Swinburne’s Case for God – Part 4

Does the utterance of the words ‘God exists’ amount to a meaningful utterance? Does this utterance express a statement?  Two considerations support the claim that this is a meaningful utterance:
1. ‘God exists’ is a grammatical sentence.
2. The word ‘exists’ has an established meaning.

The main question to consider is whether the word ‘God’ has a meaning.

Many utterances of the form ‘X exists’ are obviously meaningful utterances that express a statement:

  • Chickens exist.
  • The Earth exists.
  • Oxygen exists.

Plenty of false and implausible statements are of this form:

  • Unicorns exist.
  • Ghosts exist.
  • ESP exists.

But such false and implausible assertions, are still utterances of meaningful sentences.  In fact, we can know such assertions to be false or implausible only because we understand what they mean.

But what about the word ‘God’? Does this word have an established meaning? 

No doubt the word ‘God’ is a bit unclear apart from some context.  There are a diversity of views and beliefs about ‘God’ and about religion among human beings.  But if the assertion ‘God exists’ is placed in the context of traditional Jewish or Christian religious belief and theology, then that narrows the possible meanings considerably.

There is a core concept behind the term ‘God’ that provides an initial clarification of this term:

Definition 1:  Something is God if and only if it is the only perfect person.

This definition is somewhat unclear, but it seems to me to be clear enough to show that the utterance of the words ’God exists’ in the context of traditional Jewish or Christian belief/theology is a meaningful utterance that expresses a statement.

This concept of God is somewhat unclear and problematic because the word ‘perfect’ is a normative term, and given the diversity of norms and values among human beings, it is less than obvious what would constitute a perfect person.  However, the unclarity and ambiguity here is not so extreme that we have no idea what the phrase ‘perfect person’ means.

In any case, in the context of traditional Jewish and Christian belief, we have a pretty good idea of some of the implications of the idea of a ‘perfect person’ and can cash out this concept in somewhat less problematic terms:

Definition 2: Something is God if and only if it is the only person who has unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, and unlimited freedom.

This definition contains the divine attributes that Swinburne sees as the core divine attributes.  Other divine attributes are inferred from these core attributes. 

These core divine attributes are not perfectly clear; each of these attributes is itself in need of careful definition, if one is to think clearly about the existence or nature of God.  But  one does not need to acheive the crystal clear conception of a philosopher of religion in order to understand the meaning of ‘God exists’.  Clarification is an iterative process, and a learning process that requires time and effort.  One must start somewhere, and it seems to me that Definition 2 provides a good starting point for thinking about ‘God’ and the assertion ‘God exists’.

If one does not buy Swinburne’s attempt to derive the divine attribute of perfect goodness from the three divine attributes in Definition 2, then we can just modify the definition to specify this other attribute:

Definition 3: Something is God if and only if it is the only person who has unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, unlimited freedom, and is perfectly good.

There is enough meaning and clarity here to start engaging in intellectual enquiry into the question ‘Does God exist?’, and that implies that the words ‘God exists’ make a meaningful sentence that expresses a claim or statement, an idea that is true or false, accurate or inaccurate, probable or improbable, supported by available evidence or not supported by available evidence.

The divine attribute of ‘perfect goodness’ brings back the issue of normative concepts (i.e. moral goodness).  Human beings hold a diversity of beliefs and values concerning morality and ethics, so the attribute of  ’perfect goodness’ brings some unclarity and ambiguity into the concept of ‘God’.  One can choose, like Dawkins does, to simply cut out the normative aspect of the concept, and define ‘God’ in purely descriptive terms (e.g. as the creator or cause of the universe), but this is a significant departure from the concept of God in traditional Jewish and Christian religious belief and theology.  So, I prefer to maintain the normative aspect of the concept, and to remain cautious and aware of the problematic and ambiguous nature of general normative concepts like ‘moral goodness’.

Perhaps it is best to think about the assertion that ‘God exists’ as a mixed claim that makes both a descriptive claim, and a normative one:

Definition 4:  Something is God if and only if
(a) it is the only person who has who has unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, and unlimited freedom, AND
(b) that person is also perfectly good.

This definition might not be satisfactory as a technical definition for professional philosophers, but it is sufficient to show that the utterance of the words ‘God exists’ constitute a meaningful sentence that expresses a statement.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13590531184544289491 David Evans

    How do these definitions relate to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, often stated as "three persons in one God"? Your use of "only" may be problematic here.

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

    David Evans said…
    How do these definitions relate to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, often stated as "three persons in one God"? Your use of "only" may be problematic here.
    ==========
    Response:
    Good point.

    The Trinity is something that Swinburne stumbles over at various points in his books The Coherence of Theism and The Existence of God.

    The use of the phrase 'the only person…' is mine, not Swinburne's. But I don't think Swinburne has figured out a good way to define 'God' to avoid the conflict between trinitarian and non-trinitarian concepts of God.

    If one is to argue for monotheism as opposed to polytheism, some sort of constraint needs to be made so that the concept of 'God' is a name that refers to just one being.

    I'm no expert on the various theological theories on the Trinity, but the basic idea is that God is three persons in one being. On its face, this seems to imply that God is NOT a person, but rather an odd conglomeration of persons.

    It is hard to make sense of the idea of three persons constituting a single being, but even if that can be spelled out in a coherent way, it looks like a straightforward contradiction to assert that three persons can also be one person at the same time. If God is three persons, then God is not one person, and there would be three persons who have unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, unlimited freedom, who were perfectly good, and that sounds like polytheism to me.

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

    In The Existence of God, 2nd ed., Swinburne makes the following comments:

    "Theism postulates God as a person with intentions, beliefs, and basic powers…" (p.97)

    "…theism postulates a God who is just one person, not many." (p.97)

    So, the sort of concern that David raises with my definitions of 'God', can be raised with how Swinburne characterizes 'theism', and 'God'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02010626879168843552 Unknown

    The sentence “God exists” is a grammatical correct sentence. However it is tautological, in that it is redundant. Kant stated that existence is not a predicate. Therefore, saying God exists does not bring any meaning to God or add any information to God. God exists is not testable.
    Most statements of the form “S is p” are true if and only if there is something in the world that is picked out by the name S, and the thing picked out by the name S satisfies the description “is p”. (Holt) “God exists” would be true if and only if there is something in the world that is picked out by the name God and that thing satisfies the description “exists”. Consider the analysis of the truth-condition of “God exists”: there is something in the world that is picked out by the name God and that thing satisfies the description “exists”. The second clause of this analysis appears to be redundant. “There is something in the world that is picked out by the name God and that thing satisfies the description exists” says nothing more than “There is something in the world that is picked out by the name God. Why do we need the addition “and that thing satisfies the description exists”? (Holt)
    Works cited:
    Holt, Tim. “Existence is not a Predicate”, Philosophy of Religion. n.p. 2008. Web. 07 March 2012


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