Say What???

For connoisseurs of theological gibberish, check this out (by Paul Wallace, in Religion Dispatches, from last Dec. 14):

I was particularly impressed by these two paragraphs:
The third level is the most difficult but the most important. This is second-order negation, or the inversion of the inversion. Here we would say, “God is not a fire, but God is not a not-fire either,” and “God is not love, but neither is God not-love.” God transcends the (human-based) distinction between love and not-love. Obviously what is happening here is a deliberate straining of verbal logic. It may sound like mere mental gymnastics or game-playing, but it has a very serious purpose: To question and test language, to step outside of ourselves and ask ourselves what we are doing when we talk about God, to critique the very ground upon which theology stands, to search for that place—if there is a place—where concepts fail.
Also on this third level is found the insistence, made for centuries by theologians throughout Christendom, that God transcends the distinction of being and not-being. Therefore, if we use the conventional definition of existence, God does not exist. Our category of existence does not apply to God. Put another way, the word “exist” cannot be used univocally of things and God. These are artificial categories imagined and used by human beings; they are manifestly not divine attributes. In the end, to speak correctly, there are no divine attributes. Which means that God is not distinct from creation, nor is God not-distinct from creation. That is, in God there is no distinction at all, nor is there non-distinction. No affirmation or denial properly applies to God.
Something has gone seriously wrong here, but just what? Wallace seems to think that if we accept that we can straightforwardly deny anything of God, such as that he (she? it?) is a fire or is love we thereby illicitly enclose God within human concepts, but God transcends those concepts. However, his argument seems to be based upon a straightforward misunderstanding of the meaning of negation. Consider the statement “God is love” where the “is” here is the “is” of identity. Symbolically, (x)(y)(Gx & Ly → x = y). This seems the sense of “God is love” Wallace is considering. The denial of “God is love” is “It is not the case that God is love.” However, to say “It is not the case that God is love” is NOT to say that God is identical to not-love, any more than to say that “It is not the case that four equals five” means that four is identical to every number that is not five. Likewise, to say “God does not exist” is NOT to attribute something to God or to place God in some sort of human-devised category. As Kant observed long ago, existence is not a predicate; neither is nonexistence. Saying “God does not exist” is to say that “God” is not instantiated. “Whoa!” Wallace would say, “My point precisely is that there is no concept “God” to either be instantiated or not! He says “No affirmation or denial properly applies to God,” and this is tantamount to saying that there is no concept of God. Two problems here:
1) Isn’t saying “No affirmation or denial properly applies to God” attributing a property to God, namely that he has the property that no affirmation or denial properly applies to him? Seems like a self-defeating assertion to me.
2) Well, if there is no concept of God, then we cannot really say anything at all about God. In this case, would it not be best to follow Wittgenstein’s advice at the end of the Tractatus: “That whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence.” In other words, if we can’t know what we are talking about, it is best to shut up.
Actually, talk like this always makes me feel like a yokel in the hands of some fast-talking city slicker. I think he is trying to sell me snake oil, but, gee, he sure sounds smart. Am I missing something? Can anyone out there make more of this stuff than I could?

Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
About Keith Parsons
  • The Elephant’s Child

    I'm in favor of your idea #2, lol. Pretty much everything said about God appears to me to be nonsense, so silence would be welcome!

  • Chris

    So his definition is:

    God: the place where concepts fail.–?

    Sounds about right, actually.

  • Juno Walker

    George H. Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God, and Ayn Rand follower (despite this, he does make a few good philosophical points), laid out your second point pretty will in the aforementioned book.

    Unfortunately, very few – if any – laypeople are going to read it.

  • Juno Walker

    Oh, here's the link:

    Atheism: The Case Against God

  • Chris

    It's interesting to me that he complains about atheists' superficiality and then proceeds not to engage with atheist philosophers/philosophy, but with a book written for a popular audience. His argument also seems to jump around in a misleading fashion. For instance, after branding Dawkins permanently as a fundamentalist, "despite all his claims to the contrary," by using basically an evidence-free assertion ("Dawkins refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself") and an argument from authority – "per Turner" (whose idea that culture influences one's atheism is far from novel) – he shifts from Dawkins, a single atheist who has written one book on atheism, to the plurality of religious thought. He writes:

    “Well,” it may be countered, “religious people also refuse to step outside their religion and critique their views.” This would be quite a good argument, if it were true.

    He then outlines the apophatic tradition. But of course there is a centuries-long examination of the foundations of science that has occurred and is continuing – it's called 'philosophy of science,' so his point is spurious and misleading. He's matching the entirety of theology or the entirety of apophatic theology against Dawkins' The God Delusion, rather than against the entirety of science and/or philosophy of science, or even the entirety of atheism. (He seems to bounce back and forth between atheism and science.) He is a sophist.

    Also, apophatic theology isn't really questioning the existence of God, it seems to me – it's only questioning the 'property' of his existence – an abstraction. If anything, that sort of questioning is designed much like a Zen koan, to precipitate an 'experiential' moment – in this case, an encounter with God.

    And finally, how does apophatic theology critique, or not-critique, its own grounds?

  • phhht

    I'm only a philosophically naive atheist, but I find Paul Wallace's essay to be
    a farrago of tendentious, condescending nonsense.

