The Meaning of Divine Attributes

As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing better than doing philosophy, and philosophy of religion is the chocolate-fudge frosting on the cake. In philosophy of religion, you get a full serving of each of the major areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science, to name just the most obvious examples.

Richard Swinburne points out this multi-facetted aspect of philosophy of religion in the Introduction to The Coherence of Theism:

Although the over-all topic of this book lies squarely within the field of the philosophy of religion, I have found it necessary, in order to answer the questions with which I am concerned, to write lengthy sections on many general philosophical topics and then apply the results to the claims of theism. There are detailed discussions of such topics as meaningfulness, personal identity, free will, and the objectivity of morality—topics generally considered to lie within areas of philosophy other than the philosophy of religion. This is an inevitable and to my mind welcome consequence of the integrated character of philosophy. (COT, revised ed., p. 5)

In recent weeks, I have been reading about divine attributes, particularly Swinburne’s analysis of omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect moral goodness, and eternity, plus reading some general articles by other philosophers of religion on these topics.

Swinburne attempts to clearly specify the meaning of each of these divine attributes, and to work out definitions or meanings that are logically coherent. Along the way, he tosses out various attempted definitions as being problematic or incoherent, including some definitions that are widely held by other theologians or Christian philosophers.

The analysis of divine attributes by Swinburne and other philosophers of religion, and the attempt of such thinkers to clarify the meaning of the sentence ‘God exists’ suggests to me that the question ‘Does God exist?’ belongs first and foremost to philosophy, and that although science may have something to contribute to answering this question, it is not fundamentally a scientific question.

I realize that science deals with logic and with analysis of concepts to some extent. No scholarly or intellectual field can avoid logical and conceptual analysis. However, we cannot answer the question ‘Does God exist?’ unless and until there is some clear definition or analysis of the sentence ‘God exists’, and I see no way to do such an analysis apart from providing clarification and conceptual analysis of divine attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, perfect moral goodness, eternity, etc.

Having read Richard Dawkins’ exposition of a so-called argument against the existence of God, I am completely confident that Dawkins is not in any position to do an even half-ass job of conceptual analysis and clarification of the divine attributes. Swinburne (and just about any other well-known philosopher of religion that you could name) could argue circles around Dawkins in this area.

Do we really think that scientists should devote their time and energy to logical and conceptual analysis of the paradox of the stone? Or to arguing about whether there are such things as objective moral truths? Should scientists be entrusted with figuring out whether the idea of a bodiless person is a meaningful and coherent idea? or to the question of what constitutes personal identity? Will science determine the logical compatibility of divine foreknowledge and free will? These are the sorts of questions that need to be answered in order to nail down the meanings of the divine attributes, and to clarify the sentence ‘God exists’.

Science may have something to contribute to the study of these questions, but they are essentially and fundamentally questions of logical and conceptual analysis, and they are the very sort of questions that philosophers deal with all the time. Scientists are, in general, not well suited for dealing with these sorts of issues, as Dawkins has made so very clear by his failed attempt at dealing with the question ‘Does God exist?’.

It is not at all clear that the sentence ‘God exists’ is a meaningful and coherent sentence. But we cannot begin to evaluate the truth or falsity of this sentence until we determine whether it is a meaningful and coherent sentence. Making such a determination is the job of philosophers of religion, not of scientists.

One person, however, can sometimes excel in more than one field. So, it is possible that someone could be both a brilliant philosopher of religion and also an excellent scientist. Such a person might produce a solid logical and conceptual analysis of the sentence ‘God exists’, show this sentence to be meaningful and coherent, and then go on to evaluate the truth of the clarified sentence in terms of scientific knowledge and/or investigation.

But such a person will be doing logical and conceptual analysis as a philosopher and then following that up with doing empirical and scientific work as a scientist. If Dawkins can some day figure out how to do a good logical and conceptual analysis of ‘God exists’, then this will show us that Dawkins has learned how to do philosophy. It will not show us that science is capable of answering the question ‘Does God exist?’