Are There Objective Truths About God?February 11, 2019 Time: 23:11
Dr. Craig presents three moderns challenges to the objectivity of truths about God.
KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome back to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. We have a real treat for you today. You may not have had an opportunity to hear this presentation that Dr. Craig made in Hungary at the European Leadership Forum called “Are There Objective Truths About God?” Dr. Craig considers three modern and postmodern challenges to the objectivity of truths about God. You are going to hear part one today of Dr. Craig’s speech. This pulls together in a concise way many things that Dr. Craig has discussed on these podcasts about the nature of truth and about whether there are objective truths about God. Here’s part one of “Are There Objective Truths About God?” with Dr. Craig.
DR. CRAIG: What I’d like to do this evening is to share some thoughts with you about the question “Are there objective truths about God?” As you listen to this talk, I’d like you to be thinking of some question that you’d might like to ask, because when I finish we are going to throw open the floor for your questions and any points of clarification or disagreement that you might want to express. We’ll have some time to just discuss the contents of what I’m going to be sharing with you tonight. There is a detailed outline in your notebook that I would encourage you to take out because we're going to be dealing with some rather deep subjects tonight, and I think this outline will be of great help to you even if you're an English-speaker in following along with some of the concepts we're going to be discussing.
Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38)
Down through the ages, men have asked Pilate’s question. What is the nature of truth? How can I know truth? Is there one truth? As a Christian philosopher, these are some of the issues that I would like to grapple with you this evening.
The biblical conception of truth is quite multifaceted. The Bible typically uses words like “true” and “truth” in non-philosophical senses. It uses words like this to indicate such qualities as fidelity (as when we say someone is a true friend), or moral rectitude or righteousness, or reality (that which is real is true), and so on and so forth. Occasionally, however, the Scriptures do speak of truth in the more philosophical sense of veracity, and, of course, the biblical writers everywhere presuppose that what they are writing is true in precisely this sense, that is to say, they assume that they are not writing falsehoods. So Christian theology certainly has a stake in the philosophical conception of truth.
That being so, however, it remains the case that there is no peculiarly Christian theory of truth. This is just as it should be, for if Christianity presented a peculiar or distinctive definition or standard of truth, then its claim to be true would be circular or system-dependent. It would claim to be true, meaning it meets its own standards for what truth is, which would be utterly trivial. But the Christian faith means to commend itself in the marketplace of ideas. The Christian faith claims to be true in the common, ordinary sense of that term, and it leaves the enunciation of a more careful definition to the philosophers. Thus, when philosophers formulate various theories of truth, like the Correspondence Theory of Truth, or the Coherence Theory of Truth, or the Existence Theory of Truth, none of these can be christened as “the” Christian Theory of Truth, and there have been Christian philosophers among the adherents of each one.
For my part, I find some version of truth as Correspondence to be satisfactory. This theory goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle and beyond. In your handout, you’ll see Aristotle’s very influential definition of what it is for something to be false and to be true. This is what Aristotle said: “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, not so much as giving a definition of truth, as he is explaining the conditions under which something can be truly asserted. It seems to me this very influential characterization is quite correct. Among contemporary Correspondence theorists of truth, truth is usually conceived as a property of either a sentence or a proposition which corresponds to the world as it actually is and so describes accurately reality. So, for example, the proposition “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. While I would not pretend that the Bible teaches a view of truth as correspondence, such a theory seems to me to be wholly compatible with the biblical ideas about truth, and moreover very plausible, if not obvious, in its own right.
But then you might say what contribution does Christian theology have to make to a discussion about truth? Well, it tells us specifically that there are truths about God, and that is not trivial. For many certain contemporary schools of modern and post-modern thought deny that there are any objective theological truths. Atheists and theists may disagree as to which propositions about God are true or false—the theist believes the proposition “God exists” has the value “true” whereas the atheist thinks that same proposition has the value “false”—but at least the theist and the atheist both agree that there are propositions about God and that these have some truth value – that they are either true or false rather than truth valueless. But certain schools of modern and post-modern thought do not concur.
