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Rev Sam pulls on Wittgenstein's mantle

Sam has been trying to get himself off the hook re. Celtic Chimps's perceptive comment on this blog, produced below:

"I eventually had to give up arguing with Sam. His beliefs are so vague and insubstantial that I have come to doubt that Sam himself knows what he believes. I think 'God cannot be the member of any set' was the straw that broke the camels back. I offer fair and honest warning to anyone with a healthy respect for actually taking a definable position. Debating with Sam is like going to the movies to see a film. There are tons of adverts for forthcoming movies and then the credits roll."

Sam's response to Celtic Chimp is to invoke Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein said it is a mistake always to look for philosophical definitions of terms, i.e. in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Sure, we can define "triangle" and bachelor" like that ("A bachelor is an unmarried male" - gives singly necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for bachelorhood), but most words cannot be defined in this way. If you want to know what they mean, suggests W, look at how they are used.

Rev. Sam takes solace in this thought that some terms cannot be defined, and that their meaning is often best explained by looking at how they are used. He says:

"The reason why the Chimp finds me evasive, and others call me 'more slippery than soap' is because a) I don't believe we can define God, b) I don't think definitions are the be-all and end-all of fruitful discussion, but most of all c) because I accept that 'practice gives the words their sense' - and it is only by attending to the practice of Christian life, most of all in the Eucharist, that Christian understandings of God can be found."

But this doesn't get Sam out of trouble.

The key point that Sam overlooks is that Wittgenstein thinks that the meaning of our words is clear, and can be explained clearly, in various ways, e.g. by ostensive definition (e.g.pointing and saying the word), and/or by giving examples of its use, and so on - i.e. the ordinary everyday ways we explain what we mean to each other.

There's nothing "mysterious" at all about what words mean. Nor is there anything more to the meaning of our words than can be explained in such ways. We just need to avoid insisting that only a philosophical definition (in terms of nec and suff. conditions) of a word will do.

Trouble is, not only does Sam not give a necessary-and-sufficient-condition type definition of "god", he refuses to give ANY clear explanation of what he means by "god".

Now Wittgenstein would not endorse that! W's view, remember, is that there's no mystery about what our words mean.

Yet Sam's is clear that the meaning of "god" is very mysterious indeed! Indeed, Sam makes a virtue of this mystery, and uses it to endlessly sidestep criticism. That's not only profoundly unWittgensteinian, it's downright evasive!

Wittgenstein would surely say that, to the extent that the meaning of a word is not, or cannot be, explained in such a familiar, everyday, public manner, it has no meaning.

But that "god" cannot be explained in such a way seems to be precisely Sam's point. Wittgensteinian conclusion: it has no meaning.

Your move, Sam. Either explain clearly what you mean by "god", or else have us Wittgensteinians conclude, along with Celtic Chimp, that, as you use the term, it doesn't really have much, if any, meaning.

Then we can go and have a discussion with Richard Swinburne who does, at least, have the balls to say up front, clearly and precisely, what he's talking about.

POST SCRIPT: I imagine Sam will now point to the word "god" being used in the Eucharist etc. and say: "There you go, that's how the word is used. And meaning is use. So that now clearly explains what "god" means!"

But of course this doesn't help with the problem of evil, not until Sam tells us what's being done with the word in this context. All that pointing to the Eucharist establishes is that "God" has a use. But what is that use? How is it being used in that setting? Is it being used to make claims, to express emotional attitudes, to express linguistic rules, or what?

It's not until Sam fills out these details - and explains how this usage means that the problem of evil is solved or diminished - that he can claim to have provided any sort of response to the problem of evil.


anticant said…
Sam is pure Humpty Dumpty. Makes one wonder what they teach at theological colleges these days.
Anonymous said…
Think it's also important to ask what justification Sam or anyone would have for making these kind of claims about statements about God.

The Bible and religious language in general seems on the surface to be full of clear propositional claims about God, which would go some way to providing a definition. God is good, God sent his only son to die on the cross etc. etc.

