Chapter 11: Talk About Talk About God or Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics

Common Sense Christianity
by C. Randolph Ross

Chapter 11: Talk About Talk About God or Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics

“Shall windy words have an end?” “I have uttered what I did not understand.” (Job 16:3, 42:3)


Time to talk about God, I said. But no — alas! First we must talk about talking about God.

It is frustrating to have to stop every few steps to examine our presuppositions and ground rules. But the alternative is worse. To charge ahead without a road map will only lead us to confusion. So before we proceed to talk about God we must consider several questions:

I. First, does our modern common sense even permit God-talk? We will (A) look at the extreme viewpoint which suggested that it does not, (B) look at some of the developments which make it clear that it does, and then (C) draw some conclusions about common sense and God-talk.

II. Once we have established the possibility of talking about God we need to look at (A) how the rules of logic apply to this use of language, and (B) what kind of verification is appropriate.

III. Finally in this chapter we will touch briefly on the difference between speaking conceptually of God and speaking in images, and the appropriate use of each.

I. Does Modern Common Sense Allow for God-Talk?

Let us begin by repeating our basic common sense of how the world works. We share a sense that we live in a closed causal universe. Events in this world are explained by reference to causes in this world. God does not go “zap:” intervening from “someplace else” into the processes of this world.

This is not to say that there are no phenomena beyond our powers of explanation. Indeed there are. But we assume that there is an explanation for each of these which fits our common sense, which we just don’t know yet.

Does this common sense that the world is a closed causal unit allow room for God? Some would say that our “modern scientific” common sense doesn’t allow for any reality that we can’t touch, weigh and measure. Have we, in fact, found ourselves carried inexorably to this extreme?

IA. The Road to Logical Positivism

There has certainly been an element of this in our culture in the last couple of centuries. There has been a tendency to try to explain every possible phenomenon in terms of the physical sciences. During this time physics and chemistry and biology amassed one discovery and conquest after another. Intelligent people got swept up in the feeling of triumph and declared not only that we could explain all physical processes this way, but that we could explain all of reality with these sciences. This led to a circular redefinition of reality. Once people accepted as an article of faith that modern science could explain the totality of our world, they had to say that anything which fell outside the scope of science isn’t real. This is the attitude that says, “If it can’t be studied and analyzed by chemists or physicists or biologists, it doesn’t exist.”

It is very understandable that some people would be led to this extreme. Modern science is the basis of our technology, the basis of our material way of life. It depends on precise measurements, repeatable experiments and strict controls — none of which is applicable to the spiritual realm. If you adopt this kind of science as the appropriate way of investigating all of reality, then you also close your eyes to anything not open to this sort of approach. Which may be quite a bit.

The question we have to answer is whether this attitude has permeated our common sense. Certainly we must admit that elements of it have crept in. But this is far different from saying that our modern common sense has adopted wholesale the view that only the material world is real. It has not. This view has had only a temporary sway over a minority of people. And in fact its high water mark was already past by the third quarter of the twentieth century, having reached its zenith at different times in different disciplines.

We have a strong urge to try to explain all of reality in one way, so it was probably inevitable that the methodology of the physical sciences would be carried into inappropriate areas. If we had to pick one symbolic high point of this invasion it would be the publication of A. J. Ayer’s Language. Truth and Logic in 1935. In this work Ayer propounded “logical positivism”1 with his “principle of verifiability”. He maintained that for a statement to be either true or false — and thus, for it to have any meaning at all — it must be verifiable. That is, we must be able to test any statement, must be able to prove it right or wrong. (Here is a principle right out of the classical physical sciences.) If it can’t be tested, said Ayer, it doesn’t have any meaning for us.

It was quickly pointed out that this would mean that a statement such as “the moon is made of green cheese” is meaningless. But while “the moon is made of green cheese” may have been unverifiable — remember, this was in 1935 — and may be an altogether silly thing to say, we all know perfectly well what it means. That’s how we know it’s silly. It is not meaningless. So Ayer decided that a statement need be only verifiable “in principle”. That is, we do not actually need to be able to verify it at the present time with our present technology, but it must be possible that we could do so if we had the necessary capabilities, just as we found out for sure several decades later about the moon (for those who had lingering doubts).

