"God" is an incoherent term
"Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave [a] —what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.
Previously, I've shown that references to the supernatural are necessarily incoherent:
It is equally true that attempts to provide an ontology for 'god' necessarily lead to
incoherence - any attempt to define something in a wholly negative sense, devoid of a universe of discourse, leads to incoherence. Additionally, any attempt to define an entity with a set of contradictory or self exclusionary concepts leads to incoherence. Attempts to define 'god' often commit both existential errors.
Attempts to provide secondary attributes to 'god' (i.e., positive attributes such as 'the creator of the universe) lead to a second problem: external contradiction. The attempt leads to a set of attributes that are impossible to reconcile with each other, or impossible to reconcile with accepted features of our universe.
I will provide examples of each sort of incoherence.
(Note: This entry relies on Anthony Flew's arguments from Does God Exist, 1993) Arguments used: Non cognitivism and The Problem of Evil)
Incoherence of the First Sort - The Ontological Dilemma
A specific example of this first sort of incoherence can be seen in Swinburne's preliminary definition of 'god' in his ironically entitled: The Coherence of Theism:
"('god') is a person without body who is eternal, free, able to do anything (except what can't be done, of course... and who 'decides what can't be done?) knows everything (such as what it feels like to fail?); is perfectly good (according to what standard?), is the 'proper object of human worship and obedience" (which leads to the question as to whether humans ought to worship anything or whether an intelligent creator would need or even want to be worshiped.), the creator and sustainer of the universe. (p. 1)
Later, Swinburne states that "Human persons have bodies: he ('god') does not. (p. 51). In order to more fully develop this idea, Swinburne tells us that "We learn to apply the term 'person' to various individuals around us in virtue of their possession of the characteristics which I have outlined. (p 102).
But if persons really are beings possessing bodies, rather than simply 'being a body', then as Anthony Flew notes, it would be sensible to talk of a 'whole body amputation' - i.e. we would be able to talk about persons as real entities (and not merely a hypothetical or a memory), devoid of any physical form. How can the concept of a 'person without a body' stand in as a coherent reference?
The term 'incorporeal persons' is as oxymoronic as 'immaterial substance', for it contains an internal contradiction: to be a person is to exist as something, some thing, not 'no thing'. Swinburne does have a response for this argument. Interestingly, it is identical to the same sort of argument given by the standard internet apologists:
"...no one has any business to argue, just because all the so-and-sos with which they happen themselves to have been acquainted were such-and-such, that therefore such-and-suchness must be an essential characteristic of anything which is to be properly rated a 'so-and-so' (p. 54)
For those who read this, and ask: what exactly is his complaint? His complaint is basically "just because all the persons we are acquainted with were made of matter, a person should simply not make the claim that a person, by definition, must be made of matter."
It is interesting to note that rather than attempt to give us an argument for his claim: an ontology for 'incorporeal persons', Swinburne essentially whines. He simply complains that it is not a proven that a person must be material. But this response is nothing more than an attempt to run from his epistemic duty to present a justification for holding that there can be 'incorporeal persons', because, we can even agree with Swinburne for the sake of argument, and still, his argument goes nowhere. For to characterize something as incorporeal is to say nothing at all. A negative definition, devoid of any universe of discourse, is equitable with 'nothing'. Those who propose arguments that use terms like 'incorporeal persons' have an epistemic responsibility to provide an ontology for their hypothetical terms, not a whiny complaint. They must provide a set of positive attributes for their incorporeal entity, a way of identifying said 'god', of knowing just what we are talking about (other than some completely anthropomorphic, materialistic being) or concede that their term is ontologically bankrupt. Negative theologians have made this concession for centuries, in fact, it was the negative theologian who first noted the ontological dilemma entailed in all supernatural claims (See: this link)
Incoherence of the Second Sort - Internal Contradiction
An example of the second sort of incoherence would be contradictions between the secondary characteristics attributed to the christian god (omnipotence/omniscience) and with undeniable features (even by theists) of our universe. Each of these defined characteristics, taken apart, may be coherent declarations, but when these attributes are assigned to the same entity, an internal contradiction appears.
Joseph Butler's The Analogy of Religion states: "There is no need of abstruse reasonings and distinctions, to convince an unprejudiced understanding, that there is a god who made and governs the world, and will judge it in righteousness."