What reason do we, or anyone, have for deciding that such things aren't as they seem, but are in fact mysterious non-propositions that simply express something un-definable and ineffable? If it's just because otherwise they turn out to be wrong, even if Sam can make some kind of sense of these mysterious sentences I don't think it would offer much justification for belief.
Stephen Law said…
Yes, good point splitter....
First off, I have said pretty explicitly what I mean when I talk about God. Several of the commenters here have remarked on it, but I'm guessing you've never read it, which is why you allege that I never "give ANY clear explanation of what [I] mean by "god"."

Second, it's very revealing that you talk about Swinburne having 'the balls' to state what he believes explicitly. It's perfectly possible that I'm an intellectual coward (although if that was the case why would I be having these conversations?) but what's most interesting in your use of language here is that you implicitly recognise that grasping the truth requires moral character, not simply logic and reason. I see that as a tremendously important point - a person cannot discern the truth more fully until they have achieved a certain quality of character. I want to ask atheists generally - how is that quality of character cultivated?

Thirdly, I'm delighted that the point about definitions has been accepted ("We just need to avoid insisting that only a philosophical definition (in terms of nec and suff. conditions) of a word will do"), although I must confess I'm surprised it has taken this long. Can I now take it that I am immune to the charge of 'vagueness' with respect to the demand for a definitional response of 'what the word God means to me'? That still leaves the other forms of explanation, but if we can agree that a definitional response in this sense (which is what I was referring to when I talked about 'abstract and propositional') is not needed then I think we've made significant progress in our mutual comprehensions.

Fourthly, you argue that for Wittgenstein, "there's no mystery about what our words mean". This is misleading, in at least two ways. The first is that Wittgenstein emphasises the importance in human life of what cannot be said; it may indeed be the most characteristic element of his whole approach (eg his letter to Ficker). To accept that 'there's no mystery about what our words mean' is very different to accepting 'there is no mystery to be explored or enjoyed in our lives' - and it is the latter that Christianity does. The second is that "the ordinary everyday ways we explain what we mean to each other" depend upon some form of common life. Most explicitly the pointing and naming process! Within the church we use the language of God on a daily basis, and we understand what is meant by it, the difficulty arises in trying to explain what the word 'God' means apart from that life.

Finally, you ask what is the use of the word 'God', "what is that use? How is it being used? Is it being used to make claims, to express emotional attitudes, to express linguistic rules, or what?" and the answer is: lots of different ways. For example, in the course of a Sunday morning service I will: lead prayers to God, pronounce God's absolution and forgiveness of sins, say that I believe in Him, give thanks for the Incarnation and Resurrection and pronounce God's blessing on people - and there are many other sorts of references to God. They are not all doing the same thing, but they all derive their meaning from a particular historical story within which the Christian community understands itself to be living. Are you asking me to explain the entire Christian faith in the space of a blog comment? Are you asking me to justify the entire history of theology? There's lots of people much better qualified than me who have already done just that - but I've said that several times before, and even pointed to specific books, but perhaps you haven't got 'the balls' to engage with more substantial (and more Christian) interlocutors than the likes of Swinburne and me? (grin)

It seems to me that once the definitional point has been granted, and we are into the arena of showing what words mean by describing what is done with them, giving examples and so on - then the explanation and rationale for Christianity is shown, in the end, by the lives of Christians, by what they do with the words, and there isn't anything else I can do.

"I believe in God, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth...."

Now - having said all that, I have a request for you and anyone else interested. This discussion began with the problem of suffering, and the inadequacies of a Christian viewpoint. I want to know what is offered, humanly speaking, instead of the Christian answer (which is, in effect, 'it's a mystery that will one day be revealed, but present day suffering doesn't render life meaningless'). Rather than talking about major catastrophes, which actually serve to distance us from the daily reality of suffering, I want to know what is said in the example I gave when I first wrote about the topic (here): "Some time back I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was a suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, "was it worth it?" "

I want to know what answers you would give to the man, and how you would discuss things with him. What difference does your viewpoint make in the real world?
anticant said…
Surely the mistake we rational people are making is to think that people of 'faith' are under any obligation to provide justifications for what they believe. Of course that is so in our terms, but not in theirs. They simply "know" there is a god, and proof is irrelevant to them. After all, Doubting Thomas got short shrift in the Gospels. Believing in six impossible things before breakfast is a virtue in the eyes of the religious. Which is why arguing with them is largely waste of time.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for your comments, Sam.

