Thomas Aquinas & Analogy 


  • Thomas Aquinas rejected the approach of the verificationists as he stated that religious language is meaningful
  • He also rejected the Via Negativa as it does not say enough about God
  • However Aquinas did not want to suggest that language means the same thing when applied to God as it does when applied to humans or physical things – God is above this
    • If you were to say that “God is good”, this does not mean God is good in the same way as a human 
    • ‘Good’ for a human being is attributed to personality, ability to follow rules, the talents one possesses
    • Whereas God is good in the sense that he represents absolute goodness – God is pure goodness & light
    • These are very different things
  • Using words in a literal way to describe God is known as univocal language – meaning that words have the same meaning when applied to different things
    • Using univocal language, God would be good in the same way as a human being is
  • Aquinas also rejected the use of equivocal language – using the same word to mean completely different things when applied to different situations
    • Aquinas argues that using equivocal language to say that God is good would be describing God’s goodness in a way that no human could understand – therefore making the description entirely meaningless 
    • Aquinas argued that this contradicted the scriptural belief that God can be known from creation
  • Aquinas used analogy to talk about God
    • An analogy is a comparison between two or more things in which the first simpler thing which is already understood is used to attempt to describe & understand the second, more complex thing
  • For Aquinas analogy may be used to describe God as aspects of God are revealed through creation
    • This provides a point for comparison – Aquinas is not merely trying to project qualities of certain things onto God

The Analogy of Attribution 


  • Brian Davies gave the example of the bread & the baker when explaining the analogy of attribution
    • The bread is good therefore the baker is good
  • The word “good” is used in both occasions but does not have the exact same meaning.
  • Bread can be good in that it can be well risen, fluffy, soft
  • Whereas the baker is good in that he is talented & has the necessary qualities to make such nice bread
  • Aquinas argued that because God created the world, he is revealed through it
  • This gives us a point of comparison which can help us better understand God
  • We know that certain people can be “good”, “wise”, “just”; and as people are part of God’s creation we can attribute these qualities to him
  • The analogy Aquinas used was that of the Bull 
    • If the bull’s urine is healthy then the bull is healthy
  • It is important to remember that as Aquinas rejects univocal language he is not suggesting God is good in the same way that the Pope is good – much in the same way that Davies was not arguing a baker is light & fluffy
    • We can merely gain some understanding of the qualities of God, qualities which are similar to those seen in his creations, through the analogy of attribution

The Analogy of Proportion

  • The analogy of proportion refers to the nature of what something is 
  • Aquinas uses the example of “good” applied to God
  • If one says “this is a good car”, you are saying that the car measures up to the idea of what a good car should be like
  • In the case of “God is good”, you are saying that God measures up to the idea of God & the characteristics & abilities God should have
  • This allows for some subjectivity – for Aquinas a “good God” is one which is eternal, omnipotent & omnibenevolent, whereas for Swinburne a good God is timeless

Criticisms of Analogy 

  1. Does analogy tell us anything? 
    – Some philosophers point out that while analogy can tell us God has a certain quality such as “God is just”, due to Aquinas’ rejection of univocal language this tells us very little about what is means for God to be just
  2. Literal language 
    – Aquinas rejects the literal meaning of words when applied to God. Richard Swinburne suggests that sometimes words can be used univocally to talk about God, for example if God is good this can be interpreted to mean God is just as good as humans, but to a greater degree




Using Myth to Talk About God

-For religious people, a myth can communicate a particular world view or set of morals, values or beliefs held by a particular person or persons. This can cover a person’s view on life, death, goodness & evil.

Myths communicate truths although they use fiction or parables to do it.

  • For Christians, myths communicate the values of Christianity
  • Taking the creation story as an example, this communicates the power, love and significance of God, how he wants us to treat the world & how the world works in harmony
  • The fact that a myth is a form of a story does not weaken its importance, again taking the creation myth as an example – this story still communicates that God created the world & the messages he intended to leave behind that, it just should not be taken literally when taking a mythological approach
  • To question whether or not a myth is true or based in fact can detract from its purpose, which is to communicate greater truths & values
  • However the one sense in which the origin of a myth does matter is if it can be considered a fable, or a made up fictional story
    • this does not communicate anything about God

