, mean something by) that concept or term.
  2. "Logical incoherence" and "meaninglessness" are not identical.

(1) and (2) need some defense, which we will provide. (1) is demonstrated by anything about which one does not have complete knowledge. I know comparably little about space and how shuttles work, yet I know that it is the engines and propulsion systems that move the shuttle and propel it out of the atmosphere. See the relevant terms? "Shuttles," "engines," "systems," "movement," and "atmosphere" are all non-vacuous terms ontologically and epistemologically for me, though I could only explain so much about each term. No one would think I mean nothing fundamentally by these terms. Yet then this suggests that one then does mean something by the term which he expresses according to his knowledge.

The far more important and germane point is (2), however. More theological noncognitivists will respond to a definition of God by pointing out supposed logical inconsistencies (e.g., "how can a loving God allow sin?") than take the former route. On this basis, they assert the term "God" is really vacuous, so that no claim to such a God (like the Christian one) can have any validity. A logical incoherence involves a proposition or claim that is necessarily false; it is a claim which is impossible to be true. Think about "round squares," or "married bachelors," or "2+2=17." But meaninglessness is a concept or proposition by which one intends nothing at all; such a term does not pick out any conceptual referent nor is it infused with any intended meaning by the proposition's proponent.

However, think of the phrase "married bachelor." It is precisely because we understand the meaning behind the two terms that we know the concept is self-contradictory and hence logically incoherent! So, this demonstrates that logical incoherence does not necessarily entail meaninglessness. Thus, even if the noncognitivist rejects the term "God" based on logical incoherence, he cannot thus claim the term is vacuous.

So what does this mean for the noncognitivist? It means that he may say that God does not exist, or that God may exist but he does not know about Him, but he may not claim nothing is meant by the term "God." If he proposes that the Christian concept of God is incoherent, he may be an atheist with respect to God, but he should not say such things as "God exists" is a meaningless proposition. Indeed, because all propositions are true or false of necessity (that's not to say that each proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false; the necessity lies in the fact that any proposition does have a truth-value), positing logical incoherence demands of the noncognitivist that he say the proposition "God exists" is false. In essence, the noncognitivist does not have a leg to stand on with respect to avoiding the question. We should explore the questions raised by God's existence, but let us have none of this nonsense that the term "God" is meaningless.

12 comments:

  1. While the reasons for theological non-cognitivism may be new, the view itself is not--for instance, Anthony Flew in his atheistic and positivist days held it.

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  2. Thanks for commenting Alex! It does seem non-cognitivism is very closely related to positivism. Also, I linked to your argument against open theism concerning overwhelmingly probable truths in a separate post here.

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  3. No, you're simply wrong.

    "(that's not to say that each proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false; the necessity lies in the fact that any proposition does have a truth-value)"

    This is incorrect, and pretty evident if you've ever done any programming.

    >>> 2+3==5
    True
    >>> 2+3==6
    False
    >>> 2/0==6
    ZeroDivisionError: integer division or modulo by zero
    >>> God
    NameError: name 'God' is not defined

    In math things can be undefined, they can also be Null, or NaN (Not a number). It doesn't make sense to add an integer to a character such as 'a'. It also doesn't make sense to profess belief in something that is undefined (God).

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  4. Hi Wes, thanks for the comment. Apparently, we have misunderstood each other. For I am not saying that it is the case that no propositions are necessarily true or false, but rather that it is not the case that every proposition is necessarily true or false. Simply showing that some propositions are true or false of necessity does nothing to show that they all are! This is, however, why I think you have misunderstood (at least, I think this is more charitable than for me to say that you claim all propositions.

    Now assuming that you dispute also the last part (that all declarative propositions have a truth value), I wish to tell you that 2 divided by zero is not in fact 6. That is, it is not true that 2 divided by zero is six. It is false precisely because one cannot divide by zero as a philosophical (or logical, if you wish rule; not because the proposition has no truth value. What you may mean is that the interrogative question "what is two divided by zero?" has no answer; but that is not a proposition. What you provided, strictly speaking, is false, and hence not a counterexample to the claim that all propositions have a truth value. I think that covers all aspects of it so far.:)

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  5. TheologicalNoncognitivistJuly 11, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    Nobody can actually think of anything they would label "God". Therefore I can only reason that if anybody speaks "God" other than as I'm doing here, to speak only of the actual sound, they are making a sound without thinking of anything they could be talking about.

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  6. Seeing as this is just repeating the assertion of the theological noncognitivist, it's really quite question-begging. I'd like to know why you think this; you have to make some sort of argument! :)

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  7. Well, this is just my take on theological noncognitivism, which, in an of itself, it quite a cool, but ridiculous name. But as someone who does identify with it, I figured I would add my two cents--which may or may not amount to anything worthwhile. Take is as you'd like.

    First, I have no argument with any of of your proposed epistemology--all you say is logically sound. It appears, your problem with TN stems from two fundamental arguments, which are as you said:

    "(1) One need not be able to explain everything about a concept or term in order to know something about (and hence, mean something by) that concept or term.
    (2) Logical incoherence" and "meaninglessness" are not identical.)"

