Referring to God …

So, what I’ve decided to do in order to finally get on with Philipse is break chapter 7 up into three parts that deal with the three main topics that I want to discuss. I might slide in some smaller comments in as I do that, but I want to focus on three main points: how we are to refer to God so that we know what we are talking about when we use the word, the issue of psychological terms and if they can apply to God, and the personal identity argument. All of these are meant to show that we can only talk about God by using irreducibly analogical terms, which is a no-no according to Philipse.

First, the more minor one. On pages 96 and 97, Philipse says that there are two ways a word can gain a link to its referent. The first is when we point at the referent and essentially say “This word means that”. The second is to give a detailed description of the referent. The argument is that we can’t point at God, so we have to give a description … but then if that description is not a literal one, then we are into describing God only by metaphor, which means that we aren’t describing God at all.

The issue here is that this ignores the debates and the discussions and the examinations of how we, in general, link the names of people to their referents. Sure, for most people, we point to them in some way and give their name, but that can’t be done for historical personages, like Richard Feynman or Aristotle. So that means that in order for them to have a referent, we’d have to give a full description. But we generally don’t. Instead, we know Richard Feynman as that guy who came up with a certain theory, or Aristotle as the guy who initiated a certain philosophy. Sure, from that we generally have more detailed descriptions that we also rely on and claim to know about those people, but if we discovered, say, that Aristotle was not really Greek but was instead African, few thing that that would mean that the word “Aristotle” suddenly either had no referent or changed to a completely new one. So, in essence, when dealing with historical personages we do a kind of baptism, a kind of pointing out not directly in perception, but in some kind of presumably direct reference to that person.

For God, it seems that when most people talk about God, they mean that guy in the Bible that created the universe and did at least some of the things described in it (for the Christian God, at any rate). In general, they point to a holy book that talks about that God, and then use that to get to the referent, presuming that the work does indeed have a link to the God in question. For Philipse — and many atheists — to be puzzled by this only reflects that under the strict scientific/naturalistic paradigm God — and people themselves — are generally treated as objects, not as persons. This works because in most sciences you don’t need to worry too much about the psychological properties of the objects of study: the objects of study of physics and chemistry have no psychological properties period, most biology is done on organisms that are too simple to worry about those properties, and so on and so forth. Only psychology really has to worry about those properties, and it is no surprise that psychological experiments often have to build in trying to “fool” their subjects so that knowledge of what is happening doesn’t influence the results … and that when psychologists treat their subjects as people their theories end up being very counter-intuitive in all the wrong ways.

It is an issue with the naturalistic approach, I think, that it tries to reduce all psychological properties and those who have psychological properties to things that don’t have them, so that they can cut them out of consideration and out of the description. This, I think, is why it struggles to capture things like consciousness, meaning and, yes, gods, because the “personal” qualities have meaning and give meaning, and cutting it out leaves a simpler theory, but one that simply doesn’t work as well as it should.

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