Rudolf Bultmann 


  • Rudolf Bultmann, amongst others, aimed to demythologise myths 
  • The aim of this movement was to remove mythological elements & imagery to reveal the truths & values communicated by a story
  • Bultmann aimed to remove the supernatural view of the New Testament, as this view of miracles & other events tended to conflict with modern science
  • However this movement ultimately came to a halt
    • The significance of myths became clear – it is to communicate values & beliefs in story-form
  • Therefore the truths Bultmann & others were searching for become apparent through the story

Issues Raised by Myths 

  1. What qualifies as a myth? 
    – If myths communicate the value system of a community, then the dominant myth is passed on. As well as this there are no criteria for judging which myths communicate truth – or even separating a myth from a story
  2. How do myths communicate values & truths? 
    – Communicating truths through myth can be seen as evading stating such moral truths or values for rational assessment. As well as this, understanding of values & truths can change over time – do they improve? Or do they stray further & further from what the original myth intended?


Signs and Symbols


  • An alternative way to speak of religious language is through symbols
  • There are many important symbols in Christianity, for example the crucifix
  • As well as objects, actions or clothing can also be symbolic – for example kneeling to pray symbolises submitting oneself to God

Paul Tillich and Symbols

  • Paul Tillich famously made an important distinction between signs and symbols;
    – A sign is often something which points you in the right direction or indicates something, such as a road sign
    – A symbol communicates much greater understanding, it “participates in which it points“, suggesting that a symbol has far more meaning behind it than a sign
  • Symbols communicate something which is often difficult to put into words
  • God, in Tillich’s thinking, is the ground of being
    – God is the basis of everything which exists & also the meaning behind it
  • God cannot be known in a personal way, and cannot be understood through usual language, he is known through symbols
  • Tillich argued that due to the meaning behind them, symbols cannot be destroyed
  • However symbols can lose their meaning
    • The Hindu symbol of the Swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party & now is not associated with Hindu beliefs
  • Tillich gave the example of the virgin birth – it symbolised the purity of Mary from sin, but Protestants lost this meaning over time & abandoned many prayers regarding Mary

Criticisms of Symbols 

  1. Different interpretations 
    – Taking the story of Adam & Eve as an example, for some Christians this is to be taken literally & Adam & Eve’s existence is a matter of historical fact – it is not merely symbolic.
    For others the story of Adam & Eve is only interpreted symbolically
  2. How can something participate in something else? 
    – Some philosophers criticised Tillich for not being clear about what “participating in” means

The Via Negativa

  • The Via Negativa states that one can only speak of God in negative terms – God is transcendent so one cannot say what God is, therefore we can only say what he is not
  • We can, for example, know that God is not human, God is not evil & God does not have a body
  • Via Negativa literally means “the negative way”
  • One key idea behind the Via Negativa is that language cannot accurately describe God
  • Our language cannot tell people about God as he is beyond human comprehension
  • Pseudo-Dionysius suggested that if we talk of God being good, we have to say for example, that God is not good – as we cannot understand what it means to say what he is
  • Pseudo-Dionysius stated that God is beyond assertion & beyond denial; “free of every limitation, beyond every limitation
  • Moses Maimonides corroborated this argument, stating that God is beyond any description & to make positive statements describing God is improper & disrespectful
  • To describe God in this way limits him to human language & understanding

Analysis of the Via Negativa 


  1. Prevents anthropomorphic statements being made about God -the avoidance of positive assertions about God, for example, “God is good” means one avoids limiting God to human terms, as stated by Maimonides
  2. Supports the view that God is ineffable – too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words as suggested in Jewish tradition


  1. Limited understanding – to only speak of God in negative terms gives a very limited understanding of God & his characteristics
  2. Using negative language does not overcome the problems of using positive language – Maimonides argues that to positively attribute qualities to God is disrespectful & cannot truly describe him – however using the Via Negativa does not overcome this. Saying that God is “not bad” is attributing a characteristic in the same way as saying “God is great”
  3. Antony Flew – negatives ultimately amount to nothing, we are left with no clear image of what God is


Language Games


  • Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that the meaning of words is determined by the Language Games of which the words are part
    – A words meaning comes from the circumstance in which it is said
  • Wittgenstein used the example of a game of chess
    – when playing chess, rules state how the pieces are moved. And yet speaking of moving “pawns” & “queens” outside of the game to someone who has no idea how chess is played the language seems to be nonsense; language only works within the context it is spoken
  • For Wittgenstein, language can only be meaningful if it’s used in the appropriate way in the particular language game in question
  • Language games are the reality of our understanding of the world
  • Language games are not personal, they’re shared & learnt – for example the son of a rugby player grows up to learn the language game associated with that sport