But there are still a lot of statements that are not testable or verifiable even “in principle”. Ayer would rule out as meaningless such statements as “God is good”, “God is responsible for the evils in the world”, and “God loves you”. Now each of these three statements is debatable. Each has been subject to fuzzy thinking at times. Each has proven to be of interest to people and has in fact been the subject of intense debates. They are all impossible to prove or disprove empirically. They are, in fact, unverifiable. So logical positivism would say that they don’t mean anything.

But are they meaningless? What do you think? Do you have an idea as to what any of these three statements is saying? If you do, then Ayer is wrong.

Or, to give another example: a philosophy professor of mine claimed to have an invisible, weightless elf that lived inside his watch. As unverifiable — and as silly — as this statement was, you and I both know perfectly well what he meant. Which was precisely his point. It is simply not true that unverifiable statements cannot have meaning for us.

As for A. J. Ayer, within a couple of decades his book was relegated to the ignominious lot of a classic example to show undergraduates how not to reason. (See J. L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia [Oxford University Press, 1962].) Even in the skeptical world of modern analytic philosophy, common sense could not be dragged into adopting a world-view based on the physical sciences alone. Here and there, of course, different individuals reached this point (and some still do). But the tide had already turned, not least in the sciences themselves.

IB. Signposts on the Road Back

We will note three areas which serve to highlight the journey back from logical positivism and which also show that our underlying common sense does not itself rule out the spiritual.

(1) Modern (or “Post-Newtonian”) Physics2

In the orderly world of Victorian physics there were particles and there were waves, and the two quite properly refrained from fraternizing, and all physical processes were at least in principle predictable. Since then our understanding of the basic pieces and forces that make up the world has undergone a revolution.

Without going into unnecessary detail let us just note two of the cornerstones of modern physics. First: the basic building-blocks of the universe cannot be neatly classified as either waves or particles in the traditional sense. Instead they behave sometimes as one, sometimes as the other. Our neat traditional dichotomies of matter vs. energy, body vs. mind, cannot be maintained at the most basic level.

Second: the result of a given action on a particular individual atomic particle cannot be predicted. That’s right, the certain predictability of cause and effect also disappears at the subatomic level. We are left with probability. On a large scale it can be a very strong probability, but it is probability nonetheless.

Our view of the physical world can no longer be what it once was. The neat certainties and easy distinctions of Newtonian physics turned out to be too neat and too easy and too naÔve. Even if we don’t remember — or never learned — what Einstein meant by general or specific relativity, we need to understand that theoretical physics has drastically changed our understanding of reality. In fact, physics now resembles metaphysics more than anything else, with its theories to explain how realities unobservable by us produce the visible world. More importantly, mechanical certainty has given way to probability and the matter vs. energy distinction has faded away.

Why does this matter? For two reasons: it takes away the simple, mechanistic understanding that hard, physical, certain reality was the paradigm by which we must understand the world. We can’t even understand the physical world this way! And secondly, it points to deeper realities underlying the visible world. If our common sense can accept this for physical forces then surely it does not rule this out for spiritual forces and entities.

(2) Holistic Medicine3

The medical sciences made such great strides in the past century that some physicians, concentrating on the vast amount of knowledge about our physical processes, forgot that there are other factors which affect human health. And some preferred to avoid such an “unscientific” area as human emotion. But this could not last for very long. The connections between our mental/emotional health and our physical health were just too apparent, with cause and effect running in both directions.

So the lesson was relearned. In the 1970s two movements in this direction made significant progress. The first is “holistic medicine”, a general movement towards treating the whole patient instead of just physical symptoms. Unfortunately, in some areas “holistic medicine” came to mean anything that wasn’t part of Western scientific medicine. Thus it came not only to mean a concern for a person’s psycho-social (as well as physical) well-being, but it came also to include some practices which remain untested and which strike some as quackery. However, regardless of whether “holistic medicine” means to you the broader movement or the questionable fringe, the fact is that it has helped re-establish what many folks never forgot: that if we limit our attention to the strictly physical aspects of a person’s health, we limit our ability to adequately treat many physical conditions. The emotional/mental realm has power to affect the physical. Did anyone seriously doubt that people can — and do — die of broken hearts?