Consider, for example, first of all, the challenge of Verificationism. In order to understand this challenge, you need to understand the difference between a sentence and a proposition. A sentence is a linguistic entity, composed of words. So, for example, the sentence “Snow is white” is a different sentence from the sentence “Der Schnee ist weiss.” The one sentence has three words and the other sentence has four words, and they have no words in common. One is in English, the other is in German. They are clearly different sentences. A proposition, by contrast, is the information content of a declarative sentence. So that in this case “Snow is white” and “Der Schnee ist weiss” both have the same information content, namely, that snow is white, and therefore both of these sentences (though different sentences) express the same proposition. They both have the same information content and therefore express in different languages the same proposition.
Now during the heyday of Logical Positivism during the 1930s and 40s, it was widely believed among philosophers that there literally are no propositions about God, that sentences having the word “God” in them were literally meaningless, so that to say, for example, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” is as meaningless as saying “’Twas brillig; and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Just complete nonsense. This display of philosophical arrogance toward religious and ordinary language was the result of the Positivists’ much-vaunted Verification Principle of Meaning. According to the Verification Principle, which went through a number of revisions, a sentence in order to be meaningful must be capable in principle of being empirically verified. So a sentence had to be verifiable by your five senses in order to be a meaningful sentence. Since, in the opinion of the Positivists, theological statements could not be empirically verified (they were not verifiable by the five senses), they were regarded as meaningless. Under the pressure of Verificationism, some theologians began to advocate emotivist theories of religious language. On their view, theological statements are not statements of fact at all; rather, they merely serve to express the user’s emotions and attitudes. For example, the sentence “God created the world” does not purport to make any factual statement at all about how the world came to be. Rather, it is merely a way of expressing, say, your awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. It makes no factual claim whatsoever. It is merely an expression of your emotions. Now it hardly needs to be said that such an interpretation of religious and theological language hardly represents the viewpoint of the biblical writers or of the ordinary religious believer. They typically mean by their religious statements precisely what those statements appear to assert, for example, that God created the world. That is a factual assertion that is either true or false. Fortunately, it was soon discovered that the Verification Principle would not only force us to regard theological statements as meaningless, but it would also force us to regard many scientific statements as meaningless—along with ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical statements as well—, so that the Principle was wholly unreasonable. It would consign to the trashbin of meaninglessness vast tracts of ordinary human language and discourse. But even more fundamentally, it was soon realized that the Principle is self-refuting. Simply ask yourself the question, is the Verification Principle itself capable of being empirically verified? Is the sentence “A meaningful sentence must be capable in principle of being empirically verified” itself capable of being empirically verified? Obviously not; no amount of empirical or scientific evidence would serve to verify its truth. The Verification Principle is therefore by its own standards a meaningless combination of words, which hardly needs to detain us, or at the very best it is just an arbitrary definition that the Positivists have cooked up which we are at liberty to reject. Therefore, Logical Positivism and its Verification Principle of Meaning have been almost universally abandoned by contemporary philosophers. It is sad, however, to see how this positivistic attitude still persists in many non-philosophical fields at the university, particularly I find among people in the hard sciences who were trained in the positivist era. I imagine that those of you from Eastern Europe who were educated in the Soviet-dominated system of Marxist-Leninist ideology will also recognize this obsolete philosophy of Logical Positivism in the kind of theory of knowledge that they attempted to inculcate into their students.
A second denial of theological truth comes from the quarter of Eastern mysticism and its peculiarly Western step-child, the so-called New Age movement. I am going to call this perspective Mystical Anti-Realism. According to this perspective, there are propositions about God all right, but they are neither true nor false; they are all of them truth valueless. Thus, propositions expressed by sentences like “God exists,” or “God is good,” or “The world was created by God” are neither true nor false. They have no truth value. Sometimes it is said that God transcends all categories of human thought and language, so that it is quite impossible to assert any truths about God, as Christian theology pretends to do.
