January 03, 2016
Language and Objective Truth
Hi Dr. Craig,
I'd like to thank you and your team for all the work you do. It's amazing to see how God has gifted individuals to articulated and present His truth in academically rigorous environments. In the past few years, especially since getting into grad school, I've come to appreciate your work and your approach more.
I've been debating on when, or how, to ask you the question on my mind. Most likely due to my own discomfort with the subject. In the past year I've had the pleasure of catching up with a friend of mine who has tragically turned his back on the faith. On multiple occasions we conversed about his philosophical misgivings about Christianity and any other faith claiming absolute morals. He expressed his distrust in absolutes derived from the ever-evolving medium of language. He now considers himself a moral relativist who has principles and takes moral stances. Maybe something akin to Harris.
This leads me to a version of a question raised in conversation: How can absolute truth be communicated through the medium of language?
To clarify this desperate question, I believe that the questioner rightly links the idea of truth with language. He may even assume that the concept of truth is derived from the ideas of people in a cultural context (ideas like supporting the caste system, believing in reincarnation, thinking women as property, homosexual's right to marriage, etc.). Another assumption, compounding the question, is that language changes; definitions, connotations, colloquialisms, and grammar vary over time in every language.
I don't know which branch of epistemology attempts to answer such question. (How can we trust language to give us absolute truth?) I attempted to answer this question by pointing to the study of hermeneutics (eps. biblical exegesis and systematic theology).
I'd appreciate any pointers, resources, and advice in answering the question "How can we trust language to give us absolute truth?" (I find this particular version of the question more applicable.)
I'm excited to hear your debates from Germany.
Dem treuen Herrn befohlen,
You ask, “How can absolute truth be communicated through the medium of language?” Your sceptical friend apparently thinks that this is impossible.
This seems to me an odd question. How else could truth be communicated? Think about it: communication seems inherently to involve some sort of language, even if it is sign language or semaphores, so that language would seem to be the necessary medium for communicating truth. And let’s not be cowed by the bugaboo “absolute truth.” I take it that “absolute truth” just means truth that is not person-relative, not just true for you or true for me, but just objectively true. I therefore prefer to speak of objective truth rather than absolute truth, which may have misleading connotations. So examples of objective truths would be “The Cubs did not win the 2015 World Series,” “George W. Bush was was President of the United States before Barack Obama,” and “The GDP of China is larger than that of Tajikistan.”
Now you, and presumably your friend, understood those sentences. So haven’t I just communicated objective truth via the medium of language? If there were words in those sentences that you didn’t understand (like GDP), you can ask me to define those words in terms that you do understand. So what’s the big problem? Clearly, your friend has got a very large burden of proof if he’s to convince us that it’s impossible to communicate objective truth via language.
The difficulty he faces is not just with coming up with such a proof, but communicating it to us. How will he do that apart from language? How will he show us that it is impossible to communicate objective truth through the medium of language without using language? He says things like “There are no moral absolutes,” “Language is an ever-evolving medium,” “Christianity is not true,” and so on, and assumes that you understand him. He is himself committed to the communication of what he takes to be objective truths via the medium of language. He thus pulls the rug out from under himself.
So what argument does he give that it is impossible to communicate objective truths via language? You say that he may assume “that the concept of truth is derived from the ideas of people in a cultural context.” I’m not sure what this means. Of course, people in different cultural contexts have different ideas about things, including truth. So what? How does that justify the conclusion that some of these people have not asserted and even communicated truths?
For my part, I find some version of the Correspondence Theory of truth to be most satisfactory. This theory goes back to Aristotle and beyond. According to Aristotle, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false; while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.” Aristotle is here providing the conditions under which something is truly asserted, rather than giving a definition of truth itself, and it seems to me that his enormously influential characterization is quite correct. During the Middle Ages, philosophers addressed the question of truth more directly, Thomas Aquinas characterizing truth as the correlation of intellect and reality. In other words, if reality is as the intellect judges it to be, then truth is a quality inhering both in the judgement and in the intellect itself. Among contemporary correspondence theorists, truth is likewise conceived as a property of either sentences or propositions which correspond to the world as it actually is. Thus, for example, the sentence “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. We need understand the notion of truth as correspondence as no more than that “that S” is true (or corresponds to reality) if and only if S. That’s all there is to truth as correspondence.
Another alleged problem you mention is that “language changes; definitions, connotations, colloquialisms, and grammar vary over time in every language.” This is a truism. But what’s to prevent us from learning how people define and use their words so as to understand the truth they would communicate to us? If someone says to me, “La neige est blanche,” I perfectly understand what he says, depite the fact that his language is not my own, since I took the time to learn French. Even within English, I can learn that in the language of the King James Bible, the word “conversation” had a different meaning than it does today, so that when it says “be ye holy in all manner of conversation” (I Peter 1.15), I realize that it’s talking about one’s behavior, not one’s speech. So, yes, a sentence that once expressed a truth can come to express a falsehood if the meanings of the words change sufficiently and one sticks with the original words. But the sentence is still true as its words were originally defined. Now we shall just use different words to communicate the same truth.
So I don’t think your friend has, or can have, any good reason for claiming that objective truth cannot be communicated through language. Indeed, isn’t his position self-referentially incoherent? He claims, “Objective truth cannot be communicated by language.” Is that an objective truth? If not, then it is not true that objective truth cannot be communicated through language, and we can quit worrying about it. But if it is objectively true, then the statement defeats itself, since it states that no objective truth can be communicated through language. Your friend’s position is therefore incoherent.
The sub-discipline of philosophy that deals with such matters is primarily philosophy of language. You might take a look at William Alston’s A Realist Conception of Truth (Cornell University Press, 1996). On this site you might look at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/are-there-objective-truths-about-god and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/propositional-truth-who-needs-it.
 For the same reason I always speak of objective moral values and duties, rather than absolute moral values and duties. What is right or wrong will differ from person to person and circumstance to circumstance, but in the circumstances in which a person finds himself faced with a moral choice there will always be an objectively right thing to do. In fact, re-reading your account of your conversation with your friend, Joel, I wonder if you may have misunderstood him. Maybe he’s just denying that objective moral truths can be communicated through language but is not claiming that objective truth cannot be communicated through language. For the latter claim is so obviously self-defeating that it’s hard to see how anyone could affirm it.