Course notes on Religious Language for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the Paper 1 syllabus:

4.1 Analogy and Symbol

Analogy: via negativa, knowledge about God may be gained by what God is not like, univocal language and problems of anthropomorphism, equivocal language and problems of attribution, significance of proportional similarities and dissimilarities.  

With reference to the ideas of Aquinas.  

b)  Symbol: types of symbol across a range of religious traditions, distinction between signs and symbols, symbols identifying and participating in a concept. Problems interpreting symbols and their limited application to a particular faith context.

With reference to the ideas of P Tillich
4.2 Verification and falsification debates

  a) Context of Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle, analytic and synthetic statements, implications for the claim that religious language is meaningless; view that religious claims are false because nothing can count against them; ‘bliks’ as unfalsifiable ways of framing our interpretation of the world compared to beliefs that are significant articles of faith which may be significantly challenged but not easily abandoned.

b) Strengths and weakness of these approaches, including realist and anti-realist views and eschatological verification.

With reference to the ideas of A J Ayer and B Mitchell.
4.3 Language games  

a) Critique of picture theory, functional uses of language in the context of a form of life. Non-cognitive interpretation of language and criteria of coherence in the relevant language game, highlights the distinctive character of religious language, significance of fideism in this context – language can only be understood in the context of faith.

With reference to the ideas of L Wittgenstein and D Phillips.

NOTE: the contrast between analytic and synthetic statements has been previously explained HERE.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • One key issue as far as this topic is concerned is whether religious language is what is known as ‘cognitively meaningful’.
  • Cognitive sentences are those about which it is appropriate to ask whether they are true or false – ‘Berlin is the capital of France’ is a false but cognitive statement. As far as religious sentences/statements are concerned, some philosophers (and philosophical schools) have argued that they are cognitively meaningless e.g. the Logical Positivists (who are described below). This is because the truth claims presented in them are incapable of being shown to be true or false.
  • Non-cognitive sentences are those about which it is inappropriate to ask whether the content is are true or false e.g. jokes, poems, exclamations, expletives etc. Another good example would be a novel. To ask whether a novel is true or false is simply to ask the wrong type of question (though, of course, novels and poetry can be based on fact or contain factual information).
  • If religious sentences/statements are essentially non-cognitive, then it may not be straightforward to regard their content as being cognitively meaningless or non-verifiable.
  • Religious language can also be regarded as realist where it is understood to be making assertions about religious realities in a manner that is the same as that made in ordinary factual claims e.g. where the claim that ‘God exists’ is meant to be understood in the same way as the claim that ‘dogs exist’. Contrastingly, religious language can be regarded as anti-realist when it is understood to be not being used in a factual or literal manner to refer to something that may exist in reality. Symbolic or metaphorical religious language would be an example. This distinction is important because if most (or all) religious statements are being deployed in an anti-realist manner then they are not susceptible to being verified or falsified in the way that ordinary factual claims are (see the section below on this).
  • When a statement is understood to be being made in a realist manner, the assumption is that it is also cognitively meaningful, as it is capable of being proved factually true or false (it can be verified or falsified).
  • When a statement is understood to be being made in an anti-realist manner, the assumption is that it is also non-cognitive in nature but not cognitively meaningless, as it is not a statement that can be proved to be factually true or false.
  • A further issue is whether (and in what way) words can be used to describe God.

The Via Negativa (Apophatic Way) : Is it better to say what God is not rather than what He is?

  • This is often associated with a 5th Century C.E. writer called Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart ( c. 1260 – c. 1328) and the Jewish writer Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).
  • It’s also very much a feature of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and early Taoism in terms of their conceptions of Ultimate Reality e.g. A famous phrase to describe Brahman in the Hindu Upanishads is ‘neti, neti’ (‘not this, not this’).
  • The via negativa tends to involve an experience of God or Ultimate Reality that is ineffable – too extraordinary to be described in ordinary language.
  • It is also an argument in the sense that it claims that we can say nothing positive about God because we cannot begin to comprehend him. All we can do is say what God is not.
  • For Pseudo-Dionysius, God is ‘beyond assertion’.
  • For Moses Maimonides (author of ‘Guide For The Perplexed’) the via negativa preserves the dignity of God – making positive statements about him is improper and disrespectful and brings God down to a human level (anthropomorphism).
  • Maimonides uses the example of finding out what a ship is like by only being told what it is not e.g. that it is not a plant, that it is not round or flat.
  • Given enough of this negative information, Maimonides argues that one would eventually arrive at the concept of a ship, even if one had never seen a ship. Likewise, it is possible to come closer to knowledge of God through a consideration of what He is not.
  • BUT: it is surely by no means certain that that a person completely ignorant about ships will eventually arrive at an understanding of what a ship is by Maimonides’ method.
  • AND: a ship is a worldly object, and if it is hard enough to gain this understanding through a negative route for something like this, it must be even harder (and perhaps impossible) to arrive at knowledge of God through this process.
  • ALTHOUGH : perhaps those who support the via negativa do so because – since conceptualisations cannot grasp the essence of God – the mind is eventually reduced to a silence through this exercise, into which God might eventually enter. In this sense the Apophatic Way might be seen as a form of spiritual practice like prayer or repeating a mantra rather than some kind of philosophical argument about the best way to think about God. Instead, it is meant to evoke a religious experience.
  • NEVERTHELESS: the via negativa conflicts with the way in which religious people usually speak of God. For example, the Bible is full of positive statements about God and theists usually seek positive knowledge of what God is like. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are also founded on what are regarded as, in some sense, written revelations from God, which make the via negativa less compatible with them than with the Eastern world views mentioned above.
  • For example, Kaiten Nukariya’s Religion of the Samurai refers to Buddhist scripture as ‘waste paper’, preferring instead to emphasise the role of silence and mind-to-mind transmission in conveying the nature of ultimate reality in the Zen Buddhist tradition.
  • However, even religions that are centered on sacred texts recognize that there is a need to preserve the transcendence of God by acknowledging its limitations in relation to Him e.g. in the Jewish tradition by an early refusal to speak or write the name of God (Exodus 3v14).
  • NOTE ADDITIONALLY: to say what something is not may still sometimes imply something positive about God. To say, for example, that He is not ignorant, implies something positive in relation to God’s knowledge. Some negative sentences therefore might have degrees of positive entailment.
  • CONCLUSION: perhaps we need both a via negativa (to avoid anthropomorphism) and a via positiva (some content is required to religious utterances about God so that we can gain at least an inkling of what God is like and what his message is).