    What is a not-a-fire? A not-a-king? Not-love? The only meaning I can find
    in those terms is based on a metaphor with set theory. (Wallace himself
    suggests a figure-ground intrepretation when he says "…Dawkins
    refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself.").

    In order for there to be a comprehensible set of, say, not-a-kings,
    there must be a comprehensible universe in which to define the set of kings.
    I find that claim to be intuitively and compellingly obvious, given that the
    only understanding I can muster for Wallace's not-a-constructs is a
    mathematical analogy. If such a stance makes me a fundamentalist,
    fine, so be it, but affixing that label cannot absolve Wallace of the
    responsibility to provide some semantics along with the tricky syntax.

    Are there really philosophers (never mind scientists) who aver
    that science is a sufficient "guide to truth" (whatever "truth" may be)?

    Is there really anybody who assumes, tacitly or otherwise,
    "that language and image are sufficient to describe reality"?
    You don't need apophaticism
    to reject that.

    I'm only a naive atheist, but even I can tell chicken shit from chicken salad.

  • Peter Lupu

    Well, while I do understand the gist of your argument, I think one can make some initial sense of the claims you are criticizing. Consider: "the number two is happy"; "the number two is unhappy". Of course, neither assertion makes sense. Why? Because the number two is simply not the sort of thing that can be happy or unhappy. Both assertions exhibit what Ryle called a "Category Mistake".

    I guess one could interpret Wallace's passage which you quote along these lines. Applying to God the sort of categories we apply to humans or to other things is simply committing something like a Rylean Category Mistake.

    By the way, I take it that Wallace here promotes a view called "Negative Theology", which I my self do not endorse.

  • Brenda

    " In other words, if we can’t know what we are talking about, it is best to shut up."

    Which is agnosticism, not atheism.

    The law of the excluded middle, which is what is being referred to here, is not an absolute axiom. There exist branches of mathematics which do not assert the LEM. Statements within such systems also have the same "neither this nor that" mystical quality.

    Perhaps they are on to something?

  • Keith Parsons

    Peter Lupu,

    Yeah, I think the most charitable interpretation is that he is trying to say that it is a category mistake to apply such concepts as "love" or even "being" to God. But it sounds like he is trying to do something much stranger than that. It sounds like the is trying to remove any basis for saying anything intelligible about God at all. Ryle said that it is a category mistake to speak of mind as a substance (a la Descartes), but he reinterprets mind-talk in an intelligible behavioristic way. Wallace, on the other hand, says that nothing can be affirmed or denied of God. Again, this seems to run into the self-referential problem that to say "nothing can be affirmed or denied of God" seems to affirm something of God–namely, that nothing can be affirmed or denied of him. The only coherent meaning I can attribute to "nothing can be affirmed or denied of God" is that it means that there is no concept of God. In that case, talk about God means the same thing as "hey nonny nonny" or "awop bop aloo bop."

  • Wulfila

    I'm an intellectual historian, and I'm with Brenda on this one. Indian philosophy generally doesn't recognize the law of the excluded middle, Brenda informs me that contemporary mathematics utilizes forms of logic in with LEM is not an axiom, and it would appear obvious that adherents of the apophatic tradition in Western religious traditions do not recognize LEM either. That is, they would not agree that something is necessarily N or ~N and that these possibilities exclude your options.

    If someone would like to refute Western theism, they would probably be better off attacking something like Thomas Aquinas' analogia entis argument (that despite the fact that God is the sort of thing for which neither N nor ~N apply, one can still make provisional predications about God because there is an analogical relationship between attributes as they are manifested by an ineffable indescribable God and attributes as they are manifested by a finite being, allowing intelligible speech about God which is supposed to occur "by analogy" rather than direct predication) rather than simply dismissing logical systems in which LEM is not an axiom as inherently irrational. The latter just looks like cognitive imperialism, an attempt to evaluate a statement within a non-LEM logical system in terms of a LEM logical system.

    Historically, adherents of the apophatic tradition tend either to Wittgensteinian silence or to a rhetorical practice of "unsaying" (see Michael Sells' "Mystical Languages of Unsaying" for more about this practice). This practice recognizes that in denying a predicate of God and then subsequently denying the denial of the predicate, one is caught in an infinite regress and must continually "unsay" if one wishes not to remain silent. It's an interesting read.

  • Keith Parsons


    My criticism of Mr. Wallace is not that he ignores the LEM. Of course there are deviant logics that do not have the LEM as an axiom. Such logics may have their uses (but note Quine's critique in his Philosophy of Logic).

    No, my point is that in denying that anything can be affirmed or denied of God, Mr. Wallace appears to imply that there is no concept of God. To specify any conceptual content, something has to be affirmed or denied. The only linguistic tools we have to pick out meanings or ideas are declarative sentences that name a subject and affirm or deny some predicate of that subject. To repudiate these tools is to repudiate intelligibility–a consequence Mr. Wallace seems to accept.

    In that case, however, I have to wonder how different Mr. Wallace's view is from Kai Nielsen's atheistic critique. Nielsen has long argued that theism must be rejected because the concept of God is unintelligible. Wallace is at pains to deny that he is a Dawkins-style atheist, but he appears to be a Nielsen-style one.

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