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Rev Sam on evil - a bit more....

Let’s return to Rev Sam’s response to the problem of evil. To most of us, many theists included, the problem of evil looks like a very serious problem indeed for theism. Indeed, to me, it looks fatal to belief in a good, or worship-worthy, god.

Now Rev Sam’s response is to suggest that it isn’t such an insurmountable problem after all. The problem is figuring out exactly what Sam’s response to the problem amounts to. So far, my impression is that he’s got two key responses.

The first is to say that “God exists” etc. is not used propositionally:

“I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life.”

The other is to say (about my point that a God who, say, buries thousands of children alive, and unleashes literally unimaginable horror on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years, is surely not worthy of worship):

“I suspect the logic of worship works the other way around anyhow - it is good to worship God, _then_ we talk about the 'goodness' of God, or not.”

These are very, very vague claims. How do they help as a response to the problem of evil? Sam doesn’t explain. As per usual, he makes us do all the work for him. We are forced to ask: “So Sam, do you mean this, or that? If you mean this, then there’s this problem; if you mean that, there’s this other problem.”

If Sam recognises we have a valid objection to something, he can say “Oh, that’s not quite what I meant” or “But I also meant this too…” and so on. In this way, Sam can keep us tied up in knots forever.

Now, can Sam successfully defend the reasonableness (or whatever) of what he believes by means of this strategy? No, of course not.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem for Sam. On the face of it, the problem of evil is a very powerful argument against what he believes. So the onus is on HIM to explain CLEARLY why it is NOT the problem we (and indeed even many theists) take it to be. He has never done that. Until he does, it is his position that stands discredited, not mine.

Nevertheless, we might offer to do some of the work for him, so far as explaining what he means is concerned.

Let’s look at the first suggestion again:

“I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life.”

This points very vaguely at Wittgenstein on "forms of life", and perhaps also at expressivism, etc. Let’s look at expressivism a moment.

Perhaps the best-known expressivist theory is the “Boo-hoorah theory (emotivism) in ethics. It says that when we say “X is morally good” or “Y is morally bad” we are not making a claim. Rather we are expressing an attitide, a bit like going “Hoorah for X” and “Boo to Y”. As “Hoorah to X” makes not claim, it is incapable of being true or false.

Of course, “X is good” looks like “Ted is tall”. Now the latter sentence does make a claim, and is thus capable of being true or false (it will be true if Ted is, as a matter of fact, tall). But the former makes no claim, and so truth and falsehood do not apply.

Overlook this difference in the way the sentences are used, however, and you may start looking for the “moral fact” that makes the former sentence true, and then become philosophically baffled by your inability to find it. "If you find yourself baffled in that way", says the emotivist, "what you need is some linguistic therapy. You need to look at how the sentence is actually used, in its appropriate context.".

We might give a similar expressivist account of religious language. It is used, we may say, not to make claims, but to express certain attitudes towards life, etc. "God exists" may, in effect express something like "Life - wow!" (or no doubt something much more complex and subtle). As such, it puts forward no claim (or, as Sam puts it, proposition).

But if that's correct, then “God exists” is also incapable of being true or false. In which case, it does not require some "God fact" to make it "true" (notice how this fits with Sam's insistence that :

"I would deny that the statement 'God exists' is expressing a claim about a matter of fact in the world."

) And, (and here's the relevant bit) if "God exists" is neither true nor false, it cannot be shown to be false, or probably false, by, say, empirical evidence. Problem of evil solved!

Now, this expressivist account of how "God exists" functions might be the sort of thing Sam means, or it might not. I kind of doubt it is, though.

The expressivist view makes religious “belief” amount to little more than a sophisticated way of expressing an attitude. There’s no claim being made with which we can disagree (though we might still question the appropriateness of the attitude).

Yet, despite denying “God exists” is propositional, Sam clearly does want to be able to say contentful things about God, such as that “God is worthy of worship”, etc. etc. He surely sees our dispute over whether "God exists" to boil down to rather more than just what sort of attitudes he and I hold towards life, etc.

There seems to be a muddle in Sam's thinking here, in fact. Yes, you can immunize any belief, such as “God exists”, against being falsified by the evidence (such as the problem of evil) by saying that the sentence expresses nothing more than an attitude (even if a very complex one). But the price you pay for avoiding the problem of evil in this manner is that, when the critic has gone away, you can’t then consistently start saying the kind of things Sam clearly wants to say about God.

So Sam – what’s your position? My guess is you'll now say "Oh no - that's not quite what I meant." So what do you mean, then?


Larry Hamelin said…
Yet, despite denying “God exists” is propositional, Sam clearly does want to be able to say contentful things about God, such as that “God is worthy of worship”, etc. etc.