Aquinas and analogy: can analogies help us to understand God?

  • Maimonides was surely right to point to the dangers of thinking that God could be described in the same way as one might describe a human being.
  • However, many philosophers have tried to find a way of speaking about God in a more positive way and perhaps the most important of these was Thomas Aquinas.
  • Aquinas agreed that the Apophatic Way preserves the fact that the essence of God is unknowable.
  • He is concerned with how predicates of God which are drawn from the human realm (e.g. wise, good) work in relation to God. Are these words used in a univocal or equivocal fashion?
  • Univocal – word is used in two sentences with same meaning e.g. ‘London is a city’, ‘Manchester is a city
  • Equivocal – word is used in two sentences with an entirely different meaning e.g. ‘Barclays Bank’, ‘Bank of a river’.
  • Aquinas rejects both options: predicates of God cannot be univocal because what God is not ‘is clearer to us than what he is’? But they cannot be equivocal either because the nature of God is partly made known to us through the things we see in this world (which is consistent with what he says about Natural Law).
  • Instead Aquinas argues for a middle way: analogical predication.
  • He identifies two types of analogy – analogies of attribution (where from the health of the bull’s urine we infer that the bull is healthy, though the health of each is quite unlike the other) and analogies of proportion: we love proportionate to our nature, God loves proportionate to His.
  • In the case of analogies of attribution, the ‘wisdom’, ‘love’ and ‘goodness’ that we see in others are reflections of the properties of their creator God.
  • In the case of analogies of proportion, the meaning of the predicate changes in proportion to the nature of the being that is described. Hick uses Baron von Hugel’s example of the term ‘faithfulness’ to show this. The faithfulness of a dog is nothing like that of a human but we see enough in common to describe the dog this way. Similarly, God’s faithfulness far exceeds ours.
  • Note that the dog example is a ‘downwards’ analogy but we look upwards to God.
  • Aquinas is quite clear that his Doctrine of Analogy tells us how we are using language, not what it means.
  • A 20th Century development of the idea of analogy can be seen in the work of Ian Ramsey and is perhaps best expressed in his book Religious Language (1957). Ramsey had two key terms that he used when he talked about religious language: ‘models’ and ‘qualifiers’. A model is something that represents something else and helps us to understand the original. With respect to religious language our understanding of particular words is, according to Ramsey, the model of our understanding of God. For example, we all have some understanding of the word ‘good’ and this can provide a model for understanding God. However, if we want to understand God we need to adapt our model – we need to qualify it. So to say that ‘God is good’ we need to add the qualifier ‘infinite’. This makes God ‘infinitely good’. The effect of this qualifier, according to Ramsey, will lead us on to thinking about God’s goodness in greater and greater depth. Eventually, the ‘penny will drop’ and we will gain insight into ‘infinite goodness; we cannot express this insight (which Ramsey calls a disclosure) but it has been evoked by the qualifier. Ramsey also believed that when we gain this insight we will respond to it: it will create a sense of wonder and a sense of commitment.
  • Ramsey has been criticised on the grounds that – at the end of the day – he is not offering us anything that isn’t already found in Aquinas’s view of analogy.
  • HOWEVER: reflecting on models and quantifiers seems intended to provoke a religious experience, so perhaps Ramsey does provide us with something extra in this sense.
  • The idea of analogy has the advantages of avoiding anthropomorphism whilst helping to preserve the mystery of God.
  • BUT: Duns Scotus (1266- 1308) has argued that analogy is too vague and leaves us unable to understand God and his actions.
  • Similarly, Peter Geach has argued that we cannot judge the appropriateness of an analogy when one side of it is essentially unknown or ineffable. How can we say what God is like when we have no certain knowledge of God to judge the appropriateness of the comparison?
  • AND: the use of analogy in the cases of both Aquinas and Ramsey assumes that there is some similarity between God and humans. But if God is completely different to humans then it is hard to see how these words (or in Ramsey’s case ‘qualifiers’) can be used in a similar way.
  • HOWEVER: Hick suggests that the gap between us and God could be bridged through the Christian idea of the Incarnation: God’s nature can be known through the person of Jesus and his teachings.

