Thursday, 31 December 2015

Edward Feser: Christians, Muslims, and the reference of “God”

Edward Feser: Christians, Muslims, and the reference of “God”

Let me start by rehearsing some points that should be obvious, and which others have already made, but which are crucial for properly framing the question at hand. First, we need to keep in mind the Fregean point that a difference in sense does not entail a difference in reference. To use Frege’s famous example, the sense of the expression “the morning star” is different from the sense of the expression “the evening star.” But these two expressions refer to one and the same thing, viz. the planet Venus. Similarly, expressions like “the God of the Christians” and “the God of the Muslims” differ in sense, but it doesn’t follow from that alone that they don’t refer to the same God. By the same token, though the expression “God” is different from the expression “Allah,” it doesn’t follow that God is not Allah, any more than Stan Lee and Stanley Martin Lieber are different men.

Second, even a speaker’s erroneous beliefs don’t entail that he is not referring to the same thing that speakers with correct beliefs are referring to. Consider an example made famous by Keith Donnellan. Suppose you’re at a party and see a man across the room drinking from a martini glass. You say something like “The guy drinking a martini is well-dressed.” Suppose, however, that the man is not in fact drinking a martini, but only water. It doesn’t follow that you haven’t really referred to him. Furthermore, suppose there is a second man, somewhere in the room but unseen by you, who really is drinking a martini and that he is dressed shabbily. It doesn’t follow that you were, after all, really referring to this second man and saying something false. Rather, assuming that the first man really is well-dressed, you were referring to that first man and saying something true about him, even though you were wrong about what he is drinking. And thus you are referring to the very same man as people who know that he is drinking water would be referring to if they said “The guy drinking water from a martini glass is well-dressed.” Similarly, the fact that Muslims have what Christians regard as a number of erroneous beliefs about God does not by itself entail that Muslims and Christians are not referring to the same thing when they use the expression “God.”

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