Explain Aristotle’s understanding of the four causes

Aristotle considered at the beginning of his Physics that we can only know something inasmuch as we can explain it, (‘Knowledge is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it’). And for Aristotle, the word he used for the ‘why’ of something was aition, which has been translated as cause, although explanation could also be used.

 Aristotle draws a distinction between potentiality and actuality. He applies this to the process of change (or motion). Change is simply the process by which an object acquires a new form (very different from Plato’s idea of form). The object has the potentiality to become something different, and change is the actualization of the potential of one form of matter to become another form of matter. For example, the block of marble has the potential to become an actual statue. The statue is latent within the block of marble – the block of marble has the capacity to become a statue.

 There are two important things to note: firstly potency and act are distinct; the marble cannot be both a block and the statue at the same time. In another example a piece of wood cannot be both potentially on fire and actually on fire at the same time – so therefore change is this movement between potential and actual.

Secondly, as the object cannot be both simultaneously potential and actual, how does it move from one to the other? Aristotle says it needs an agent to move it, which he called the efficient cause. This must in itself be in a state of actuality, not potentiality, ie. it must exist to be a cause of the change in the object. Eg. you need actual water to effect the change of an acorn into an oak tree. We can see how from this Aristotle got the first two of his causes – there must be matter which undergoes the change from one form to another, so in one sense, if we say ‘what is it?’ of something or ask for an explanation of it we can say what it is made of – eg the statue is made of marble. This would be then the material cause.

But as we have seen this would not be a total explanation of the thing for Aristotle – he would want to know how the statue got its particular form. This ‘how’ as we have seen, Aristotle called the efficient cause. In the case of the statue, the sculptor acted upon the stone with his chisel in order to make the potential statue in the marble an actual statue.

But Aristotle did not believe we could stop with just the material and efficient causes, the what and the how, as you might say. He believed that as the material has undergone a change of form in going from a potential thing to an actual thing, that part of its explanation was what the characteristics of it were. If we were to say to a person ‘what makes you the person you are?’ they would normally not give a straight list of the elements that compose them such as carbon – they would probably talk about their upbringing or give a character trait, such as ‘I’m happy-go-lucky’. Therefore we need to add another cause other than the purely material to get at a full explanation of a thing – we need to talk about its characteristics – eg. a chair is more than just some wood, it is an object with four legs and a space to sit. Aristotle called this the formal cause.

In the statue example the formal cause would be its particular qualities of marble sculpted into the form of a body, head etc. The formal cause of something is the ‘form’ of the thing – the pattern which makes it what it is – in the case of a building it would be the blueprint. This is not as easily understandable as the other causes, and has been seen as slightly controversial. Clearly, though, much debate surrounds the notion of a form and many agree that Aristotle’s notion is no less flawed than Plato’s.

The fourth cause is called the final cause, and comes from the end of a thing, what it is for. This idea of a purposive cause is given by Aristotle because what something’s aim or goal is is also an important part of an explanation of the thing. Aristotle gives the example of the final cause of walking, medicine, purging, surgical instruments etc. as all being for health. For Aristotle the aim of something can be seen as its greatest good, this is brought out in our use of language when we ask of an object “what is it good for?”

Evaluate the claim that religious language can only be understood in the context of religious belief.

This claim comes from the school of thought that grew out of Wittgenstein’s work, especially his theory of language games, which works on the principle that the meaning of words is in their usage, and different areas of knowledge use language in different ways – they are like different ‘games’ – so that just as you wouldn’t take the rules of the game of football and apply them to chess, you also can’t take the rules of the scientific language game and apply them to the religious language game.

This was a challenge to Logical Positivism, whose strict interpretation of meaning along empirical lines represented by the verification and falsification principles implied that there was an objective viewpoint from which you could judge the meaningfulness of sentences. If science and the empirical method represented this standpoint that meant that the rules of their game should be applied to all the others.

It is clear that the theory of language games relies on an anti-realist theory of meaning. The anti-realist holds that meanings are to be understood by reference to what circumstances you would be justified in asserting them, as Michael Dummett calls them ‘assertability-conditions’. Clearly the phrase ‘I baptise thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ would gain its meaning from the context in which it was said – it is understandable among the community of believers participating in the ritual of baptism as a performative sentence uttered by a priest which announces the changed status of the participant to a full member of the community. This is a fairly specialised area, and the language is performing a specialised job. Language games theory’s greatest strength is that it accounts for the way in which much language is used; there is not one correct way of applying rules of meaning outside of the circumstances in which the sentences are being said – so jokes, cursing, blessings, cries of pain, analytical sentences, scientific sentences, all have their own internal coherence and meaning.

So language games theory lets each area of knowledge have meaning based on its own rules, so that someone else cannot stand outside of the religious language game and judge it by different rules – one criticism of this is that then believers can say anything that they want – any old nonsense can be passed off as religious truth. Related to this criticism is the fact that many religious statements do seem to be making assertions that exist at least partly in other areas, historical, even statements about the world like science, so surely it is an oversimplification to think that each area is self-contained with its own rules, and therefore that in some sense religious language must be at least partially open to judgement by say, historical or scientific rules .

This criticism reflects a real misgiving many have with language theory that makes it become a kind of fideism – the belief that faith is independent of reason, and therefore not open to criticism from it. D Z Phillips also notes the common criticism that if religious beliefs are isolated, self-sufficient language games, it becomes difficult to explain why people should cherish those beliefs so much: “religious beliefs begin to look like hobbies, something with which men occupy themselves at weekends”.

