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.

  3. 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.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for

12 thoughts

  1. Regarding the nature of propositions, materialism also cannot verify the semantic law of bivalence, which establishes the truth value of a proposition. The very proposition materialism assumes, namely its particular view of metaphysics, is not verifiable by its own method, therefore rendering it self-referentially incoherent. This is the same problem with scientific positivism, but good like finding a materialist intellectually honest enough to admit it.

  2. You seem to be referring more to a folk materialism than the position actual elites hold. It’s my understanding that the way Spinoza collapsed the non-material into the set of all material things is now called physicalism to distinguish it from the straw-man materialist position. Perhaps there are elites that have not thought much about such things and display folk materialist tendencies, but I suspect they would fall into something like Spinoza’s position upon scrutiny rather than melt away like the Wicked Witch of the North.

    It’s not then clear you’ve really established your central premise (number three) which states: “Propositions, as immaterial or abstract objects, have no philosophical place in the worldview of materialism.” This bold premise does not seem to follow from merely pointing out that we don’t have a formal understanding of how material processes refer to propositions. A lack of knowledge about how brains process propositions does not necessarily imply that ideas cannot be material in origin.

    It’s also not clear that belief in supernatural things allows one to formally account for propositions either. If we were to assert that it’s the soul that does our thinking and not our brains, then how do you formally account for the soul’s ability create and process propositions?

  3. Yes, as another comment suggests, this is a strawman of most real materialism, although it does work against the eliminative form. But normal materialists do not say that only material objects exist in contrast with things like propositions and truth: they are saying that in contrast with immaterial substances.

  4. A proposition is always a statement of some kind, and a statement is always expressed in some physical form. The statement relates concepts in a way that may be ‘true’ or ‘not true’ depending on how well that relationship corresponds to reality. So you may have a cluster of neurons in the brain that encode the concepts of ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, and there are neural connections that physically establish this relationship – ‘cat’ ‘on’ ‘mat’. This relationship can be communicated to other brains through the use of language.

    The so-called “reaching out”, sometimes called ‘aboutness’, or intentionality, is nothing more than physical connections inside the brain between concepts encoded in neurons.

    There is nothing in this that is anything but physical.

    1. Unless you can establish a physical property by which some bit of unthinking matter becomes “about” another bit of unthinking matter, you haven’t actually solved the problem, you’ve just committed a homunculus fallacy.

      1. “Aboutness” in nothing more than physical connections in the brain. One piece of the brain contains a concept of some thing, and another piece contains a concept of some other thing, and neural connections in the brain establish associations between these concepts. The brain itself is extremely complex. An individual neuron doesn’t think. But billions of neurons interacting together function in a way the individual pieces can’t. This is the emergent functionality that we call thinking.

        Theists love to tell themselves that thinking must be something non-material in nature, because they don’t understand the complex dynamics of physical things. To be sure, none of us has a complete grasp of it, but science has given us a very good start. There’s nothing spooky going on, and there’s no homunculus. Your concept of an immaterial soul is nothing but a homunculus in disguise. There is ample evidence that it’s all physical, and all natural. The cognitive sciences do a much better job of explaining what’s going on than a vague, hand-waving “my soul does the thinking for me”.

    2. A proposition is always a statement of some kind, and a statement is always expressed in some physical form.

      What is your understanding of the syntax–semantics distinction? Do you think translation of the same proposition between languages is at least in some cases possible?

    3. What does the cluster of neurons encode? The concepts of “cat”, “mat”, and “on”? What is a concept? How much does it weigh? What are its dimensions, and thus its volume? It seems to me that “concept” itself is something non-physical.

  5. I find this rather convincing, not quite a straw man argument. It would be hard enough to argue that materialism justifies abstraction, let alone that any such abstraction deserve to be called “true”.

    I looked up this website having just read “When Islands of Meaning Sink Beneath Us” in CT Magazine. Thank you for that! Incredibly insightful look at Ecclesiastes, life, hope, meaning, and this time on earth with its suffering. What a blessing to have this in writing! Very well put, meaningful, and loving! I agree with your students! I feel loved and am motivated to love having read this piece!

  6. Something else to consider. The universal physical constants are not physical in nature. They are immaterial, yet they affect the material. Information is also non material in nature. The same information can be written down, spoken, or sent as smoke signals. But the information does not change. So, what is information? Can we measure it? Can it be weighed? The answer is no. How does materialism explain this?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s