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Are There Objective Truths About God (Part 2)?

February 17, 2019     Time: 26:42
Are There Objective Truths About God (Part 2)?


Dr. Craig presents three moderns challenges to the objectivity of truths about God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Part two of “Are There Objective Truths About God?” This is a presentation that Dr. Craig made several years ago at the European Leadership Forum in Hungary. Let’s pick it up with Dr. Craig.

DR. CRAIG: A final contemporary attack upon theological truth as the Christian understands it is the most wild of them all: what I am going to call Radical Pluralism. With roots in Eastern Mysticism and radically individualized through the Critical Philosophy of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, this view holds that each individual constitutes reality for himself, so that there is no trans-subjective truth about the way the world is. On this view, that popular expression “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me” is literally correct. The world has no objective truth about it. There is only the world for you and the world for me. At face value, such a view may seem patently absurd: whether we believe the stove burner is on or not, if we put our hand on it and the burner is on, then we are going to be burned whether we believe in it or not. Similarly, there were surely events going on in the universe before I was born that are entirely independent of me: the Big Bang, the era of galaxy formation, the age of the dinosaurs, and so forth. But these sorts of absurdities result because we are still thinking of an objective world out there and then trying to marry subjectivism to it. Radical Pluralism is much more radical than that. According to Radical Pluralism, there is no objective reality; there is no overarching way the world is. The world has fallen apart and has been replaced by the world-for-me.

This Radical Pluralism is antithetical to the Christian world and life view because Christianity ascribes to God a privileged position as the knower of all truth. He stands, as it were, at the pinnacle of a pyramid of diverse perspectives on the world and in the unity of his intellect he grasps the world as it is. There is thus on the Christian perspective a unity to truth and reality which is known to God. Radical Pluralists therefore often see their task as overtly anti-theological in nature. For example, the literary critic Roland Barthes has written the following,

To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final significance, to close the writing . . . . In precisely this way literature, by refusing to assign . . . an ultimate meaning to the text (and to the world as text) liberates what may be called an antitheological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases--reason, science, law.

I find it especially intriguing that reason, science, and law are to be regarded by Radical Pluralists as to be rejected along with God. Truly this perspective threatens the entire university and indeed the entire fabric of society.

Radical Pluralism is attended by relativism. For example, the American philosopher Richard Rorty says that truth is whatever my colleagues will let me get away with. Since you and I have different colleagues, truth is pluralistic because your colleagues may not let you get away with the same things that my colleagues let me get away with. Reacting to Rorty’s view, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga has written the following,

Although this view is very much au courant and with-it in the contemporary intellectual world, it has consequences that are peculiar, not to say preposterous. For example, most of us think that the Chinese authorities did something monstrous in murdering those hundreds of young people in Tiananmen Square, and then compounded their wickedness by denying that they had done it. On Rorty’s view, however, this is an uncharitable misunderstanding. What the authorities were really doing, in denying that they had murdered those students, was something wholly praiseworthy: they were trying to bring it about that the alleged massacre never happened. For they were trying to see to it that their colleagues would let them get away with saying that the massacre never happened; that is, they were trying to make it true that it never happened; and who can fault them for that? The same goes for those contemporary neo-Nazis who claim that there was no holocaust; from a Rortian view, they are only trying to see to it that such a terrible thing never happened; and what could be more commendable than that? This way of thinking has real possibilities for dealing with poverty and disease: if only we let each other get away with saying that there isn’t any poverty and disease--no cancer or AIDS, let’s say--then it would be true that there isn’t any; and if it were true that there isn’t any, then of course there wouldn’t be any.

The serious point of Plantinga’s satirical critique is that it exposes the truly sinister nature of Radical Pluralism. For if there is no objective truth – if reality is whatever you make it to be – then in the absence of the objectivity of truth, there is no check upon the unbridled will to power. Whoever has power is able to determine what the truth is.

If this weren’t bad enough, it seems to me that Radical Pluralism is also self-refuting. We need only ask ourselves, “Is Radical Pluralism objectively true?” It claims that “There is no objective truth about the world;” but that statement itself purports to be an objective truth about the world. It says that “Each individual constitutes reality,” so that there is no objective reality; but that is itself a statement about objective reality. It states that the proposition “Truth is pluralistic” is objectively true, which is incoherent.

