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Truth, Propositions, and Materialism

Materialism states that there are no immaterial states of affairs, personal or impersonal. All can be explained according to chemistry, biology, and physics without remainder. The cosmos has its mysteries, but none of them will finally resist a material explanation. Materialism is the worldview of American elites, especially in education and the sciences. Materialism melts under scrutiny, however—just like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Consider one reality it cannot explain: truth.

Materialists, of course, claim that materialism is true. But what is truth? Truth is a property of indicative statements. A truth claim offers (rightly or wrongly) to stake out reality through a statement. A true statement is one that succeeds in its job—referring to reality. The statement the cat is on the mat is true if and only if there is a cat on the mat. There are other theories of what truth is (the metaphysics of it), but this view is common and well-defended by Christian and secular philosophers. If so, how does materialism fare on this account? Can it support a concept of truth that is required for materialism to be true? We will approach this question from two angles: (1) the nature of statements themselves and (2) a true statement’s relationship to what it refers to.

What is a statement in the philosophical sense? A statement affirms or denies something to be the case. John Coltrane played saxophone indicates a state or affairs; thus, it is a statement. However, Did John Coltrane play saxophone? is a question and not an affirmative statement. John Coltrane played the saxophone may be uttered in French or Arabic; it may be written in English or Albanian; it may be thought by you right now or by me right now; it could be communicated through sign language or through Morse Code. But how can the same idea be cognitively expressed in so many ways when those means of expression differ so dramatically? The sound of John Coltrane played saxophone in English is vastly different from that statement in Amharic. Nevertheless, all these acoustic blasts, inscriptions, and thoughts mean the same thing. How could that be?

The answer is that there is more to a statement than its physical or mental expression. Every statement affirms a proposition, which is the meaning of the statement. Only this reality of propositions can explain the unity of meaning in the diversity of forms of presentation. Since a proposition is not identical to any statement for which it is the meaning, propositions are not material, spatial objects. In fact, they are called abstract objects in the philosophical literature. I once mentioned the idea of abstract objects to a Christian philosopher who laughed and said, “What a medieval concept!” To that, I said, “So?” (One hopes he is not teaching philosophy or that he changed his mind.)

Materialism cannot abide abstract objects, since they are not material.” It must account for the meaning of statements in some other way. However, it is not clear what that might be. Some materialists, such as Richard Rorty, opt for pure pragmatism. Our language gets things done in the world according to our perspective. Yet how could it get things done if there is no objective meaning to our statements? We need intellectual content for the simplest actions, such as buying a book. I find the book that matches my thought of buying that book. At the checkout, I am asked “Credit or debit?” I respond, “Credit.” All of these interactions require propositional content. In any event, the propositional account of statements makes far more sense than materialist alternatives. Let us sum up:

  1. The nature of statements is best understood in relation to propositions.

  2. The propositional content of statements is required for navigating everyday life.

  3. Propositions, as immaterial or abstract objects, have no philosophical place in the worldview of materialism.

  1. Therefore (a), materialism cannot account for the nature of statements as propositional.

  2. Therefore (b), materialism cannot provide an adequate philosophy for everyday living. It fails the existential viability test for worldviews. (See chapter three of Christian Apologetics by Douglas Groothuis.)

  3. Therefore (c), materialism is false.

Christian theism, on the other hand, has no reason to fear or deny the existence of propositions, since it does not limit being to matter. God is spirit. Humans have souls that think. (Their brains do not.) The material expression of propositions in books or in articles is always related to an immaterial element which is supplied and supported by God. Perhaps the best way to relate propositions to God is to say that they are thoughts in God’s mind.

But things get even worse for materialists. Propositions are true if they correspond to what they refer to; they are false if they fail to correspond to what they refer to. In the case of a true proposition (which is immaterial), there is a relationship of correspondence between what the proposition affirms (or the truth-bearer) and something factual (or truth-maker). This correspondence is not a material thing; it is rather, a truth relationship between a proposition and what the proposition affirms about reality. The true statement reaches out, as it were, to what it identifies as the case. This reaching out is how a proposition attaches to its referent. But neither the proposition nor the truth relation is material, although the object referred to (say a truck) may be material.

  1. For a proposition to be true, it needs a truth maker to which it corresponds. This may be called a truth relationship.

  2. Materialism can provide no basis for this truth relationship, since that relationship is immaterial.

  1. Therefore, materialism is false.

While materialists must claim that materialism is true, the worldview of materialism cannot carve out the metaphysical space for the very concept of truth. Therefore, materialism is false, since it fails to correspond to reality—no small weakness there.

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