by Joseph Shieber
One of the biggest early 20th century philosophical challenges to the belief in God stemmed from the doctrine of verificationism.
Roughly, according to verificationism, a claim has meaning just in case it is possible to verify the claim — either through empirical evidence or logical proof.
Now here’s the problem for a claim that expresses belief in God. There is no empirical evidence that can prove the existence of God, nor is it possible, purely through logic alone, to prove God’s existence. So, according to verificationism, a claim like “God exists” is quite literally meaningless. It’s just nonsense. Though grammatical, it’s no more meaningful than “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”.
What made me think of verificationism and theism recently is the fact that, in the last couple of weeks (and, indeed, years), a number of religious people have claimed that God had a particular interest in the outcome of the 2016 United States Presidential election.
Now it seems to me that we can show that such claims are pretty obviously nonsensical. And it seems to me that we can do this without accepting anything as strong as the verificationist thesis. In fact, we can do this even according to the standards of a committed religious believer.
We can demonstrate that claims like “God wanted so-and-so to win” are at the very least inconsistent with other things the committed religious believer accepts. And we can do so without relying on any of the assumptions that overly sophisticated philosophers like the early 20th century verificationists – or even the more contemporary dreaded New Atheists – might employ.
Now it’s important to note that, when it comes to God’s interest in the 2016 Presidential election, it isn’t always entirely clear what such a divine interest in electoral politics is taken to involve. It seems to me that there are two different claims that people might be making.
First, they might simply be saying that God wanted a particular candidate to win in 2016, but that the outcome of the election was the result of human choices, rather than divine intervention. I’ll refer to this as the “Divine Desire” thesis.
Or, more strongly, some could be making the bolder claim that God didn’t merely favor a particular candidate, but rather that the outcome of the election itself was a result of God’s will – that is, that God made it the case that a particular candidate won in 2016. I’ll call this the “Divine Action” thesis.
Let’s begin with the stronger “Divine Action” thesis, that God not only preferred a certain outcome in the 2016 US Presidential Election, but that God actually brought about the divinely preferred outcome.
Now here again there seem to be two possibilities as to why you would embrace this stronger “Divine Action” thesis. Either you think that everything that occurs does so because God willed it, or you think that not all events occur because God wills them, although the 2016 US Presidential election did occur as it did because of divine intervention.
Let’s look at the first option – that everything occurs because God wills it. This is a form of the philosophical position known as “fatalism”. Famously, there are a lot of difficulties for fatalism – including, perhaps most significantly, problems caused by the incompatibility of fatalism with belief in the existence of free will.
As promised, however, I won’t drag this discussion through any of those dense philosophical thickets. It seems to me pretty obvious that that fatalist version of the “Divine Action” thesis is a non-starter.
That’s because if you believe that every event is a result of God’s will, then you have to believe that not only was the 2016 Presidential election result one that God brought about, but also – among other events – the 2012 and 2008 Presidential elections. Given the number of people who think that the 44th President of the United States was literally the anti-Christ, that’s not very likely.
So we’re left with the weaker form of the “Divine Action” thesis. According to this view, God only sometimes actively brings about events here on earth, and one of the events that God felt strongly enough about was the 2016 US Presidential election. Let’s call this weaker form of the “Divine Action” thesis the “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis.
There are two big problems with this weaker view. Here’s the first. If God only sometimes actively intervenes in events here on earth, how are we able to know which events are the result of God’s action and which are ones that God merely allowed to occur without actively intervening?
One of the strengths of the stronger “Divine Action” thesis is that, if God is the direct cause of all events, then we are never faced with the question of whether a certain event is the result of God’s active intervention. If only some events are directly caused by God, as the weaker “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis would have it, then we are faced with the conundrum of figuring out, in any particular case, whether it is one of the events that God brought about through active intervention.
A bit later we’ll come back to some further implications of this problem of knowing God’s will well enough to know when active divine intervention would be appropriate and when it would not. Before we do that, however, one way of attempting to answer the first big problem for the “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis will help us to appreciate the second big problem for “Intermittent Divine Action”.
One way to answer the problem of how we can know that God actively intervened in the 2016 US Presidential election would be to point to the enormity of the problems that the United States supposedly faced prior to that election. The country stood on a razor’s edge, and if it chose incorrectly, the result would be godless hordes surging into the country, abortion-on-demand at every corner drugstore, and billionaires stripped of their God-given dollars, among other un-Christian atrocities. When you put the situation this way, how could God refrain from actively intervening in the 2016 Presidential election?!?
But this is where we get to the second big problem with the “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis. Suppose we grant that the problems facing the United States in 2016 really were that dire, and that the outcome of that year’s election would provide a solution. God is all-knowing, right? Can you guess the problem this presents?
Suppose you think that the election of you-know-who in 2008 – and his re-election in 2012 – led to the enormity of the problems facing the country. Well, God would certainly have known this too, and could have prevented the problems in 2008 or at least minimized them in 2012. The question, in that case, is why God didn’t actively intervene then.
Or suppose you think that the problem was that the alternative to DJT was HRC. She was the catastrophe facing the nation. But again, there were plenty of situations in which God could have actively intervened prior to the 2016 Presidential election, to make it the case that the election wouldn’t have involved a choice between those two alternatives.