The Radical Pluralist cannot escape this incoherence by saying that it is only from his perspective that there is no objective truth about the world. For if that is true only from his perspective, then that does not preclude that there is objective truth about the world, in which case his perspective is just objectively false. If he replies that it is only from someone else’s perspective that there is objective truth about the world, then it follows that all truth is perspectival, or that Radical Pluralism is objectively true, which is incoherent. Thus Radical Pluralism is mired in self-referential inconsistency.

Why is it, then, you may ask, that in our day and age so many people seem attracted to pluralistic and relativistic views of truth, despite the fact that they are both preposterous and self-refuting? I believe the attraction is due to a misunderstanding of the concept of tolerance. In our Western democratic societies, we have a deep commitment to the value of the tolerance of different points of view. Many people have the impression that tolerance requires radical pluralism with respect to truth. They seem to think that the claim that objective truth exists is incompatible with the tolerance of other views because then those other views must be regarded as false. So in order to maintain tolerance of all views, one must not regard any of them as false. They must all be true. But since they are mutually contradictory, they cannot be all objectively true. Hence, truth must be relative and pluralistic.

But it seems to me pretty obvious that such a view is simply based on an incorrect understanding of tolerance. When you think about it, the very concept of tolerance entails that you disagree with that which you tolerate. Otherwise, you wouldn’t tolerate it; you would agree with it! Thus, one can only tolerate a view if one regards that view as untrue. You can’t tolerate a view which you yourself believe to be true. Thus, the very concept of toleration presupposes that one believes the tolerated view to be false. So, far from being incompatible with objective truth, the very concept of tolerance entails the objectivity of truth.

The correct basis of tolerance then is not pluralism, but rather the inherent worth of every human being created in the image of God and therefore endowed with certain God-given rights, including freedom of thought and freedom of expression. That’s why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The basis of tolerance is not relativism, but love.

In summary, it seems to me that while Christian theology does not propound a particular theory of truth, it is wholly compatible with the traditional view of truth as correspondence. The Christian world view purports to describe reality as it is and therefore to be true. The challenges posed to theological truth by Verificationism, Mystical Anti-Realism, and Radical Pluralism are all ultimately self-defeating and self-referentially incoherent. Of course, I have not tried to show tonight that the propositions constituting the Christian world view are in fact true, but that is a talk for another time.

MODERATOR: You have a chance – just a few minutes – to ask questions. It is much harder in a big group like this. But consider the Chinese proverb that he who asks a question is a fool for five minutes, but he who doesn’t is a fool forever. So don’t kick yourself and think if only I had asked him what he meant, I’m going to be in the dark about that forever. Who has questions?

[Moderator lines up the questioners]

QUESTION: If Jesus makes the claim, not that “I know the truth” but that “I am the truth,” is he making a non-philosophical statement that is I have the moral rectitude, etc. and so forth? It seems to me – I don't know exactly how you put it – but you said the Christian view of truth is unitary because God grasps the truth, making it seem like there is a general truth out there which God is, not a part of, he just knows it as a general property. There's a general condition of there are propositions that are true. Whereas it could be argued in a non-trivial sense that God is himself the truth and his revelation – any proposition is true given that it corresponds to God's revelation.

DR. CRAIG: All right. This is a good question. Remember I began by saying that the Bible typically uses the word “true” in non-philosophical senses and has a broad range of meanings. For example, we use this in our own English language today when we say, for example, someone is a true friend or that this measure is true or that this gold is true. Those are all different senses of the word “true” that I wasn't discussing this evening. So when Jesus says, “I am the truth” that means something, I think, like the ultimate reality or the authentic meaning to life or something of that sort. He doesn't mean “I am a proposition having a certain truth value.” When I said later that God stands as a pinnacle of diverse perspectives on the world and grasps the truth in the unity of his intellect, I was speaking of propositional truth. According to the Christian view, God is omniscient and that means that God knows every truth and believes no falsehood. In that sense God has a unified view of the world. But to speak of God as the truth in these other senses is quite appropriate as well but just wasn't the discussion this evening because we were discussing this concept of truth in the sense of veracity, and that was the unity that I was speaking of with respect to God.

