Surely before answering that question, one needs to know what one means by the word “God”.
In order to examine the issues connected to the question, first let’s look at one silly argument. The argument says that by saying “God doesn’t exist” one actually admits that God exists, by sheer referring to God. Of course this is not a valid argument – people can talk and speak of non-existent things. If this was a valid argument, one wouldn’t be able to say that “unicorns”, “pink fairies”, or “Santa Claus” don’t exist either. But it opens the question of our ability to refer to things that don’t exist. For sure not-existing can’t be property of things that we refer to, because only things that exist can have properties. So, the first step to analyzing the question of existence of God, is to clear up this ability to refer to nonexistent things.
Russell’s solution is to take names to be shorthands for descriptions. So for example in case of Santa, the description would be e.g. “a person that lives on North Pole, and delivers toys to kids for Christmas”, and the sentence “Santa doesn’t exist” should be understood as “There is no X, such that X is a person that lives on North Pole, etc., etc…”.
However Kripke presented a bunch of convincing arguments against names as shorthands for descriptions. For example if Santa did exist, wouldn’t we be able to imagine Santa not living on the North Pole? Or wouldn’t we be able to imagine him not delivering presents for Christmas? If that is so, then Santa can’t be shortened description of the type we presented, because it would fail to refer to Santa in this cases. Thus, Kripke argues, names are rigid designators – they refer to the same thing in all possible worlds. However, if we take names to be rigid designators, the problems of referring to non-existents appears again.
One idea might be to take the names of existent things to be a rigid designators, while the names of the nonexistent things to be descriptions, but that doesn’t quite work. Imagine for example that we wonder if something with name as “X” exists or not. In this case, it would mean that X would be rigid designator if it turns out that X exists, while it would be description if it turns out that it doesn’t. But surely what we mean by X doesn’t change at all in the whole process. When we wonder if X exist, and if we find out that X exists, and if we find out that X doesn’t exist, what we mean by X should stay same.
In a previous posts, I presented a different way to look at the issue of names. The crux of that account is that the baptizer can give a name to whatever appears as content of his/her intentional acts, and that names can’t appear in any different way. (Intentionality is the property of our mental acts to be about something, for example we are not merely seeing but seeing something, we are not merely wishing but wishing something, we are not merely assuming but assuming something, etc…). So, we can name (only) something we see (or in general – notice), something we assume, something we imagine, and so on…
In this account then, the names again rigidly designate, but rigidly designate the intentional content of baptizer’s intentional act. So, if the person sees a very bright star on evening sky, and designates it as “Hesperus”, Hesperus rigidly designates whatever is that the person saw. On this account names can rigidly designate also imagined content, or assumed content of intentional acts, so there is no need to “fall back” to the shortened descriptions for the case of non-existents (though in general, the shortened description account can be also subsumed in this account, in the case of assumed/theoretical content. I will say more on this later).
So, on this account, a thing named N will fail to exist, not because N is shortened description, and that there is no x for which that shortened description is true, but because the originally named intentional content is one of the cases that I considered in my last post. In short, those are the cases where a)what is named is an imaginary content, or b)it is an assumed content (part of theory) and the theory doesn’t correspond with the world, or c)that what is seen (or in general noticed) and named, is an illusion.
According to this then, the right way to approach the issue of God’s existence, is to put attention on the baptizing (giving of the name), and what kind of intentional content, and in what type of intentional act that content appeared. From what I can see, there are several possible scenarios, each of them having different conditions of what is meant by God as existing or not.
1. The God revealed himself to a certain person or persons, and told them his name. This is the case where the intentional content is phenomenal. Namely God is seen, heard, etc…, and God himself has communicated the name to the person(s) to whom God presented himself. We could say that this is the case of ostensive teaching, or communicating the name/content pair by showing. (This particular type of ostensive teaching happens often in our lives when we introduce ourselves to others.) Then those persons communicated whatever happened to them through the religious books.
In this case, there are two possibilities. Either God really exists, and the name “God” was given by God himself to himself (appearing as a phenomenal content to whomever he presented himself), or the whole thing was illusion (of one or more persons), and that the name “God” was introduced for illusionary content.
2.The God, and the religious books are fiction. That is, what is named by “God” is an intentional content of someone’s intentional act of imagining. Of course in this case God would refer to a non-existent thing.
3.The God is an assumed content. The basis of it, is a theory that wants to explain the world (what we see, etc..) by assuming a supernatural being, and which further has certain properties which explain different things that happen. This, we can see, comes close to some form of shortened description, with the distinction that here what is talked about is a theory, and if the “God” refers to existent or non-existent thing depends on the issue if the theory is corresponding with the world or not. (Probably in this case, we might speak not of one theory but of set of theories having something similar, e.g. include a supernatural being.)
Now, I guess there are different kind of theists and atheists. Some theists can believe that the name is introduced by act in 1, namely that God presented himself, so that in fact God rigidly designates God. Some theists might not, but might believe in existence of God, based on 3. What is not clear is what those people would say about 1 and 2.
Atheists on other side, usually on basis of 3, take that the theories that involve God are invalid, and based on that dismiss possibility of God revealing himself, and initiating the usage of his name. So they would probably argue that it is some combination of wrong theories (3), imagination (2), or hallucination (1), that contributed to the usage of the name “God”.
Anyway… What about the existence of God? Does God exist?
I won’t even try to answer the question philosophically, as I don’t think philosophy has anything to do with answering the question. (Maybe it does, but doesn’t seem to me that way). I just wanted to point to the issues that are involved in the question of existence of God, and also show how the account of names based on intentionality can be used to clear up the issues, though without giving answers.
UPDATE:I just found the Square of Opposition blog (which I added to the blog page), and there is a longer post called Causal Chains and Reference to God there, which is discussing the issue from the perspective of causal chains of reference. Check it out.