I'll get to details later but, just for now, I notice you have STILL not answered the question: what is about the way "God" is used by Christians in the Eucharist etc. that provides any kind of solution to or treatment of the problem of evil?

Rather, you have changed the subject (by asking: "So what would you say to a cancer victim then?")!

Answer the question, please!
Sally_bm said…
So Sam, you believe God is:

"that which is intimately involved in my life leading me forward into truth and life and integrity and with which I can communicate in a personal way" which you break down as:

"that which is calling me into balance" when you're straying down the wrong path
"an active and intentional agent drawing me forwards"
"personal; that is, I relate to it as I would to a person"
the source of your visions
"that which helps you discern the truth"
"an agent in the world"
"the precondition for all things that are held in being"

And you say he looks like

A lot of those things, to me, say what God does, rather than what his characteristics are. Maybe that's ok... But in terms of what he IS, he's the precondition for existence, and a personal agent that guides you towards a better form of life, right? Is that the definition we can work with?

Is it possible to explain why he's the necessary precondition for all existence, or at least why you believe that to be true? And is it impossible to explain how he can be omnipresent and unchanging, while also being an active and personal agent in the world? Some of your comments suggest you are the personal and active agent, rather than God, e.g. “When I see God at work in the world what I am really saying is that here my eyesight has been clarified… for God is always present. What changes is in me.”

And is there slight irony in your claim that he looks like that picture you include at the bottom of your post? Cos that person certainly isn't omnipresent!
OK, I'll apply what I said to the question in your postscript a bit later. (I'm not sure I'd say anything fresh compared to what I said originally here.)
Jit said…
Sally, I thought Sam said God wasn't "an agent in the world," more of a "ground of being." I compiled a quick list, like yours. Mine reads thusly:

A sense of rightness accompanying acts
An illumination of the path, a guiding light
A communicator - in conversation and in vision
As a halo around the truth
A ground of being, not an agent

I would counter that the atheists among us seem to find a path and are able to act rightly without a guide (or do we have a guide, just are unaware of it?). I do not believe that anyone who literally has a conversation with God can be sane (sorry, Sam, if this seems harsh). For my ground of being I rely on the laws of physics.

The truth of Jesus as God relies on some sort of evidence, even if the rest of the characteristics of God do not.

To the father of the dead son, I would say "remember the happy times." To say more would be cheap without knowing either of them. It is people who offer support in time of need, whether or no they bring with them a message from His Nibs.
Sally_bm said…
Evil is a problem for everyone, but it's not a challenge to belief systems for those who approach the world scientifically, I don't think; you set out with nothing to prove and everything to learn, so whatever you conclude from considering the reality of evil and suffering becomes part of your belief system.

I see all the evil in the word and think it would be better, probably, if there was no world at all. However, as there is, we're best sticking around to maximise the good-to-wonderful stuff and minimise the bad-to-terrible stuff. Enjoy life and help others to enjoy it too, until you cease to be. I put a link to Bill hicks' "It's just a Ride" on a recent post, and I'll put it here to, as he expresses a positive atheist approach to life:
Sally_bm said…
*groans. Sma, I can't believe you've had us all running round after your solution to the problem of evil when your actual position is (drum roll):

"although I can't answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable"

I.e. You have no solution, but continue to believe in God anyway because you want to.