The second movement, much more specific, represents the inclusion of a more holistic approach in the medical establishment. It is the creation of the “new” physician specialty of “family practice”. While a number of factors combined to establish this as a specialty — complete with three-year medical school residencies and national boards and certification — it represents a definite move away from treating human beings piecemeal. Family physicians are trained to consider the whole of an individual’s psycho-social situation in treating a problem.

Both holistic medicine and family practice represent a renewed recognition that our emotional health has a real impact on our physical health. This is important to our current argument because it shows that our common sense — and even our medical science — recognizes that even our physical health, much less reality as a whole, cannot be reduced to physical processes alone.

(3) Parapsychology

Under the rubric of parapsychology is grouped the study of such things as telepathy, clairvoyance, communications with the dead and other exotic phenomena and pseudo-phenomena. Personally, I do not believe in demons or magic or Ouija boards. In fact, I’m rather convinced that they are bunk. I am not so sure about ghosts, but have never (to my knowledge) seen one myself — which state of affairs, I hasten to add, I have no urge whatsoever to alter.

Surely the only attitude to take towards claims in this area is a healthy skepticism. Of what possible relevance, then, is parapsychology?

If we are honest skeptics, and if we bother to acquaint ourselves with even a small portion of the available evidence, we will find — even after we dismiss a lot of reports as pure rubbish — that it is impossible to deny that there are some strange sorts of communication going on. (Or perhaps they only seem strange to those of us who were in danger of surrendering too much to the physical sciences.) The plain fact is that there are a number of people who have known immediately when a relative has died, or who were able to lead their families to their great-grandfather’s grave in the dark in a cemetery they’d never been to before, or who have sensed approaching danger in a very specific way. There may not be a great lot of people with these experiences, but there are far too many to deny or ignore. And some of them are very credible witnesses. The two people who I have known who had experiences of this type were rather skeptical sorts.

I would personally be much more comfortable if we could just deny that this sort of thing happens. But we cannot. The evidence is too compelling. These phenomena are even beginning to receive serious study at respected academic institutions.

The point here is not that ghosts may exist. The point here is rather that some people have experiences that involve a reality beyond our known physical world. And whether or not we choose to believe these people, we are willing to grant that it is possible that this happened to them and that it is worth our while to investigate some of these phenomena. Our common sense recognizes that reality is not limited to the physical universe.

IC. Conclusions on Common Sense and God-Talk

We began Section I of this chapter with the question of whether our common sense today allows for talk about God at all. I have briefly noted some aspects of modern physics, medicine, and parapsychology to point to what you probably already knew: there is nothing in our modern common sense itself which rules out our consideration of a spiritual reality.

It needs also to be said that common sense is not a single, monolithic way of thinking without variability or flexibility. It has been in some degree of flux for at least the last five centuries. But while there are times when the geography of our common sense may alter suddenly and drastically in one area of thought — the earthquakes of Copernicus and Darwin, for instance — it is more often like a glacier. Movement isn’t noticeable at all. You can only tell movement has happened by looking at the marker of its position a year or a decade or a century ago.

It is not unusual for a small segment to try to carry the mass of common sense with it to one extreme or another. But glaciers are not easily convinced. While a section of ice may lead in a new direction or to new limits, making the most noise and gaining the most attention, these peninsulas are also the most likely to be those that break off and fall into the sea as icebergs, floating away and disappearing.

The surrender of the whole universe to the physical sciences, represented by A. J. Ayer in philosophy (and by others in medicine and psychology) was a loud, daring little ice floe that tried to pull the glacier with it, failed, and fell into the sea. (Two other fringes of the glacier at present shall meet a similar fate, both trying to pull in the opposite direction of Ayer and company. One is mysticism taken to the extreme of being anti-rational, the other is the rear guard counteroffensive being conducted against evolution. Both will pull on the glacier, will fail to drag us along in spite of the noise they make, and will end up as icebergs, impressive but of nuisance value only.)

