Words Have No Meaning

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

April 12, 2021

Question:

Hey Dr. Tim!

Please help me out. An atheist just responded to my appeal to the Moral Argument for the existence of God. She said: 

“To respond to my post on this thread you’ve used words. Do the words you’ve used have any definitions? If they have definitions, are those definitions objective or subjective? If they are subjective, why bother to post your words? They could on your view mean anything from “God is a figment of my imagination” to “ I think Hitler was the greatest human being ever to live and the Holocaust was his greatest achievement” to…, well, whatever takes your fancy.

If definitions are objective, where do they get their objectivity from?”

This woman is a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The goal of her comment is to say that language is either subjective–but useful, or objective–but without an object in hopes to draw a parallel between language and morality. She contends that language, in a similar way to morals, is just a social construct and subjective or meaningful because we agree on it and it’s objective.

How would you respond to her? It is a clever trap for sure.

– Tim Hull


Dr. Tim’s Response:

Hey, other Tim (it’s good to hear from a fellow YouTuber)!

The atheist’s response seems confused. There is a vital distinction between a proposition (i.e., the content of a well-defined declarative sentence) and the words used in a sentence. Words or sentences are subjective, but we may use them to describe objective propositions. And an objective proposition is objective in the sense that its truth is grounded in reality and not in our beliefs or opinions or feelings. So, for example, we may use both the sentences “The grass is green” and “Das Gras ist grün” to refer to the same proposition despite the fact that these sentences are different. To put it rather loosely: a sentence may be subjective in the sense that we may use it to express different objective propositions.

With that in mind, it seems to me that a view related to “Purpose Theory” (PT) does not fall prey to this “clever trap.” As noted in my book, Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge and Mere Molinism, Purpose Theory (or at least a modified version of it) is the view that

(i) God created human beings for a purpose; (ii) fulfilling this purpose is a necessary condition for human life to have objective meaning; and (iii) human beings must have libertarian free will to freely choose to appropriate God’s purpose [or not].

Strictly speaking, although I affirm that God created humanity on purpose and for a specific purpose, (i) is not necessary for PT. Indeed, an atheist can affirm PT and then conclude that since God does not exist (thus, God did not create humanity for a purpose), that life is objectively purposeless and meaningless (thus, objective morality would be illusory on the atheist view).

For example, Sartre argued that since there is no God to give human life objective purpose or objective meaning, human life has no such purpose/meaning. There are thus only the subjective meanings we freely invent for ourselves (See Existentialism and Human Emotions, Citadel Press, 1987, pp. 13-16). Sartre affirmed libertarian freedom but denied theism. This was the basis for his version of existentialism.
 
Sartre can be reasonably construed as a purpose theorist who argued as follows:
 
  1. If human life is objectively meaningful, then God created human beings for a purpose. (PT)
  2. There is no God.
  3. Therefore, God did not create human beings for a purpose.
  4. Therefore, human life is not objectively meaningful.

So, with Sartre in mind, perhaps it would be better expressed like this: Purpose Theory is the view that if human life is objectively meaningful, then (i) God created human beings for a purpose, and (ii) human beings have libertarian free will (to choose to approximate our objective purpose or not). With Purpose Theory in mind, consider the following thought experiment in response to the atheist’s challenge: 

If a wookie (who does not seem to communicate with words) invents X, he invents it for a particular purpose with an intent and according to a design plan for which it is supposed to be used to accomplish a specific goal in the mind of the wookie inventor. Chewbacca might subjectively refer to X as “grawwwawwrrrrllaaahhhwwwrrr!” However, Han Solo might refer to X as a “bowcaster.” Either way, the purpose of X remains the same (no matter what words are used or not used). That is to say, this is an objective purpose that is true (the purpose of the bowcaster is to blast Stormtroopers) no matter what words we subjectively use to describe the objective purpose of X.

Similarly, consider the following conditional statement: If God created humanity on purpose and for a specific purpose, then there are objective facts about humanity irrespective of the subjective opinions from humanity. These “facts about humanity” would correspond to reality no matter what subjective words were used to describe the objective purpose in which we were created to approximate. The implications of this statement can be expressed in the following argument:

1- If God created humanity on purpose and for a specific purpose, then there would be objective facts about humanity irrespective of the subjective opinions from humanity.

2- God created humanity on purpose and for a specific purpose (Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Mark 10:6-8; Luke 10:25-37). 

3- Therefore, there are objective facts about humanity irrespective of the subjective opinions from humanity (or the subjective words used to refer to these objective facts). 

With that said, it seems to me that appealing to Purpose Theory grounds objective purpose, meaning, value, and morality apart from human (or wookie) subjective opinion or any words used to communicate said opinions. Divine commands, on the other hand, although they do not seem to ground objective truth, are still vital as they place humanity in an epistemic position to know reality. Indeed, when it comes to God’s intent and design plan for humanity, Jesus made many statements placing us in a position to know objective truth about reality. In Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-8, for example, Jesus makes it clear that God created humanity on purpose and for some specific purposes. Jesus can be summarized as follows: “God’s model of marriage is ONE man, with ONE woman, becoming ONE flesh, for ONE lifetime.” With that in mind, we can judge what today’s culture, celebrities, politicians, and even what the Supreme Court subjectively thinks about marriage and compare their personal opinions with objective reality. 

Thank God that He has revealed objective truth to humanity (I’m sure He did the same for wookies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . .)

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


Notes

– A special thanks to my FreeThinking colleagues, Jacobus Erasmus and Elliott Crozat for helping me fine-tune this response. 

– As an aside: notice how Purpose Theory entails the libertarian freedom to choose to approximate to the objective purpose of life (or not). The exhaustive divine determinist (EDD) does not have access to this view. Indeed, if EDD is true, then everyone always fulfills their objective purpose all the time (no one ever really “misses the mark”). On this view, God created Hitler for a purpose, and God causally determined Hitler to perfectly fulfill said purpose. On the EDD view, the damned are created on purpose and for the specific purpose to be eternally separated from God and all that is good. They never fail to fulfill said purpose. 

If this seems absurd, I recommend an alternative: Mere Molinism

Tagged with:
Share:

About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

Learn More

More from this author