Paul Tillich and Symbol Part 1: can an understanding of God be conveyed through symbols?

  • Paul Tillich (1886-1965) is the main exponent of the view that religious language is symbolic.
  • He distinguishes between a sign and a symbol.
  • A sign is simply something which indicates something else e.g. a road sign reminds us which town is ahead.
  • A symbol is an object or action which not only indicates something  but also communicates a much greater understanding of the thing than can be put into words. Or as Tillich puts it ‘a symbol unlocks something within our soul and expresses something about the ultimate’. In other words, it allows us to experience other levels of reality that are normally off limits to us.
  • For Tillich, a symbol points towards and participates in that to which it points.
  • For example, a country’s flag not only represents the nation that it stands for but is also an active participant in conveying the country’s ‘power and dignity’ (think of how this works in a World Cup year when many people fly the flag to express their patriotic spirit and confidence in the power and dignity of their national football team).
  • Since God is infinite and ultimate (Tillich refers to God as ‘being-itself’ and suggests that this is the sole non-symbolic statement that can be made about God) and faith in God is the ultimate concern, Tillich asserts that only symbolic language is sufficient to express faith and God.
  • Religious symbols are both affirmed and negated by that to which they point. For example, ‘God is love’ is true (because He is) but also false because God’s love is far more than anything we can mean by the words.
  • NOTE: this is a cognitive view of religious language. For Tillich, the symbolic nature of religious language points in the direction of a God who really exists.
  • BUT: does this view clarify how religious language is used any more than analogy? For example, ‘being-itself’ seems to be a vague term even if it is meant literally/univocally.
  • AND: as Dan Stiver has pointed out, in the second volume of his theology, Tillich himself seems to have revised his own position when he wrote that, ‘Everything we say about God is symbolic’, which could be said to confuse matters further as symbols need unpacking into something literal, otherwise we are left unable to understand what it is that is being symbolised.
  • AND: is all language about God so obviously symbolic? Some theological terms seem more technical and precise e.g. ‘omnipotence’
  • AND: for a religious believer, it seems important that God really is good not that God’s goodness symbolises something else.
  • AND: Tillich is too vague about what he means by ‘participation’. For example, Hick questions what is symbolic about the sentence ‘God is good’. Is it the whole sentence? Or is it the underlying concept of ‘goodness’ that participates in the reality of Tillich’s ‘being-itself’?
  • HOWEVER: Tillich could mean that flags carry powerful associations that cause people to experience the same flood of emotions that they would have when thinking about, for example, their nation (or national sports team in the case of World Cups).
  • AND FINALLY: J.H. Randall has argued that religious language is symbolic but non-cognitive. Religious symbols tell us a lot about the richness of our own human experience but do not necessarily tell us anything about an external reality like ‘being-itself’. In other words, symbols may represent a God who exists nowhere but in our own minds and is not really out there somewhere.

In 1987 when AJ Ayer (see below) was at a party in New York chatting with a group of designers, a woman shouted that a friend of hers was being harassed in a nearby bedroom. Ayer went in and found boxer Mike Tyson pestering Naomi Campbell, and asked him to stop.
Tyson responded by stating: “Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer retorted: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” As they argued, Campbell was able to slip away.

Verification and Falsification: Logical Positivism, the early philosophy of Wittgenstein, AJ Ayer and Karl Popper