D Z Phillips maintained that to some extent these misgivings were justified, but he also believed they were partly based on misunderstandings about the nature of the theory. For instance, he argues that there are definite distinctions that should be made in the use of words in religious contexts from other contexts. The use of the word belief is one instance. He uses Wittgenstein’s example of a person saying “I believe in the Last Judgement”, and his friend says “I’m not so sure”, and in another case where the person says “I believe there’s a German plane overhead”, and his friend says “I’m not so sure”. Clearly the gap between the two people in the first instance is fundamental – whereas in the second instance there is really not much between them. D Z Phillips says that this highlights the really foundational way some religious language is used, such that the calling the argument between the believer and the non-believer a ‘disagreement’ or contradiction is really insufficient – the two arguing about the German plane were having a disagreement – the first two not. You can’t disagree with or contradict  someone over something unless you share a common understanding of the thing. Phillips uses the examples of the man who says the sun is ninety million miles from the earth contradicting the man who says it is twenty million miles from the earth – they contradict each other because they share a common understanding. But the person who says ‘God does not exist’ does not contradict the person who says ‘God exists’ because for the believer – the question of God’s non-existence is literally meaningless – God’s definition includes his necessary existence – he is not a being among beings who might not exist.

Language games theory’s value to the debate on religious language was that it helped to bring out the ‘grammar of belief’, that it doesn’t involve the weighing of evidence, or reasoning to a conclusion, but seeing how it regulates a believer’s life. Phillips likens religious belief to a picture, which to some people is constantly in the foreground, shaping how they act, and to others (non-believers) it just doesn’t figure in their life at all, it plays no part in their thinking. Therefore, there is a real and important sense in which religious language can only be understood properly in the context of religious belief. Wittgenstein and his subsequent followers showed how important mistakes could be made if people outside of the religious context judged the beliefs on the basis of assumptions that the language the believer was using was being used in the same way as the language from another context.


Evaluate the claim that religious experiences are just delusions.

One key objection to the validity of religious experiences is the possibility of their interpretation in ways other than that put forward by believers. Bertrand Russell said that some people get drunk and see snakes, other people fast and see God.

Whether religious experiences are personal experiences like visions or voices, or whether they are corporate, one criticism of them is that they rely on personal testimony, not on empirical evidence. The obvious problem here is the multitude of problems that surround taking personal testimony at face value. I might want to believe someone when they say they saw a vision of Christ, and even if the person themself is not lying and entirely believes they saw Christ, does this mean they actually did, and the vision was not down to a lack of sleep, drugs, or a psychotic episode. Schizophrenia is a mental illness where it is common to feel that God is speaking to you, or that you have been chosen by God in some way. How are these delusions separable from ‘real’ religious experiences?

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

The question of whether religious experiences are false if their source is in the mind has been explored to some extent by Jung, a disciple of Freud. His critique of religion is more nuanced and less reductive. He thought it was wrong to think of the mind as ‘merely’ or ‘nothing but’ as if the mind was a known thing. He used the Greek word psyche for mind, which has connotations of soul, and he bleieved that what we call mind – consciousness – is a tiny part of the the psyche which is mainly unconscious. For Jung, religious experience was an irruption of unconscious contents into the conscious mind, threatening its stability, and bringing numinous feelings of awe and wonder. The individual’s task is to accomodate these powerful experiences into the conscious ego. If the ego tries to ignore them they will end up overpowering it and causing neuroses. If the ego allows them to take over completely, they will also cause damage.

This kind of psychological account of religious experience can be fruitful for an understanding of it. It improves on Freud’s account because it doesn’t make assumptions that the source of religious experience lies in fear and helplessness. Freud doesn’t convincingly show why religious experience must come from this state, but rather assumes the non-existence of God as part of his world-view, and therefore begs the question whether religious experiences are veridical. Freud’s theory also doesn’t seem to account for the vast number of religious experiences that are terrifying, troubling, painful and life-changing. If religious experiences are caused by our needs to placate our sense of fear and helplessness, as he says, would they not be uniformly pleasant and comforting?

Jung, however, remained agnostic about how to interpret the contents of the unconscious mind – he once said “I don’t believe in God, I know God”, thus implying a direct personal connection through experience. Jung, like James, believed that a good guide to the validity of an experience is the effect it has on one’s life: “Religious experience is absolute….it cannot be disputed. Those who have had it possess a great treasure, a source of life meaning and beauty which gives a new splendour to the world. It is overwhelming and healing and is therefore of great validity”. If this is a delusion then it is one that has produced the most profound effect on a person’s life.

William James essentially avoids the problem of the veridicality of religious experience on the grounds that it cannot ever be settled. We have seen that this is the case – Freud may argue that the experience is of the mind, another may argue that God works through the mind. We are reminded of John Wisdom’s parable of the Gardener – the same scene is regarded by two different people in fundamentally opposed ways – how are we to distinguish the ‘correct’ view? Instead James takes a pragmatic view – if such experiences ‘work’ for a person, then that is more important than where they came from. Certainly in many areas of our lives, we have no problem in having powerful, sometimes life changing responses to things that are essentially made-up – look at films, drama, literary fiction, art, games – on a strict view, some level of artifice or lying lies at the basis of all of these, and yet we willingly accept these fictions as true for us while we are involved in them.

Nonetheless the modern empiricist challenge to religious beliefs and assertions is powerful, and is not entirely taken care of by James’ pragmaticism. There remains the problem that although my delusion is having an important and profound effect on my life, it is still just that – a delusion. It surely matters to the believer that the source of their deepest experiences is what it appears to be to them – ie. a reality greater than them and independent of them, rather than just an aspect of themselves. The fact that the character of many religious experiences is of this very nature makes it harder to get round the problem – either the experience is your own mind deluding itself that it is a higher power and reality separate but involved with you, or it is in fact this higher power. For  Positivism, this problem of verifying the experience was key. It was anticipated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who asked what the difference was between saying ‘God spoke to me in a dream’ and ‘I dreamt that God spoke to me’.

For Ayer, the problem of the ineffability of religious experience led to his dismissal of its meaningfulness: “If a mystic admits that the object of his vision is something that cannot be described, then he must also admit that he is bound to talk nonsense when he describes it…in describing his vision the mystic does not give any information about the external world; he merely gives us indirect information about the state of his own mind’.

Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony provide convincing reasons to reject the empirical challenge and the alternative psychological explanations challenge to religious experience. He claims that the principle of credulity is one we all use already in everyday life, without which we would be stuck in a sceptical bog. He says that it is a principle of rationality that if it seems to someone that x is present, then probably x is present. How things appear to be is usually good grounds for a belief about how things are. He says that apart from special considerations, such as if a person has taken hallucinogenic drugs, that if someone claims to have had an experience of God, that constitutes evidence that the person has experienced God. The principle of testimony follows from this – if I say I have experienced a table or God, that constitutes a reason for you and me to believe that I have experienced a table or God.

Of course, we should not believe every report of an experience that is presented to us – there are lots of things that could make us sceptical. These are the ‘special considerations’ already mentioned, such as drugs, but Swinburne argues that these limiting conditions do not apply in all cases of religious experience. Sometimes reports will be unreliable, sometimes they will be made in circumstances where it is rational to think that the experience has been caused by something else, but this is not a general refutation of all religious experience.

Swinburne has provided a powerful argument against the empirical challenge that would restrict the principle of credulity only to non-religious contexts – he has shown that there is no special reason to do so. However, some object that he has no answer to psychological challenges such as Freud’s: that religious experiences are acts of self-deception. There are plausible alternative explanations (this is Dawkins’ main argument against them). I have already shown some of the limitations of Freud’s theory – but there are some other problems with it. There may be many alternative plausible explanations – psychological, physiological, societal, medical, dietary, political, but what reason do we have to believe that the explanation really works in the way it says? We need evidence, because just assuming that the experience is non-veridical is question-begging. Stephen T Davies says that we only seek explanations for why someone believes something when we are convinced that what the person believes is false.

All the ‘alternative explanation’ challenges fall into the trap of the genetic fallacy – the mistake of thinking that you have refuted a claim when you have explained why a person has made it. ‘You only believe in God because your parents brainwashed you into believing it, therefore your belief in God is false’. This kind of challenge then is obviously incorrect, because the question of why you believe something is unrelated to the truth of what is believed.

It is clear then, that no convincing argument has been made to show that religious experiences are nothing more than delusions. Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony, backed up with his related cumulative claims argument, provide good reasons to take many accounts seriously as veridical.

Advice on a question on the meaningfulness of religious language

‘Philosophers have proved conclusively that religious language is meaningful.’ Discuss


Some comments from the Exam Board


AO1  Select and demonstrate clearly relevant knowledge and understanding through the use of evidence, examples and correct language and terminology appropriate to the course of study.  Weighting 65%


AO2  Sustain a critical line of argument and justify a point of view. 

 Weighting 35%


AO1  Strictly speaking the question does not ask for a survey of challenges to the meaningfulness of religious language, but that would be an acceptable way of demonstrating appropriate knowledge and understanding for this question.  Alternatively, such knowledge can be integrated with the AO2 response.


AO2  The meaningfulness of religious language might be demonstrated in a number of ways, for example the argument that it amounts to meaningful bliks; that it is significant as a declaration of ethical intent; that it is meaningful cognitively through eschatological verification; that it is meaningful in an anti-real sense within the believing community, that it is locutionary and represents an action (J L Austin) and so on.  The proposal in the question might be rejected by an insistence on empirical ratification.  Candidates could explore the question of ‘meaningful to whom?’ in a number of ways, for example suggesting that religious language is meaningful to those who use it. 


You must use some of the following key terms effectively:










Verification Principle


Falsification Principle






Via Negativa














You must refer to at least some of the following philosophers in order to demonstrate your understanding and ability argue the question.  The ones in bold are those you should perhaps be particularly including in order to ensure you cover a variety of views.






TheViennacircle – Schlick


















These are not a complete list. Choosing other philosophers not in this list will not in any way prevent you from getting a high mark.  There are many ways to answer this question.  The Exam Board says this:  ‘…candidates are rewarded for what they ‘know, understand and can do’ and to this end examiners are required to assess every answer by the Levels according to the extent to which it addresses a reasonable interpretation of the question.’


The key to a high mark is linking it to the question i.e.


  • By making constant reference to the question – have or haven’t philosophers proved conclusively that religious language is meaningful


  • Link each of your arguments/paragraphs to the quote – do they support or challenge the view?


  • Don’t just explain what a particular philosopher said  – make sure you contextualise it within the question framework


  • Good (but brief) quotes are always worth the effort of learning!

Discuss the suggestion that it is pointless to analyse religious experiences


The point is to show the examiner you understand the requirements of the question. You do this by briefly showing you are able to recognise that there are differing viewpoints which are supported by different scholars.

Religious experiences are generally, although not always, personal and individual – they rely on one person’s testimony and there is no empirical proof that they are genuine experiences of God.  This applies equally to corporate religious experiences.  Scholars like Freud would regard all evidence of religious experiences as neuroses. However, William James would argue that it is perfectly possible to analyse them and provided a framework for doing so, while the Logical Positivists argued that all religious experiences are meaningless and therefore analysis would not only be pointless but irrelevant.

In the main body of the essay you develop the points you made in the introduction, always, always keeping the question in mind and referring back to it in each paragraph to show the relevance of those points. Give a point of view and then show how a different scholar or angle can challenge it – say whether you think the challenges are strong or weak.


The Logical Positivists believed that statements are only meaningful if they can be verified (proved true or false) either analytically or synthetically –either the truth or falsity of the statement is clear in its own terms or you would know what to do in order to verify it.  Since religious statements could not be verified in either way they were meaningless. Therefore they would have said it was indeed pointless to analyse accounts of religious experiences. However, since huge numbers of religious people do use religious language and describe religious experiences it can be argued that they must convey meaning, and thus that they are capable of analysis.

