On Nonsense

Philosophy affects vocabulary. Ideas shape words. Consider the word nonsense or the phrase it makes no sense. The Oxford online dictionary says of nonsense:

Spoken or written words that have no meaning or make no sense: he was talking absolute nonsense.

This is not entirely helpful since make no sense is another way of saying nonsense. A word cannot define itself. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary is superior in defining nonsense:

Words or language having no meaning or conveying no intelligible ideas or (1): language, conduct, or an idea that is absurd or contrary to good sense (2): an instance of absurd action.

To say that anything is nonsense is no compliment. A nonsense statement—green ideas sleep poorly, for example—lacks meaning. But why does it? It is because it is meaningless. But note the word sense, which is negated. This typically means what can be acquired through the senses—that is, what is empirical.

An exceptionally bad book, written by a Christian, claims that Christianity is nonsense because it speaks of realities beyond the senses. The same sad book rejoices that Christianity is nonsense and irrational. Yet why should what is beyond sense be nonsense in the sense of being irrational? Empiricism lurks and smirks behind scenes, and must be smoked out.

Empiricism claims that all knowledge is based on sensory experience. A secular version of this epistemology condemns an idea or worldview that purports to reach beyond the sensory world. According to this theory, Christianity is rationally suspect or, worse yet, non-sense.

The story is long and twisted, but eighteenth century Brits are largely to blame, especially John Locke and David Hume. Locke was a theist (and perhaps a Christian). Hume was a skeptic (and perhaps a deist). But their philosophies pushed many thinkers to deny knowledge of anything outside of the natural world.

Hence, nonsense is defined as meaningless, foolish, or absurd. But false philosophy is pulling the strings behind dictionaries and thesauruses. We do receive knowledge from the senses. I note that my typing is resulting in images on my screen. I do not know this by searching inside my soul. I see it. But I could not write at all if I did not have a mind. Minds are not empirical objects known through sensory evidence. I could see my brain on a brain scan, but I could never see my thoughts or feelings, which are immaterial events. You cannot see or touch my mind, although you can infer that it exists (I hope) by my behavior.

Human thought and communication also requires that we obey the absolute laws of logic, which are not empirically discovered, but are, rather, rational intuitions. The law of noncontradiction, codified by Aristotle, states that:

It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.

This principle is universally, necessarily, and absolutely true; it is not based on inductive generalizations or empirical investigation. As such, it is non-sensory. More technically, the law of noncontradiction is an a priori truth, something known before or apart from experience.

The next time you hear someone (or yourself) say nonsense, take a philosophical journey behind that word. You should discover a lush land of sure and sturdy knowledge that is non-sensory, yet surely not nonsensical in the vernacular use of the term. You may even discover God and say with the Apostle Paul:

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:17)

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 Apologetics.com.

4 thoughts

  1. Douglas,

    Smoking out “empiricism” is much like doing the same thing with the phrase atheists often use – “lack of belief.” I have encountered a number of atheists who when confronting their atheism simply claim, “Atheism is a lack of belief in any god or gods in whatever form.” By making this claim, they ‘believe’ they can escape from believing in anything. They simply say they do not have faith in anything.

    The problem with such an assertion is that “lack of belief” does not necessarily translate into no faith. Rather many atheists simply redefine faith to agree with their ideology. Therefore, words take on meaning to fit an ideology rather than as descriptive approximations of reality. It does not matter if an ideology fits reality or not. The word is more the descriptive of the ideology than reality although the ideology may not agree with reality. Consequently, the attempt to erase God as real, faith is either the opposite of knowledge (i.e., “you have faith, but I possess knowledge based on science.”) or a lack of faith simply gets rid of God (i.e., what one does not believe does not exist.). The problem with such a definition of faith or lack thereof, it does not get rid of faith but rather assumes and redirects it.

    Therefore, when one uses the word “empirical” or the phrase “lack of belief,” one might ask the person using them, what have you been smoking?

  2. quite true, somethings that are not verifiable by sense experience are the most real things.

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