Meanwhile the glacial wisdom of our common sense has reasserted itself, having freed itself of an extreme, obstreperous, largely academic faction by shedding it into the sea. Does this modern common sense, viewing the world as a closed causal continuum and explaining physical effects — with some notable exceptions — with physical causes, allow for talk about God? Yes. Perhaps not the God of the Old Testament — the glacier has moved a good way since then — but yes, talk of God. Yes, because the strict dichotomies of matter vs. energy, body vs. mind, physical vs. spiritual, simply do not work. The two interact and are at times indistinguishable. Yes, because we recognize that there are mental and spiritual phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of the physical but which are nonetheless a real part of our world. Yes, because we recognize the power of the psyche to affect the body. Yes, because our common sense allows for something more beyond visible reality.

Our common sense does not allow for talk of a God that goes “zap” from “out there” somewhere, for a God who is a specific interventionist. But it does allow for a God who is in the context, who is somehow in and through the processes of our world, physical and spiritual, in processes that are much more varied and complex and wonderful than we have yet been able to comprehend.

II. Language, Truth and Logic

A. The Logic of God-Talk

Alright: our common sense allows us to talk about God. But talking about God is still different from talking about anyone else. This much is obvious. The question here is: is talking about God so different from talking about your best friend or your dog or Millard Fillmore that a different set of rules applies?

This is not a frivolous question. It is not uncommon for people engaged in theology to hold that human language, when applied to God, must have a very different meaning, since God is so very different from us — different not just in degree but in kind. God is perfect and infinite, we are imperfect and finite. Finite words cannot be used of God without altering their meaning.

This sounds reasonable, but one has to be careful where it leads. For instance, I have had a very intelligent young man tell me that he believed that God foreordained all of our actions and also gave us complete freedom. I pointed out to him that as I understood these words, either we have our actions foreordained or we have freedom of choice. (After all, if someone’s already decided what we’re going to do it’s not really left up to us, is it?) My friend agreed that this was indeed so for the human use of these words but insisted that when used in connection with God fore-ordination and freedom, predestination and our own responsibility for our end, were compatible.

In other words, he was saying that when we use words to speak about God we change their meanings — so much so that opposites are no longer opposites. This presents a couple of serious problems. First, it allows for cheap talk about God. You can say something about God without meaning what you say, without taking responsibility for it. For example, my friend admitted that his words were contradictory for humans, but not, somehow, when used of God. Or for example, if I were to say to you, “God is angry at you.” You might respond, “Oh, you mean God has emotions like you and I, and a negative one is directed at me.” But then I could simply come back with, “No, that’s not what I mean at all. It means something different when we’re talking about God.”

The second problem with this approach is that we can’t be sure just what is being said about God. If the meaning of a word is stretched beyond recognition, if all we’re told is that it doesn’t mean the same as usual and opposites are no longer opposites — then we no longer know what the meaning is. In which case it cannot have a meaning for us.

If this offends those who would play fast and loose with language, it delights our old friends the positivists. I can see them now: descending upon us from their iceberg, flags waving and bugles blaring, cries of “tally-ho!” filling the air. “There!” they proclaim triumphantly. “It’s as we said. You can’t talk about God. Of course our language means something different when applied to God. Therefore we don’t know what we’re saying, so it hasn’t any meaning. As we said, it’s impossible!”

Fortunately, this sort of hysterical linguistic nihilism is quite unnecessary. Language, while flexible, has a fairly simple logic. (I realize that many theologians seem intent on proving otherwise.) Whenever we use a word, there are three possibilities: (1) we use it in its usual sense, the meaning you would find in a dictionary; or (2) we use it in a way that is an analogy to its normal sense, an analogy that is clearly understood; or (3) we use it in a way that has no meaning at all, or — what is the same to everyone else — we use it in a sense that is known only to us.

