The Meaning of Divine Attributes

As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing better than doing philosophy, and philosophy of religion is the chocolate-fudge frosting on the cake. In philosophy of religion, you get a full serving of each of the major areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science, to name just the most obvious examples.

Richard Swinburne points out this multi-facetted aspect of philosophy of religion in the Introduction to The Coherence of Theism:

Although the over-all topic of this book lies squarely within the field of the philosophy of religion, I have found it necessary, in order to answer the questions with which I am concerned, to write lengthy sections on many general philosophical topics and then apply the results to the claims of theism. There are detailed discussions of such topics as meaningfulness, personal identity, free will, and the objectivity of morality—topics generally considered to lie within areas of philosophy other than the philosophy of religion. This is an inevitable and to my mind welcome consequence of the integrated character of philosophy. (COT, revised ed., p. 5)

In recent weeks, I have been reading about divine attributes, particularly Swinburne’s analysis of omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect moral goodness, and eternity, plus reading some general articles by other philosophers of religion on these topics.

Swinburne attempts to clearly specify the meaning of each of these divine attributes, and to work out definitions or meanings that are logically coherent. Along the way, he tosses out various attempted definitions as being problematic or incoherent, including some definitions that are widely held by other theologians or Christian philosophers.

The analysis of divine attributes by Swinburne and other philosophers of religion, and the attempt of such thinkers to clarify the meaning of the sentence ‘God exists’ suggests to me that the question ‘Does God exist?’ belongs first and foremost to philosophy, and that although science may have something to contribute to answering this question, it is not fundamentally a scientific question.

I realize that science deals with logic and with analysis of concepts to some extent. No scholarly or intellectual field can avoid logical and conceptual analysis. However, we cannot answer the question ‘Does God exist?’ unless and until there is some clear definition or analysis of the sentence ‘God exists’, and I see no way to do such an analysis apart from providing clarification and conceptual analysis of divine attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, perfect moral goodness, eternity, etc.

Having read Richard Dawkins’ exposition of a so-called argument against the existence of God, I am completely confident that Dawkins is not in any position to do an even half-ass job of conceptual analysis and clarification of the divine attributes. Swinburne (and just about any other well-known philosopher of religion that you could name) could argue circles around Dawkins in this area.

Do we really think that scientists should devote their time and energy to logical and conceptual analysis of the paradox of the stone? Or to arguing about whether there are such things as objective moral truths? Should scientists be entrusted with figuring out whether the idea of a bodiless person is a meaningful and coherent idea? or to the question of what constitutes personal identity? Will science determine the logical compatibility of divine foreknowledge and free will? These are the sorts of questions that need to be answered in order to nail down the meanings of the divine attributes, and to clarify the sentence ‘God exists’.

Science may have something to contribute to the study of these questions, but they are essentially and fundamentally questions of logical and conceptual analysis, and they are the very sort of questions that philosophers deal with all the time. Scientists are, in general, not well suited for dealing with these sorts of issues, as Dawkins has made so very clear by his failed attempt at dealing with the question ‘Does God exist?’.

It is not at all clear that the sentence ‘God exists’ is a meaningful and coherent sentence. But we cannot begin to evaluate the truth or falsity of this sentence until we determine whether it is a meaningful and coherent sentence. Making such a determination is the job of philosophers of religion, not of scientists.

One person, however, can sometimes excel in more than one field. So, it is possible that someone could be both a brilliant philosopher of religion and also an excellent scientist. Such a person might produce a solid logical and conceptual analysis of the sentence ‘God exists’, show this sentence to be meaningful and coherent, and then go on to evaluate the truth of the clarified sentence in terms of scientific knowledge and/or investigation.

But such a person will be doing logical and conceptual analysis as a philosopher and then following that up with doing empirical and scientific work as a scientist. If Dawkins can some day figure out how to do a good logical and conceptual analysis of ‘God exists’, then this will show us that Dawkins has learned how to do philosophy. It will not show us that science is capable of answering the question ‘Does God exist?’

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05130016615104653729 TaiChi

    "It is not at all clear that the sentence ‘God exists’ is a meaningful and coherent sentence. But we cannot begin to evaluate the truth or falsity of this sentence until we determine whether it is a meaningful and coherent sentence. Making such a determination is the job of philosophers of religion, not of scientists."

