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Monday, March 19, 2018

Wordplay and God

"Suppose that Lauren, a previously professed atheist, lets you know that she’s come around to believing in God. Fortunately, she advises you, this did not require any changes in her world-view, but only a change in her understanding of the referent of ‘God’. What she realized was that God is love, and that she already believes in love—it is the relation that she bears toward her family and her friends. It is natural to think that Lauren still does not believe in God. Since she’s told you what she means by ‘God’, and that it is just love, when Lauren tells you that she believes in God it is natural to interpret her as believing in love. But if she previously believed in love while counting as an atheist, she should not now count as a theist for believing in it.

It is highly plausible that the same would follow no matter what referent Lauren assigns to ‘God’. As long as it is the sort of thing that is acceptable to atheists, she will not count as believing in God after all, even though given her new uses of her terms, she will be able to mimic the claims of theists, and to sincerely utter such sentences as ‘God exists’. She will merely mean something different by such sentences than we do. Traditional theism is plausibly not subject to naturalist-friendly reduction, and couldn’t be...

On any acceptable view about God, God has properties that love does not. God is supposed to be omniscient, but love is just a relation—it doesn’t know anything. God is supposed to be the creator of the universe, but love didn’t do that. And so on. To capture the central claims of theological discourse, it’s not enough to make sense of the thesis that God exists, by assigning ‘God’ a referent. You have to assign ‘God’ a referent which created the universe and is all-knowing and all-powerful, since these are some of the central claims which theological discourse is supposed to capture. So if you don’t really believe that there is a thing such that it created the universe and is all-knowing and all-powerful, then you can’t capture the central claims of theological discourse, no matter what referent you assign to ‘God’...

We consider how a sophisticated reductivist might try to solve these problems, in order to avoid committing to so many local errors about God. For there is room to wiggle. You may start by assigning an interpretation to ‘God’ in the sentence, ‘God exists,’ and then notice that the thing you assigned to it—love, for example, did not actually create the universe, at least in the ordinary sense of ‘create’. But if you’re a clever reductive theorist, you have some tricks to pull out of your sleeve. You can provide ‘created’ a special sense in this context. When theists say that God created the universe, you can posit, what they mean is that God is a relation between creative people and their creations. Assuming that creative people love their creations, ‘God created the universe’ turns out to be true. So in this way, you can capture the central truths of theistic discourse with your reduction.

Or can you? You have a theory on which ‘God created the universe’ comes out to be true, but you haven’t got a theory on which it is true that God created the universe. For by hypothesis, you mean something else by ‘God created the universe’ than that God created the universe. Creation, on your account, is not a unified or interesting phenomenon, as people have always believed, but in fact is fundamentally disjunctive. It can be true that X created Y either if Y did not exist, and then was made to exist through X’s efforts, or else if X is love, and is a relation between creative people and their creations. Your account makes the central claims of theological discourse come out sounding true only because it trades on the ambiguity between these two ways of being created. But theists have always wanted the universe to come out created by God in the same sense as the half-finished matchstick model of 1879 Hall in my living room comes out created by me. So giving a disjunctive or ambiguous account of ‘created’ won’t help you capture the central claims of traditional Christian theism."

--- Slaves of the Passions / Mark Schroeder


Footnote: "I take the analogy from a remark of Alvin Plantinga’s, in response to Kit Fine’s suggestion that he is engaged in a reductive project about possibilia: ‘This strikes me a bit like an effort on the part of a genial atheist to offer a ‘‘truth-preserving’’ translation of theistic discourse into discourse committed to only the sorts of entities acceptable to atheists.’ Plantinga [1986: 330–1]."
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