Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Does God Have Hands?

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein attempts to illustrate how misunderstanding the nature of language can lead to philosophical perplexity. For example, (and this isn’t a great example) take the sentence “He has lost his mind.” We know (or think we know) what this means, but misunderstanding this sentence can cause one to ask bad questions, like “Where is his mind now?” or “Where are minds located?”

For Wittgenstein, our language develops, in part, by our using certain familiar phrases and concepts to talk about novel situations. For instance, we start off talking about feeding a baby, then feeding a dog, then feeding an ego, then feeding a meter. But, clearly, feeding an ego is not like feeding a baby. These two uses of the word “feed” simply resemble one another. They bear a “family resemblance,” to use Wittgenstein’s term.

Think now about two ways in which something can be “in” something else. Gold can be in someone’s mouth and also, one can have a pain in one’s mouth. It makes sense to ask where the gold was before it was in the mouth, but not where the pain was before it was in the mouth.

When we begin to use familiar words to talk about novel situations, some ideas associated with those words will transfer over to the new way of talking. Some will not.

Now that we have this Wittgensteinian point on the table, I wish to make a point about religious language and religious disagreement.

It seems that talk about god is an extension of talk about human agents. So, we could understand the story of this extension in the following way: our ancestors had a full vocabulary for talk about human agents. Our ancestors believed that human agents have emotions and beliefs and move things in the world with their bodies. One day a few of our ancestors witnessed an item move in the world without the aid of a human (or animal) agent (say they saw a tree just fall over). To explain this phenomenon, they posit an invisible agent. From this development, it was just a hop, skip and jump to a god.

(Now, you’re going to want to say “Surely, the language used to talk about my god didn’t develop in this way.” Fine. Just take the story to be about someone else’s god).

My point is this. When the language of human agents was extended to talk about invisible agents, it wasn’t clear which ideas were to transfer with the language. Do invisible agents have invisible hands? Do invisible agents have thoughts, beliefs, fears, desires? Do invisible agents make mistakes in the same way that human agents do? Does it make sense to be upset with an invisible agent? To ask it a question? Do invisible agents have invisible parents?

I think the fact that there seem to be no agreed upon answers to some these questions is responsible for some of the seemingly intractable contemporary disagreement about god.

Some take god talk to be literal (Pat Robertson) others take it to be metaphorical (but a metaphor for what?). While Robertson takes it that god gets angry in the same way that human agents do, others take this type of talk to only approximate the truth of the matter.

Some think it makes sense to criticize god by the standards of rationality (Example: “Why would god create people who are sexually attracted to members of their own sex, yet blame them for acting on their sexual desires?”). While others think that god’s actions are not the types of things that can be criticized by the standards of rationality. Folks in this latter camp say things like “God’s reason is not our reason.”

The same goes for the notion of criticizing god by the standards of morality.

We just don’t agree about how god talk is to work.

So, the upshot of this discussion is this: Before we begin arguing about whether god exists or which god exists or whether god should be worshiped and how, we would do well to come to some agreement about which features of agency talk transfer over to god talk and which do not.

Clearly, agreement on these matters will not end religious debate. But, I think some reflection on how god talk does and should work will make discussions about religion more productive.


  1. I think this line of critique is right on, but I don't know if it will be of much help. Whether you think that our concepts of agency, rationality, morality, etc., all extend to discussing god will likely be claimed by someone with firm religious convictions to be properly within the scope of those convictions (like your comment about god's reason vs. human reason). Now I guess you can keep pressing on the point that, by virtue of using the words of human action, god is at least implicitly subject to something like it. But I worry that anyone you would want to persuade (of the terms of the debate, mind, not of the correct way to resolve it) will see this as merely terminological. So what if we keep using those words? We hardly have words that really describe god, so the best we can do is metaphors (one might say).

    Incidentally, have you read Dennett on the development of religion as ascription of agency to the natural world? There's probably not a ton there that you couldn't guess yourself if you haven't, but it tells a story along the lines of your brief summary.

  2. What is god again? I can never seem to wrap my mind around that concept.