The trouble goes much deeper than this: The actual problems with theism are all in the etc. etc.

Theists want to say things like: "Sex outside of marriage is wrong" as objective truth, not just an expression. That's why you get guys like Peter Hitchens talking about how turning one's back on Christianity is turning one's back on absolute morality.

And that's the real crux of the biscuit, and why expressivism fails as an explanation of religion. If religion is not propositional, then it cannot be a foundation for objective ethical truth; it's analytically impossible to get propositional truth from a non-propositional foundation.

But if religion is not a foundation for ethical truth, it becomes entirely vacuous: everyone is "religion" in exactly the same sense, indeed it is analytically impossible for a sapient human being — a being with attitudes and opinions he or she wishes to express — to not be "religious".

Because the word "religious" has so many existing connotations for a foundation for not only ethical but also physical truth, if the word is going to be stripped of this meaning, we are better off abandoning the word.
Larry Hamelin said…
...everyone is "religious"...
Sally_bm said…
I don't quite understand how expressivism, as I understand it from your description, can be applied to statements such as "God exists". I can see that with statements like "X is good", that could mean more precisely something like "I have a positive, encouraging emotive reaction to X". But I can't see what sort of statement could more accurately replace "God exists". If I wanted to express a joy at life ("Life- Wow!") I can't see why I would use the words "God exists". That would complicate and add to my position unnecessarily.

Sam, DO you mean, by "God exists", that you simply have an emotive reaction to the world which you feel is best summed up by the words "God exists"? If so, why do these words express your feelings most aptly? And is there another way you could express that emotive response, without using religious terms, so us non-religious folk can understand it better? Or is this not really your position at all?

Anonymous said…
Alright then.. when Sam says "God exists" this is OK because it expresses an attitude. This is not a necessarily problem in everyday life, provided the attitude is beneficial. Consider the number of people who behave differently at Christmas with regard to the (mythical) figure of Santa Claus. It would be a really humourless individual who accosted red suited Santas collecting for charity as frauds. Most of us find ourselves adopting a generally positive outlook and may even contribute. Santa's existence is less important to us than the virtues he has; that he is a generally good cheerful guy, gives presents to small children and is good with animals (at least reindeer). But why do we not have Sants-ist politics or Santa based schools?

Even if Sam avoids the traps of carrying the attitude too far, he is still not out of the woods. The problem of evil remains for Sam because the attitude he is expressing seems to downplay the suffering of others and implies that the victims can take comfort because in some way "it is all insignificant in the end".

Would we still be as charitable towards Santa if he had a nasty side? Would you give to a charity if the person with the collecting jar was dressed as Stalin or Jack the Ripper?

On the other hand, when an atheist says "God does not exist" (I think) he seems to mean it as a proposition. OK one can play with the definition of "exist", physical or platonic perhaps, but lets go with the physical variety for now. not necessarily material, allowing for things like gravity or time.

Why can Sam not accept this? Perhaps he can. After all he is not making any claims to the contrary is he? Perhaps Sam would like to modify the phrasing a little e.g. "God does not exist in a propositional sense" so that he can agree with it without fear of denying this "Hooray for God" stance.
Tony Lloyd said…
Er..bit off subject this but is the emotive theory an accurate description of what we actually do mean? If I hold to some objective view of knowledge and then say "X is good" to someone who knows that I hold an objective view of knowledge am I not saying:

"There is an objective moral law and X is in accordance with it"?

If there were in fact no objective moral law my statement would be false and the emotive view that it could be neither true nor false would fail.

I don't know whether this would cause a problem with an emotive theory of God, but it might. Surely the present King of France needs a head in order to be omni-benevolent?
anticant said…
As the late, great Anna Russell once said, "Deep down inside each one of us there is something stagnant that is dormant."

This has always struck me as a spot-on description of many theists' attempts to describe their personal 'God-experience'.

Trouble is, these days it isn't nearly dormant enough.
Tony Lloyd said…
In partial defence of Sam – when talking vaguely is ok.

I think the “indefinable” move is akin to the “mystical” move and that both are, in a certain sense ok. I know the indefinable and mystical moves bear a striking resemblance to the post modernist “do not reveal what you mean because it’s either vacuous or shit” move but there are valid reasons why we can, rightly, come up with stuff that appears to be radically unclear. We are imperfect beings and there are some things we just cannot get or brain around. Beauty, love, the majesty of Everton Football Club and all those things, for example, depend for their expression on deliberately anti-rational thought. There are real things that we cannot express and our inability to express them does not remove their existence or their importance.

