Swinburne’s Case for God – Part 3

In the first of five phases of his case for God, Swinburne argues that the assertion ‘God exists’ makes a coherent factual statement.  What is a coherent factual statement?  More specifically, what is a statement? and when is a statement a coherent statement?

First, it is clear that when someone says ‘God exists’, that person is uttering a string of words.  In this case, two words: ‘God’ and ‘exists’.  But not every utterance of a string of words constitutes a meaningful utterance.  Some utterances of words fail to be meaningful because they do not constitute a grammatical sentence (or series of grammatical sentences).  To be a sentence, a string of words must conform to the rules of grammar.  Thus, uttering the following string of words fails to be a meaningful utterance, because this string of words is not a grammatical sentence (COT, p.2):

upon opens nervously Greece stone hope.

An utterance of a string of words can also fall short of being a meaningful utterance, because the words in the string do not have established meanings.  For example,  uttering these words does not constitute a meaningful utterance (COT, p.1):

Shouki blah nouki.

For the utterance of a string of words to constitute a meaningful utterance, it must consist of a grammatical sentence (or sentences), and the words in the sentence must have meanings (COT, p.1,2, and 11).  Clearly an utterance of the string of words ‘God exists’ constitutes a grammatical sentence, and thus meets at least one of the two criteria for being making a meaningful utterance.  The word ‘exists’ is clearly a meaningful word, so the main question remaining is whether the word ‘God’ is a word that has a meaning.  If so, then the utterance of the string of words ‘God exists’ would express a meaningful utterance.

Sentences must be distinguished from what is expressed by the utterance of a sentence, because different sentences can be used to express the same thing, and because the same sentence can be used to express different things on different occasions or when uttered by different persons (COT, p.11).

Some meaningful sentences express statements and others do not.  Questions, commands, and requests are expressed by means of meaningful sentences, but such meaningful sentences do not express statements (COT, p.2):

What time is it? [Question]
Sit down and shut up! [Command]
Please pass the salt. [Request]

A meaningful indicative sentence “normally expresses a claim about how things are.” (COT, p.11); that is, it expresses a statement.  However, some meaningful indicative sentences do not express statements, such as performatives (COT, p.12):

I now pronounce you man and wife.

According to Swinburne, the utterance of a meaningful indicative sentence should be presumed to express a statement, unless someone can provide a good reason to believe that a particular meaningful indicative sentence (or a particular subset of meaningful indicative sentences) fails to do so (COT, p.37).

So, the utterance of a string of words can, in some cases. be the utterance of a meaningful indicative sentence, and can express a statement, that is, express a claim about how things are.

The statements that are expressed by the utterance of meaningful indicative sentences can be coherent or incoherent.  According to Swinburne, a coherent statement is

…a statement such that we can conceive of it and any other statement entailed by it being true, in the sense that we can understand what it would be like for them to be true.
(COT, p.13)

The following are examples of meaningful indicative sentences that express coherent statements (COT, p.13):

All men are mortal.
The moon is made of green cheese.
I am now writing.

Although ‘The moon is made of green cheese.’ expresses a false statement, it also expresses a coherent statement, because we understand what it would be like for the moon to be made of green cheese.  We can conceive of it being the case that the moon is made of green cheese.

Some statements expressed by meaningful indicative sentences are incoherent statements, meaning that it is not the case that we can understand what it would be like for the statement to be true (COT,p.13):

Honesty weighs ten pounds.
Some squares have five sides.
Three is the square of one.

These are meaningful indicative sentences. They are grammatical sentences composed of words that have established meanings.  These sentences express statements; however, we do not understand what it would be like for the statement to be true.

Any statement that is a logical self-contradiction is an incoherent statement, because we cannot understand what it would be like for the statement to be true (COT, p.14):

It is Thursday, and it is not Thursday.

Not all incoherent statements contain such obvious self-contradictions.  But according to Swinburne, incoherent statements that do not contain obvious self-contradictions, do contain non-obvious contradictions.  That is to say, all incoherent statements are either self-contradictions or entail a self-contradiction (COT, p.38). So, the incoherence of statements is always based on logical self-contradiction.

For example, the following meaningful indicative sentence expresses an incoherent statement, but does not contain an obvious self-contradiction:

Honesty weighs ten pounds.

Honesty is not the sort of thing that can have a weight.  Honesty is not a physical object, and only physical objects can have a weight.  So, according to Swinburne, this sentence entails the following self-contradiction:

Honesty is a physical object, and honesty is not a physical object.

So, although there is no direct and obvious self-contradiction in the original statement, it entails a self-contradiction, which explains why we cannot understand what it would be like for honesty to weigh ten pounds (COT, p. 19-20).