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.


  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.

  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.

  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
    >>> 2+3==6
    >>> 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).

  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.:)

  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.

  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! :)

  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.

  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)!

  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.

    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).

    2. Randy Everist>>>I can make "God exists" a proposition quite easily: It is true that God exists."<<<

      Why assert that uttering or typing "It is true that God exists" causes "God exists" to be labeled "a proposition"?

  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.

    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.

  11. Those propagating the view called “theological noncognitivism” are certainly neither atheists nor agnostics for these share with theists the view that there actually is something understandable to not believe in, which is precisely what theological noncognitivists do not recognize.

    There might be as many types of theological noncognitivists are there are types of believers. Especially, it is possible to distinguish between “objective” and “subjective” theological noncognitivists. A subjective theological noncognitivist would only say that he personally fails to understand the concept or to find a meaning for it while an objective theological noncognitivist would say that the concept is by itself (and in an absolute and universal way) ununderstandable and meaningless.

    I don’t feel that the objective view is defendable and maybe this is the view you are arguing against. Obviously, there are people claiming to understand the concept and to find it meaningful and it is certainly not my role to tell them what they are to understand or not or what they are to find meaningful or not.

    On the other hand, I would not find acceptable to be told what I should understand or not or what I should find meaningful or not. I would not find acceptable either to be judged for what I would understand or not or for what I would find meaningful or not (not to say for what I would believe in or not).

    In case you would be interested in understanding how a noncognitivist think, let me try to clarify a point. I agree with your couple of quick points but I feel that none of them actually conflicts with a (subjective) noncognitivist view. Maybe other noncognitivists would say otherwise (as there may be many types, even within the subjective group) but I think you are just mistakenly representing them by considering that they judge the concept as meaningless because they find it incoherent. They just directly find it meaningless or, more precisely, they just fail to find a meaning for it whatever they are being told about it. This might be related to some inability to conceive any form of transcendence.

  12. You wrote that this is a problem if the term “God” is truly meaningless as meaninglessness would entail non-existence. I understand this is a problem for you and (possibly many) other people and I imagine this is because you all place, say great hopes, in such an existence.

    I fail to see how this is a different problem from if the assertion “God does not exist” was true. This too would obviously (and much more directly) entail non-existence and with the same consequences. So I don’t understand why theological non-cognitivism should be worse than atheism from your point of view. I would intuitively think that you should consider both of them equally incorrect. So why would you find the former less reasonable and more problematic than the latter?

    1. Thanks for writing! Both assertions entail non-existence, which is, as you note on my view, wrong. However, simply because two positions entail a falsehood does not, as far as I know, indicate that they are equally bad. One can have the consequence that even significant theistic arguments cannot persuade them, even in principle, since there is no referent to pick out. This is so not merely ontologically, but even in terms of referents (say one picks out uninstantiated properties--such a noncognitivist won't even be able to discuss the uninstantiated property of being divine, whereas an atheist simpliciter can at least do so).

    2. Thanks for your reply. I prefer words like “incorrect” or even better “false” that stay at the technical level rather than words like “wrong” or “bad” that could be interpreted as carrying a moral judgement (I know you didn’t mean that). I understand that you consider the atheist and non-cognitivist views as equally false but you find the latter harder to deal with from an apologetic perspective.

      What you refer to as “significant theistic arguments” does not seem so good at effectively persuading even “plain atheists” (those actually asserting that God does not exist and therefore expected to have “a referent to pick out”) anyway. Also, among such arguments, some (e.g. Thomas Aquinas’ “five ways”) address both existence and meaningfulness at once and therefore target non-cognitivists as well. So, discussing with non-cognitivist should not be that harder than discussing with atheists. Moreover, difficulties in persuading even “plain” atheists are possibly linked to the fact that many of them are probably non-cognitivists that do not know it (or failed to formalize it). They just “don’t get” transcendence. Assuming they do while they don’t is likely to lead to misunderstanding and to failure.

    3. This doesn't seem to address the main concerns, however. I simply meant "bad" as in "poor" or "farther from being correct." It seems noncongnitivism cannot avoid referring to God in ordinary language; anything that must appeal to ordinary language as false is more difficult to discuss than anything that takes such language as true, all things being equal. To me, I may as well insist that I don't understand noncognitivism, in that it does not have a meaningful referent (e.g., what does it mean to discuss attributes of God while not knowing what they mean?) and therefore, as a metanoncognitivist, we cannot discuss noncongnitivism.