This is a partial defence because I think it only goes so far. If one says “I know I have no evidence for X, I even know there is evidence against X (not conclusive) but I just can’t reconcile non-X with …….” Isn’t one really saying “I do not really know”? If one doesn’t really know then I think two things follow:

1. If someone else really does know not-X then you really ought to accept not-X. (An example here would be that creationism is false, your deep seated feeling has no validity in an area where someone CAN be clear and answer the questions.)
2. If you don’t really know you can’t insist that others share your faith. (I’m thinking Ibrahim Lawson here.) If you know X then you can tell someone else, if you can’t even formulate X clearly then you can’t possibly know it and are, at the most, allowed to “sell” it to people.
anticant said…
Is it too much to hope that Sam will soon end these pointless efforts by Stephen and Tony to read his mind by telling us, as best he can, what he actually does mean?

He might also care to answer the question I asked him on the previous thread – namely, if God is anything, what is he/she/it’? If God is nothing more than a subjective personal experience, what is the relevance of he/she/it to anyone who has not had such an experience?

The problem for non-believers is that billions of people around the world clearly do believe in the existence of supernatural deities, and this belief shapes their behaviour in ways which others – including those who hold a different version of faith - all too often experience as far from benign.

We sceptics perceive the world as being plagued by god-botherers, and many situations as being made far worse by their irrational beliefs. As Robert Fisk wrote the other day in the ‘Independent’:

"And so our dementia continues. In front of us this week was Blair with his increasingly maniacal eyes, poncing on about faith and God and religion, and I couldn't help reflecting on an excellent article by a colleague a few weeks ago who pointed out that God never seemed to give Blair advice. Like before April of 2003, couldn't He have just said, er, Tony, this Iraq invasion might not be a good idea.

"Indeed, Blair's relationship with God is itself very odd. And I rather suspect I know what happens. I think Blair tells God what he absolutely and completely knows to be right – and God approves his words. Because Blair, like a lot of devious politicians, plays God himself. For there are two Gods out there. The Blair God and the infinite being which blesses his every word, so obliging that He doesn't even tell Him to go to Gaza."

There is ample evidence that the conviction that God is telling you what to do exacerbates active evil in the world. The only useful outcome of religion - whether it is objectively 'true' or not - should be to alleviate the effects of evil. But all too often it does the reverse.

Over to you, Sam.
A quickie - as I'm going to write something longer - but I definitely do not think that all religious language is expressive. I find it curious that Stephen makes a nod towards the 'forms of life' point - when I've been very unvague about the influence Wittgenstein has had on my thought - and spends all his time on the 'expressivism' point. I really don't think I'm the one avoiding the meat of the discussion. But more on that anon...
Stephen Law said…
Hi Sam

Well, I'm pretty sure Wittgenstein is an expressivist about some things - perhaps even religious talk. So discussion of expressivism is not irrelevant, it seems to me. Certainly, if you are rejecting expressivism (are you?) we are now a little clearer about what you are not saying. But why don't you tell me what you think W's position is, and how it helps deal with the problem of evil?

As I say - the onus is on YOU to explain CLEARLY what your view is, and how it helps deal with the problem of evil.

If you can't do that, well, then you've made no progress at all in dealing with the problem of evil.
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, Hilary Putnam once said:

"The fondness of (Wittgensteinian philosophers) for the expression "form of life" appears to be directly proportional to its degree of preposterousness in a given context."

Some truth in that, I think. The philosophical invocation of "forms of life" is sometimes just an evasive smokescreen.
Anonymous said…
tony lloyd said "If one says “I know I have no evidence for X, I even know there is evidence against X (not conclusive) but I just can’t reconcile non-X with …….” Isn’t one really saying “I do not really know”? "

(Sorry about the thicket of quotation arks.)

Is this not analogous to those optical illusions where you cannot shake off the feeling that there is a real object or effect when in fact it is demonstrable there is none. I know for example that there is no red spot on a partiular image since it is composed purely from black and white shapes, yet when I view it under the right conditions I "see" the red spot. I may exclaim as much with some conviction. When closely questioned I would of course admit the spot was not there even though my experience of it was quite real. It's a case not of "I do not know" but "I do know (its not there) but I still see the red spot".

Perhaps the theist position is more "But it must be there - its too pretty not to be"
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, you can use language to express things other than emotional attitudes. One thing you can do is use a sentence to express a rule. E.g. "Bachelors are unmarried males" looks superficially like "Bachelors are abundant in Rome", but while the latter is used to make a claim, the former expresses a rule (expresses a rule, notice, not states what the rule is - as in "The rule governing "bachelor" says that it can only be applied to unmarried males" - for then it could be false). Because the former expresses a rule, so it too is neither true nor false. Rather than making a linguistic move, it shows what is to count as making such a move. E.g. it shows "He's a married bachelor" doesn't make sense. This means, of course, that "Bachelors are unmarried males" cannot be falsified.

