The Problem Of Reference

Here we arrive at the third of the problems I distinguished at the outset. The term 'God' seems partly to behave as a proper name. For instance, in response to the question 'Whom do you worship?' I may reply simply: 'God.' But at the same time the term seems to have some sort of descriptive content, and so to differ from proper names like 'Mark' or 'Jane'. Thus in the tradition of Saint Anselm (1033-1109), we may say that God is definitionally that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Thus the term functions syntactically both as a proper name and as a kind of title term. In these respects, the logical role of 'God' is similar to that of a term like 'Caesar', which serves both as the name of a particular individual and also in due course to denote the holder of a particular office (the ruler of the Roman Empire) (Pike 1970:28-33).

In recent philosophical discussion, two competing theories of the ways in which proper names refer have been canvassed. Following Russell, some philosophers have maintained that proper names are in the normal case implicit definite descriptions (thus 'Aristotle' means 'the man who was a pupil of Plato, taught Alexander, and also.'; or more plausibly it means 'the man who did at least a sufficient number of these things:.'). The other theory holds that proper names do not have a sense, but apply simply to whatever individual was picked out on the occasion of some initial dubbing (Kripke 1980). (A description may have been used on this occasion to identify the individual, but on this theory the description will not form part of the sense of the term.) The importance of this discussion for religious discourse is apparent if we consider the question: do the different religions refer to the same sacred reality?

If we work with a descriptions account of proper names, then in order to show that 'Yahweh', 'Allah', 'Brahman' and so on all have the same reference, we will need to explain away any incompatible descriptions which are associated with these various names. This suggests that we may find it easier to make a case for common reference across the religions if we adopt the dubbing account of naming. For in this case we need not concern ourselves with differences of description; it may be enough to argue that terms like 'God', 'Allah' and so on serve to denominate (rather than to describe) the source of a particular kind of experience (Soskice 1985:152-4), an experience which is common to the different religions. Despite offering a simple and attractive solution to the problem of religious diversity, this approach seems unconvincing as it stands. For suppose we were to establish that religious experiences are the product simply of a certain psychological complex; in that case, given the truth of this form of the dubbing theory, we would have to say that the term 'God' referred to this complex. But would it not be more natural to say that in such a case 'God' would not refer to anything? This difficulty may suggest once more that the term 'God' is logically tied to certain descriptions, such as the Anselmian description we noted just now.

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