Apologetics,  Ethics,  Language

Language Use and the Existence of God

Natural human language-use entails moral obligations, specifically objective obligations between persons. All of these obligations are routinely broken (see Twitter).

These obligations are both objective and social. They depend on being objective and not merely an expression of a particular preference or culture. They also depend on the existence of a social context composed of more than one person.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff claims, “speaking is, through and through, a normative engagement.” Wolterstorff suggests three norms and provides examples: (i) speech should be related rightly to the mental state of the speaker. If the speaker asserts something he ought to believe it. If the speaker promises something, he ought to intend to fulfill the promise. If the speaker requests something, he ought to want it. (ii) speech should be rightly related to the facts. A speaker ought not to assert what is false or proclaim someone guilty who is innocent. (iii) speech should be rightly related to the position the speaker has in his social group. A speaker ought not to ask someone to do something he has no right to ask. A speaker may only pronounce someone guilty if they are a judge. A speaker may call a game only if the speaker is the umpire. Wolterstorff argues that by speaking we enter into a relationship with other people that entails the kind of obligations listed.

Robert Adams argues that obligations are necessarily social in nature. It there is an obligation, then there is a social context. Obligatory actions are actions human beings are motivated to perform.  The best explanation for this motivation is that we value the relationships we find ourselves in. When we fail to perform an obligatory action, we experience guilt. If we insult someone, we feel bad. Why? Most plausibly, the experience of guilt implies that we have harmed another person and alienated ourselves from other people.

There is nothing in that naturalistic worldview that adequately accounts for objective social obligations. If obligations are identical to actual demands made by social groups, then there are only non-objective social obligations. Therefore, obligations are not identical to actual demands made by human social groups. However, if obligations are necessarily social in nature, then there must be some social dimension that is not human and provides obligations with objectivity. In contrast, if Christianity is true, then the fundamental nature of reality is normative. God is Good and the determining standard of right and wrong. God determines obligations for human beings. Importantly, God is a person we have obligations to. Thus, the existence of God is the best explanation for objective social obligations in language use.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse. 

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.