So: language is flexible, but there are limits to this flexibility. As an example, we can speak of healthy people, healthy dogs, and healthy African violets. The word “healthy” means the same in each case, or close enough so that we know perfectly well what we’re talking about, even though the specifics of good health are quite different. I don’t check to see if your leaves are green, or if the plant has a cold nose. But I know in each case that the life systems are working well. (The “formal meaning” is the same in each case; the “material meaning” or content is different.)

We can take this example further. If I said that a balance sheet or a car was healthy, you would know that I meant that the one had a good ratio of assets to liabilities, and that the other was in good mechanical shape. But if I were to speak of a healthy book or a healthy rock, you wouldn’t know what I meant. I have gone beyond any apparent analogy. Out of kindness you might try to guess what I meant or decide I was making a joke. Or you might conclude that I was talking nonsense — quite properly, I fear. For we can easily see an analogy between healthy people and healthy cars, but when we speak of rocks we have moved beyond any clearly understood analogy to the normal use of the word “healthy”.

If we refer back to our three ways of using a word, to speak of healthy dogs and people is number one above, the normal use. To speak of healthy cars is number two, a clearly understood analogy. To speak of healthy rocks is number three; there is no clear analogy, so it is meaningless.

We can illustrate these same three possible uses in talk about God by saying that “God knows”, “God sees”, and “God reads”. To say that God knows what we are doing is to use the word “know” in its usual sense: God is cognizant of what we are doing, through whatever processes God (as opposed to you and me) comes to know such things.

To say that “God sees what we are doing”, however, is a bit different. In its normal use, “see” refers to a finite physical process involving eyes, nerves and brain which has the end result of a visual image. Certainly God does not “see” in this manner. But just as certainly we know that what is meant here is that God perceives what we are doing, however it may be that God does this. The analogy to the normal use of “see” is obvious. We understand how the meaning is modified by the subject, and there is no confusion.

But suppose we were to say “God reads about what we are doing”. Hopefully, whoever we were talking to would be charitable. They might say, “I assume you don’t mean that God is paging through the New York Times, or otherwise visually taking in printed material?”

“Quite right’ we respond. “God doesn’t do that as we do.”

So we sit there smiling, and they sit there puzzled. For unlike “seeing”, in the case of “reading” the analogy from our particular finite physical processes to an infinite God is not clear.

If our listeners were persistent they might continue with, “You don’t mean God reads our hearts or our minds, do you, for you said ‘reads about’?”

“Quite right:’ we say again. “We don’t mean that.”

But then what do we mean? Nothing identifiable. “Reading about” something implies involvement with the physical printed word or something clearly analogous. But nothing is clearly analogous here. If God does not read as we do, which we are assuming that God does not, then we must have something else in mind. But if this something else is not apparent, if there is no clear analogy, then we do not know the meaning of this. In which case it doesn’t have any meaning for us.

So, to repeat: the logical rules for talking about God are simple. Either we (and others) know what we are saying, or it is meaningless and we had better not bother to say it. And we know what we are saying if (1) we are using words in their usual meaning, or (2) we are using words in a way that is an apparent analogy to their usual meaning.

The only alternative to these two is the explicit redefining of words as we go — in effect, making up our own language and providing a dictionary as we proceed. It may get cumbersome, but there is nothing in the rules of logic to prohibit this. However, we must note sadly that theology contains many more unknown languages than it does lexicons.

IIB. The Real Verification Problem

The intrinsic problem with God-talk is not that we don’t know what our words mean when we talk about God. This becomes a problem only when people are inexcusably sloppy with their language — which has been far too often. The real problem with God-talk is: how do you know whether what you say is right? How do you verify it? How do you judge between conflicting statements about God? How do you know what to say in the first place?

This is the problem that made the positivists so uncomfortable that they tried to avoid it by declaring the whole business meaningless. (As Joshua Reynolds put it in the eighteenth century, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking”) However, we can keep this problem from getting out of hand if we remember that different kinds of statements are verified in different ways. You don’t verify the truth of “two plus two equals four” in the same way that you verify “that bird is a cardinal”, and neither of these is verified the same way as “Millard Fillmore was a good president”. “Two plus two equals four” is true by definition (“analytic a priori”, if you wish). To see if the bird in question is a cardinal, you take a good look at it and check your Peterson’s field guide if you have any question.