  • The issue of verification in relation to religious statements was first raised by the Vienna Circle (a.k.a. The Logical Positivists led by Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath) in the 1920’s and 30’s. The majority of the members of this Circle were nearly all trained scientists or mathematicians and were convinced that most of the philosophers who were better known in the German speaking world at that time (e.g. Hegel) had been talking a lot of high-flown nonsense replete with truth-claims that could not be substantiated (e.g. in Hegel’s case, see his quasi-religious notion of ‘Geist’ – ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’). As well as seeking to demonstrate that these philosophers were mainly talking gibberish, the Logical Positivists were more especially concerned to establish the philosophical foundations for a scientific worldview.
  • They argued that statements were only meaningful if they could be verified by experience or were tautologies (a tautology is a statement that is true by definition e.g. ‘all widows have been married’). All other sentences are meaningless. See the section on AJ Ayer (below) for more examples.
  • This Logical Positivists were very much influenced by the earlier philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) as outlined in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Dan Stiver states that ‘it became virtually the Bible of the…movement’. The Tractatus is based around the view that the purpose of empirically grounded language is to present us with a logical picture the world, rather in which a piece of music might be represented by a written musical score. Wittgenstein is supposed to have come up with this view when reflecting on the way in which a car accident had been portrayed by dolls in a courtroom setting.
  • A key emphasis in the Tractatus was Wittgenstein’s assertion that, ‘Everything that can be thought about at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly’. Language either speaks (or pictures) clearly, univocally, or it does not speak. A related idea was expressed in the final sentence of the book: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’. ‘The limits of my language’, he thus argued, ‘mean the limits of my world.’
  • For the Vienna School, they took this to mean that only empirical propositions were cognitively meaningful.
  • Effectively, truth-claims found in the fields of aesthetics (the philosophy of art), ethics, metaphysics (the study of reality that is thought to exist beyond our senses) and religion were cognitively meaningless.
  • The force of the Logical Positivist’s position based on Wittgenstein and the verification principle is much more severe when it comes to religion than traditional atheism.
  • This is because an atheist might accept that an argument for the existence of God or the assertion that God exists is meaningful, without accepting the argument or the assertion on the grounds that there insufficient evidence to support it.
  • But for the Logical Positivists, religious beliefs do not even gain admission to any kind of arena where their truth or falsity might be debated and shown to be meaningful but false. They are simply nonsense.
  • A.J. Ayer was an English philosopher who was very much influenced by the Logical Positivists (and by the early philosophy of Wittgenstein – see below) and introduced the English speaking world to their ideas.
  • In his book Language, Truth and Logic – which was published in 1936 and was a bestseller – he defended the verification principle outlined in the second bullet point.
  • In other words, for any sentence, the main questions to ask about it are: 1) Is it true by definition? 2) Is it empirically verifiable? If it is neither, it is meaningless. An example of a meaningful statement that is true by definition would be ‘A spinster is an unmarried female’. An example of an empirically verifiable statement might be ‘Some philosophers are spinsters.’ It isn’t part of the definition of a philosopher that some of them are unmarried women. But a survey of a sufficient number of philosophers should show that at least some of them are single. So the statement is both empirically verifiable (evidence can be looked for to establish its truth or falsity) and it is likely to to be true.
  • He also made a distinction between strong verification (which is unachievable as no sense experience can be conclusive) and weak verification which argues that one must be able to state what experiences would make a statement probable.
  • Religious statements were held to be unverifiable and therefore meaningless. According to Ayer, ‘There is a God’, ‘There is no God’, ‘Is there a God?’ would all be meaningless according to the verification principle. The same also applied to ethical statements (see the course notes for Meta-Ethics) and aesthetic judgements (e.g. Ed Sheeran is a good songwriter).
  • BUT : while Ayer’s book and Logical Positivism initially had a profound impact in academia, it was not necessarily a positive one. In his book Confessions of a Philosopher, Bryan Magee commented as follows (the important sections are highlighted in bold):

‘Rather like Marxism, it had seductive appeal and therefore an enormous vogue because it was clear-cut, easy to grasp, and provided all the answers . Like Marxism too, it constituted a ready-to-hand instrument of intellectual terrorism. At the university [Oxford] in which I arrived as a freshman in 1949 there were many who prided themselves on their mastery of it for this purpose. Almost regardless of what anyone said to them on any subject they would run him through with a ‘How would you go about verifying that statement?’ …. A lot of excited discussion took place on the basis of it – and to give it its due, it did have the effect of clearing away a lot of woolly thinking, and of giving people an altogether new alertness to the logical status of what it was they were saying.

However, the more it itself was subject to critical examination, the more trouble it ran into. The Verification Principle was neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, and therefore, according to its own criterion, it was meaningless. Furthermore, philosophical statements generally tended to be of this kind, neither tautological nor empirically verifiable, so the Verification Principle had the effect of outlawing more or less the whole of philosophy apart from logic. Once people ceased to be cowed they stopped agreeing that value judgements such as ‘Toscanini was a better orchestral conductor than Edward Heath’ were empty of cognitive significance, or that statements about events in the past turned out, on analysis, to be statements about the presently available evidence for their having occurred. People began to realize that this glittering new scalpel was, in one operation after another, killing the patient. In every case it destroyed too much. There was a period when in which several of the cleverest philosophers became reluctant to say anything at all, because almost nothing that might be deemed to be worth saying was, unless it was factually provable, permissible.

The logical positivists conceded the existence of other forms of discourse besides those of science, but they tended, or tried, to evaluate them by the standards of science. And in Oxford, at least, the most influential rebellion against the hegemony of logical positivism, when it finally came, took the form of rejecting the view that that all meaningful utterance about the world ought to approximate to scientific utterance. The counter-assertion was that there were many different and useful ways of talking about the world and our experience of it, each of which had a raison d’etre of its own.

From this it seemed to follow that that the right way of distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless was not by blanket application of a single criterion but by the carrying out of separate and careful analyses of the way different, or even sometimes the same, concepts functioned in different areas of human thought and activity, to see what the legitimate uses were to which they could be put in each separate case. If you found that the way a concept was being used in a certain context would have been legitimate only in a different one, then you had before you an example of conceptual confusion which was soluble, or dissoluble, by conceptual analysis. This became the basic approach (indeed the whole conception of philosophy) of linguistic analysis, which usurped the throne of logical positivism as the reigning orthodoxy in Oxford while I was there, so I lived through the changeover.’