William James would have supported this view since he did believe it was entirely possible to analyse such accounts …..

Omniscience question from Jan 2010 – with mark scheme

Critically assess the philosophical problems raised by the belief that God is Omniscient. [35]
Candidates may begin by placing this particular aspect of beliefs about God within the general discussion about God’s attributes, briefly discussing the context of believing in a God who is Omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.
They may then go on to explore the meaning of omniscience, discussing what it might mean to know everything, possibly unpacking the biblical notion of God being intimately involved throughout His creation, having limitless knowledge of all that exists within and because of his creative act.
Credit may be given to those candidates who use this question to discuss the problem of evil provided their discussion is put forward in the context of ‘omniscience’ and is not just a general problem of evil response.
They may then raise questions form a number of philosophical positions; for example the may discuss the status of future knowledge within this understanding of God’s attributes. Some may make use of their knowledge of Boethius and talk of Gods knowledge not being future but being eternally present.
Others may raise question of what it might mean for humans to be genuinely free in a philosophical sense if God knows all we are doing and all that we will do.
Some candidates may evaluate this concept by exploring what kind of knowledge God can be said to have; unpacking some of the philosophical ideas present in any discussion of God’s knowledge such as the idea of knowing eternally.
Others may look at the idea that if God knows how we will behave in any given situation and that he does not stop us from acting immorally should he not in fact be held at least partly responsible for our actions.
This may lead some to assess the extent to which believers can hold the view that they are free agent before God as some would argue that god’s foreknowledge holds within it aspects of predestination.
Any valid and relevant approach should be given credit provided the assessments are justified and not just asserted.

Tillich Jan 2010 question and mark scheme

Critically assess the views of Paul Tillich on religious language. [35]
Candidates may begin their responses by explaining what is generally understood by the nature and problems associated with religious language. Some may take the opportunity to try writing their ‘religious language’ essay which could focus too much on verification or falsification or even analogy. However to gain more than a general topic grade the bulk of the essay must address the views of Paul Tillich.
Candidates are likely to recognise that Tillich’s main contribution to the debates in this area was to develop our understanding of the use of symbols when trying to describe God.
Their explanations are likely to explore his belief that it is religious symbols which communicate the most significant beliefs and values of humanity. He would argue that when trying to put difficult concepts into words we are most successful when we use symbols. However it is important to keep in mind that the meaning attached to symbols is culturally dependant.
Tillich also recognised that the meaning of symbols can change over time and even be lost entirely. Candidates may explain that in searching for understanding different generations may interpret the same symbols in different way. The genesis myths for example may still be held by creationist to be literal in some sense while most would agree that the myths have symbolic content but no place in history.
In critically assessing these views candidates may argue that Tilloch was successful in using symbols to further the ability of religious language to express religious beliefs meaningfully and point to the use of symbols in religions they know; water in Christian baptism or the Stupa in Buddhism.
Alternatively they may use their knowledge of the scholars such as those in the Vienna Circle to assess Tillich’s work as pointless arguing that all attempts at religious discussion is by its nature meaningless.
As with the AO1 though, whichever route they take, it is important that they address the central issue of the question and not just fit a general religious language response into a Tillich first and last paragraph.

Life after death Jan 2010 question and mark scheme

Evaluate the claim that there can be no disembodied existence after death. [35]
Candidates may begin by approaching this question either from the issue of what we mean by existence after death or from the question of what we would mean by disembodied existence. An explanation of both these concepts is necessary for a full answer to this question.
Some may, for example, explore the issues surrounding the question of mind body identity and its effect on a belief in disembodied existence. Candidates need to be careful how they use the work of various scholars in this area. For example candidates may recognise that Richard Dawkins could be used to explain why any for of life after death is unlikely embodies or disembodied.
However John Hick cannot be used as he is specifically arguing for an embodied existence post mortem. He is in fact trying to support the Christian creed which expressly holds the view that human being will have a bodily resurrection.
To fully answer the question they would have to look at scholars who have argued for a spiritual/soul survival of death without the need for a body. They may for example explore the work of any of several dualists from Plato onwards.
Having laid out the problems involved in this question and some of the writers who may be consulted, answers will depend on the area candidates argue is most relevant to this question, from their own studies.
Some may for example focus much of their assessment on the thorny issue of identity and what would ‘I’ need to be in order to have some kind of existence after death where I have no body but could still be recognised at least to myself as me.
Others, who have spent more time on the issue of whether or not there can be any kind of life after death may approach their evaluation from the point of view of Dawkins or Hume assessing the legitimacy of drawing conclusions based entirely on empirical evidence.

Advice on revision

Especially for those who are thinking of not revising a particular area I would have to say be very careful. There are 5 areas – Life after death, Religious language, the nature of God, religious experience (inc. revelation) and miracles. There are four questions, so 4 out of these 5 will come up. Say you don’t revise one of them and it comes up then you are down to three questions you can do. Say one of these questions is on someone you don’t know very much about like Tilich’s views on symbol or Wittgenstein’s views on language games or Otto’s views on Religious experience, then you are left with having no choice but to do two questions which you might not particularly like. So it’s not a good strategy. I note that Miracles came up in Jan 2010, then was absent in Jun 2010, then came up in Jan 2011, so it’s entirely possible it may come up. Miracles is not as tricky as, say, Religious Language. Here’s the Miracles question mark scheme for the Jan 2010 exam for you to look at:

