Virtual Colloquium: H.D.P. Burling, “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.”
January 20, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

Welcome to the first Virtual Colloquium of the spring term! Today’s paper is “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited” by H.D.P. Burling. Hugh Burling is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge (UK) and a Visiting Graduate Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He work has been published in Religious Studies. His research concerns religious disagreement, method in theology, and the concept of God.

Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.

H.D.P. Burling

We instinctively characterise religious disagreement as disagreement either about what there is, or about what the same thing – God – is like. A common dialectical move made in modern theology, both academic and popular, sits between these two possibilities. Often, we read a theist of one stripe claiming that theists of another stripe don’t worship the same God. They are ‘idolaters’, or, more diplomatically, they just so badly misconceive God that they don’t ‘mean’ the same ‘thing’ by His names. It is not easy to explain what is mistaken about this move when it seems mistaken. My first publication concerned a particular version of it, in which natural theology is attacked as having to do with some other being than the God Christianity concerns. ‘Debunking’ local instances of the manoeuvre is worthwhile, but I wasn’t satisfied, and wanted a more general strategy which might show what is wrong with adopting partisan definitions of ‘God’ in order to avoid deeper engagement with others’ claims about God.

The strategy I adopt in the following article is to regard that manoeuvre as just one of the many features of theistic religious language which is curious – one of the explananda for a semantics for theism. So, we start by asking what we ‘mean’ by ‘God’, and answer that question by attempting to infer the rules of the ‘theology game’ by watching people play it. The conclusion I come to is that ‘God’ implicitly denotes, in Russell’s sense, whichever being is worthy of our worship. This secures co-reference between theists of extremely different stripes, whilst explaining the high-stakes nature of theological disagreement, and why parties to it o not just ‘walk away’ when apparent parity is reached, or one party attempts to squirrel his definition of “God” in favour of his claims about God. If both parties implicitly understand something Anselmian by ‘God’, then when the Christian insists that by ‘God’ he just means the Holy Trinity, the Muslim’s response to this makes sense. Rather than walking away (‘If they’re what you mean by ‘God’, I don’t care what you claim about them’), she will challenge him.

The article itself shows how my crypto-Anselmian understanding of God copes better with other desiderata for a semantics for theism than rival theories in the nascent literature. The view I defend makes it very easy for humans to successfully pick out God with ‘God’ because the basic ethics of worship are something we pick up fast, and, plausibly, most of us are introduced to God-talk in an appropriate context to get stuck in with worshipping the One we intentionally pick out with that Name. Kripkean views according to which ‘God’ is a proper name whose reference is passed down via a causal chain, however, threaten ease of access for speakers because the chain is so messy and fragile. Non-Anselmian descriptivist views struggle because their content is often harder for speakers to have in mind.

I hope the article is persuasive in defending a view about the semantics of ‘God’ which, I think, is the best candidate for being ‘the’ traditional view. (I think that Anselmian descriptivisms, and descriptivisms which appeal to lists of metaphysical divine names, only come apart in practice when our axiologies do not reflect those of the theologians responsible for the lists of divine names.) But I also hope it’s persuasive to theologians who lean towards identifying God in a confessional manner. Otherwise, I think identifying God the way I do can help explain a lot about the commonalities between different behaviours and literatures we call ‘religious’.

Within the scope of the article, I do not have space to go through alternative iterations of the ‘Specified Singleton’ view, other than my preferred option. So I’d be particularly curious to hear about alternatives which strike readers as preferable.

The complete paper is available here

  • Lauren Mandaville

    This is a well-thought-out paper, relevant not only to inter-faith discussions, but also in response to arguments of the sort that ‘we got rid of Zeus, why should Yahweh be different?’ Your definition helps clarify that in rejecting theism, we reject not only a particular individual, but rather the entire idea of a being worthy of worship.
    I was a little confused about your division between God and gods in polytheism as being ‘worthy of worship’. Are we referring, for instance, to Zeus, or to some Platonic ideal? I would also wonder how this definition relates to pantheism, if we ourselves are part of this being. Finally, if we are to from the beginning set out conditions for beings worthy of worship or not, could we not simply take the definition a step further, and attempt to further define “worthy of worship” as “the most excellent being,” or something similar? How do these concepts relate as signifiers?
    Thank you for your work.