Language Games & Religious Language

– Wittgenstein’s theory can be applied to religious language
– Religious statements & language are their own language game, statements such as “God is perfection” make sense & have a particular meaning to people who are part of that language game
– This means that it’s understandable that non-theists such as A J Ayer would have a problem understanding the importance of religious language; they are not part of the language game & so such statements make about as much sense as saying “I’m taking your queen” to a person who has never played chess
– This is helpful for religious believers, as it allows them to express religious statements & claim they are of significance, & also explains why an atheist will not find the same significance in such language

Challenges to Language Games 

  1. Are there right or wrong language games? 
    – Wittgenstein’s ideas leave the potential for one to justify anything as a language game which could have dangerous consequences. For example if a paedophile ring could claim their actions & feelings are justifiable, they just simply cannot be understood by those outside of the language game
  2. Is language games too anti-real? 
    – Suggesting the “true for you” formula has problems for Christianity. Certain religious claims & statements can’t just hold subjective value, but have to be objectively true, such as “Jesus was the son of God” which the Christian faith relies upon


The Theory of Falsification

Falsification asks; when is a statement scientific as opposed to any other type of statement?

One example is given by Karl Popper, who stated that one of the reasons Einstein’s theory of gravity compared to astrology was scientific is because it was potentially falsifiable – it could be proven wrong. Astrology on the other hand gives statements which cannot be proven wrong, therefore showing they are unscientific.

For Popper, falsification was a way to separate scientific statements from others which cannot be supported with empirical evidence.

This raises questions about religious language, if statements such as “Jesus was the son of God incarnate” cannot be falsified – does that mean they are of limited meaning?

Antony Flew: 


  • Antony Flew argued that religious believers will allow nothing to sway them of their belief in God
  • To explain this he gave the parable of two explorers in a jungle;
    – Two explorers come across a beautiful clearing in amidst the dense jungle. One of them suggests a gardener comes and tends to the clearing to keep it so lovely, the other says that is ridiculous, the two men set up camp in order to keep watch and test this theory. They eventually use guard dogs, set up fences & lights to watch out for the gardener. But as every new day comes & no gardener has been seen, the first man still suggests new possibilities; “the gardener is invisible” “the gardener is too small to be seen”. The sceptic despairs & states “but how is this invisible, intangible, private gardener any different from no gardener at all?”
  • Through this parable Flew is comparing the first explorer to religious believers – in that no amount of evidence will falsify their belief in God.
  • Flew gives the example of a natural disaster, after it believers will attempt to rationalise God’s apparent absence over and over, until he “dies a death of a thousand qualifications” 

Responses to Flew 

Peter Donovan argued that we accept that the “sense of knowing” is no good indication of knowledge, but as soon as one senses that God has failed, taking the example of Flew’s natural disaster, this is enough to discard the entire idea of God?

R M Hare: 


  • Hare used the analogy of the lunatic to argue his position on falsification, opposing Flew
    – A lunatic at a university believes that all the teachers there are trying to kill him, as this is the lunatic’s belief, it cannot be falsified or verified, it is merely his world view
  • Hare defined these worldviews each person holds as bliks – a blik is not falsifiable as it does not make factual claims about the world which could be tested
  • Hare clarified that there is an important difference between the insane blik of the lunatic and a sane blik – holding the right blik does matter, as it can affect the way one acts in the world
  • Bliks are ways of seeing the world & differences between bliks cannot be solved by observations of what the world is like (science)
  • Hare suggested Flew made a mistake in labelling religious language attempted scientific statements
    • However Flew pointed out that religion cannot be a blik as Christianity makes multiple claims which Flew would label assertions, such as “God created the world”

Basil Mitchell: 


  • Basil Mitchell explains religious believers faith in God through his parable of the partisan and the stranger;
    – In a time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance (the partisan) meets a stranger who impresses him. They speak for a long time & eventually the stranger reveals that he is the leader of the resistance, the partisan must trust him, & keep fighting for their cause. At later times the partisan sees the stranger. Sometimes he is aiding the resistance & fighting hard & he says “he is on our side”. At other times the stranger will be in the uniform of the opposing side, giving information on the resistance, but the partisan still believes he is on their side.
    “What does he have to do to convince you he’s lied, that he’s not who he says he is?” other members of the resistance ask. But the partisan will not answer as he does not want to test the stranger
  • Mitchell uses the parable to show that religious believers hold belief in God despite apparent evidence to the contrary due to loyalty & strength of belief – they are committed 
  • Mitchell comments that believers do have to ensure their dogged trust is not just “vacuous formulae” – for example, believing for comfort or because they have been taught to do so, but rather from a place of true belief

