Thursday, December 31, 2015

Genesis and Reference

Ed Feser has an interesting post about Christians, Muslims, and the reference of “God”.  Nearly 300 comments, including some very bad philosophy. The issue is essentially a linguistic and semantical one, not theological. Ed correctly points out that a speaker’s erroneous beliefs don’t entail that he is not referring to the same thing that speakers with correct beliefs are referring to, mentioning the example made famous by Keith Donellan.  He points out that it is “perfectly coherent to say that Muslims are “importantly” and “crucially” wrong precisely because they are referring to the very same thing Christians are when they use the word “God,” and that they go on to make erroneous claims about this referent.  That the errors are “important” or “crucial” is not by itself sufficient to prevent successful reference.

But then Ed claims (in a comment on his own post) that Jews, Christians and Muslims also use “God” to mean “the uncaused cause of everything other than himself, who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, etc.” 

Why? By ‘God’ don’t they all just mean the being referred to at the beginning of Genesis “In the beginning GOD created the heavens and the earth”, and who is referred to continuously throughout the old Testament?  When any of them uses the name used in the Bible, they are using it with the same reference as the Bible, the text from which they learned the name.

So it is perfectly rational for a Christian to deny that God (i.e. the being referred to in Genesis et al) is the uncaused cause of everything other than himself. I.e. the proposition ‘God is the uncaused cause of everything other than himself’ is synthetic rather than analytic.   But it is contradictory to say that God is not the being referred to at the beginning of Genesis, at least if the use of ‘God’ is intended to continue the chain of reference begun in Genesis and which extends throughout the Bible.