April 29, 2006

Truth: Is There Any? (Mere Conference 1.1)

The theme of this year's C.S. Lewis Conference is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty: Apologetics and the Winsome Christ. The first plenary is being offered by William Lane Craig of Talbot School of Theology at Biola, and is entitled, "Are There Objective Truths About God?" Dr. Craig is a philosopher of religion and is very well published.

(Note that I'm going to hit the high points here so that I won't be so distracted that I can't listen...feel free to ask a question in the comments if you'd like me to tray to add more.)

"What is truth?" Pontius Pilate, Jn 18:38

When the Bible uses the word truth, it tends to use it in non-philosophical sense. Only occasionally does the word refer to veracity; normally it refers to something like fidelity. Nonetheless, the Christian faith claims to be true in the man-on-the-street sense. There is no particularly Christian theory of truth, but Christian philosophers have adhered to most of the philosophical theories. Dr. Craig leans toward an Aristotelean correspondence understanding. "Such a theory is wholly compatible with the Bible's ideas about truth," though it doesn't teach it outright.

Christian theology tells us that there are objective truths about God; this is its contribution to the philosophical discussion about truth. Theists and atheists alike agree that there are truths about God, and those truths are not valueless. They disagree only upon the content of those truths. Postmodern philosophy denies that these truths exist at all.

This presents us with three challenges:

  1. The Challenge of Verificationism. Logical positivism held that there are literally no propositions about God. Sentences with the word "God" in them are completely without meaning. The verification principle of meaning states that in order for a sentence to be meaninful, it must be capable (in principle) of being empiracally verified. It was soon realized, however, that this principle tosses out much more human dialogue than just God-talk, and that is actually self-refuting (the principle itself cannot be empiracally verified). Though most philosophers have therefore rejected it, it still holds sway in the world of science and in popular thought.
  2. The Challenge of Mystical Anti-Realism. "There are propositions about God, but they are truth-valueless; they are neither true nor false." Because God transcends human thought and language, it is impossible to make meaningful statements about him. In technical terms, we would say that the Principle of Bivalence (that for any proposition p, p is either true or false) fails to be valid for propositions about God. The problem: The statement, "God both exists and does not exist," which as a logical contradiction must be false, is held to be neither true nor false. And once again, the sentence, "God can be described by bivalent propositions," which this theory would hold to be neither true nor false, is itself the argument of the theory. Assuming the mystical anti-realists' own position, we discover that their proposition is self-refuting. If it's true, it's false; if it's false, it's also false! God is not the source of this incoherence; the argument itself is incoherent. (This view seems to have at least some of its roots in eastern mystical philosophy, but is grafted into much New Age thought.)
  3. The Challenge of Radical Pluralism. Radical Pluralism holds that each individual constitutes reality for himself, so that there is no trans-subjective truth about the way the world is. "That may be true for you, but not for me," is literally correct under this view. (It is also rooted in eastern mysticism but also in Kant's critical philosophy.) There is no objective reality, no overarching way that the world is. The world has fallen apart and has become "the world for me." This is antithetical to Christian thought, which ascribes to God a privileged position as the Knower of all truth. Radical pluralists therefore often see their task as overtly anti-theological in character; see the work of Roland Barthes. It is attended by relativism: "Truth is whatever my colleagues will let me get away with." Thus, convincing some group of people to allow you to "get away with" something makes that something true! (Alvin Plantinga has a very sarcastic critique of this idea.) Radical pluralism seems to open the door to Orwellian manipulation of truth for the purposes of power. It is also self-refuting; just assume this position and then ask yourself, "Is radical pluralism objectively true?" The argument claims that the statements it makes about truth are objectively true.

Why are people attracted to views such as these, which are both self-refuting and patently preposterous? Craig holds that it's due to a misunderstanding of the concept of tolerance. People seem to think that the claim that objective truth exists is incompatible with other views, but the very concept of tolerance implies that you disagree with the tolerate view. If you didn't think it was false, you wouldn't tolerate it, you would believe it! Far from being incompatible with tolerance, the very concept of toleration presupposes the existence of absolute truth. The correct basis for tolerance isn't relativism; it is love: "Love your enemies."

My thoughts: Wow! That was almost a psychodelic experience! It reminds me of why I'm a theologian and not a philosopher; I'm not smart enough to be a philosopher.


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