Deciding whether Millard Fillmore was a good president is a little more involved. There are two steps here: first, to ascertain what Millard Fillmore did as president, which is not nearly so easy as ascertaining the size, shape and color of a bird; and second, to decide what it means to have been a good president in the early 1850s, which involves not only historical knowledge but also some interesting value judgments. So this statement about Fillmore rightly calls for a different kind of verification than the statement about the cardinal. The facts are not directly observable, but must be discovered — and often inferred — from the historical record. And there is no consensus as to which facts count for a good president, unlike the unanimity about how being red or blue, crested or uncrested, count for a bird being a cardinal.

Statements about God have the same verification problems as statements about Millard Fillmore, only more so, They cannot be confirmed by direct observation and there is a pronounced lack of consensus as to what observable phenomena count as evidence for which claims about God. But we need to remember what is appropriate. To demand that what we say about God be verifiable by direct observation or by an airtight process of logical deduction makes no more sense than to demand this of statements about Millard Fillmore. This means, however, that discussions about God must have a certain inherent tentativeness, a certain openness to question. We must accept this. But then, so do discussions about Millard Fillmore and any of our other presidents, and this has never stopped us from talking about them.

In fact, most of the interesting and important questions in life can only be answered with a certain degree of tentativeness. This is because they involve questions of meaning, value and purpose — things which cannot be neatly weighed, measured or calculated. To a fair extent, propositions dealing with these areas are subject to verification in life, to confirmation through living. That is, your values and your faith are confirmed as they fit with your life experiences, as they bring meaning to events and help you find purpose, as they explain and cohere with what you see and feel and learn. They must still be in line with your common sense, but they cannot be confirmed for you unless they ring true for you in your heart.

Talking about God is difficult. But it is not inappropriately difficult (unless we make it so). The rules of definition and verification are appropriate to the subject matter, and problems in these areas are no more than we should expect when addressing a subject of ultimate importance.

III. Talking in Concepts, Talking in Images

We have addressed in section II the problems involved in speaking about God in concepts. But this is only one of the two ways we use to convey our ideas about something. We can speak in concepts or we can use Images; we can describe something or we can paint a picture of it. In the present case, we can either describe God directly, using words in their normal or analogous meanings, or we can talk about God analogously by using vivid concrete images (with their normal meaning) and saying, “God is like this.”

In many cases for the sake of clarity and accuracy it is preferable to deal carefully in concepts, to explain and to define. But images and metaphors are also important vehicles of human understanding and sometimes do better at communicating meaning and getting to the heart of the matter. Jesus himself often chose images, painting powerful images in his parables: “the Kingdom of God is like Ö” And perhaps this was the right choice for someone more interested in faith than in doctrine.

Because theology does not adequately feed our imagination, and because our language is inadequate for encompassing the whole of spiritual reality, it is still helpful and perhaps necessary to use imagery as well as concepts to get across our understanding of God.



1. For those interested in fine points, Ayer distinguishes between his own ‘logical empiricism” and the positivism of the “Viennese circle”. The difference is little enough In any case, and is certainly not germane to our discussion. For that matter, I can’t remember why it was ever called “positivism”, but that isn’t germane either.

2. A necessary note on the word “modern”: some people use “modern” physics to mean physics from Newton up to — but not including — Einstein. I suppose this is the influence of all those college courses entitled “Modern Philosophy” or “Modern European History” which never get past 1850. One would then have to call the physics of today ‘postmodern”. This is an intriguing adjective. But then what would you call the theories of the next century? “Post-post-modern”? Come, now. Are we so cowed by the last generation that we have surrendered “modernity” to be ever theirs? Or are we so taken with ourselves that we have to find a new word to fit us? This is silly. If modern physics must be called “post” anything, it is post-Newtonian.

3. 1f I had not just expounded upon the use of the word “modern” I would have something to say here about the missing “w” in this word.