    And so, there is in fact no evidence which weighs against the existence of God? For example, the problem of evil is not even a problem as yet, since 'God' has not yet been pinned down to its necessary and sufficient conditions?
    This is surely the wrong conclusion. You are right that there are problems about the conceptual coherence of 'God'. You would be right to point out that the concept is so vague as to make certain kinds of discussion pointless. Yet you are wrong to conclude that, because we do not yet have the concept of 'God' completely clear, we cannot even begin to work with certain core elements which belong to that concept and to examine what the world tells us about its possible instantiation.
    And that's what I take Dawkins to be doing. He defines God as "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”, which is a fairly minimalist definition of God. You may think him unsuccessful in his argument, but I don't think he's wrong to try to make it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    To be religious, one need not believe in any sort of god, and to believe in God as the creator of the universe, one need not be religious. Deists believe in God without being religious. For these reasons, it would make sense to classify the problems of God's existence and God's attributes as BASICALLY a topic within metaphysics rather than philosophy of religion. It is conceivable that people of the future come to be more deistic in their orientation, that is, continuing to appeal to the God-hypothesis to explain origins, but to gradually give up their beliefs in an afterlife and a being who somehow governs the world. God-belief would go on but there would no longer be anything like what we call religion. Hence, we should not follow Swinburne in regarding the topic of God as fundamentally a topic in philosophy of religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17821133945652302161 Eugene

    You know, I'm a Christian, and I completely agree with your assessment. There doesn't seem to be a ground for science to debunk statements such as "God exists"- only claims made about God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    TaiChi said…
    And so, there is in fact no evidence which weighs against the existence of God? For example, the problem of evil is not even a problem as yet, since 'God' has not yet been pinned down to its necessary and sufficient conditions?
    ==========
    Response:
    Excellent objection.

    Surely we cannot and should not wait for absolute clarity before making any attempt at evaluating the truth the sentence 'God exists'. There needs to be a process of clarification followed by attempted evaluation followed by further clarification…and so on.

    We try defining 'God' as a person who is perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscient, and then raise the objection that such a person would not permit the existence of evil and suffering. This in turn evokes replies, such as the free will defense.

    Then we go back to the original set of divine attributes and press for more clarification: What does it mean to be a 'perfectly good' person? Is such a being incapable of doing evil? If so, then how could a 'perfectly good' person have free will? Also, how can humans have free will, if a divine being knows in advance every action that every person will ever do? etc.

    As the logical puzzles and problems arise, we are forced to go back to the conceptual basis of those problems and re-evaluate the meanings of the divine attributes, or our analysis of 'God exists'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    TaiChi said…
    He [Dawkins]defines God as "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”, which is a fairly minimalist definition of God. You may think him unsuccessful in his argument, but I don't think he's wrong to try to make it.
    ========
    Response:
    Dawkins gives more than one definition of 'God', and he fails to clarify the definition that you mention.

    This definition does capture a couple of key aspects of the concept of God, and I have no problem with Dawkins making an effort to refute the existence of 'God' based on his own definition.

    But the claim 'God exists' as used and understood by Christian theists and philosophers is not fully captured by the definition you cite. God is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and a perfectly good person according to Christian theists (and Muslim theists and Jewish theists).

    Of course, Dawkins was attempting to provide a "minimalist" definition, as you say, in order to make his conclusion as broad and as strong as possible. He seems, at times, to be arguing for naturalism rather than for atheism, or else to confuse the one with the other.

    But his definition, contrary to his own examples of deities, fails to encompass Zeus, who was not believed to be the creator of the universe.

    And, although a literal reading of Genesis implies God to be the creator of the universe, I see no obvious logical problem with conceiving of an omniscient, and omnipotent ruler of the universe NOT being the designer/creator of the universe (a Platonic view of God insists that God is too perfect to be messing about with constructing finite and imperfect physical creatures). Although Swinburne uses the word 'creator' in his analysis of 'God exists', it seems to me that he largely guts the concept in order to force it to fit into his conception of God (God is the creator in Swinburne's view only in the sense that any and every creative act must be allowed to occur by God).

    It seems to me that Dawkins' definition of 'God' (a) fails to capture the meaning of the word as used by most theists, (b) is in need of further clarification (esp. the word 'supernatural'), and (c) fails to acheive his apparent objective of encompassing either all possible deities or all possible exceptions to naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05130016615104653729 TaiChi

    Thanks Bradley – I'm pretty much on board with what you've just said. I'm still not sure your criticism of Dawkins is fair, but I see that you have a series of posts on this already, so I'll read those before I push my disagreement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    If I have been unfair to Dawkins, I hope that you will point that out and persuade me to give him the credit that he is due.

    I appreciate the fact that Dawkins has promoted philosophy of religion for the masses. I just want to persuade you and others that it is philosophy of religion rather than science that Dawkins is promoting in the first four chapters of The God Delusion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05130016615104653729 TaiChi

    That is: I agree with your first comment, but not your second.