  • SO : the verification principle is itself unverifiable and therefore meaningless by its own rules.
  • AND: it seems to be too strong for not only is religious language outlawed but also a good deal of what human beings speak and write would be too e.g. poetic and metaphorical language would have to be considered meaningless according to Ayer’s criteria. Moreover, it makes ethical judgements simply a matter of personal feeling (see your course notes on Meta-Ethics for more on this, specifically Ayer’s theory of emotivism).
  • Significantly, the Vienna School seemed to have misunderstood a similar and crucial point that Wittgenstein had made towards the end of the Tractatus when he stated that, ‘We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.’ ‘They are what is mystical.’ ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.
  • What Wittgenstein was getting at here was that univocal language can only be meaningfully deployed to make clear statements about the empirical world or statements containing logic that was necessarily true.
  • But all the issues that matter to us the most – questions about ethics, morals, values, the meaning of life, the nature of the self and death, and so on – are ones that cannot be dealt with through the medium of propositional language, and so the best we can do is remain silent about them. In other words, Wittgenstein was taking a low view of science, as he believed that the most important things in life cause merely empirical language to pale into insignificance when set alongside them. This probably explains why the Vienna Circle could not comprehend what Wittgenstein was up to when he read poetry to them in their meetings.
  • Logical Positivism was challenged by Karl Popper in Logik der Forschung (1934). Note that Popper’s book actually preceded Ayer’s but took a while to become known in the UK.
  • Popper notes that we do not learn by continually trying to find sentences true but by attempting to falsify the claims within them in order to produce better hypotheses.
  • This is particularly important when it comes to scientific method. Science progresses not by trying to prove hypotheses about the world to be true beyond all doubt but when it shows that previously held scientific views of reality are mistaken, or contain errors that leave them needing to be improved.
  • The mark of genuine science is therefore that it is highly falsifiable.
  • Remember that Popper’s claim is that while scientific theories can be decisively falsified, they can never be conclusively verified. No amount of confirmation can ever validate the absolute truth of a hypothesis. So in this science, the truth of science always remains provisional.
  • Popper thought that many statements made about psychoanalysis were unfalsifiable because they could not be tested and proven to be true or false.
  • For example, Freudian psychoanalysis maintains that we are motivated by unconscious desires and wishes. But there is no way to prove this scientifically.
  • And a psychoanalyst might simply consider someone who did not believe in the unconscious mind and its effects on our behaviour to be harbouring a strong unconscious desire to rebel against the authority of their own father, a claim that is again, unfalsifiable.
  • If Popper were alive today, he would almost certainly consider Young Earth Creationism to be unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific because no evidence can count against it e.g. fossils do not prove that earth is much older than Creationists claim it is but represent a test of faith from God. Creationists should instead believe the Bible, which proves that the earth has only existed for thousands of years because that is how long it takes (by their calculations) to get from the creation of Adam to the present time.
  • Contrastingly, Einstein’s hypothesis that light would be attracted by the sun was falsifiable and therefore scientific. In fact, it was validated by observations of a solar eclipse made in 1919.
  • But not being falsifiable does not make a sentence cognitively meaningless – it is just not science.
  • However, the history of science sometimes indicates that sometimes it is better to persist with a hypothesis that appears to have been falsified. For example, Copernicus’s Sun-centered model of the universe maintained that the size of Venus, as seen from the earth, would vary during the year. Initially, observations made at the time did not confirm this. However, Copernicus’s theory was not abandoned and eventually shown to be correct.
  • AND : critics of Popper, such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Fyerabend, came to reject the idea that there exists a single method that is applicable to all science and that could also account for its historical progress.
  • For example, in the 1960s Thomas Kuhn, a Harvard physicist and historian of science, introduced the idea of scientific revolutions.  Science, Kuhn argued, did not progress with each theory steadily building on the one before through a process of falsification.  Instead, every so often, a whole theory would be demolished and completely replaced by a new one. The new ‘paradigm’ (meaning way of looking at the world) may not contain any of the ideas of the old one.  For example, one complete ‘paradigm shift’ took place when Newton’s laws about how and why things moved completely replaced the ideas of Aristotle. After a new paradigm had finally been adopted, enough stability was restored for scientists to do ‘normal science’. 