QUESTION: There's a slippery version of Radical Pluralism, as I'm sure you know. There's the folk who say we are in fact making truth statements but we are doing them with an incommensurable vocabulary to you absolutists. Namely, we don't even speak the same language as you. Maybe we don't even share the same concept of human as you. Therefore, the sorts of statements that we want to make about the world are irrefutable in your vocabulary. How do you respond?

DR. CRAIG: If somebody asserts incommensurability, I think I would ask, “What about that statement that you just made? Is that an incommensurable statement?” If it is then it has no meaning and therefore is not true. But if it really is true that they are making incommensurate statements, then that is again self-refuting. This is the pattern over and over again with these types of views. When you apply the view to itself, it turns out to be self-referentially incoherent. It pulls the rug out from under itself. So I don't think that those pluralists who want to say we are speaking in an incommensurable vocabulary have uttered a coherent sentence and therefore have really said nothing at all. It is as though they just sort of babble their tongue or something of that sort.

QUESTION: Is there any explanation for this false idea of intolerance? Because if a non-Christian tells me that I am intolerant, and then I tell him that he is wrong about this, then he would tell me again that I am intolerant. Where does this come from that we are considered intolerant even if you're not?

DR. CRAIG: It's very difficult to know where this false idea came from. When I was a student – a child – I was taught that tolerance meant even though I disagree with what you say I will defend to the death your right to say it. That's the classical concept of tolerance that has typically been affirmed in democratic societies and that I was taught as a child. But today the concept of tolerance is “I dare not disagree with what you say lest I be branded bigoted and intolerant for having dared to say it.” I think this is all bound up with this relativity of truth. It's just a misunderstanding of the nature of tolerance, and it's been deeply inculcated into Western society and education. I think we need to expose its incoherence and get back to the classical concept of tolerance that has been enunciated and has been the bedrock of Western society.

QUESTION: You said that Radical Pluralism holds that each individual constitutes reality himself. Would you mind talking to us just a little bit more about the more sophisticated form of Radical Pluralism which talks about truth communities which have, if you like, objective truth within their community but they would say that there's no objective truth that applies to everybody in terms of belief.

DR. CRAIG: I think that's very much the same question that Marcus asked. He said remember that when these communities speak to us they claim they're speaking in a different vocabulary that cannot even be translated into the vocabulary of the person who believes in objective truth. But my claim was that when somebody in that community makes such a statement, he is presupposing that the claim to be speaking in a different vocabulary is a claim that I can understand and can assess and ought to somehow agree with or regard as significant when in fact it cannot if his view is true! So the view is, as I say, pulls the rug out from under itself, or to use a different image, it saws off the limb on which the person is sitting. If it's true then it's false, and therefore cannot be affirmed.

QUESTION: Concerning bivalence and Eastern mysticism – for somebody who's very deeply influenced by Eastern mysticism, one of the things that they will claim is that bivalence is a trait built into a peculiarly Western understanding of logic, and that since the truth really is unitary and bivalence crops up whenever we try to speak of the truth but the truth really is this kind of non-discursive, not amenable to description, unity. What you're saying, if I'm an Easterner say, and you come at me and you say well whatever you say is going to be incoherent, I'm going to say, well, yeah, because you can't speak the truth using your Western categories. All you're going to be doing is he's going to feel attacked but not necessarily persuaded.

DR. CRAIG: Well, now that last consideration is a more practical consideration than a philosophical point about the coherence of his view. You're quite right that the Eastern mystic will say this. Sometimes the Buddhist will simply say nothing because all one can do is be silent. But, you see, insofar as that is done then that person makes no claim whatsoever, and therefore there's simply nothing to refute. There is no claim there, and therefore there's just nothing to refute. It's nothing. The minute he tries to make an assertion – the minute he tries to make a claim – like truth is non-discursive, all is one, the world of distinction is illusory – the minute he does that he's involved in self-incoherence because he's affirming the principle of bivalence with respect to those. It is important to see that this is not a division between East and West. Eastern thinkers themselves have criticized the views of people like Shankara who hold to this kind of monistic view and have rejected it. If you read a good book on oriental philosophy you will find Eastern thinkers themselves criticizing severely these kinds of monistic claims about reality. So this is not a division that plays off East against West in any way. Easterners themselves exercise the kind of critique that I have today.

QUESTION: Would you care to share a title?

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, take a look at Stuart Hackett's book called Oriental Philosophy: A Westerner’s Guide, I think is the subtitle. As I recall I think Ramanuja was one of the critics of Shankara that exercised this sort of critique, though that is just said by memory and you'd have to verify it. But take a look at a book like Stuart Hackett's Oriental Philosophy.

QUESTION: Could you comment on any possible shift of an understanding of truth as the biblical revelation went from the Hebrew culture into the Greek culture which was much more gnosis-based, rational-based rather than holistic-heart-wisdom-based?

DR. CRAIG: I think that this is another false dichotomy, just as false as the dichotomy between East and West – people who try to play off the Greek view against the Hebraic view. The Hebrews understood and exercised and obeyed the law of contradiction just as much as the Greeks did. In fact, I was talking once to a missionary to India who was himself Indian and we began talking about Indian views of reality. He said that the typical Eastern response by a Hindu would be to say, “All is one, Sahib. All is one.” He said it makes it extraordinarily difficult to preach the Gospel to someone who has this kind of monistic view of reality that all is one. He said, I think that one of the reasons that God schooled the Israelites in so many of these ceremonial distinctions between clean and unclean foods (this, not that; this, not that) is because he wanted to inculcate into Israel clear distinctions according to the law of contradiction. P and not-P. Clean and unclean. When you think about it, that's really true. The whole Hebrew religion is based upon these sorts of clear lines of demarcation that makes it impossible for the Jew to say “All is one; all is one” because there are these sharp divisions between clean and unclean, right and wrong, good and evil, and so forth. So I think that this is very Hebraic and, as this missionary said, serves to distinguish Hebrew thinking in that respect from certain forms of Hindu thought, for example.

QUESTION: I come out of a Zen tradition where preposterousness and self-refutation are cheerful friends. It really is so. When they say “all is one” they don't mean it; they are it. They are not sincere; they're compassionate. It really is very difficult to reach them. There are Westerners like [?] and Huston Smith who buy into this. Is it appropriate to make a little comment and critique on what those God-transcending absolutes of [?] and Huston Smith, or is that another issue entirely?

DR. CRAIG: The same sort of critique would apply that I've given with respect to Mystical Anti-Realism because the Mystical Anti-Realist will say propositions that refer to God have no truth value. So that makes it impossible to say things like “God is good” or “God is personal” or, on the other hand, “God is darkness” or “God is evil.” You cannot say “God loves the world,” “God created the world.” You can't even say “God is one.” The paradox is you can't even say God is inexpressible or ineffable because that then is something expressible about God. So the Mystical Anti-Realist view is precisely what you said – that God transcends all of these sorts of categories. But as I say that is self-referentially incoherent because the minute one asserts that one has asserted a truth about God. I think that's why this sort of Zen Buddhist is just left with silence with nothing to say. Now, granted, this may not be the most effective evangelistic method – and I'm not suggesting that. I'm not speaking on how to reach Zen Buddhists tonight. I'm giving a philosophical defense of the Christian claim to know truths about God in response to the attacks of these other views. If they don't want to attack us; if they don't want to deny that there are truths about God then there's simply nothing to respond to. I am responding to these criticisms in defense of the Christian belief that there are objective truths about God by showing that these critiques ultimately reduce to incoherence and self-refutation and therefore do not refute the Christian view that there are objective truths about God. But in terms of how one shares the Gospel with the Zen Buddhist or how one reaches him most effectively with the Gospel – those are questions that should be addressed by a professional missionary who has lived in that culture and so forth, not by me as a Christian philosopher. I'm simply defending the coherence and the truth of the Christian claim that there are truths about God because that is not trivial. That is important, yet it is denied, as I say, by several schools of modern and post-modern thought.[1]


                  [1]Total Running Time: 26:45 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)