    January 23, 2017 — 13:18
    • Hugh Burling

      Hi Lauren, thanks for your comments!

      On the Zeus question, I didn’t want my account to easily exclude pagan gods – the intention of that remark was just to point out that, wherever there’s ‘theology’, and ‘God’, there’s the notion of worship, and it’s the familiar notion. It was intended to block off Bayne and Nagasawa’s criticism of the notion of worship, that the attitudes which apparently ground it can’t explain the uniqueness thesis. According to them, if praise grounds worship, then too many will be worship-worthy. But I wanted to point out that there’s a ‘strong’ sense of ‘worship’ even in those religions which (weak sense) worship many gods, and that strong sense follows uniqueness.

      If you want to look for an account of worship’s grounds which ensures that deities like Zeus are excluded, Gwiazda’s does that. And his account also fills in the notion so that only the perfect being is worthy of worship. I’m happy to be on the record as saying I believe that only the perfect being is worthy of worship. But I actually think that second stage you refer to is not very easy to make. (And certainly couldn’t fit in the scope of this piece. It try to pull it off on my own restrictions, maybe even with some success, in the chapter of my doctoral thesis in which this argument is nested.)

      I wanted to keep as thin a notion of worship as I could, so that the worship account could beat its rivals on accessibility and co-reference. The more claims about worship-worthiness I pack in to the notion of worship “God”-users must have, the less accessible God is via “God”; the more content I claim ‘worthiness of worship’ implicitly has, the less consistent its spread across diverse religions this univocal ‘worship’ will be, and that threatens co-reference.

      Finally, on pantheism: outside the context of the argument, so I don’t burden it with this…I struggle to understand what pantheism is about, which would make me interested in a semantics for “God” which secures co-reference for pantheists who make claims about “God”, and where pantheism is not reducible to some version of theism. I suspect that for versions of pantheism which isn’t so reducible, the pantheos won’t plausibly be worthy of worship, and so these pantheists won’t co-refer with theists. I think that’s actually probably fine. (If pantheism is just the claim that creatures are parts of God, then the pantheos could easily be worthy of worship. My father is worthy of praise, even if no human cells are worthy of praise.)

      January 25, 2017 — 14:17
  • Tim Perrine


    Hi Hugh,

    Thank you for the paper. An interesting topic that I’ve thought little about! I have a couple of comments, but I fear they may not be helpful as this is not a topic I’m very familiar with.

    First, just an observation. Presumably, God shouldn’t worship itself. Further, my laptop isn’t the kind of thing that could worship God. Thus, when we say “worthy of worship” we don’t mean “worthy of worship by everyone.” Rather, we have in mind something like “worthy of worship by us.” But that means on your proposal you’re definition of ‘God’ seems to be making reference to us. I don’t know if that’s objectionable—at least I haven’t come up with an objection—but it does strike me as curious.

    Second, ordinary life is full of addition, where we use the “plus” function. Consider now all of the actual correct usages of “plus” by us as well as our dispositions to use plus. Kripke argued, and some were convinced, that all of our actual usage and disposition are consistent with us not using the “plus” function we all know and love but some other mathematical function. (For instance, there are gerrymandered mathematical functions that agree with plus except on one input that no has ever used or is disposed to use.) In response to Kripke (and similar issues raised by Putnam), some authors has urged that the reference of our words are not just determined by us or our communities. Rather, some entities/properties are more “eligible” than others and serve as “reference magnates” keeping our words from referring to less eligible/more gerrymandered things.

    My question is if you think embracing such a view might be helpful for some of the views you criticize. I’m not sure how exactly this would go. But consider the Proper Name view. Perhaps on such a view deviant causal chains are avoided because God is the most “eligible” referent for ‘God’. Thus, one can be confident that one is still referring to God these thousands of years later because, despite all the “theological acquisitions and merges” one’s tradition contains, nothing comes close to God as being an eligible referent for ‘God.’