Further developments

  • In 1955, a conference took place and the effects of it resonated within the field of the philosophy of religion for the next 25 years. Published in the journal University, it eventually became referred to as the University debate. The three main speakers all deployed parables to convey their different reflections on the legacy of logical positivism and its implications for religious language.
  • Anthony Flew issued a challenge to believers that they forever modify their view of God so that He ‘dies the death of a thousand qualifications’ and asks whether anything could count against their beliefs. In other words, without necessarily being aware of it, their faith causes them to adopt a perspective that for them is unfalsifiable. In support of this claim, Flew cited John Wisdom’s parable of the gardener.
  • “Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, ‘It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.’ The other disagrees and an argument ensues. They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer remains unconvinced, and insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The sceptic doesn’t agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all.”
  • Flew is portraying people who believe in God as never letting anything truly count against their faith and who try to avoid recognising this by continually altering their idea of God.
  • However, Flew seems to overlook the fact that many believers do abandon their religious faith. Famous examples include Joseph Fletcher (the founder of Situation Ethics), Richard Dawkins (who was brought up as an Anglican), and comedian Ricky Gervais (who abandoned Christianity at the age of eight but went on to study Philosophy at University). So Flew’s claim cannot be treated as a universal one.
  • He also limits the boundaries of debate by only permitting empirical evidence for the existence or non-existence of a designing gardener as valid. However, it is rare for the claim to be made in Christian theology that God is empirically discernible. Additionally, Anselm’s ontological argument, one which is still extensively discussed in the present day, would fall outside this boundary.
  • R.M. Hare argues in favour of bliks, unfalsifiable and unverifiable beliefs (hence non-cognitive) which nevertheless profoundly impact the nature of people’s lives and fundamentally structure the way in which they see reality.
  • For Hare, bliks are meaningful in this sense. But no reasons or evidence can be given for them.
  • One example (not given by Hare) is this: someone might claim that killing is wrong because they hold a religious belief in the sanctity of life. This is arguably a blik of the kind envisaged by Hare if it is an ultimate belief for which no further justification be given.
  • Hare himself gives the example of a student who believes that all the dons are out to kill him.
  • We all have bliks. The only difference between ourselves and the student is that his blik is insane and therefore incorrect while those who are not paranoid about dons have a blik which is correct. As Hare puts it, ‘It is important to realize that we have a sane one, not no blik at all; for there must be two sides to any argument – if he has a wrong blik, then those who are right about dons must have a right one.’
  • A strength of Hare’s argument is that can help to explain why some beliefs are maintained by a frequently vocal minority that the rest of us find perplexing e.g. QAnon supporters, climate change sceptics, Holocaust deniers, Anti-vaxxers, Creationist Christians, and so on.
  • BUT: if one blik is better than another, but is not amenable to empirical verification or falsification, then bliks are ultimately not susceptible to any kind of convincing proof. This actually seems to weaken Hare’s position whilst supporting that of Flew, as bliks then seem to liable to endless qualification precisely in the manner noted by Flew.
  • Hick has subsequently objected that it makes no sense to call a blik sane or insane: the claim for a blik is that nothing can count for or against it, so a judgement about sanity makes no sense.
  • Basil Mitchell contends that religious sentences are cognitive, even though we may not be in a position to verify them.
  • He begins by observing that there is ‘… something odd about his [Flew’s] conduct of the theologian’s case. The theologian would surely not deny that the fact of pain counts against the assertion that God loves men. This very incompatibility generates the most intractable of theological problems – the problem of evil. So the theologian does recognize the fact of pain as counting against Christian doctrine. But it is true that he will not allow it – or anything – to count decisively against it; for he is committed by his faith to trust in God. His attitude is not that of the detached observer, but of the believer.’
  • Mitchell gives the example of a partisan who meets a stranger who claims to be the leader of the resistance. ‘The Stranger’ urges the partisan to believe in him even though the evidence for this is ambiguous – at times, he subsequently seems like a collaborator with the enemy. There are also occasions when the partisan requests help from the Stranger and receives it, but also ones where he does not. When help is not forthcoming, the partisan concludes that ‘The Stranger knows best.’
  • Mitchell completes his discussion of his parable by asking: ‘When the partisan asks for help and doesn’t get it, what can he do? He can a) conclude that the stranger is not on our side or; b) maintain that he is on our side, but that he has reasons for withholding help. The first he will refuse to do. How long can he uphold the second position without its becoming silly? I don’t think one can say in advance.’
  • Mitchell therefore argues that we accept that there is evidence against belief but that we have a reason for it – a belief about the character of the Stranger.
  • His parable also suggests that the religious believer may have his faith verified or falsified in the future.
  • Hick has subsequently picked up on this point and commented on the parable by arguing that a) the stranger presumably does know whether he is telling the truth and b) when the war is over the truth will emerge (Hick here is anticipating his own notion of eschatological verification).
  • In his own theological writing, John Hick deploys the parable of the Celestial City.
  • In this parable, a theist and an atheist are both walking down the same road. The theist believes there is a destination, the atheist believes there is not. If they reach the destination, the theist will have been proven right; however, if there is no destination on an endless road, this can never be verified (“Faith and Knowledge” 177-178). This is an attempt to explain how a theist expects some form of life or existence after death and an atheist does not. They both have separate belief systems and live life accordingly, but logically one is right and the other is not. If the theist is right, he will be proven so when he arrives in the afterlife. However, if the atheist is right, they will simply both be dead and nothing will be verified.
  • Given that we cannot gain advanced knowledge about whether there is an afterlife or not (unless accounts of phenomena like NDE’s are genuine), then perhaps the best position to adopt from this side of the grave might be one of agnosticism when it comes to religious statements about God and what happens after we die.
  • Comparing Mitchell with Flew and Hick, perhaps Mitchell’s parable is the one that is most in tune with our actual situation, one in which a decision has to be made in the present about whether to believe in God or not, as his portrayal of the religious context seems realistic and plausible. Contrastingly, Flew’s parable does not convey what Stiver has called ‘the existential significance and urgency of religious beliefs’ in the way that Mitchell’s allegory does, adding that, ‘Beliefs can be life altering as well as being tractable to empirical proof and disproof’. With Hick, of course, there are no grounds provided for the making of any such decision. Another weakness of Flew is that he does not seem to allow for anything to count in favour of the existence of a gardener. In terms of theism, a sense of the beauty of the apparent design of nature, instances of what are interpreted to be divine intervention such as answered prayer, and various forms of religious experience may serve this function. In Mitchell’s parable, occasions when the partisan is helped by the Stranger, or is seen helping the resistance play this role.
  • NOTE: in terms of the realist/anti-realist contrast, the Logical Positivists, Ayer and Flew all assume that religious statements are realist in nature, as do Mitchell and Hick. However, Wittgenstein never makes this assumption, and neither do Hare or Phillips.