Evaluate the claim that belief in miracles leads to a belief in a God who favours some but not all of his creation. [35]
Some candidates may begin by looking specifically at the problems involved in defining miracles. For example they may use the definition made famous by David Hume, namely that they are a violation of the laws of nature. They may also be aware that Keith Ward describes this definition as unhelpful in the sense that it implies that there is something wrong with believing in miracles.
Others, recognising that the question is similar to one of the problems raised by Maurice Wiles, which raises questions about either the power of God or the goodness of or indeed both. If God is willing to intervene to help some who suffer, say for example in Lourdes, why does he not intervene in places such as Darfur.
Another aspect of this question that candidates may explore is the idea of God answering prayers through miracles which, if they are to be believed, paint God as both arbitrary and biased.
Others may use other examples of types of miracles to argue that God may be in fact using nature to help rather than violating the laws of the universe. For example it is arguable that God used natural means to help the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt and to guide them through the desert.
Candidates may begin by agreeing with the view put forward by philosophers such as Maurice Wiles and assess the kind of areas which would support his argument; for example, developing an assessment of whether God is capable or willing to help in situations such as Darfur.
Alternatively, candidates may argue that this discussion depends on an anthropomorphising of God, namely the suggestion that He would approach these issues the way a human being would. They could then evaluate the extent to which this is a reasonable approach to trying to understand the mind of God.
It is important that any assessment focuses on the issue of whether or not belief in miracles does lead to this understanding of God and that the essays do not just become a general account of whether or not there are such things as miracles.


Religious Language

Religious Language.


What is the debate?

The basic question behind the religious language debate is ‘what can be said about God?’ The religious language debate is not concerned with whether or not God exists, or what God is like or why there is evil in the world. It is solely concerned with working out whether or not religious language means anything. On the one side of the debate, you have the centuries old tradition of religious believers who believe that you can speak and write about God, because God is a reality. On the other side, are the Logical Positivists and those that they influenced who claim that statements about God have no meaning because they don’t relate to anything that is real.

Religious language is meaningless.

In the debate about religious language, it is important that broadly speaking, there are two types of language, cognitive and non-cognitive. Cognitive language conveys facts i.e. things that we can know or be cognisant of. Non-cognitive language, predictably, conveys information that is not factual; emotions, feelings and metaphysical claims.

‘The Lord is faithful in all his words,

and gracious in all his deeds.

The Lord upholds all who are falling,

And raises up all who are bowed down.

The Lord is near to all who call upon him,

To all who call upon him in truth.

He fulfils the desire of all who fear him,

He also hears their cry and saves them.’

Badgers have black and white fur.

Squirrels are agile.

Coal and crude oil are black.



Above you have examples of two very different types of language. On the left hand side is an excerpt from the Psalms, which talks about God and what he is supposed to be like. On the right hand side are statements of fact about things in the world. These two types of language are important for understanding the problems raised by the religious language debate.

We need to begin by looking at exactly what cannot be said about God according to some philosophers.

The Logical Positivists.

The Logical Positivists were a group of philosophers who were primarily concerned with the truth contained in statements we can make, or in other words, with what can be logically posited, or stated. The group began in Vienna, Austria in the 1920s and gathered around a philosopher called Moritz Schlick. The group was heavily influenced by a philosopher called Ludwig Wittgenstein and in turn, the group influenced many philosophers of religion. Those influenced by the Logical Positivists that you need to be aware of are A J Ayer and the Verificationists and Antony Flew and the Falsificationists.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Tractatus.

One of the greatest influences upon the Logical Positivism was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein asserted that the only language with meaning was the language of science, language that referred to empirical reality, language that mirrored the world as sensed. As you will see, with the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein changed his views slightly.

A J Ayer and verification.

If we verify a statement, we check its truth against a body of evidence or facts. For example, if we claim that Roger killed Bill, we must verify or check that statement against forensic evidence (a bloodied knife) or witness accounts. It is from this idea that we get the ‘verification principle’.

  • · ‘A statement which cannot be conclusively verified cannot be verified at all. It is simply devoid of any meaning.’

What does this mean? The verification principle demands that for a statement to have meaning, we must be able to check its claims against things that exist. For example, if we say ‘it’s raining outside’ its easy to check or verify the claims of this statement by stepping outside and holding our hand out to check for rain. A statement like ‘there is life after death’ is less easy to verify.

The verificationists held that there were two types of statement that are meaningful:

1. Analytic propositions: these are statements that contain all the information within the statement that we need to verify it e.g. red is a colour or 2+2=4.

2. Synthetic propositions: these are statements that can be confirmed through the use of the senses (i.e. by recourse to empirical data) e.g. it’s raining outside or that bridge has collapsed.

As a result of this, verificationists hold that non cognitive, metaphysical statements (i.e. statements about things beyond reality such as God, heaven, angels) are completely meaningless (as are meaningless statements like ‘square circles are green’), as we have no way of verifying whether or not these statements are meaningful. As A J Ayer puts it:

The term ‘god’ is a metaphysical term. And if ‘god’ is a metaphysical term, then it cannot even be probable that God exists. For to say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.’

Ayer does not just deny God’s existence, he denies the possibility of God’s existence altogether on the grounds that there is no way of empirically verifying his existence. Needless to say, Ayer would disagree with all of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, as none of them conclusively and empirically prove the existence of God.


There are two forms of the verification principle: strong and weak, which are as follows:

  • · Strong: this is the form mentioned above: that an assertion only has meaning if it can be verified according to empirical information. Anything else is meaningless.
  • · Weak: this form of the principle came to prominence later. It states that for an assertion to be true, one simply has to state what kind of evidence would verify its contents. This form was developed to allow historical facts to have meaning. For example, we know that Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, but we cannot see it happening and therefore verify it. The weak principle therefore simply requires that we state what kind of evidence would be enough to make a statement meaningful (e.g. eye-witness accounts of the residents of Krakow as the tanks rolled in).

There are a number of problems with the verification principle. Firstly, Brian Davies has suggested that principle itself cannot be verified. He also argues that it seems ridiculous to first demand testing whether or not something possibly exists before considering whether or not it actually exists.