Now another expressivist approach to religious talk would be to say that e.g. "God exists" expresses a linguistic rule. This would entail that "God exists" is neither true nor false, (at least not in the way that claims are), and so cannot be falsified by empirical evidence.

Problem of evil solved!

Is this what Sam has in mind? Again, I am guessing not. But let's find out.....
Anonymous said…
Stephen - Re: your point about rules.
In order for a sentence to be used in this way is it not necessary for it
(a) to be consistent with some rule or set of rules and
(b) for the rule itself to be logically possible?
Stephen Law said…
Hi anonymous

Consistency - hmm, W himself didn't seem to think this that important. As long as your using the system and it works for you, that's enough - if some inconsistency crops up, well, does that really matter very much? I THINK that's W's view re maths rules.

Possibility and impossibility don't apply to rules - they make no claim, so there's nothing to assess for truth, falsehood, possibility, or impossibility, etc. (I think!)

Notice this rules stuff ties in with "forms of life". What makes a sentence function as a rule is precisely the way it's used in a context or form of life.

It also links to Sam's comment that "some thing need to be held fast in order for communication to take place".

i.e. there need to be sentences expressing rules (they are "held fast" - not treated as propositions capable of truth/falsehood, etc.) if other sentences are going to be able to succeed in communicating.

But is this what Sam has in mind? Let's find out!
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, it would also explain why some theists think you need to "go native" and enter into their "form of life" before you can even understand or criticise their belief. Unless you accept the rule "God exists", you cannot communicate properly with them about "God"! Or, indeed, criticise what they believe!

(Compare - you can't criticise what someone believes about "bachelors" until you first start using "bachelors" as they do - which means using the term in accordance with the rule "Bachelors are unmarried males".)
Sally_bm said…
Sam said earlier that "God exists" means to him something like "the world is meaningful and that meaning can be understood personally".

Could you explain that a bit further Sam? What do you mean when you say the world is meaningful? And in what what is that meaning understood personally? And why does the phrase "God exists" depict this view to you?

Can something like "God exists" really be seen as a rule? You can say "Cows have four legs" as a rule, but "Cows exist" can't be used the same way, surely? The second assertion is an assertion about the world itself (it contains cows) rather than about the WORD cow and what it means. ??? If "God exists" can be used as a rule, doesn't this limit what we can understand by the word "God"?
Anonymous said…
Stephen - You said "Possibility and impossibility don't apply to rules" My fault here I think. I should probably have written logically consistent. I may still be wrong of course but I meant to convey the idea that a rule which contained a logical inconsistency in its formulation would be invalid. Perhaps I am arguing against things which look like rules but aren't.
Tony Lloyd said…

"Is this not analogous to those optical illusions where you cannot shake off the feeling that there is a real object or effect when in fact it is demonstrable there is none." Yes, providing you know the alternative. The optical illusions is identified as as "not real" by identifying a real to distinquish it from.

Stephen, are you not missing a potential minor victory here? In your discussions with Sam and Ibrahim you have come across unclear language. It doesn't seem to me to refute their positions by saying that it is unlcear (and the arguments will run!) But once any "mystery", "faith" or "indefinable" card is played can you not trump with:

So you agree that not only can you not show evidence for your position but you cannot even articulate that proposition: surely you cannot teach this to children in any Authoritarian sense? (your "big A" meaning)

Surely we cannot be expected to base laws on an ill-defined mystical faith? (Rowan Williams and his "Sharia" Law)

Surely you can't allow people to condemn others on the basis on NOT having an ill-defined mystical faith? (Peter Hitchens )
Stephen Law said…
Yes, You are right Tony. Mind you, many theists are pretty clear (e.g. Richard Swinburne will give you a list of necessary and sufficient conditions defining god).
Anonymous said…
So does "God exists" qualify as a rule?

Surely this is only the case if we agree to radically curtail the meaning of existence and "God" in the first place?

There is so much associated with the definitions of both of these which we would have to sweep under the carpet that we would be reduced to a toy universe of discourse.

Even if you are a Wittgenstein fan who adopts the "if it works" approach to inconsistency surely there are limits? Is not there a point when the inconsistencies become unbearable?

W. seems to have been able to admit to inconsistency. Can theists not take this approach. "Ok look we know its not real in the usual everyday sense, and It might not work for anyone else, but it makes us happy."?
anticant said…
"Surely you cannot teach this to children in any Authoritarian sense?"

Oh yes, they can - and do. [see Ibrahim's many posts].

This type of child abuse is far fouler than any trivial physical fiddlings.
I missed these comments before writing my other stuff today. One problem that we have is that the discussion has veered between answering the problem of evil and explaining what it means to believe in God at all. I'm really not trying to evade anything, and I'll say more on the specific problem of evil tomorrow.

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