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Religious Language

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  1. Religious Language

  2. Some key figures …

  3. Paul Tillich Anthony Flew A.J. Ayer Thomas Aquinas Ludwig Wittgenstein

  4. What’s the Problem? Basically, the problem is one of meaning. If we are to believe in God or some other aspect of religion, we can only do this if we can use language to talk about it in a meaningful way. If talk of God is nonsense then the idea of God is nonsense. The debate is ages old. The religious have always claimed that the divine is difficult to express in terms of limited human language. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah found himself in God’s presence and said, “woe is me, a man of unclean lips!” This connects with the idea that God is transcendent – beyond us. Yet, the opposite point has also long been recognised: if God cannot be described then there may be little scope for belief.

  5. If this and all other religious language is gibberish, then… … you can forget about religious truths.

  6. Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism • A major philosophical distinction in language is made between language which expresses knowledge and language which does not. • Cognitive Language expresses facts and knowledge (e.g. Mr Bull teaches at Wellington College). • Non-Cognitive Language expresses things which we could never know: feelings, values, and (perhaps) metaphysical claims (e.g. Mr Bull is worth listening too: teachers are a noble breed). • Critics of religion might emphasise the Non-Cognitive nature of much religious language.

  7. Introducing Verification and Falsification: the Logical Positivists The first problem or criticism originates from a group of philosophers called the Logical Positivists. They were concerned with the relationship between the use of language and knowledge, rejecting as meaningless what they saw as non-cognitive (fact free) claims. Gathered in Vienna in the 1920’s, they were influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein – perhaps the greatest of all modern logical philosophers. Early in his career (in his Tractatus), Wittgenstein suggested that meaningful language is connected with the things we know from our senses. The Logical Positivists caught onto this idea and used it to challenge religion: how could religious language link with sense experience? “Whereof we cannot know, thereof we cannot speak.”

  8. Formalising the argument: A.J. Ayer ‘Verification’ means checking a statement to see if it’s true. The Verification Principle simply states that: “A statement which cannot be conclusively verified … is simply devoid of meaning.” Verificationists like Ayer hold that statements can only be meaningful if they can be demonstrated, and these can be divided into two types: (1) Analytic propositions, which are true by definition, either because (a) this is required by the definition of the words used – e.g. ‘this circle is not a square’, or (b) because they are mathematical – e.g. ‘2+2=4’. (2) Synthetic propositions, which are true by confirmation of the senses – e.g. ‘I can see that it’s roast for lunch on a Thursday’. Ayer thought that religious claims are Non-Cognitive and impossible to verify, so they are meaningless. He does not say that they are just false; it is more that they cannot really tell us anything at all. Meanwhile, a brilliant young English philosopher - A.J. Ayer - became influenced by developments in Vienna. Ayer developed the idea of a ‘Verification Principle’ and decided that the Logical Positivists had uncovered significant problems in religious and other metaphysical claims. In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), he demonstrated what he saw as the linguistic faults of religion.

  9. Statement: ‘God is loving and powerful’ … Analytically verifiable? Synthetically verifiable? … Therefore Ayer would say: MEANINGLESS “No sentence which describes the nature of a transcendent God can possess any literal significance.” Him again …

  10. A Problem in Verification • However, the idea of a Verification Principle entails a number of serious problems. How much can we really verify? For example: did King Harold die at the battle of Hastings? We can look at some historical records which say he did, but we cannot (a) observe it ourselves, or (b) subject the hypothesis to any new or further forms of testing. Perhaps a lot of what we take for knowledge defies strict verification. To get around this problem, Ayer developed the ‘Weak Verification Principle’. Instead of checking every bit of knowledge with our logic or senses, he suggested that we might know things by setting up sensible standards for evidence – eye-witness accounts, multiple sources, etc. Perhaps Harold did die after all …

  11. Some Criticisms of Verification • John Hick has criticised Ayer, suggesting that talk of God might be verifiable in principle. Convincing evidence is not apparent now, but it could be in the future; the whole idea of final judgement implies that God will be seen and known. • Richard Swinburne argues that there are propositions which no-one knows how to verify but still are not meaningless. He gives the example of toys which come out of their cupboard at night and dance around, then returning without a trace. No observation could ever establish this as truth, but it’s not meaningless. • The Verification Principle might contradict itself. The claim that a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified analytically or synthetically cannot itself be verified analytically or synthetically. Is the Verification Principle meaningless?