    It seems to me that Dawkins' definition of 'God' (a) fails to capture the meaning of the word as used by most theists, (b) is in need of further clarification (esp. the word 'supernatural'), and (c) fails to acheive his apparent objective of encompassing either all possible deities or all possible exceptions to naturalism.

    It's interesting that you criticize Dawkins on both (a) and (c), for (a) says that Dawkins definition of God is insufficiently narrow, whereas (c) says that the definition is insufficiently broad. But unless we use multiple definitions (which you criticize Dawkins for as well), then one or the other of (a) and (c) is always going to be a problem. (b) is a fair criticism.

    "If I have been unfair to Dawkins, I hope that you will point that out and persuade me to give him the credit that he is due.

    Ok. Well, if you're seriously interested in my charitable reading of Dawkins, then I'd like to point you to a post I've written on his 747 argument: http://omnisaffirmatioestnegatio.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/dawkins-and-the-ultimate-747-gambit/ . I apologize in advance for the length, but those are my thoughts in their best expression.

    "I just want to persuade you and others that it is philosophy of religion rather than science that Dawkins is promoting in the first four chapters of The God Delusion."

    Are these exclusive? Well, if I had to pick, I'd happily join you in that opinion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    TaiChi said…
    It's interesting that you criticize Dawkins on both (a) and (c), for (a) says that Dawkins definition of God is insufficiently narrow, whereas (c) says that the definition is insufficiently broad. But unless we use multiple definitions (which you criticize Dawkins for as well), then one or the other of (a) and (c) is always going to be a problem. (b) is a fair criticism.
    =========
    Response:

    One can try to prove any of the following claims:

    1. No supernatual things (forces, objects, creatures, persons, powers) exist.

    2. No gods exist.

    3. There is no God (as traditionally conceived of by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theists).

    4. There is no creator of the universe.

    5. There is no supernatural creator of the universe.

    Each of these claims represents a different and worthy philosophical project. The important thing is to be clear which of these points one is trying to establish.

    There are some significant logical relationships between these claims. (1) implies (2), and (2) implies (3). Thus (1) implies (3).

    There could be a natural creator of this universe, so (5) does not imply (4), and (1) does not imply (4).

    Importantly, neither (5) nor (4) imply (2) – e.g. Zeus is a god, but not the creator of the universe.

    The relationship between (5) and (3) is not as clear and obvious as one might initially think. Although God is traditionally conceived of as the creator of the universe, it is not clear to me that this is an essential (non-negotiable) characteristic of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    Bradley says that there could be a natural creator of this universe. I find that to be a quite remarkable claim. Is it that this universe consists of matter that conforms to the Periodic Table, whereas the natural creator of it consists of matter (not yet discovered by science) which does not conform to the Periodic Table?

    Bradley also wonders about the logical relationships of the proposition that there is no God as traditionally conceived of by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theists. But if that proposition were a logical truth, then it would be entailed by EVERY proposition. And it would indeed be a logical truth if the traditional Christian deity has a son, whereas the Jewish and Muslim deities do not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    tmdrange said…
    Bradley says that there could be a natural creator of this universe. I find that to be a quite remarkable claim. Is it that this universe consists of matter that conforms to the Periodic Table, whereas the natural creator of it consists of matter (not yet discovered by science) which does not conform to the Periodic Table?
    =========
    Response:
    It is a remarkable claim, so it is reasonable for you to challenge me on this point.

    Is it logically possible that I could create a universe that is very similar to our current universe (in terms of physical structure and laws of physics)?

    I have no idea of how to go about doing this, but I see no logical contradiction in the idea that I might one day learn how to create a new universe, and then choose to excersise this new knowledge.

    I suppose the main rub would be the laws of thermodynamics: matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed. But the laws of physics are not the laws of logic, so this is not a logical constraint on what I can do.

    If I, as a natural being, could conceivably create a universe with a physical structure and nature similar to our universe, then I see no logical contradiction in supposing that our universe was produced in a similar manner by a natural being.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    Bradley asks "Is it logically possible that I could create a universe that is very similar to our current universe (in terms of physical structure and laws of physics)?"
    Very much depends on how the term "universe" is used. Often it is used as a term akin to a proper name. When people say "the universe," it is like "the earth," necessarily referring to something unique. When used in that way, it would be linguistically improper to pluralize the noun or to attach the indefinite article ("a") to it. Since Bradley does attach the indefinite article in his question, presumably he is not using the word "universe" in that way. What we really need, then, is a DEFINITION of "universe" that allows the noun to be pluralized and to take the indefinite article.
    Once that is supplied, progress could be made on the issue of whether or not a natural being could create a universe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    tmdrange said…
    Bradley also wonders about the logical relationships of the proposition that there is no God as traditionally conceived of by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theists. But if that proposition were a logical truth, then it would be entailed by EVERY proposition. And it would indeed be a logical truth if the traditional Christian deity has a son, whereas the Jewish and Muslim deities do not.
    ==========
    Response:
    Clearly Christians have beliefs about God that contradict beliefs about God held by Jews and Muslims.