No need of abstruse reasonings? Well it ought to be, in fact, it must be so, if in fact this 'judge of righteousness' requires an awareness of his existence as part of salvation. Yet, how can we reconcile the idea of a just and good creator who judges his creation for being precisely as he created to be? An omnipotent, omniscient creator (leaving aside that contradiction) must necessarily be the ultimate sufficient cause of every action and every passion of every human (indeed, even the cause of the existence of action and passion). Such a creator is therefore, necessarily, a perfectly responsible creator.
Theists may balk at this claim, and ask for a reference to justify it. I offer up the argument of a little known theologian, Thomas Aquinas. He writes, in Summa contra Gentiles: ...just as god not only gave being to things when the first began, but is also, as the conserving cause of being, the cause of their being as long as they last...; so he also not only gave things their operative powers when they were first created, but is also always the cause of these things. Hence if this divine influence stopped every operation would stop. Every operation, therefore, of anything, is traced back to him as its cause. (III, 67)
So, if this perfectly responsible creator, which is necessarily perfectly responsible for every parameter of existence being precisely as it is, judges his own creation and finds it wanting, what can a sane person call this but a mockery of justice, a clear contradiction? And, furthermore, if the said 'judgment' (and we can no longer properly call it judgment) leads to an infinite torture of infinite intensity and infinite duration, what can we call this but the ultimate expression of evil?
The most common response here from the theist, is of course, "free will". Yet this cry is made in contradiction to the theist's own secondary attributes for his 'god', which necessarily lead to a perfectly responsible creator, ultimately responsible for the existence of every event. If said 'creator' created free will, shaped its parameters, along with every parameter of of the beings and the environments within which they operate, this creator's role as a perfectly responsible creator obviates 'free will'. A theist is forced to cry out 'paradox' and thus concede incoherence. In other words, a theist is forced into abstruse reasonings and distinctions....
Aquinas, again from Summa contra Gentiles, simply accepts the problem, in fact, he actively refutes those who deny it:
"God alone can move the will, as an agent, without doing violence to it... Some people... not understanding how god can cause a movement of our will in us without prejudicing the freedom of the will, have tried to explain... authoritative texts wrongly: that is, they would say that god 'works in us, to wish and to accomplish' means that he causes in use the power of willing, but not in such a way that he makes us will this or that. These people are, of course, opposed quite plainly by authoritative texts of Holy Writ. for it says in Isaiah (26:12) "Lord, you have worked all our work in us." Hence we received from god not only the power of willing but its employment also. (III
Luther also recognized the same problem:
Luther, in de Servo Arbitrio:
"I did not say 'of compulsion' ... a man without the spirit of god does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of his neck and dragged into it, like a thief or a footpad being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily (II,
However, Luther is at least compelled to respond in some fashion. His response, however, is that one ought to simply take it on faith that this somehow makes sense!
"The highest degree of faith is to believe he is just, though of His own will he makes us proper subjects for damnation and seems, (in the words of Erasmus) 'to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object of hate than for love." If I could by any means understand how this same god... can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith. (II, 7).
But what of those who further press Luther on the matter? Surely, at some point, he'd give a response. After all, as Bulter, (above) notes, There is no need of abstruse reasonings and distinctions, to convince an unprejudiced understanding, that there is a god who made and governs the world, and will judge it in righteousness." So let's see the clear, concise, non abstruse response that any 'unprejudiced' mind will gladly accept:
"It is not for us to inquire into these mysteries, but to adore them. If flesh and blood take offense here and grumble, well let them grumble; they will achieve nothing: grumbling will not change god! And however many of the ungodly stumble and depart, the elect will remain" (II, 6)
So, the response amounts to this: begging the question that this 'god' exists anyway, and special pleading the problem away. I would have to say that this response is a fine example of a 'prejudiced mind'.
Had we been able to press Luther further, no doubt his response would have been the same as his 'god's':
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "[a] Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Even the christian 'god' 'himself' is at a loss as to how to respond to the problem of evil!
1) "God" is a coherent term, and I can provide an ontology: "god is the creator of the universe" or "God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc."
I have already deal with these responses above. If this is your 'counter argument" I simply invite you to actually read my post above, again, for the first time.
