I’ve written quite a bit on Ignosticism (also here, here, and here) and Theological Noncognitivism. Personally, I think they provide the strongest philosophical arguments against God ever devised.
Coupled with philosophical ideas like Theological Noncognitivism, evidentialism, and justification, Ignosticism becomes a toure de force argument which not only validates the nontheist worldview but simultaneously dismantles theism in most of its forms.
That said, it is not without controversy. In fact, I realized that justification of evidence alone isn’t the only thing required here, but also justification of terms. What I argue for here is a type of justification of terms being offered before we can say whether such terms are meaningful or not. In other words, before Ignosticism can dismiss the vocabulary of the theist, we have some proving to do first.
Justification Incorporated into IgnosticismWhat is Referential Justification? Well, it’s my theory that Ignosticism carries with it the necessary condition of justifying the terms and definitions of words before simply claiming the words have no meaning. In other words, it seeks to justify the meaning of a term by linking the term to the term’s referent that it is presumably derived from (hence referential).
Granted, not all terms have a referent that exists in the real world. So this realization splits the definitions of terms into two categories: A) terms which have referents (real link) and B) terms which do not (conceptual link).
Real and Conceptual Word Association Links
One might ask, what does the real and conceptual links imply between words and their referents? Allow me to explain.
Words can be used to describe either things that exist, such as rocks, or ideas and concepts, such as the area of theoretical physics called string theory.
When a theoretical physicist uses the descriptor string theory to explain the area of focus they are investigating, we know they are talking about mathematical concepts only, because there is no evidential support for anything in string theory.
When we are talking about a rock, well, we can go out and verify the existence of rocks. We can pick rocks up, inspect them, and study their geological features and make-up. We know they exist. They are real. This, then, is an real link between the word and the word’s referent. (It’s real because the link really exists in the real world.)
We cannot study any of the features of string theory except conceptually. Everything within string theory only exists as mathematics and word associations which allow us to make inferences between these mathematical models and other models we find in reality. But to talk about a “string” in string theory is to talk about a concept. What’s more, it is to talk about a concept that is without a referent. All we have are the word associations that help us build up the concept by analogy.
This is a lot like the God concept as we know it.
Separating the Conceptual from the Real
We have no actual tangible object, no evidence, to warrant a referential justification relating the term God to anything in the real world (i.e. existence). Just like those mysterious strings which elude String theorists, hiding themselves from reality, God so too eludes reality. Thus, the term “God” is confined to the conceptual realm of ideas (not things which exist).
Craig Lee Duckett, an advocate for Ignosticism, states it another way.
Without pointing to words, without relying on word associations, what can you tell me about God? If you can’t tell me anything without referring back to word associations, then the word associations themselves—omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent—are meaningless since they also or composed of associations that cannot be proven and are nowhere in evidence.
Therefore, in order to talk about God as a real being, as something with exists, then the burden is on the theist to show the real link between the terms they are using and their referent, just as with the rock analogy we saw earlier.
The reason this Referential justification this becomes necessary is because of the problem which arises when one talks about a term which only has a conceptual link as if it were real. Without proving the real link, all they have done is provide a meaningless description by calling something imaginary real. This is a semantic confusion.
The Problem of Semantic Confusion
Theists deliberately employ semantic confusion all of the time. They do this in order to get a stronghold on the language as to better manipulate the course of the conversation. Sometimes they are unaware that they are doing it, since semantic confusion is so built into the way religious discourse works. A good example of this can be found in the debate between the British philosopher Stephen Law’s debate with William Lane Craig.
In the debate, Craig didn’t want to give an inch in how he defines God. He kept reiterating irrelevant terms, such as God being timeless, omnipotent, etc. Never was there any attempt by Craig to justify the terms he was using and thereby validate his claims about God. Craig’s failure to provide any referential support for God means, strictly speaking, that God is by definition a conceptual term, not something which exists. Ironically enough, one of Craig’s claims was that God really exists. Okay then, validate that claim by showing us a real link between your definition of God and its real world referent!
Surely, if I can show you a rock, which really exists, then I have established the real link between the term and its referent in the real world. All the theist has to do is the same. Provide a real world referent for your term, and then we can move beyond theoretical discussions involving far-fetched concepts.
Needless to say, however, lacking a valid Referential justification means the theist will either have to admit they are merely talking about a concept, or else, they will retreat to a proved apologetic defense, semantic confusion, and incorrectly call the God concept “real.”
There is an excellent review of the Craig vs. Law debate which captures this tension surrounding semantic confusion and shows you exactly what I am talking about.
In the end, what Craig does, and what many theists do, amounts to is a denial of competing definitions and terms for the same concept–even when they are logically consistent with the very way the theist defines God!
So it would seem semantics is an area of confusion for both sides, but it seems the theist would be the one to gain by trying to keep God confined to a semantic purgatory, a gray zone in which God can be defined any which way the theist sees fit, but at the same time, allowing the theist to deny any definition of God which doesn’t fit their every changing scale of what the term means or could mean.
I hope you see why this is a huge problem.
Avoiding Semantic Confusion through Referential Justification
The hidden power of Referential justification theory then, is that it deals with both the logical as well as lexical aspects of any given definition, and seeks to understand the terms in a way which provides truth definitions to the language itself, thereby asking us to consider whether or not a substantive theory of meaning can be established with regard to the word associations being used.
Regardless of how a definition, term, or word is defined, a higher order of justification is always required to establish a substantive theory of meaning, otherwise we could not claim to be talking about anything with meaning, which would mean our definitions would fail us and we’d be stuck in a permanent state of semantic confusion.
Referential justification seeks to avoid this semantic confusion by establishing three things: 1) it seeks to show an real link exists over a conceptual–or else provides the opposite–by showing there is no real link at all, but merely a conceptual link; 2) it seeks to define the logical and lexical meanings and investigates their limits; 3) and finally it establishes the truth condition of the terms beings used (since to know this condition is equivalent to knowing the meaning of the term).
Subsequently, this does away with the constant semantic confusion which is employed by the theist to constantly shift the goal posts back and redefine there sets of terms anytime the opponent’s argument brings them into contention.
Referential justification is a powerful tool of justification which helps us pinpoint any semantic confusion, and then gives us a means to bring clarity to the terms and word associations by disavowing any terms or word associations which are semantically confused.
Once we can show that the term “God” is a term without any relevant meaning, because it is semantically confused, then we can dismiss the term as meaningless, irrelevant, or impotent (depending on the context).
Theists may not like this outcome, and they may try to make our involvement with semantics into a pejorative, by blaming their term’s limitations and inadequacies on our “semantic word play,” but the best response I have to this is simply to remind them that if they ignore one of the main branches of semiotics, the one dealing with word associations and the relationships between a word in its meaning, then how do they expect us to take them serious when all they have offered are word associations and terms with unclear meanings?
In the end, Referential justification is the part of Ignosticism which makes it such a powerful philosophical objection to God (and all god concepts).