    Jews and Muslims do not believe in the trinity, which is a traditional/orthodox Christian dogma. Jews and Muslims do not accept the incarnation, the belief that God in some sense became a human being and visited the earth as the person Jesus of Nazareth.

    Nevertheless, there is a long tradition of separating the claim 'God exists' from the claim that 'God is a trinity'. The former claim being subject to rational proof without appeal to any alleged divine revelation (i.e. the Bible), while the latter claim is not supposed to be subject to rational proof, unless and until one is persuaded to accept some alleged source of divine revelation (i.e. to believe the Bible was inspired by God).

    In this widely-held view of Christianity, there is a first phase of proving the existence of God, followed by showing the divine inspiration of the Bible, followed by proving (on the basis of the Bible) that God is a trinity.

    If this scheme is to have any hope of success, Christians must be willing to adopt a concept or analysis of 'God exists' that does not involve the assumption that 'God is a trinity', otherwise the three phase apologetic would clearly be circular.

    It is this stripped down understanding of the sentence 'God exists' that I had in mind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    tmdrange said…
    What we really need, then, is a DEFINITION of "universe" that allows the noun to be pluralized and to take the indefinite article.
    ===========
    Response:

    I agree.

    However, I might be able to avoid this problem by making a similar claim without reference to the word 'universe'.

    Is it logically possible for me, a natural being, to create a collection of galaxies that are very very tiny, and that fit into a small glass bobble on a necklace?
    (I'm thinking of one of the Men in Black movies).

    If so, then it seems to me that it is logically possible that all of the galaxies that we have observed exist within a glass bobble on someone's necklace, and were created by a natural being.

    In this scenario, there is just one universe, but this universe contains stars and galaxies of radically different sizes, such that a large collection of galaxies could fit in a very tiny portion of space on one planet in one of the 'big' galaxies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    TaiChi said…
    Ok. Well, if you're seriously interested in my charitable reading of Dawkins, then I'd like to point you to a post I've written on his 747 argument: http://omnisaffirmatioestnegatio.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/dawkins-and-the-ultimate-747-gambit/ . I apologize in advance for the length, but those are my thoughts in their best expression.
    ==========
    Response:
    I have only read the first few paragraphs of your post so far, but it looks promising, and seems like a reasonable length given the subject matter.

    Thank you for your effort to clarify Dawkins' argument in TGD.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    Bradley wrote: "There is a long tradition of separating the claim 'God exists' from the claim that 'God is a trinity'."
    Apparently Richard Swinburne abandons that tradition in his more recent book, described here:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=RMQI20gHGXQC&dq;=swinburne+was+jesus+god%3F&printsec;=frontcover&source;=bl&ots;=vmPPwFbJ29&sig;=t9rpzgMF7M1xKs-Ix2Xj0twNVlg&hl;=en&ei;=3g3eSZavJpf2MKjw8Eg&sa;=X&oi;=book_result&ct;=result&resnum;=2#PPP1,M1

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    tmdrange said…
    Bradley wrote: "There is a long tradition of separating the claim 'God exists' from the claim that 'God is a trinity'."
    Apparently Richard Swinburne abandons that tradition in his more recent book…
    =========
    Response:

    It is true that Swinburne does not closely follow the traditional three-phased approach to apologetics that goes back (at least) to Aquinas.

    But Swinburne does still break the apologetic task down into phases, and the first phase is stil (as with Aquinas) to establish the existence of God, and his attempt to establish that 'God is a trinity' comes after establishing the existence of God, and is based on having previously established the existence of God.

    So, my point applies to Swinburne's approach as well as to the more traditional three-phased approach. Christian philosophers and theologians must be willing to adopt an understanding of the meaning of 'God exists' or "There is a God' which does not assume that 'God is a trinity'.

    In the introduction to Was Jesus God? Swinburne says

    "…I plan to…show that, if there is a God, then the main doctrines which the Christian Church teaches about God, the doctrines which are special to Christianity, and distinguish it from other religions which also claim that there is a God, are very probably true."

    The implied syllogism here is:

    (1) There is a God.
    (2) If there is a God, then it is very probably true that God is a trinity.
    Therefore,
    (3) It is very probably true that God is a trinity.

    Premise (1) is argued for by Swinburne in his book The Existence of God. Premise (2) is argued by Swinburne in Was Jesus God?

    The concept of God spelled out in the book The Existence of God and in premise (1) does NOT include 'is a trinity' as one of the divine characteristics.


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