Wittgenstein and Language Games

  • Wittgenstein eventually changed his mind about the picture theory of language and the ideas he had presented in the Tractatus.
  • The later Wittgenstein argued in Philosophical Investigations (1953) and the Blue and Brown Books (1958) that language has no general form but is a loose relation of varying linguistic practices that he called ‘language games’. Just as there are many games with their own rules, there are many areas of language which also have their own rules, each with their own standards of truth, falsity and meaning. Just think of the ‘language games’ of physics, poetry, ‘nadsat’ (from the novel and movie A Clockwork Orange), Backslang from London’s East End (e.g. ‘yob’ = ‘boy’, ‘neves’ = ‘seven’), textspeak, cricket, and so on. Each are distinctive ‘forms of life’ (to use Wittgenstein’s own phrase) and to understand them, we have to understand how language works in each case. So, for example, if we want to understand text messaging, we would have to work out what things like ‘LOL’ or ‘ROFL’ mean. Or in the case of nadsat (the language used in the novel and movie A Clockwork Orange) we would have to try to understand what words like ‘droog’ or ‘viddy’ mean by studying how they are used. The meaning of a word or phrase is therefore revealed not through what it pictures but by how it gets deployed within a community or participants in the ‘game’.
  • Words do not have absolute meanings, only the meanings they have within the game being played by those who are playing it (think about the word ‘wicked’, for example, and how it can positive and negative meanings within different language games – ‘Osama bin Laden was wicked’, ‘That goal by Aguero was wicked’). And because they do not have absolute meanings, we are in no position to make judgements about whether the way the language is used is right or wrong, or good or bad.
  • There are only the games: to try to get outside them would simply be to play another game.
  • These language games do not reflect reality – they make it.
  • So religious language takes place within its own game or games and the task of philosophy is not to solve philosophical problems as these problems only happen because people get confused about how language is being used. Instead a philosophers’ job is to clarify or describe how language is being used in each case and nothing more in order to clear up any confusions that arise when language games and those that ‘play’ them come into contact. Or as Wittgenstein put it, philosophy ‘leaves everything as it is’.
  • This means that when Christians write or state that ‘God is love’, for example, all we can do is look at how this particular group of Christians are using the word ‘love’. We are in no position to criticise these Christians if we think that God is not loving or might not even exist because they are not using the word ‘love’ in that way. For them, the game is not about truth or falsity. It is about expressing their deeply felt faith about what they think that God is like.
  • Another good example would be Richard Dawkins who could be said by those who agree with Wittgenstein to mistakenly think that when religious believers use religious language, they are using it in the same way that scientists use language to talk about the truth or falsity of a scientific theory. But it is doubtful that religious believers do regard the language of their beliefs this way. As we saw above, as they already have faith, religious language for them might be a particular expression of their way of life rather than a set of beliefs about the world that may be true or false.
  • To reiterate, philosophy for Wittgenstein is therefore not about solving philosophical problems like whether we have free will or what the meaning of life is. By ‘leaving everything as it is’, philosophy simply points out how language is being used in different situations to clear up confusions that might have arisen from collisions between language games. In a sense, then, Wittgenstein thought that there were no real philosophical problems to solve.
  • Note that this makes Wittgenstein very different from Ayer and Flew. They think that there is only one way language can be meaningful: if it is factually significant. From a Wittgensteinian point of view, they too are making the mistake of treating statements from one language game (expressions of religious faith) as if they came from another (descriptions of the world). In other words, they, like Dawkins, are treating religious talk as if it were scientific thought and as if it is something that might be true or false.
  • Science and religion therefore involve very different language games; they are not necessarily in competition with each other and neither can solve the problems of the other.
  • NOTE: Wittgenstein never referred to religion as a language game.
  • It is rather, later philosophers like DZ Phillips who have built on Wittgenstein’s position to argue something similar, namely, that it is wrong to see religion as consisting of a set of theories about the world. For Phillips, religion is an expression of human needs, values and desires. As such, and as has already been stated above, the religious language game cannot be judged by the standards of another language game such as science, as its crucial terms (like God, salvation, miracle, prayer) are not being used in a scientific way. For example, a sceptic might look at the content of prayers and argue that it is impossible to prove that praying works. However, a Wittgensteinian philosopher like Phillips would say that the language of prayer is not being thought about like this by the person praying. Instead, prayer when it is used, should be understood as an expression of the need to ask God for something, to confess something, thank God for something, and so on.
  • Phillips has been accused of attempting to protect religion from all criticism. For example, Kai Neilsen has argued that Wittgenstein (but more particularly Phillips’s) views are fideistic. Fideism is the position that belief rests on faith rather than reason and therefore does not need to be justified. For Neilsen, just because religious language is used in a certain way does not mean that it cannot be criticised or exposed as incoherent. For example, even within religious discourse, the language game revolving around fairies has been abandoned because people eventually began to give up believing in them.
  • A further problem with language game theory is that ethical criticism becomes suspended. For example, most of us would probably wish to condemn the practice of paedophilia. And if we do, then ‘philosophy’ cannot or should not ‘leave everything as it is’ as Wittgenstein claims.
  • However, while a fideist might be said to be defending something from philosophical attack, if Phillips is properly applying Wittgenstein’s ideas about language games to religion, then he could be said to be not defending anything but simply describing and clarifying how religious language is being used in a certain situation.
  • A more serious criticism of Phillips and the Wittgensteinian position on religious language is that religious believers do tend to think of God as an independently existing supernatural being who may or may not answer prayers. They also really do think of the Last Judgement as a future event that is of great importance and that will really take place one day.
  • So making religious statements does seem to involve making claims about what does and does not exist.
Derek Jarman’s film Wittgenstein is a rather off-the-wall take on this great philosopher but it is entertaining. This clip shows him teaching (I gather that his students did sit in deckchairs in his classes). The other two older adults who appear in this scene are playing Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes.