  12. Falsification: Anthony Flew • This is the inverse of verification; Flew claimed that any positive claim we make also assumes that we deny its negation. If I say that College work is fun, I am also saying that College work is not,not fun. • Flew argued that language is only meaningful if we can conceive of some evidence which might count against it. It’s only meaningful to say that College work is fun because students might be able to show contradictory information: boring research projects, or a limited syllabus. • The problem with ‘God talk’ is that it often implies that it could never by falsified: “I know that God loves me in a special and mysterious way which no-one may question or disprove”. If God is just a mystery, then we are not using language in a constructive, meaningful way. “If there is nothing that a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either.” Anthony Flew

  13. Responding to Falsification • The philosopher R.M. Hare took up the idea of falsification and used it to describe certain beliefs which he called ‘bliks’. A blik is a non-rational belief which could never be falsified (disproved). For example, let us say that a student is convinced that his philosophy teacher is trying to kill him but, as his friends point out, there’s no evidence at all that this is the case. The student may say that this teacher is so clever that he would never leave any evidence of any kind. Bliks are not necessarily untrue (some are sane and some insane), but they are groundless. • John Hick responds by arguing that there are reasons behind religious beliefs: experiences, Scripture, etc. He also objects that there is no way to distinguish between sane or insane bliks, and the judgement that religion is insane could only ever be arbitrary. R.M. Hare John Hick

  14. Basil Mitchell’s Objection to Falsification • Finally, Basil Mitchell objects to the idea that religious claims are groundless ‘bliks’. He argues that religious claims are grounded in some facts and that the faithful do allow that evidence may stand against what they believe. They recognise, for example, the problem of evil. However, they do not allow that belief can or should be verified in a simple manner. • Mitchell draws a parable of a man claiming to be the leader of a resistance movement – it seems that he supports the fight but sometimes seems to help the enemy. One could choose to trust him despite the contrary evidence. So with God: one could trust in God while recognising the contrary evidence: that he allows evil and suffering, or disbelief. Che – I realise this is very confusing, but if we learn this material properly we’ll get A’s in our exams.

  15. Introducing Analogy and Symbol • Another area or problem on which you tend to get exam questions is analogy and/or symbol. These could be asked separately or together, or as part of a general question on religious language. So, it’s important to learn it all! • Essentially, we are now looking at attempts to say that religious language can be used meaningfully, only not in a direct or simplistically descriptive sense. Philosophers like Aquinas and Tillich try to show how our language might relate to God.

  16. Aquinas: Why Analogy? A famous analogy is William Paley’s watchmaker analogy (we studied this last year). He explains the teleology (purpose) of the universe by comparing its design to an intricate mechanism. So, he argued, God is a bit like a watchmaker. For Aquinas, such comparisons were needed for all talk of God. • Thomas Aquinas was concerned by the problem of explaining God in human language; God is supposedly perfect and infinite, so he might defy description. • Aquinas stated that we could not speak of God ‘univocally’ (with our language being applied to him with the same meaning), but nor could we speak of him ‘equivocally’ (with our language being applied with a different meaning). This left Aquinas needing to find a way of using language as an indirect description of God. • For this he turned to ‘analogy’. An analogy is an attempt to explain the meaning of something by comparison with an example more familiar to us.

  17. UNIVOCAL LANGUAGE Language meaning exactly the same thing in all situations. EQUIVOCAL LANGUAGE Language meaning different things in different situations. Gay can mean very different things: ‘happy’, ‘homosexual’, or (among some students) ‘not very good’. Problem: If we say that ‘God is good’ means something completely different from any other ‘good’ then God would be unintelligible (we couldn’t understand him). So, Aquinas argues, we cannot speak of God equivocally. Black cat, black hat, black mat: for all these, ‘black’ means the same thing. Problem: If we say ‘that lesson was good’ then ‘good’ means something different from saying ‘God is good’, since God is perfect and infinite. So, Aquinas argues, we cannot speak of God univocally.