That is what you're saying isn't it?
Sally_bm: with the caveat about the adequacy of definitions (see above) I'm happy with:

""that which is intimately involved in my life leading me forward into truth and life and integrity and with which I can communicate in a personal way" which you break down as:

"that which is calling me into balance" when you're straying down the wrong path
"an active and intentional agent drawing me forwards"
"personal; that is, I relate to it as I would to a person"
the source of your visions
"that which helps you discern the truth"
"an agent in the world"
"the precondition for all things that are held in being"

And you say he looks like [Jesus]"

As for what I said about evil, my point is that there is no philosophical (definitionally adequate) answer but that life demands a response one way or another. I live and trust that one day that answer will be revealed. That's what walking with faith means isn't it? It's how you act.
By the way my request for alternative answers isn't a trivial one. After all, in science you don't abandon one paradigm just because there are problems with it - you need to find another one better, more attractive in some way. So the challenge is to describe the better alternatives, not just poke holes in the Christian model. And there's even a good quote from Wittgenstein saying just that, but I'll refrain from quoting him directly :)
Stephen Law said…
I have been asking Sam:

"what is about the way "God" is used by Christians in the Eucharist etc. that provides any kind of solution to or treatment of the problem of evil?"

The answer we get now is:

"although I can't answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable"

But his answer has nothing to do with Wittgenstein, forms of life, etc. at all.

Indeed, it's a nice, simple, clear explanation of belief that does not require intimate knowledge of theology, etc.

But it's no solution at all to the problem of evil. Just an admission that he can't solve it.

The reason I have become a bit cross with Sam is that he has been alluding to sophisticated Wittgensteinian solutions and profound theological insights we have not yet fathomed - he offers us the promissory note that there is, or is likely to be, a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil once we understand these things properly, like he does.

But, having finally got the door open to Sam's cupboard of intellectual delights, we find - the cupboard is entirely bare!

Sam never did have some sophisticated Wittgensteinian riposte that we were theologically too illiterate to comprehend. He actually had - well, nothing at all. Yet we have had to expend hours and hours unpicking his musings in order to find this out.

Bit frustrating.

Anyway, having finally stripped Rev Sam of this particular fig leaf (I am sure he's got lots more), I expect NOT to see him him whipping it out again the next time he finds himself in trouble with the problem of evil.

Clearly, it would be intellectually dishonest for Sam to pretend he has a solution - or even half a solution - along such Wittgensteinian lines, when clearly he hasn't got anything at all.

So I'm sure he won't be doing that in his sermons or on his blog, etc...
BTW2 - and this really will be my final comment of today - you may be interested to read this post on theodicy, and to chase up the links from this post, where other religious bloggers comment upon the problem of suffering. If nothing else it shows I'm not on my own in my perspectives!!
Sally_bm said…
You're right- life does demand a response to suffering. But that response should be an intellectually honest one, not just the one that's easiest and nicest to give.

Non-believers have a better EXPLANATION for suffering, in that there's no reason it SHOULDN'T logically exist. So already we've got a more HONEST response to it.

But in terms of how we ACT in response to suffering in life, the most intellectually honest belief may well not be the easiest one to live with. We have to accept that suffering most definitely IS bad, and that goodness probably could never counteract/ justify it. Like Dostoevsky said (though in a slightly different context) "It's not worth the tears of one tortured child... too high a price is asked for harmony".

However, that doesn't mean we should all commit suicide/ be miserable 24/7. We choose, in general, to take the gamble that we can squeeze enough happiness out of our lives to make the suffering worthwhile. To me, we have to apply this externally, to ensure we do more good by sticking around than we would do by shuffling off our mortal coils.

But really, I just think: We happen to have a few years of consciousness to play around with. Let's see what we can do with it.
Suffering doesn't negate that viewpoint- it just gives me something to think about when deciding how to live my life.

Again, see the link to "It's just a ride" from my last post if you really are interested.
Stephen you're being more than a little unfair. The discussion over the last week or so has moved between the problem of suffering and the problem of God as such - I've been responding to questions as we've gone along - and, frankly, much more fully than you've engaged with. The post you quote from is at least a year old and you have interacted with the contents before, so it seems more than a little dishonest that you are now acting with such shock at what I said in that post, as if it came as news to you.
Sally_bm - I'm a long term fan of Bill Hicks.
Sally_bm said…
"it shows I'm not on my own in my perspectives!!"

Oh, well in that case, I take back all my criticism and challenges...

*slow clap
Sally_bm said…
"The post you quote from is at least a year old"

Yes, but you gave a link to it in THIS thread, accompanied with the words "I'm not sure I'd say anything fresh compared to what I said originally here."