Responses to Falsification: 

  1. What can be falsified? 
    Swinburne argues that while it is true only factual/evidence based statements can be falsified, other statements can still hold meaning. He uses his analogy of the toys in the cupboard – each night the toys come to life, a fact which cannot be verified or falsified but which still holds meaning
    – Hare suggested through his theory of bliks that the Bible cannot be considered as falsifiable statements; rather it’s a series of values which can then be adopted into ones worldview (blik)
  2. Verification and falsification
    Ayer argued against falsification, saying it did no better than verification when determining the value of language. He stated that falsification had its limits, for example if I were to say unicorns visit me each night, evidence would strongly suggest that that is not true – however it cannot be completely falsified and proven logically impossible


The Verification Principle: 



  • The Vienna Circle were a group of philosophers who developed what has come to be known as the strong verification principle, or, logical positivism
  • The verification principle states that statements can only be meaningful if they are analytic statements or if they can be empirically verified
  • Analytic statements – are true by definition; tautologies such as “all bachelors are unmarried men”
  • Empirically verifiable statements – can be proven with empirical evidence, for example “that car is blue” can either be verified or falsified conclusively
  • This leaves many areas of language and expression which become meaningless, for example:
    • Emotion – feelings cannot be verified as to state that “Jenny feels sad” cannot be proven empirically & isn’t a tautology
    • Opinions – “that statue is beautiful” & comments such as these automatically become meaningless for the same reason
    • Historical events – “The Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066” is a meaningless statement for a verificationist, as one cannot empirically see the Battle of Hastings happen at this time to verify it, & the Battle is not a defining quality of the year 1066 – it is not analytically true
    • Religious language – “God talk” is neither true by definition & also cannot be empirically verified, statements such as “God is good” become meaningless
    • Other empirical statements – the example given by Swinburne when criticising verificationism is “all ravens are black”. While it seems logical to say that this statement is true, & in fact most would argue it’s fact, under the verification principle this is meaningless, as it’s not a tautology & one cannot empirically prove every raven alive is black

A J Ayer & Verificationism: 


  • The philosopher A J Ayer supported the verification principle
  • According to Ayer, if a statement is not verifiable it is either a tautology or meaningless – by which he meant “of no factual significance
  • Ayer distinguished between strong and weak verification, developing weak verification by stating that certain statements could be verifiable “in principle”

Weak Verification 

– Ayer noted that there are certain statements which though they are neither tautologies or empirically verifiable, they are still meaningless. For example “there is life on other planets”
– He gave the example of general practical laws which still hold meaning despite not adhering to the strong verification principle, for example “all humans are mortal” 
– This also suggests that historical statements such as “Henry VIII had six wives” can still be considered meaningful, as although it doesn’t work under the strong verification principle, it is verifiable in principle due to the amount of evidence we have of it
– However Ayer maintained that even weak verification could not be used to make metaphysical claims, namely claims about God, as these are outside of our realm of understanding & knowledge

Responses to Verificationism: 

  1. Verification is unverifiable 
    – The verification principle itself is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable; therefore making it meaningless by its own definition
  2. God talk is eschatologically verifiable 
    John Hick suggests religion is not meaningless because its truth is in fact verifiable in principle. He uses the example of the Celestial City, two travellers are on a path leading to the Celestial City, the journey is unavoidable. One believes the city exists & view difficulties on the way as challenges to reaching it, the other doesn’t believe in the city & sees hardships as necessary to endure. At the end of their journey, one of them will be proven right, meaning statements about religion will be verified or falsified in death
  3. Strong verification 
    – The strong verification principle has been widely criticised for excluding vast areas of knowledge, for example history, general scientific rules or understanding. One cannot say water boils at 100 degrees as one cannot test every water molecule
  4. The evidence problem
    – While Ayer developed weak verification to combat some of the problems of the Vienna circles initial ideas, he is inconsistent with what he considers adequate evidence. For example general scientific rules are accepted as verifiable in principle, yet the birth of Jesus with its many accounts both written and spoken is meaningless?
  5. Meaningful but unverifiable
    – There are plenty of examples of meaningful but unverifiable statements. For example Schrodinger’s cat, while it is unknown when the cat is in the box if it is alive or dead, this does not make the situation meaningless