    4. I do understand what you mean by metanoncognitivism (so we are not going for an infinite regression on this) and I have absolutely no problem with you being a metanoncognitivist, whether it is a genuine or only a displayed position (not that I question your sincerity but I consider the possibility that you appeal to this concept just for the sake of the argument; in my case, it is a genuine position). You don’t understand what I refer to as “theological noncognitivism” just as I don’t understand what you refer to as “God”. Fine for me. However, I see two differences between our noncognitivisms: yours appears to be based on a perceived contradiction in mine (maybe we can work on that) while I perceive mine is a primary one: I just don’t get the concept. The second difference is that you see mine as problematic while I don’t see yours in the same way. I am in favor of philosophical pluralism and I have no problem with you seeing things in a different way I do, as long as this is reasonably reciprocal.

      Concerning “ordinary language”, I don’t think there is any “canonical reference” for it, of which you could claim to be closer to than I would be. There are possibly as many delimitations of it as there are people (and even as there are moments in people’s lives). That some elements (terms) appear in the “ordinary language perimeter” of many people does not render them meaningful to other people and not even in any absolute sense. Indeed, for us to discuss, we need to share enough of such elements and we should not only share them but we should also share their meanings. We can easily discuss using elements and meanings we happen to share but it will become much more complicated or maybe just no longer feasible if the discussion moves in directions in which we shall share much less or none at all of these elements or meanings.

      The fact that there are some domain in which it is much harder or impossible to discuss due to a lack of shared bases does not mean that we cannot discuss at all. Maybe we share enough to agree on or to discuss about this particular question. What I find particularly interesting is such cases, is to dig to discover which exactly these bases we do not share are and why we do not share them. This does not require in any way that any of us change his mind on anything.

    5. I honestly just don't understand what someone claims they don't understand if they were to, say, read the Bible's claims about God (even taking them as pure fiction). It just doesn't make any sense to me to claim that nothing is being understood. After all, you claim you don't understand "the concept," and I can always ask, "the concept of what?" Anything you refer to either refers to what I refer to or it does not. But this whole debate strikes me the same way it would if you insisted you had no idea what leprechauns were. It seems...disingenuous, if not confused.

  13. Hi there! I recently discovered the expression 'theological noncognitivist' when I was searching for a definition of my own philosophy on this subject. I have embraced the title with enthusiasm! Now to get to my comments: in your opening statement you purport to find difficulty with the TN position, and then introduce the straw men of 'round squares', married bachelors' and the like. The fallacy is that we all understand what each constituent part of these pairings is: we know what round is, and can describe it; similarly with the other words. The contention of the TN is that 'God' (as opposed to gods) has no meaning which can be explained without invoking the impossible. We only have to hear someone say 'God created everything' to know immediately that this is an impossibly circular argument. It is no good either to say (as a comparison) that we don't know what words like 'love' mean, because we can find a reasonable explanation in the dictionary. Any attempt by any dictionary to describe 'God', however, falls into so many traps that few make it.
    By the time you get to the end of the above exchanges you are indeed trapped yourself: into asking a meaningless question (concept of what?)! As for saying leprechauns 'were', instead of 'were or are represented as', to support your contention of disingenuousness - well, words fail me.
    Please tell me how 'God' means something which I can intellectually consider, preferably without laughing, and I will happily consider it. If, as you say, it means something to you, then surely you can give us some definition? You have so far failed to come anywhere near something satisfactory.

    1. Thanks for your comments! I do note, however, that most of the first half doesn't really address what I've said, the last part is pure rhetoric, and the middle just reiterates the same problem: you think it's incoherent, which isn't identical to meaninglessness. Have a good day!

  14. Theological noncognitivism seems to be the correct position with regard to the statement "God exists," as uttered by a theist who, when pressed, says "The word 'God' is indefinable." (Such a position on the part of the theist is associated with apophatic theology.)

    1. Hello Ted, thanks for your comments! I agree that apophatic theology has this problem of meaning. It is for this reason (among others) that I do not accept apophatic theology.

  15. A non-Mormon theist is one who believes that he believes that the row of letters "God" refers to something that he believes the sequence "that intelligent thing which created everything but itself" refers to.

    A theological noncognitivist is one who realizes the above.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! But surely this isn't a good definition of either of these terms. For example, Muslims will disagree with your definition of "a non-Mormon theist;" surely they take it that "Allah" refers to the second part. Maybe you mean the noun (rather than proper noun), but at least some Muslims do not refer to that being as "God," but as "Allah;" and surely they're not Mormon.

      But perhaps more important is the sufficient condition you lay out for being a non-cognitivist. On this view, anyone who takes it that "God" signifies the description is a theological non-cognitivist, and surely that includes everyone who is aware that this is a description of "God."

      So perhaps you mean a restrictive or eliminative way of speaking of this: non-cognitivists are people who realize that the above description is *all* there is to the term "God." But then we can just note that of course no theist takes it that this is *all* there is to God; we don't want to beg the question against the theist!

      I hope you are well!

  16. >>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.<<
    What do you claim to know about the row of letters "God" or "Yahweh", other that that they are rows of letters. Do they mean anything? If so what? I can think of nothing they could mean.


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