  18. Aquinas thought that analogy would be a good compromise, because it would avoid the difficulties of univocal and equivocal language. To make an analogy (a comparison), we would be saying that God is not just like us, but nor is he nothing like us and our world. By finding appropriate analogical language, Aquinas thought we could say broadly what God is like. This would give us partial but justifiable knowledge of God. To understand this theory, though, we must realise that it works within theism. In other words, Aquinas assumes that God exists; his theory is only helpful if we take that for granted.

  19. Analogy of Attribution • There are three forms of analogy described by Aquinas: attribution, proper proportion, and improper proportion. The first of these (attribution) is dead easy. • Aquinas thought that we could gain understanding of God by considering his role as creator. Simply, if God made the world then we could expect the world to reflect God in some way. So, we would be justified in drawing analogies between the world and God. • Aquinas also explains this by the example of a bull and its urine. The health of the animal is present in its urine; we can tell that the bull is healthy by studying this. However, the health of the bull is only complete in the bull itself. So, what the urine tells us is indirect and incomplete. So too with God: what the world tells us of his goodness is meaningful, but it is also limited. • That gives us the order of reference – God’s goodness is foremost, because he is the source of this quality. The world has goodness only in a secondary respect. The world contains a measure of goodness, being God’s creation. So, this goodness is an analogy of God’s goodness.

  20. Analogy of Proper Proportion • Here, John Hick takes on and develops Aquinas’ views. The basic idea is that humans possess God’s qualities because we are created in his image (Genesis 2). Yet, because God is perfect, we have his qualities in a lesser proportion. • Hick explains this by giving the example of faithfulness. Humans can be faithful to each other, in speech and behaviour, and so on. Dogs too can be faithful, but there is a great difference between this quality in a person and in an animal. Yet, there has to be a reasonable similarity, or we would not recognise dogs as faithful. So, there is “a dim and imperfect likeness” in the dog, as there is between us and God. • An analogy which is just a metaphor and does not really deal with proportionate qualities would be one of improper proportion. For instance, ‘God is a rock’. This ignores essential differences in qualities for the sake of a loose comparison.

  21. Criticisms of Analogy • We could criticise Aquinas’ claims about proportionate analogy, since we may dispute whether humans really were created “in the image and likeness of God”. This is challenged by Darwin’s theory of evolution and rejected by atheist Richard Dawkins. • We might wonder whether the evil in our world is also an analogy to God – this might make a perfectly good God impossible. However, a theodicy (such as Augustine’s) could resolve this problem. • We could also criticise analogy from the standpoint of verification, since the object we are drawing an analogy to (God) cannot be verified. However, for this we can refer back to criticisms of verification. • Richard Swinburne criticises Aquinas for producing an unnecessary theory. He claims that we can speak of God and humans as ‘good’ univocally, it is just that God and humans possess goodness in different ways. It is still the same essential quality, even though God is perfect and humans are not.

  22. Religious Language as Symbolic • Theologian Paul Tillich took a different approach in attempting to show that religious language can be meaningful. He focused on the manner in which symbols may effect humans. • Tillich’s first main point is that symbols are not signs. Both of these point to something beyond themselves, but only symbols ‘participate’ in what they point to. For instance, a road sign just points to a fact about a road, whereas a symbolic flag participates in the power of the king or the nation. • Tillich goes on to number four key features of symbols: (a) They point to something beyond themselves, (b) They participate in that to which they point, (c) They open up levels of reality which otherwise are closed to us, and (d) They open up dimensions of the soul which correspond to those aspects of reality. • To explain (c) and (d), Tillich compared this symbolic language to a great work of art …

  23. Firstly, in relation to point (c), that symbols open up certain levels of reality, we can see that art is a bit like this. If someone were to ask what the meaning of a great work of art is, we could give them a paraphrase. Yet, that would be useless without them being familiar with the work itself. So too for religious symbols – if we are to open up their meaning then they cannot be substituted for anything else. Judith Beheading Holofernes (Caravaggio, 1599) Secondly, in relation to point (d), that symbols open up dimensions of the soul, we could also say something similar of art. A novel could open up a new understanding of good and evil, or a painting (like the one above) could speak to us of determination and courage. There is a kind of personal participation here, which Tillich sees as an essential feature of religious symbols.