Unfortunately, it’s not even clear what is meant by the Mystical Anti-Realist claim that God is “above human thought and language.” That is a metaphor after all – “God is above human thought and language.” What does that mean literally? The best sense that I can make out of this claim is that what logicians call the Principle of Bivalence fails to be valid for propositions about God. What is the Principle of Bivalence? The Principle of Bivalence states that for any proposition p, p is either true or false. In other words, every proposition has a truth value and it is either true or it is false. This principle is very closely related to one of the classical laws of thought, namely the Law of Excluded Middle which states that for any proposition p and its negation not-p, then either p is true or not-p is true. The claim under consideration seems to be that propositions referring to God are neither true nor false. The Principle of Bivalence fails to govern propositions which refer to God.
Now on the face of it such a position seems to be simply incomprehensible. For example, it seems absurd to say that a logical contradiction is not false. If anything is false it would be a logical contradiction. But on this view a proposition like “God both exists and does not exist” is not false because that is a proposition which refers to God and therefore has no truth value. But how could it fail to be false? It seems to be necessarily false. It is a logical contradiction. How could it fail to be false when you assert God both exists and does not exist? Or take the proposition “God either exists or does not exist.” That proposition also would fail to be true on the Mystical Anti-Realist view. But how could it fail to be true? It states logically mutually exclusive alternatives. Either God exists or he does not exist. What other alternative is there? It seems to be necessarily true. Thus, the position is just logically incoherent and incomprehensible.
But that's not all. The position involves an even deeper incoherence. For consider the proposition expressed by the sentence: “God can be described by bivalent propositions.” Since that is a proposition about God, the Principle of Bivalence should not be valid for it. Therefore, it cannot be false. But if it is not false, then how can it be the case, as the Anti-Realist claims, that the Principle of Bivalence fails for propositions about God? If the Principle of Bivalence fails, then isn’t it false that God can be described by bivalent propositions? It seems that one cannot coherently affirm that propositions about God are neither true nor false.
The Anti-Realist might retort at this point that the above only shows that rational paradox is inevitable when we try to talk about God. But that is not the case. So long as we respect the Principle of Bivalence we can discourse perfectly coherently and rationally about God. What is incoherent here is the Anti-Realist’s denial of the validity of the Principle of Bivalence with respect to propositions about God. The problem is not God. The problem is the Mystical Anti-Realist position itself. The one who denies that the Principle of Bivalence is valid for propositions about God is in the act of that very denial affirming a bivalent proposition about God. It is not God which is the source of the incoherence; rather it is simply the Mystical Anti-Realist’s view itself.
In any case, I think it is clear that no reasons can ever be offered for adopting the view that the Principle of Bivalence is not valid for propositions about God. For any purported reason that might be given for adopting this view would involve affirming certain truths about God. But the position prohibits there being any truths about God. For example, suppose someone says that the principle fails because “God is too great to be grasped by human categories of thought” or they assert “God is wholly other,” or “God is omnipotent and so transcends our logic,” then all of these are themselves bivalent propositions about God. Thus, none of these statements can be true. And so none of them can furnish grounds for adopting the position in question. The position therefore can only be adopted by an arational leap of faith. But surely, as rational men and women, we ought to be extremely reluctant to commit intellectual suicide for no reason whatsoever when it comes to theology. In the absence of any reason to abandon rational thought in this realm, I think that we should continue to employ the same canons of rational thought which have proved to be so fruitful in every other discipline.
KEVIN HARRIS: OK, we will pick it up right there next time as Dr. Craig continues his discussion on “Are There Objective Truths About God?” In the meantime, be sure that you go by ReasonableFaith.org and see what is going on. You can always make a donation to this ministry there, and check out the great resources available from Reasonable Faith. That’s ReasonableFaith.org. We’ll see you next time.
 Total Running Time: 23:13 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)