Ayer eventually came to see that his test was useless. It was claimed that the verification principle could not be used directly to prove the statement ‘an electron carries a negative charge’ because the statement needs other statements to back it up. This seems ludicrous, as physics has demonstrated that electrons must have negative charges; therefore, the verification principle cannot be used to verify something we know to be true. Ayer then argued that a statement is factual, if it supports an observation and has other premises to back it up, but that cannot only be deduced from those other premises.

The problem with this definition is that it makes the following true:

Statement: God is in his heaven and all is well with the world;

Observation: my desk is brown.

Premise 1: If God is in his heaven and all is well with the world, then my desk is brown.

Premise 2: God is in heaven and all is well with the world.

Conclusion: therefore my desk is brown.

This chain of arguments is valid, and the statement ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ becomes factual based upon Ayer’s argument of what makes a statement factual

You should see that as soon as Ayer accepted that a truth could be established in this way, his principle became useless, and any proposition can be thought of as factual using the method above.

Summary: The verification principle could eventually be used to demonstrate that any statement could be shown to be factual using Ayer’s definition of a factual statement. Ayer then rejected his own principle.


Antony Flew and Falsification.

Antony Flew produced a theory in the same vein as verification. Although it is subtly different, it can be said to complement verification and if you like, produce the other side of the argument.

Flew argues that when we say something is the case (e.g. badgers are black and white), not only are we stating that badgers are black and white, but we are also denying the opposite i.e. badgers are not not black and white. Flew believed that when you assert something, you are also asserting (whether you like it or not) that there are facts/evidence that may count against your assertion, therefore, there has to be some sense experience that would count against your claim; i.e. ‘I have seen a badger that is only black.’ As Flew puts it ‘…if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either.’

Brian Davies puts it like this in the context of God-talk:

‘Religious believers make claims. They say for instance, that there is a God who loves human beings. But apparently they are unwilling to allow anything to count against these claims. The claims seem unfalsifiable. Are they then, genuine claims? Flew does not dogmatically declare that they cannot be, but he evidently has his doubts. ‘Sophisticated religious people’, he says, ‘tend to refuse to allow, not merely that anything actually does occur, but that anything conceivably could occur, which would count against their theological assertions and explanations’.’

What Flew is protesting about, is a tendency he observed amongst religious believers to shift the goalposts of statements about God. For example, one might start by saying ‘God loves all humans’. If one were to witness a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat, one would be right to use that as evidence to falsify the claim that God loves humans. Religious believers, Flew observed, would then retort ‘…but God loves humans in an inscrutable way, a different way to the way we love.’ For Flew, this second statement has no meaning, because it doesn’t allow for anything to falsify it. The famous example used to illustrate this point, is that of John Wisdom’s gardener.

  • · For Flew, a statement is only meaningful if we accept that there is evidence that may falsify it. The statement is factual if it cannot be falsified using sense experience. The statement is meaningless if we refuse to allow it to be falsified.


Some responses to verification and falsification.

R M Hare and ‘bliks’.


Obviously, if we take verification and falsification to their logical conclusion, we find ourselves precluded from saying almost anything about metaphysical matters and indeed God at all.

The philosopher RM Hare came up with a response to falsification, called the theory of ‘bliks’. As did many other philosophers, Hare used a parable to illustrate his point.

‘A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, “You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?” But the lunatic replies “Yes, but that was only his diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it I tell you.” However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is the same.’

Thus a ‘blik’ is a particular view about the world that may not be based upon reason or fact and that cannot be verified or falsified; it just is and we don’t need to explain why we hold our ‘blik’. Hare talked about trusting in the metal of a car; this ‘blik’ about the car meant that we would quite happily drive or be driven in a car, because we have the ‘blik’ that the metal is strong and that it is safe to drive at high speed in the car. Hare said that people either have the right or sane ‘blik’ or the wrong or insane ‘blik’; the lunatic above has the wrong ‘blik’ about dons, whereas his friends have the right ‘blik’.

Hare’s theory has been criticised, notably by John Hick who provides two objections. First of all, Hick argues that religious beliefs or religious ‘bliks’ are based upon reason; people believe in God because they may have had a religious experience, or they feel the words of the Bible/Qur’an are true or a variety of other reasons. Secondly, he claims there is an inconsistency: Hare claims that there is a distinction between sane and insane bliks. However, he also claims that bliks are unverifiable and unfalsifiable. If we cannot either prove or disprove religious ‘bliks’, we cannot call them right or wrong, sane or insane either.

Basil Mitchell.

Mitchell disagreed with the theory of ‘bliks’ and suggested another way, using another parable. Mitchell claimed that religious belief and therefore religious language was based upon fact, although they are not straightforwardly verifiable or falsifiable. He used the idea of a resistance fighter to make his point (hence the picture of Guevara and Castro).


A member of the resistance movement is met one day by a man claiming to be the leader of the resistance movement. The fighter is suitably impressed and pledges his loyalty to the stranger. As time goes on, the fighter sees the ‘leader’ helping out the resistance, but at other times he is apparently helping out the enemy. The fighter nevertheless carries on in his belief that the stranger is in fact the leader of the resistance movement.

Mitchell’s parable is different to Hare’s, as Hare’s lunatic a) has no reason for mistrusting dons and b) will allow nothing to count against his belief. Mitchell’s fighter however, is willing to admit that things count against his belief in the leader (a symbol of God) and b) grounds his belief in reason and fact: he trusts this man who claims to be leader and has examples of him fighting for the resistance.

Mitchell’s point is that religious belief is based upon facts, but that belief cannot be verified/falsified in the simplistic way demanded by the logical positivists. Of course, the stranger in the story will be able to reveal his true allegiance after the war and explain his mysterious behaviour, in the same way that all the peculiar and problematic parts of religious belief will be revealed at the end of time according to traditional religious belief.

This is similar to John Hick’s theory of Eschatological Verification. This states that at the end of time (eschaton, hence eschatological) all the parts of religious belief that require faith will be made clear by God: just because they cannot be verified now, they will be verified in the future. Hick is, in a way, using the weak verification principle in reverse.

Speaking meaningfully about God and religion.

There are a number of philosophers and theologians who claim that it is possible to speak meaningfully about God. We’ll start with St Thomas Aquinas and his theory of analogy.


The theory of analogy.

An analogy is an attempt to explain the meaning of something which is difficult to understand in the light of a comparison with something else which is within our frame of reference. One of the most famous theological analogies is Paley’s analogy of the watch, where he tries to explain the role of God as creator. We have no direct experience of God as a creator, but Paley claimed it is analogical to a watchmaker who designs an intricate timepiece for a purpose.

The most famous early proponent of speaking about God in analogical terms, was St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). It is important to note before we look at his theory, that Aquinas’ theories start from confirmed religious belief and work backwards from that in justifying it. Most of you will be starting from the opposite point; unconfirmed attitudes and look to test whether or not religious theories are sufficient proof. Aquinas was a religious man who believed in God. He assumed both that God existed and that God had created the universe: remember, there was no Big Bang theory or evolution to test the claims made by Genesis. Aquinas believed that religious belief was reasonable to hold, i.e. that one can use reason to assert God’s existence.

Aquinas rejected univocal and equivocal language when talking about God. These are as follows:

Univocal language: This is where words are used to mean the same things in all the situations where they are used e.g. black board, black hat, black car. In each case, the word black is being used to refer to the colour black.

Equivocal language: This is where words are used to mean different things in different contexts e.g. ‘gay’ can be taken to mean ‘jolly’, ‘homosexual’ or more recently ‘rubbish’. Problematically, once a word is used to mean a different thing, it is robbed of its original meaning because of the new application.

What do these two terms have to do with religious language or God-talk? Religious language often attempts to describe the attributes or qualities of God. This is difficult as God is generally not something we have direct experience of, whereas most of the things language refers to are things that we can experience e.g. love, rabbits, hair, walking. Thus when we say ‘God is good’ we need to know how we are using the word ‘good’ in that sentence. If we are speaking univocally, we are claiming that God is good in the same way humans are. Aquinas rejected this as he believed God to be perfect. Because of this, imperfect humans cannot be good in the same way that God is. Alternatively, if we are speaking equivocally, we mean that God is good in a totally different way to humans. Aquinas rejected this too. He argued that if we speak equivocally about God, we cannot profess to know anything about him as we are saying that the language we use to describe humans or the experienced world around us, does not apply to God.

Aquinas believed that there was a ‘middle way’, a way of talking meaningfully about God. This middle way, was analogy. Aquinas described three types of analogy: analogy of attribution, analogy of proper proportion and analogy of improper proportion.

The analogy of attribution.

Aquinas believed it was possible to work out the nature of God by examining his creation. Aquinas took it for granted that the world was created by God and for him, the link between creator and created order was clear.

In the analogy of attribution, Aquinas takes as his starting points the idea that God is the source of all things in the universe and that God is universally perfect. He then goes on to argue that all beings in the universe in some way imitate God according to their mode of existence:

‘Thus, therefore, God is called wise not only insofar as He produces wisdom, but also because, insofar as we are wise, we imitate to some extent the power by which He makes us wise. On the other hand, God is not called a stone, even though He has made stones, because in the name stone there is understood a determinate mode of being according to which a stone is distinguished from God. But the stone imitates God as its cause in being and goodness.’

Aquinas uses the example of a bull to illustrate this point. It is possible to determine the health of an animal by examining its urine. Aquinas said that if a bull’s urine is healthy, then we can determine that the bull will be healthy. Obviously however, the health of the bull is more completely and perfectly within the bull itself and is only reflected in the urine produced by the bull. In the same way God is the source of qualities in the universe and God possesses these qualities first and most perfectly. This sets up an order of reference, meaning that these qualities apply to God first and foremost, then to other things secondarily and analogically. Because we are created in the image of God, it is possible to say that we have these attributes (wisdom, goodness etc) analogically: these qualities are attributed to us analogically, whilst God has them perfectly.

The analogy of proper proportion.

John Hick has given a useful example to help to illustrate this idea:

‘Consider the term ‘faithful’. A man or a woman can be faithful, and this shows in particular patters of speech, behaviour and so on. We can also say that a dog is faithful. Clearly there is a great difference between the faithfulness of a man or woman and that of a dog, yet there is a recognisable similarity or analogy – otherwise, we would not think of the dog as faithful. Further, in the case of the analogy between the human beings and the dog true faithfulness is something we know in ourselves, and a dim and imperfect likeness of this in the dog is known by analogy.’

The theory is not John Hick’s, it was developed by Aquinas, but Hick’s example helps to explain it. The basic idea is that we possess qualities like those of God (goodness, wisdom, faithfulness etc) because we were created in his image and likeness, but because we are inferior to God, we possess those qualities in lesser proportion to God.

Strengths and weaknesses of analogy. 

So, analogy is one suggested way of being able to speak about God, but does it work?

Aquinas based his work upon a number of assumptions that came from his religious belief. Obviously, he believed that God was ultimately responsible for the creation of the earth (as shown in his 5 Ways) and he also believed that humans were created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ as is stated in Genesis. The idea that we were created has been refuted implicitly by Darwin and explicitly by Richard Dawkins. If one doesn’t accept his assumptions, one doesn’t have to accept the idea that we can work out what God is like by examining a creation that may or may not be his.

Another criticism, is that analogy picks some qualities, but not others i.e. the good qualities. The world also comprises evil, does God possess these qualities as well? This criticism would appear to have been refuted by Augustine, who argues that there is no such thing as evil, just a falling away from or privation of the good.

Also, analogy can tell us nothing new about God, as it is based upon things that are already in existence, it is rather like saying that we can work out everything about a car designer from the car that he has designed.

The bridge that Aquinas attempts to create between things known and unknown, is built of imaginary blocks. However, some scholars would argue that it is possible to speak of life on Mars meaningfully without having had empirical experience of it, also, eschatological verification can be suggested against this criticism.

Analogy does not stand up to verification, because the object one is trying to illustrate by use of analogy, cannot be empirically verified. Another criticism, is that of Richard Swinburne, who argues that we don’t really need analogy at all. When we say ‘God is good’ and ‘humans are good’, we may be using ‘good’ to apply to different things, but we are using it to mean the same thing: i.e. we are using the word good univocally.

Obviously, the criticisms of people like AJ Ayer are difficult to reject and of course, an analogical statement referring to God is impossible to verify. However, analogy is incredibly valuable for people who are already in the religious language game, that is, people who already believe. It can help them to make sense of a concept that really is beyond human comprehension and would work as a great aid to faith. This was the perspective that Aquinas was working from.


Paul Tillich and language as symbol.


Paul Tillich was a theologian who believed that it is possible to speak meaningfully about metaphysical concepts and came up with the theory that religious language, because it is symbolic in nature, has a profound effect upon humans.

Paul Tillich starts by making a distinction between signs and symbols. Look at the pictures above. The top row are signs and the bottom row are symbols. Both sets of pictures point to something beyond themselves, i.e. they mean something else. But there is a crucial difference. Tillich said that signs do not participate in what they symbolise. This means that without knowing what the top row of signs mean, they would make no sense. Also, all these signs do is point to a statement such as ‘you can now travel at the national speed limit’ they have no other effect.

Symbols on the other hand are powerful and they actually take part in the power and meaning of what they symbolise. If you look at the cross in the second row, this is the symbol of Christianity. Not only does it stand as a marker for that religion, but it also makes a powerful statement. It immediately reminds Christians of the sacrifice they believe Jesus to have made on the cross for them, it also reminds them of their beliefs about God and his plan for the salvation of human beings. In this way, a symbol communicates much more powerfully with us. Tillich believed that religious language operates as a symbol.

Tillich outlined four main functions that symbols perform:

1. They point to something beyond themselves.

2. They participate in that to which they point.

3. Symbols open up levels of reality that otherwise are closed to us.

4. They also open up the levels and dimensions of the soul that correspond to those levels of reality.

Tillich argued that symbolic language operates in much the same way that a piece of music or a work of art or poetry might. They can have a deep and profound effect upon us that we can only explain in a limited way, and the explanation would only really be understood by someone else who has seen that same work of art. Also, symbols, like works of art, can open up new levels of reality for us and offer a new perspective on life.


Tillich maintained that religious language is a symbolic way of pointing towards the ultimate reality, the vision of God which he called ‘Being-Itself.’ Being-Itself is that upon which everything else depends for its being and Tillich believed that we came to knowledge of this through symbols which direct us to it.

RB Braithwaite: Religious language as moral assertion.

Braithwaite was concerned not with what religious statements are, but with how they are used. Braithwaite believed that religious statements are moral in content and intention and can therefore be verified, because they result in a change of behaviour. Religious statements are:

‘…declarations of adherence to a policy of action, declarations of commitment to a way of life.’

Correspondingly, moral assertions are described as follows:

‘It makes the primary use of a moral assertion that of expressing the intention of the asserter to act in a particular sort of way specified in the assertion.’

Braithwaite argued that because religious statements such as ‘God is the almighty father’ result in action, they have meaning. He used the conversion of CS Lewis, who wrote the stories about Narnia, as an example of how becoming a Christian redirected the way he lived his life: it engendered a commitment to live an agapeistic life.

Braithwaite also argued that religious belief and hence religious moral assertions, are based upon a) a commitment to live a particular life as we have seen, and b) religious stories such as the life of Jesus, or the life of the Buddha. What is interesting about this, is that Braithwaite claims religious people do not have to rely upon these stories as being empirically verifiable, i.e. a Christian does not have to produce Jesus’ certificate of death, they can just use these stories as an influence.

‘It is completely untrue, as a matter of psychological fact, to think that the only intellectual considerations which affect action are beliefs: it is all the thoughts of a man that determine his behaviour; and these include his phantasies, imaginations, ideas of what he would wish to be and do, as well as the propositions which he believes to be true…’

So, for Braithwaite, religious assertions are meaningful because they result in particular action and a particular way of life that can be verified.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Language Games

So, we are back where we started, with Ludwig Wittgenstein. As we saw earlier, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus set the Logical Positivists off on their journey of requiring that a statement meets the criteria of the principle of verification.

Later on however, Wittgenstein wrote a book called Philosophical Investigations which was published posthumously. In this, he developed the theory of language games, which he arrived at (supposedly) after having attended a football match. Wittgenstein observed that just like games such as football and Rugby, language operates according to rules. Just as football players understand the offside trap and Rugby players understand rucks and mauls, so religious people understand the language of religion. Not only this, but Wittgenstein said that language has a meaning for the people in those particular language games (or contexts of use).

This theory has been very influential and fits into a philosophical movement that prefers something called the coherence theory of truth. The coherence theory of truth states that human knowledge is made up of a broad spread of statements about the world that can be imagined like a patchwork quilt. A statement is true if it fits in with other statements about the world i.e. it can be ‘stitched in’ to the patchwork quilt; a statement coheres with other statements. For example, if I claim that I have just flown from London to Edinburgh by flapping my arms, you would test the truth of that statement by trying to ‘stitch it in’ to other statements you know to be true about the world. People who follow the coherence theory are often called pragmatists and reject something called the correspondence theory of truth, which states that language is only meaningful if it directly corresponds to facts about the world, that is, language should mirror life. Wittgenstein and the pragmatists that followed him, were more interested in how language was used as a way of judging its meaning, rather than looking at what it corresponds to or mirrors.