    I also have a comment on the definite description view though, again, I’m not sure to what degree it might give rise to a cogent criticism. On a simple view, the referent of a proper name N is whatever unique satisfies a definition description D. As you note, there are lots of problems for such a simple view. But consider a more elaborate view, according to which the referent of a proper name N is whatever satisfies the most definition descriptions of D1…Dn. Or a more complex view yet on which a set of definition descriptions D1…Dn are associated with a name, but satisfying some of those descriptions “counts more” for being the referent of that name than others. The referent of a proper name would then be whatever thing uniquely satisfied the most of the most significant definition descriptions. (I think Searle defended a version of this more complex, but I can’t remember where.)

    I wonder if one of these more complex views might handle some of the problems you mention in section 4. Thus, even if there is not a single definition description all users of ‘God’ can agree on, it still could be that they are all referring to God because they agree that God satisfies enough of the definition descriptions associated with ‘God’. Likewise, for the “satan case” (page 9), it might be that satan does well in being the referent of various definition descriptions (e.g. ‘the being that revealed itself to our people’) but because satan does poorly on other more significant definition descriptions that are associated with ‘God’ (e.g. being a good being, being non-created, etc.), our usage of ‘God’ still refers to God.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting paper!

    January 23, 2017 — 14:48
    • Hugh Burling

      Hi Tim! Thanks for your comments!

      – Shouldn’t God worship itself? I don’t know. I come from a tradition in which claims are often made to the effect that God sacrifices Himself to Himself, so I don’t have strong intuitions.

      In the Proslogion, there is a great passage (I think in S9) where Anselm tries to reconcile divine justice and mercy by pointing out that justice involves rewarding merit as well as punishing wrongdoing. God, being infinitely good, deserves infinite reward. God, being infinitely just, will therefore reward Himself infinitely. One way for Him to do this is by being merciful to His creature when they’re wicked.

      But your point was more general, which is that “worthy of our worship” is the definition. This is what I have, and I actually think it’s a feature, not a bug. I’ll try to put this concisely, if inchoately. Consider the reference-splitting case: on the “worthy of our worship” definition, each speaker implicitly includes the other among “us”, and this helps explain the stakes involved in their disagreement. Given this indexing, the definition can help explain appropriate reference-splitting disagreement resolutions. Perhaps its plausible that Greeks and Jews don’t mean the same thing by “God”, intuitively because the characters of Zeus and Yahweh are so different. My account unpacks this: if the Greeks are rationally worshipping Zeus, they must have really very different notions of worship and its grounds, than the Jews. So Zeus might in fact be worthy of their ‘worship’, but not ours.

      – Sullivan does indeed introduce referential magnetism to bolster the Proper Name view against semantic fragility. I can see how a general commitment to magnetism might be a product of picking a simple theory about names like Kripke’s. My doubts about applying it here are that we can’t use it to explain the difference between good and bad cases of splitting, except in a partisan way. I.e. there’s nothing to stop the Cardinal Burkes and Karl Barths from insisting that the Trinity is the magnet for “God”. I don’t know how one argues about who/what the magnet really is. I suppose if I had a great argument for adopting the Proper Name view about “God”, I might then appeal to magnetism as a component in Kripke’s account of proper names. But I take it that the best argument for the Proper Name view is that “God” seems like a proper name, rather than a title, and I think that seeming is easy to explain and discount.

      – I think the cluster concept variant is a natural improvement on descriptivism, but to me it seems like the Anselmian view would still operate as an explanation for whatever gets in the cluster, and the ranking the cluster’s items has. Then we have two options: deny the Anselmian view and insist some other ‘master concept’ does the work instead of worthiness of worship (like, e.g. Schellenberg’s ‘ultimacy’), or deny that there’s any master concept, and that the cluster has arbitrary contents and an arbitrary ranking produced by the natural history of religion. The first option wasn’t an investigation I could fit in (press me and I’ll tell you why I prefer the one I went for in more detail). The second seems like a preference for a null hypothesis which makes no predictions, over a theory which does some explaining.

      January 25, 2017 — 14:39
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