Now, you might argue that God had reasons for letting things develop to the point where they got so drastic that only active divine intervention would suffice. You might point to the way that parents sometimes hang back, letting a situation develop, to allow their children to try to deal with that situation on their own. Only when the situation becomes sufficiently threatening will the parents step in and directly intervene.
We’re getting dangerously close to a morass of issues involving the compatibility of divine action and human free will, and I promised I wouldn’t bring up any abstruse philosophical debates.
If you think that God did actively intervene in the 2016 US Presidential election, however, then you already accept that God sometimes overrides human choices – in the same way, you might suggest, as the parent sometimes eventually has to step in and impose their will over that of a wayward child.
So then the question is why, if the situation in 2016 really was as dire as the fans of the “Divine Action” thesis seem to suggest, did God wait so long to intervene, given that God presumably knew that intervention would at some point be necessary. And the difference between God’s situation and that of the parent with the wayward child is that the parent has to guess how far to let a situation develop before stepping in, whereas God, being all-knowing, knows exactly when to step in. Which makes the question pressing: if the situation in 2016 was as dire as to require such a drastic divine solution, couldn’t there have been some earlier point at which active intervention would have been warranted?
To which the answer, presumably, is that God’s ways are ultimately unknowable. Let’s call this “Divine Unknowability”.
So much, for now, for the “Divine Action” thesis. The stronger version is unworkable, while the weaker, “Intermittent Divine Action”, thesis faces two serious problems.
This leaves us with the weaker version of the “God wanted so-and-so to win” thesis: the “Divine Desire” thesis. This is the claim that God merely desired a certain outcome in the 2016 US Presidential election, but that God didn’t actively intervene to bring that outcome about.
Now one worry here is that desire is an imperfection, and since God is perfect, it would seem problematic to speak of “divine desire” at all. And the worry is actually worse than that. Because even if we don’t think that having a desire in and of itself involves an imperfection, nevertheless we would have to think that if an all-perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing being had a desire, then that desire would be immediately satisfied.
For example, if I were all-powerful and I wanted a chocolate ice cream sundae, then, at the moment I became aware of my desire I would bring the chocolate ice cream sundae into existence.
I know what you’re going to say: maybe I desire the sundae, but I have a conflicting desire, like the desire not to gain weight.
Let’s leave aside the issue that if I’m all-powerful then I should be able to satisfy my desire and prevent any undesired consequences that arise from my satisfying the desire. There’s a more basic problem here. Even if having desires doesn’t constitute an imperfection, having conflicting desires certainly does constitute an imperfection. So the worry is that the “Divine Desire” thesis actually must collapse into the “Divine Action” thesis.
I’m afraid I’m getting dangerously close to doing actual philosophy, though, so let’s leave that worry aside.
The other problem with the “Divine Desire” thesis is the same as the first problem with the “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis. How can we know what God desires?
So here’s where we’ve wound up. Both the “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis and the “Divine Desire” thesis face the problem of how it is that one can know either what God desired or why God chose actively to intervene in certain events but not in others.
Furthermore, the only solution to the other problem for the “Intermittent Divine Action” thesis – the problem of why God chooses to act precisely at certain times rather than others – was to appeal to the “Unknowability Thesis”, the claim that God’s ways are ultimately unknowable.
Notice a problem here? The person who wants to claim that “God wanted so-and-so to win in 2016” seems to have to claim both (1) that they have privileged knowledge of God’s desires and (2) that God’s ways are ultimately unknowable. Hence my claim that the “God wanted so-and-so to win in 2016” claim is utter nonsense.
Perhaps what’s going on here is something else, however. Remember that I’m not appealing to any philosophical atheist arguments; in particular, I’m not assuming the inexistence of God.
Suppose you’re a religious believer and you make a claim like “God wanted so-and-so to win in 2016”. Suppose further that what I’ve argued so far is correct: strictly speaking, the claim is nonsense. Maybe, though, all you’re really trying to say when you make that claim is something like “Thank God that so-and-so won in 2016”. And what you mean by that claim isn’t literally an expression of gratitude to God for bringing about the result in the 2016 Presidential election, but simply “It’s great that so-and-so won in 2016”.
The technical term for this way of understanding certain utterances is expressivism. Rather than attempting to communicate a content that could be true or false, such utterances instead express an attitude. And even if you’re a religious believer, and therefore think that some statements involving God – like “God exists”, for example, or “God is all-knowing” – do have content, you might still allow that some other statements involving God are expressions of attitudes rather than utterances intended to communicate true information.
Charitably, that’s what I think is going on in cases like prominent examples of religious believers claiming that “God wanted so-and-so to win in 2016”.
But now I have a different, more serious problem. Why are such statements news? Why are they reported by supposedly serious news outlets?
If, as I have suggested, the only charitable interpretation of such claims is that they are expressions of attitudes, then they are not newsworthy in the least. Those who made those claims were already on record as to their preferences for the outcome of the 2016 election. The “God wanted so-and-so to win” claim is just a forceful expression of that preference. Nothing to see here. Move along.
This, then, is the deeper issue with the discussion of such literally nonsensical claims. Not that the claims were made, but rather that the news media wasted time and space reporting the claims. In doing so, the media amplify and validate those religiously-cloaked expressions of attitudes in ways that serve no legitimate news interest. Ultimately, that’s perhaps the most damaging nonsense of all.