2) By arguing that one cannot provide a nature for the supernatural, you are conflating (not equivocating, as erroneously claimed) two different senses of the term "nature". In the first sense 'nature' indicates the material world/natural world, in the second, 'nature' refers to identity, characteristics, attributes. Once you recognize this error, your argument fails.
Response: To have a nature is to be part of nature. This is not a fallacy of 'equivocation' (actually 'conflation') as some mistakenly believe; it's a restatement of the axiom of identity. To exist is to exist as something. We cannot refer to existence sans identity, in fact this is the very point under debate!
For this reason, it an error to believe that 'having a nature' and 'being a part of nature' can be distinct concepts in the first place. To exist is to exist as something. To have a nature (identity) is to be part of the natural world (an existent.) This is precisely why 'supernatural' is a broken concept, it violates the axiom of identity.
3) "Ok, given all that, how can you seriously claim that billions of people use an incoherent term? People clearly know what they mean when they say "god".
They do - but what they actually mean is something quite different from an entity 'beyond nature'. They actually refer to something anthropomorphic, and hence, something other than 'god':
St. Augustine wrote:
What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if thou hast been able to understand what thou wouldest say, it is not God. If thou hast been able to comprehend it, thou hast comprehended something else instead of God. If thou hast been able to comprehend him as thou thinkest, by so thinking thou hast deceived thyself. This then is not God, if thou hast comprehended it; but if this be God, thou has not comprehended it.
When a person uses the word 'god' he must mean anything other than something 'beyond nature' (or alternatively, they must employ the apophatic tradition and concede that they can only remain silent on the mystery of 'god') seeing as we cannot make any such reference at all. The person must instead mean something natural. This real natural entity must stand in for 'god' when a person uses the word 'god'. So 'god' can become a coherent term, provided we are no longer actually attempting to refer to 'god' (!) and shift some anthropomorphic entity that stands in 'his' place.
If we consider how people use the word 'god', (both theist and atheist) we see that there are at least three main categories that cover what the term 'god' actually means in human discourse:
A statement of astonishment or wonder or pleasure: "Oh my god! Flapjacks!"
A concession of bewilderment: "We don't know. Goddidit!"
A anthropomorphic reference to a very human entity that shares the same feelings and thoughts and wants and desires as we do, that may even intervene in the lives of some people (if they pray hard enough or are good enough, despite the paradoxes contained in this belief) in order to save them from difficulties.
Interestingly, examining how a person actually uses the term 'god' provides us with a look into just why theists do believe that their 'god' is real: since these expressions of wonder, mystery and need are in fact real human needs, it makes one feel as if 'god' is something that can satisfy these needs. And as Nietzsche said, all man requires is a need for an idea to be true to make it true.
Additionally, when we examine the situation psychologically, the theist IS being truthful in his god claims. For example, when a theist argues "God made the universe", if he uses the term 'god' to denote bewilderment, then, he is speaking truth.... as long as we understand that 'god' actually means "I don't know" to him, then here is all he is really saying all along:
"I don't know what made the universe"
Ergo, by applying this method of interpretation to 'god utterances' we can make an honest man of the theist. And we can understand why his claim feels so true to him... after all, he really doesn't have a clue. He's right.
How can a theist refute this claim?
A theist can refute this claim by simply showing how a 'god reference' is in fact a reference to something non anthropomorphic, non 'human' and 'beyond nature' - by showing how 'god' can be a reference to something other than an expression of wonder, delight, dismay, fear, envy, etc.
Good luck. And as always, I repeat my standing request: if you are able to answer, please remember to thank me during your Nobel prize award acceptance speech.
Deluded Gods, from this forum:
Theism is so confused as to what it even means to say "God exists" that unlike other claims about which we must technically remain agnostic (such as the matter of the teapot), the whole notion of "God existing" can be thrown out on definitional grounds. It's part of a general problem of the religious subversion of language. They use words that they think they can get away with using, that are too vague to really mean anything like "higher power" or "ultimate", or they use words which contain an incoherency in terms of lack of coherent predicates, such as "supernatural". We can throw the notion out on the criteria for a statement that was imposed by Russell in order to solve the problem of non-referring entities in quantifier logic. Namely, a statement in quantifier logic must make an existence claim, a uniqueness claim and a claim of predication. The claim of God has no coherent claim of predication, fails criterion three, and can be thrown out.
Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates
Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates