05 / 06

Defense of Objective Truth About God

William Lane Craig at MacKenzie University, Brazil

Time : 01:42:58

"My lecture at MacKenzie was a defense of objective truth about God against certain challenges of modern and post-modern thought. This lecture was handled with great dignity. The Chancellor and Rector of the university were on hand to introduce the event, which commenced with everyone's standing and singing both verses of the Brazilian national anthem! Five hundred people attended the lecture, and another 2,000 were logged on watching it via the internet. After the lecture, which was brilliantly translated, I had an engaging period of Q&A with the audience. It was a wonderful and encouraging evening." - William Lane Craig

English with Portuguese translation


Jan and I are delighted to be here in Brazil and particularly MacKenzie University this evening. This is our first visit to Brazil and we have so enjoyed the warm welcome that you have given us not to mention the fantastic food! I am especially thankful to Vida Nova for sponsoring this lectured tour. It seems very appropriate that the tour should commence with an event as St. Benedict’s College and then end here at MacKenzie University. Speaking at these two fine educational institutions serve as appropriate bookends, so to speak, to this trip. At St. Benedict’s, I talked about the renaissance in Christian philosophy that is currently going on in the Anglo-American world. Tonight at MacKenzie, I want to actually do some philosophical work with you by thinking about the question, “Are there objective truths about God?”

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 questions that I would like to explore with you this evening.

The biblical conception of truth is quite multifaceted. The Bible typically uses the words like “true” or “truth” in non-philosophical senses to indicate such qualities as fidelity, moral rectitude, reality, and so forth. [1] 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 that 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, there is no peculiarly Christian theory of truth. This is just as it should be, for if Christianity presented a distinctive definition and standards of truth, then its claim to be true would be circular or system-dependent and therefore 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, such as the Correspondence Theory of Truth, 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 the Correspondence Theory to be the 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.” [2] 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 characterized 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 judgment and in the intellect itself. [3] 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 proposition, “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. While I would not pretend that the Bible teaches the Correspondence Theory of Truth, such a theory seems to me wholly compatible with biblical ideas about truth and very plausible, if not obvious, in its own right.

But then 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 this is not trivial. For certain schools of modern and postmodern 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 holding that the proposition “God exists” has the value “true” and the atheist holding that that proposition has the value “false” – but at least both agree that there are propositions about God and that these are not truth valueless. Some schools of modern and postmodern thought, however, do not concur.

Consider, for example, the challenge of Verificationism. In order to understand Verificationism, I need to explain the difference between a sentence and a proposition. A sentence is a linguistic entity composed of words. A proposition is the information content of a sentence. So, to illustrate, the sentence “Snow is white” is a different sentence from “Neve é ​​branca.” These two sentences have no words in common; they are clearly different sentences. Nevertheless, they both have the same information content; namely, they both express the proposition that snow is white.

Now during the heyday of Logical Positivism back in the 1930s and 1940s, it was widely thought among philosophers that there literally are no propositions about God. [4] That is to say, sentences including the word “God” are in fact meaningless. So, for example, to say “God created the world” is as nonsensical as saying “’Twas brillig; and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” This display of philosophical arrogance toward religious and ordinary language was the result of the Positivists’ vaunted Verification Principle of Meaning. According to that Principle, which went through a number of revisions, a sentence in order to be meaningful must be capable in principle of being empirically verified. Since theological statements could not be empirically verified, they were regarded as meaningless. Under the pressure of Verificationism, some theologians began to advocate emotivist theories of theological language. On their view theological statements are not statements of fact at all but they merely 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 but is merely a way of expressing, say, one’s awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. Now it hardly needs to be said that such an interpretation of theological discourse represents neither the viewpoint of the biblical writers nor that of the common religious believer. They typically mean by their religious statements precisely what those statements appear to assert, for example, that God created the world. Fortunately, it was soon discovered that the Verification Principle would not only force us to dismiss as meaningless theological statements, but also a great many scientific statements along with ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical statements as well. So the principle was wholly unreasonable. [5] But even more fundamentally, it was realized that the principle was self-refuting. Simply ask yourself, is the following 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 evidence would serve to verify its truth. The Verification Principle is therefore according to its own criterion a meaningless combination of words, which need hardly detain the theist, or at best it is an arbitrary definition, which the theist is at liberty to reject. Therefore, Logical Positivism and its Verification Principle of Meaning have been almost totally abandoned by contemporary philosophers. But it is sad how this positivistic attitude still persists in some non-philosophical fields, particularly I find among scientists who were educated during the positivist era.

A second denial of theological truth comes from the quarter of Eastern mysticism and its peculiarly Western stepchild, the New Age movement. According to this perspective, which I shall call “Mystical Anti-Realism,” 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,” “God is good,” or “The world was created by God” are neither true nor false, they just have no truth value. God is said to transcend all of the 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. The best sense that I can make of this claim is what logicians call the Principle of Bivalence fails to be valid for propositions about God. [6] The Principle of Bivalence states that for any proposition p, p is either true or false. The Principle is very closely related to the Law of Excluded Middle, one of the famous three “laws of thought,” which states that for any proposition p and its negation not-p, either p is true or not-p is true. The claim under consideration is that propositions referring to God are neither true nor false.

Now on the face of it such a position seems incomprehensible, for it seems absurd to say that a logical contradiction is not false. But on this view a proposition like “God both exists and does not exist” is not false. Nor is it true that “God either exists or does not exist.” But that seems to be necessarily true.

But the position involves an even deeper incoherence. It is self-refuting. For consider the proposition expressed by the following sentence: “God cannot be described by bivalent propositions.” Since that proposition is itself a proposition about God, the Principle of Bivalence should not be valid for it. Therefore, it cannot be true. But, if it is not true that God cannot be described by bivalent propositions, then it is not the case, as the Anti-Realist claims, that the Principle of Bivalence fails for propositions about God. The claim thus refutes itself. One cannot coherently affirm that propositions about God are neither true nor false. Notice that our argument is not circular appealing to logic to prove logic. Rather, assuming the objector’s own position, we show that if the objector’s position is true then it is not true. The objector makes a straightforward claim that Principle of Bivalence fails for propositions about God. But if it does then it is not true that the Principle of Bivalence fails for propositions about God. The position thus refutes itself. Now, the Mystical Anti-Realist might retort that the above only shows that rational paradox is inevitable when we try to talk about God. [7] But that is not the case. So long as we respect the Principle of Bivalence, we can discourse perfectly rationally and coherently about God. What is incoherent is the Anti-Realists’ denial of the validity of the Principle for propositions about God. His position is analogous to other self-refuting affirmations like “only verifiable propositions are meaningful” – itself an unverifiable proposition. The one who denies that the Principle of Bivalence is valid for propositions about God is in that very denial affirming a bivalent proposition about God. So it is not God who is the source of the incoherence but merely the Anti-Realist’s view itself. In any case, it is clear that no reasons can be offered for adopting the view that the Principle of Bivalence is not valid for propositions about God. For any purported reason for adopting this view would involve affirming certain truths about God which the position prohibits. For example, if it is said that the Principle fails because “God is too great to be grasped by human categories of thought” or “God is wholly other,” or “God is ineffable,” then all of these are bivalent propositions about God. But the position holds that there are no bivalent propositions about God. Thus, none of these statements can be true, and so can furnish no grounds for adopting the position in question. The position can only be embraced 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 good reason whatsoever when it comes to theology. In the absence of any reason to abandon rational thought in this field, we ought to continue to employ the same canons of rational thought which have proved so fruitful in other disciplines.

A third and final contemporary attack on theological truth as the Christian understands is the most wild of all, what I shall call Radical Pluralism. [8] With roots in Eastern Mysticism and radically individualized through Kant’s Critical Philosophy, 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, the popular expression “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me” is literally correct. Now, at face value, such an attitude may seem patently absurd: whether we believe that the stove burner is on or not, if we put our hand on it and it is on, then we shall be burned. It’s objectively true that the burner is hot, regardless of our subjective attitude toward it. Similarly, there were surely events going on before I was born which were entirely independent of me: the Big Bang, the era of galaxy formation, the age of the dinosaurs, and so forth. But these absurdities result because we are still thinking of an objective reality and trying to marry subjectivism to it. 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 worldview because Christianity ascribes to God a privileged position as the knower of all truth. He stands, as it were, at the pinnacle of the pyramid of diverse perspectives on the world and in the unity of his intellect grasps the world as it is. There is thus on the Christian perspective a unity to truth and reality which is known by God. Radical pluralists thus often see their task as overtly anti-theological in character. For example, the literary critic Roland Barthes writes, [9]

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 anti-theological 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. [10]

I find it especially intriguing that reason, science, and law are regarded by Radical Pluralists as to be rejected along with God. Radical Pluralism threatens the entire university.

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 writes,

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. [11]

The serious point of Plantinga’s satirical critique is the truly sinister nature of Radical Pluralism. [12] Since there is no objective truth, reality is whatever those in power make it. In the absence of truth, there is nothing to check the unbridled will to power.

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 purports itself 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. Radical Pluralism is thus self-defeating.

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 fact does not preclude that there is objective truth about the world, in which case his perspective is 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.

Why is it, then, 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 that the attraction is due to a misunderstanding of the concept of tolerance. In our democratic society, we have a deep commitment to the value of tolerance of different views. Many people have the impression that tolerance requires radical pluralism with regard to truth. [13] They seem to think that the claim that objective truth exists is incompatible with tolerance of other views because those other views must then 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 all be objectively true. Hence, truth must be relativistic and pluralistic.

But it seems to me pretty obvious that such a view is based on an incorrect understanding of tolerance. For 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 false. You can’t tolerate a view which you believe to be true. Thus, the very concept of toleration presupposes that one believes the tolerated view to be false. So objective truth is not incompatible with tolerance; on the contrary, objective truth is actually presupposed by tolerance.

The correct basis of tolerance 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 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.” [14] The basis of tolerance is not relativism, but love.

In summary then, it seems to me that while Christian theology does not propound a particular theory of truth, it is wholly compatible with the traditional Correspondence Theory of Truth. The Christian worldview purports to describe the world 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 incoherent. Of course, I have not tried to show that the propositions constituting the Christian worldview are in fact true. That is a talk for another day. [15]

Q & A

(The following questions were asked in Portuguese but the translator is off-mic and inaudible. However, you can usually infer the question through Dr. Craig’s answers which are transcribed below.)

QUESTION: (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG: Oh, no, not at all. Radical Pluralism is a metaphysical worldview and as Barthes indicated it rejects science and law and any sort of objective description of the world. So this sort of pluralism isn’t just restricted to religious or ethical thought. That kind of restriction would be more characteristic of Verificationism which, you will recall, championed science, technology, and medicine as objectively true but thought about sentences that are religious or ethical as merely expression of personal taste and emotions. So the view the questioner describes is not a postmodern view – that is the old modernism. That is just Logical Positivism and Verificationism. And as I said this is universally rejected by philosophers today but I am amazed at how I encounter it over and over and over again among students and people in general. I think the long shadow of Verificationism still hangs over Western culture.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG: Certainly, one can believe in objective truths without becoming a religious radical. For example, you can be an atheist! Right? The atheist believes there are objective truths, namely, there is no God and there are no miracles. So commitment to the objectivity of truth isn’t a religious commitment. That is why when I closed the talk I said I haven’t done anything to try to show that the theistic view is true but simply to say that there are objective answers to this question. I think that there are good reasons to believe that God exists and I have defended these arguments both in print as well as in public debates with atheists. I would simply offer them to you for your consideration. [16] Now with respect to the second part of the question, I attempted to address that briefly in my comments on tolerance. Those who are followers of Jesus are champions of religious tolerance. Because, as Jesus said, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Those who use the power of the state or violence to coerce religious beliefs are acting inconsistently with the teachings of Jesus. Sadly, the Christian church historically has sometimes been on the wrong side. But once I think we understand the ethics of Jesus we can see that this provides an objective basis for tolerance. We can disagree with a person’s views but respect that person as having God-given, inherent human rights and human worth including freedom of thought and freedom of expression. So it seems to me that Christianity provides the moral foundations for a pluralistic society. Lest I be misunderstood here, let me add one thing. We need to differentiate between political pluralism and philosophical pluralism. I am defending political pluralism; that is to say, a pluralistic society where people have freedom of thought and freedom of expression but what I am saying is that political pluralism does not imply or require pluralism about truth. Indeed, quite the contrary, the very concept of tolerance, as I said, actually presupposes the objectivity of truth.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG: The goal of natural science is to give us the truth about the natural world in which we live. Science is thus inherently limited to the natural world. Science does not provide us with knowledge of ethical truths or aesthetic truths or mathematical or logical truths or metaphysical truths. So the project of natural science is one of determining what the natural world is like and its success in that project should not blind us to the fact that there are other kinds of truths as well and there are other means of finding truth than simply natural science.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG: If we take the question literally what he said is that there are certain sorts of truths which are impossible to demonstrate scientifically. That doesn’t contradict anything I have said. On the contrary, I think that there are sentences that are scientific which cannot be scientifically proven. There are scientific sentences which cannot be scientifically proven. That was one of the problems with the verificationist principle. It wouldn’t just throw out theology and ethics, it would actually undermine science. For example, in the Special Theory of Relativity, it is simply presupposed that light travels with a constant velocity in a round trip journey. In the Special Theory of Relativity when light travels from point A to point B and then from point B back to point A it travels with the same constant velocity. This is impossible to prove. It is simply an assumption of the theory. Science is filled with these kinds of assumptions. With respect to quantum mechanics, I think that what is important to understand is that a scientific theory is composed of two parts. There is the mathematical core of the theory – the equations which constitute the theory. Then there is the physical interpretation of those equations. In the case of quantum mechanics, there are at least ten different physical interpretations of the same equations and nobody knows which, if any of them, is correct. So, while the equations of the theory are enormously successful in predicting outcomes, we have no real understanding of what is happening on the quantum level. In that sense, the questioner would be right to say that these different interpretations are unverifiable. So, in a case like this, one would adopt what is called an instrumentalist view of the theory – the theory is just a useful instrument for predicting outcomes and results. But one doesn’t pretend that the physical interpretation is a literal description of what is going on. That is in no way inconsistent with anything that I have said. I think God knows what the correct physical interpretation of quantum mechanics is and we’ve yet to discover what it is.