I don't think Stephen's being unfair at all. You have been giving the impression you had a decent, reasonable response to the problem of evil. 'It's the easiest thing to believe' is quite clearly not such a response.
Sally_bm said…
As we’re all getting a bit frustrated and accusations are flying, I’ve made a lil summary of Rev Sam’s moves so far, from my perspective:

“when Christian theologians treat [the problem of suffering] as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves”.

This assertion suggested to most of us that the Rev Sam had a REASON to believe the problem of evil wasn’t such a problem after all, rather than blind faith in the fact. Birth of the problem.

“I'm not sure I'd say quite so baldly that "the problem of suffering just isn't something that calls into question the existence of God" - what's at stake is what is meant or understood by 'God'”.

This is where he seemed to accept that the PoE is a genuine hurdle to faith, but that it could be overcome by fully understanding his concept of God. Hence us talking about what he meant by God, in search of his answer to the PoE. So when Sam now writes, “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 feel inclined to remind him that it was him who suggested this would help answer the overall problem.

Then a few confusing assertions were made that we had to clarify (though I don’t think we ever did clarify them):
“When I worship God I'm not worshipping one who causes suffering”
“some suffering caused by God isn't incompatible with his being worshipped.” (Again, suggests Sam has an answer to the PoE, if the logical one)
“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 (ie Christians do things with the words). That would be worth pursuing further....” (The biggest difference was in fact, perhaps, that we were trying to SOLVE the problem of evil, with Sam’s help, while Sam had reverted back to simply not letting the problem obstruct his faith. But we thought the answer lay in Sam’s concept of God still so…)

We got these depictions of Sam’s belief in God
“I would deny that the statement 'God exists' is expressing a claim about a matter of fact in the world. I think that it is describing something about the nature of the world taken as a whole, ie that the world is meaningful and that meaning can be understood personally.”
“I definitely do not think that all religious language is expressive.”
“what is the use of the word 'God', "what is that use? How is it being used? Is it being used to make claims, to express emotional attitudes, to express linguistic rules, or what?" and the answer is: lots of different ways.”

Meanwhile, Sam did continue to assert that he had a position on God’s existence “worth taking intellectually seriously”:
“If you want to argue that there are, eg, some US fundamentalists who believe stupid things then I'm not going to disagree with you!! But that conversation isn't interesting. The interesting thing, surely, is whether there is anything in the Christian tradition that is worth taking intellectually seriously. To find that out, you need to engage seriously with the most intellectually serious arguments, don't you?“

…We waited in eager anticipation…

…for this:

“'it's a mystery that will one day be revealed”

So, Sam. Do you have a belief worth taking more “intellectually seriously” than the “US fundamentalists who believe stupid things”? Why do you think there is a solution to the problem or evil, when you can see no way into it, and there has been no satisfactory answer from the wealth of intelligent Christians who’ve considered it over thousands of years? Where are the rational grounds for your faith and your hope in God?
Anonymous said…
Sam - you said "you need to find another one better, more attractive in some way. So the challenge is to describe the better alternatives, not just poke holes in the Christian model"

Leaving aside the obvious point that it is possible to have a really poor set of alternatives none of which hold water. the scientists find themselves faced with that one far too often. I feel I can offer you an improved model. Like Christianity but minus at least some of the fluff.

First off you can pretty much scrap the Bible. Dreadful muddle of disparate texts. I think you agree that the first bit is way wide of the mark.
Do you feel a pang of guilt every time you eat an oyster or a bacon sandwich?
The second half isn't much better is it?
Lets just keep the bits about how we should behave towards our fellows as a guide to how to live and lose the factually dubious. Each step of the way is an improvement on stock Christianity.
Even better by simplifying things we reduce the scope for ambiguity and nasty schism-ey things. Now the big one. Get rid of the stuff about God. It really does nothing positive and it rather discredits the whole enterprise.