  24. So, to give a religious example, we could think of the Christian cross. It is not just a marker for Christianity, but it also makes a powerful statement. It draws Christians in to participate in what they see as the reality of the messiah. It reminds Christians of Jesus’ sacrifice and the redemption he brings. Yet, it is also a prompt from prayer, worship, and meditation. This means that Christians take an active interest in the cross, which is what Tillich thought that symbolism was all about. It is not just a sign. There is more detail you could learn on this. See Hamilton 225 ff.

  25. Criticisms of Tillich and Symbol • A number of criticisms could be levelled at what Tillich has put forward. Firstly, John Hick has argued that the idea of ‘participating’ in a symbol is unclear. Take the flag example; in what sense does this really do something? Is there really a big difference from signs here? • William Alston has objected that symbolism means that “there is no point trying to determine whether the statement is true or false”. Since Tillich’s symbols are not literally true, Alston feels that they could have no meaningful impact on us. They could not send us to heaven or hell, for example.

  26. Wittgenstein and Language Games • Finally, another area you might be asked to discuss is that of ‘Language Games’. • Much later in his career, years after he had influenced the Logical Positivists, Ludwig Wittgenstein changed his views on how language works. • In his Philosophical Investigations (published after his death), Wittgenstein focussed on the uses language can be put to. Famously, he wrote: “Don’t’ ask me for the meaning, ask for the use.” So, he was less concerned with the truth or falsity of language (contrast the Logical Positivists). • For religious language, he thought that function might be more important than meaning.

  27. Ludwig had some interesting classmates at school …

  28. Language Games • Wittgenstein argued that language works through a series of ‘language games’. That is, meaning only comes out of context; we have to know what ‘game’ that our terms are participating in. • He then went on to say that problems in philosophy may occur through misunderstanding that words can be used in different language games. • For Wittgenstein, meaning is all about observing convention – just like in a game. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. • So with religion – there might be conventional or unconventional ways to talk about God. “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”

  29. Language Games and Religion • The theory of language games could be important because of the connection it makes with the ‘coherence theory of truth’. This is the view that statements are true if they fit with other statements and beliefs which are internally consistent. • One could argue that the ‘game’ of religious language cannot be criticised because internally it is coherent and intelligible. Religious views fit with other religious views. Perhaps religion is just a ‘language game’, and it will all make sense if we just participate. • The danger of this is that it could be too relativistic, allowing that any claims are equally valid. It also doesn’t explain how we could challenge truth claims. • Also, it’s not quite clear whether Wittgenstein thought of religion as a ‘language game’. He had a certain respect for religion, but wrote little about it himself.

  30. The Religious Language Game: D.Z. Phillips • One philosopher who has applied Wittgenstein’s theory to religious belief is D.Z. Phillips. • Phillips takes on the idea that religion is a language game, extending this to the claim that religion cannot be either grounded or criticised in reason – it is a system all of its own. • For Phillips, the ‘reality’ of God or religion does not lie in the abstract issue of whether God exists, but instead is located in the words and practice of religion. What God is, is defined by the language game of faith. • Just as in the general games of life, we do not require an abstract justification to work out ‘what they are all about’, so too with religion: we have to take part to find out. “If a philosopher wants to give an account of religion, he must pay attention to what religious believers do and say … It is not the task of a philosopher to decide whether there is a God or not, but to ask what it means to affirm or deny the existence of God.”

  31. Criticisms of Wittgenstein / Phillips • Wittgenstein’s views on language are controversial, as they reject the popular view that language can be objective and scientific. He implies that our language can never convey truth in an absolute sense – can we agree with that conclusion? • Wittgenstein’s theory implies that there could be no progress in philosophical debates, which are based on misunderstandings of language. Might this opinion be unduly negative? • Phillips claims Wittgenstein to support his view of religion, but arguably this leads to irrationalism and blind faith. Why should believers be allowed to say that the game of religious language requires no justification? This could be used to justify extremism or superstition.

  32. Some points to think about: • Does language work in a game? Can you give examples? • Are Wittgenstein and/or Phillips comparable to Aquinas or Tillich? • Is Phillips justified in seeing religion another ‘language game’? • Is Wittgenstein’s later view right: is the use of language more fundamental than meaning?