Tillich and Symbolism Part 2 : Tillich and JH Randall

Buy The Plague by Albert Camus With Free Delivery |

When Tillich says that religious language is symbolic in the way that art is he means something like this:

  • If you imagine an iceberg, most of it lies hidden. It is only partly visible to approaching ships.
  • Similarly, really good art has hidden depths of meaning. For example, Albert Camus’ novel The Plague seems to be about an outbreak of bubonic plague hitting the town of Oran. But the plague itself was meant to symbolise things like the Nazi occupation of France and the fact that in the modern world we are ‘plagued’ by the fact that life has no obvious meaning or purpose (unless you are religious). In other words, there are hidden depths of meaning in famous novels like this.
  • For Tillich, religious language is also symbolic in this way: it has hidden depths of meaning that lead to ‘being-itself’, a phrase which seems to represent Tillich’s rather vague concept of God. This idea of ultimate reality seems to be at least partly ineffable, which is why an understanding of it can only be communicated through symbolic language.
  • JH Randall has proposed a similar view of religious language but thinks that it just shows how rich and deep our imaginations are. There is no independent reality called ‘God’ that exists outside of our imaginations.
  • So it seems that for Tillich, religious language is symbolic and cognitive but for Randall it is symbolic but non-cognitive.
  • But although they seem to draw very different conclusions from their ideas, Randall commented after meeting Tillich that ‘After long discussions, Mr Tillich and I have found we are very close to agreement.’
  • This close agreement might account for the curious statement Tillich made in the second volume of his theology noted by Stiver (see Part 1 above), in which he seems to have departed from his earlier position and implies that – if all language about God is symbolic – that such language is non-cognitive.
  • This makes it very difficult to draw any conclusions: perhaps the best we can say is that one or both of these philosophers seem to be writing about religious language in a very opaque manner.
  • However, it is possible that religious believers might agree that the language in their sacred texts is at least partly symbolic but in a much different kind of way than that suggested by Tillich. Consider this monologue from the main character in Mike Leigh’s famous movie Naked:

“Are you not familiar with the Revelations of Saint John, the final book of the bible, prophesizing the apocalypse? He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to sell unless he has out that mark which is the name of the beast and the number of his name and the number is six, six, six.
What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark?
Well the mark is the bar-code. The ubiquitous bar-code that you’ll find on every (something) and every (packet of jonnies) and every (poxy-pork-pie). And every bar-code is divided into two sections by three markers and those markers are always represented by the number six. Six, six, six!
And what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark.
And what they’re planning to do, in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society…what they’re planning to do and they’ve already tested it on the American troops, they’re going to subcutaneously laser-tattoo that mark onto your right hand or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh!
In the same book of Revelations, when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow their trumpets, when the third angel blows her trumpet, wormwood will fall from the sky and wormwood will poison a third part of the waters and a third part of all the land and many, many, many, many people will die.
And you know what the Russian translation of wormwood is? Chernobyl!
On August the eighteenth, nineteen ninety-nine, the planets of our solar system are going to line up into the shape of a cross.
They’re going to line up in the big signs of Taurus, Leo, Aquarius, and Scorpio which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the apocalypse as mentioned in the book of Daniel. “

Here the symbolic language of the books of Revelations and Daniel is being decoded and related to real events in history and features of modern life. And it seems to be serving a much cruder purpose, which is to show that the Bible contains prophecies about the future. This is very different from Tillich’s view and suggests that Tillich’s theory does not even properly explain Biblical passages about which there is already some agreement that the language being used is symbolic.