QUESTION:  [17] (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG: Yes. Because if there is no truth then truth is whatever those in power say it is. As George Orwell said in his novel, 1984, whatever the party says is the truth, is the truth. I suppose this is somewhat ironic because Radical Pluralism is typically associated with leftist ideology but as the questioner, I think, correctly saw, it is really associated with this sort of fascist “might makes right” kind of mentality.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG: I don’t think that the search for truth is inherently technical. For example, I know as sure as I know almost anything that it is objectively true that the United States did not win the last World Cup. Now you don’t need to be a genius to realize that. I know that is objectively true that I am in São Paulo right now. I know that I was recently in Rio de Janeiro. And you similarly know just multitudes and multitudes of objective truths. Of course, there will be some difficult questions – the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics for example. But in every case what we will do is weigh the evidence and then we will believe what is true based upon what the evidence indicates. Many times this can be done through what is called “inference to the best explanation.” You will infer that the view is true which has the greatest explanatory power, explanatory scope, probability, and so forth. So I don’t think that the search for truth has to be necessarily technical.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

DR. CRAIG:  [18] I guess I would say that is an extremely unloving attitude. If you love someone, you will try to convince that person of the truth. For example, you would try to convince that person, say, that smoking is bad for his health. You would give him evidence for this to try to help him. Or if someone were doing something else that would damage his chances for success on the job, you will try to help that person. So the kind of isolationism implied by that question is extremely uncompassionate. The great poet John Dun said no man is an island. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland. Certainly from a Christian point of view that is true. We are to love our fellow man and seek to do good to them. That would include attempting to convince them when they are in error. Now, if this is true in matters of physical or financial health, how much more would that be true in matters of spiritual health where their very souls may be at stake. If Christianity is true then there is a loving, heavenly Father who longs to have a personal relationship with each one of us. And to refuse to tell someone the truth about knowing God and finding forgiveness would be a terrible manifestation of selfishness and lack of compassion. So for those of us at least who are Christians I think we have every reason to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. For in doing so we may bring to them eternal and infinite benefit. [19]

[NOTE: At the 1:18:40 mark, the video inexplicably repeats the Q & A session. So 1:18:40 effectively marks the end of the video and this transcript.

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    Aristotle, Metaphysics 1011b25

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  • [10]

    See Roland Barthes’ essay titled “Death of the Author”

  • [11]

    Alvin Plantinga, The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Calvin College and Seminary, 1990), pp. 21-22.

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    cf. Matthew 5:43-44

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    Total Running Time: 1:18:40 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)