So there you go - improved Christianity - act like a Christian toward your fellows, think and reason like an atheist and follow the diet your doctor recommends. Try it you'll feel pretty much the same. Only you wont have to keep up the lies and delusions, and that will be a weight off your mind.
anticant said…
Sally, I'm surprised that you, as a rational person, ask Sam what are the rational grounds for his faith? All religious faith is irrational. There are no rational grounds for any of it. Religions all demand a "leap of faith" - and the bigger and more incredible the leap is, the more meritorious it is in the eyes of believers. That is why such people are so dangerous when they get their hands on the levers of power. Their decisions are dictated by faith - not reason.

The meaning of life is that there is no esoteric meaning, and no mystery. The fact that we do not know everything about the universe, and probably never will, does not logically lead to the conclusion that there must be a "mystery", still less that the hypothetical mystery is deserving of worship.

I would have much more respect for the Sams of this world if they did not lay so much stress on the role of their faith in impelling them to do good. My own view is that those who do good simply because they see the need for it, without any religious prompting, are on a morally higher plane than the religious busybodies.
Anonymous said…
Sam - Don't forget with Improved Christianity the problem of evil really does go away!
Sally_bm said…
Hi anticant

You're right, fiath wasn't the right word to use there. I was referring to his religious perspective in general. But I was intending to question it's rationality, because he seemed to compare his theology-based beliefs as separate to the "stupid beliefs" of some US fundamentalists, and by debating on this forum has shown some interest in rationality and truth, rather than blind belief for the sake of pleasantness. I'm guessing he's still going to claim to hold a reasonable belief worth taking "intellectually" seriously...

But I'm glad you were "surprised" at me. Shows you don't know me TOO well! :-)
Anonymous said…
Sam says:

"Within the church we use the language of God on a daily basis, and we understand what is meant by it, the difficulty arises in trying to explain what the word 'God' means apart from that life."

The problem is that most people do not carry the understanding of 'god' that you do. For that the intervention of a certain infamous philosopher is required.

How many out of a 100 Christians do you think have the kind of non-realist religious stance that you have (or have a non-realist religious stance at all, even)?
anticant said…
"Within the church we use the language of God on a daily basis, and we understand what is meant by it."

Sounds like a lunatic asylum where all the inmates are convinced that they are poached eggs. So they use a private language and egg each other on!
Anonymous said…
"Within the church we use the language of God on a daily basis, and we understand what is meant by it."

Anticant's "egg theory" aside there seems to be a good deal of evidence this is not the case.

At one end of the spectrum we have those who claim that God intervenes in the world on a regular basis, sends visions etc. and provides a stark choice of alternatives in the afterlife. At the other end we have the more ethereal "words can't describe Him" school and the "I just have this feeling..." people. When believers at different points on the this continuum meet and discuss religious matters are they really talking about the same God?

When Sam sings hymns and recites the liturgy does it mean the same to him as it does to another priest or a lay member? Do the words even mean the same as they did to author?

This is even before we consider affiliation with different sects within a Church or even different Churches within the same religion.

Or even different religions within monotheism!
Stephen Law said…
As a matter of fact I was raised in a religious household, and my father trained to be a minister, though never took it up. I also attended a church school. So as a teenager I read lots of e.g. C.S. Lewis, Tillich, etc. So it's irritating, and really rather unjustified, to have my criticisms of religious belief swept aside on the assumption that I can't understand what the religious mean when they talk about God.

In any case, the onus is really on Sam to explain why, given how he, at least, uses "god", the problem of evil ain't really so much of a problem.

Having spent ages trying to figure out what Sam does mean, and ploughing through his allusions to Wittgenstein and "forms of life", we finally discover he never actually had any such explanation.

It's all been smoke and mirrors.

Of course, I don't think Sam's a terrible person, and I don't think he is intending deliberately to dupe us. I suspect this sort of strategy - of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority - is just a habit of thought he has rather uncritically adopted having spent too much time hanging out with a certain sort of theist.

Patronizing of me to say so, I know. But it's what I think...
Stephen Law said…
P.S. I am now continuing this discussion with a new post...
Sally - I've continued the conversation here. I'm sure it'll still be a frustrating read for y'all here.

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