    Your first point is obviously true, and it's easy to tell where you're going with this. Emerging as it is, TN, as least my interpretation of it, is that the existing DEFINITION of a "god" holds no objective cognitive SIGNIFICANCE (not to be confused with apatheism...which is more of a "I don't care" type significance, rather than a cognitive significance). This is easily confused with similar literature, such as "cognitive coherence" (whether or not the definition of xxx is logically sound), or "cognitive meaning/definition" (whether or not xxx is definable at all). You argue that the idea of a "god" is logically sound, and definable. I agree; however, while related, neither are of the two are really related to the fundamental standpoint of (my interpretation of) TN. Obviously, there are pretty concrete definitions of the term "god" readily available, which describe (quite fully) what a "god" is, and what a "god" does, but from a philosophical standpoint, the term is open to such constant manipulation and abuse (for lack of a better term), entertaining it in any sort of philosophical experiment is quite similar to elementary school quarrels ("infinitely great", "infinitely superior", "infinitely powerful"..."i know something you don't, but I can't tell you or else I'd have to kill you", etc. etc...hopefully you get my gist)...I feel that the term "infinity" is quite appropriate and related.

    "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" has some objective cognitive coherence, and can be plausibly entertained in thought (that is, it's not undefined, like a statement such as "dkjuvnj asd@fn a$wuiet ad" would be); however, to produce any sort of significant or meaningful result from doing so is impossible (other than something like "you're an idiot"...which is an arguably meaningful statement).

    Overall, (proper) TN is not a standalone philosophical stance. If someone asks you, "what are your religious beliefs?", you'd be hard pressed to find someone that immediately says "I'm a theological noncognitivist", you'd more likely hear them say that they're Atheist (or whatever they are) first. You'd probably find theological noncognitivism come up later as a supplemental argument towards their overall belief at the bar over a couple of drinks. I think often, TN is incorrectly viewed as a kind of egoistical "spite" towards theists--"your religion makes no sense, period. not even gonna bother arguing with you about it"--and to this end, I am in full agreement with you. However, I feel that the actual meaning of TN is significantly more refined, and significantly less encompassing.

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  8. Thank you for your quite charitable and explanatory response. :) I shall consider it further--of course, I don't think "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is true because it's incoherent (in a strict logical sense)!

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  9. the theological non-cognitivist view is that "god exists" is not a proposition. your argument that the failure to assign a truth value to the proposition make the position incoherent is therefore unsound because it begs the question.

    Your burden, if you wish to challenge thelogical non-cognitivism, is to show how "god exists" and other sentences about religious topics of a similar nature are propositions. Because of the metaphysical nature of those statements, the theological noncognitivist will be highly skeptical that you can do so. This is not necessarily a positivist view. One could just as easily get there through the "ordinary language" view of GE Moore or the view of language contained in the later Wittgenstein, both of which can support a theological noncognitivist claim that "god exists" is meaningless and not a proposition, and both of which are highly critical of the errors of Popper/Ayer style logical positivism.

    One further note, a consistent theological noncognitivist must also say that "it is not the case that god exists" is not a proposition and therefore one cannot be both a theological noncongnitivist and an atheist without engaging in some sort of epistemological inconsistency.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I can understand that, though it must be stressed that the main line of thinking is that the term is meaningless, and thus it is not a proposition, and so the correction is a distinction without a difference, so to speak. I can make "God exists" a proposition quite easily: It is true that God exists. "God" being a maximally great being of the metaphysical kind in power, etc. But in any case there's not really been presented a good reason to think this kind of skepticism is warranted, and any criticism tends to fall into a kind of coherence issue, in which case you *can* say that God does not exist (if it was to be successful).

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  10. Interesting piece. I would stress, as noted by a previous commenter, that theological noncognitivism (I'll shorten this to TNC) is emphatically not the same thing as atheism. Both atheism and theism refer to positions of belief--that is, to a reality that is outside the limitations of human knowledge--the supernatural. TNC, on the other hand, refers to a position of knowledge. It makes no claims about ontology, only about epistemology. If a TNC could be said to hold any sort of theological belief, it would have to be strict agnosticism. As a TNC myself, I would certainly not care to be lumped in with Atheism.

    You are right to point out that God is a meaningful concept for many people, in the context of their particular beliefs. All that TNC shows, I think, is that God is not meaningful in the abstract, only in the particular. So, to say that God exists or does not exist is not a meaningful statement; however, it is a meaningful statement to say that a Catholic (or Protestant, or Muslim, or Jewish, or animist) god exists or does not exist.

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    1. Benjamin, thanks for the comments! While I can appreciate them, the only intelligible reason TNC seems to work is based on the (supposed) incoherence of the God concept. if there is another reason that doesn't entail this, I would consider it and see if it does not equate itself to atheism. One could reply it is only applicible to gods to whom the incoherences apply, but generally what we mean by "God" just is the deity of classical theism, whether Christian or otherwise, and not simply "really powerful guys." But in any case, TNC seems to entail that there is no such thing as God, in the classical sense.

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