Some say there is no truth, but at least fifteen things have to be true before this statement can even be uttered in English. What are they?
I recently was asked a question that I get asked a lot. It’s a common challenge Christians face on the campus. It was offered as I spoke in the lecture hall at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Oregon, to a Christian group who had rented the facility.
As I flew back this morning I reflected on the question. I started jotting some notes down, and it was interesting the way it all fell together. The question was this: How do you deal with somebody who says there is no truth?
Now this is very popular claim on campus because of deconstructionism and postmodernism—the radical skepticism that’s sweeping the academy. It’s the idea that you can’t know anything for sure. Nothing is set in concrete. Everything is influenced by our culture, our upbringing and our presuppositions, so it’s impossible to get at any objective truth.
I flatly reject this notion that there is no truth or, if there is, it is unknowable. I think there are a number of things we can know for sure simply because the opposite is not possible. If we can even utter the sentence, “There is no truth”—and, of course, we must at least utter the sentence to make the claim—then a number of things must be objectively true of necessity.
First of all, if someone holds that there is no truth, then there’s at least one thing that’s true: the statement they just uttered that there is no truth.
It’s one of those awkward situations for a person making a claim, because there’s no way their claim can be true. If it’s false, it’s false (of course), but if it’s true, it’s still false. If it’s true that there is no truth, then it’s also false, because the statement itself identifies a truth.
This is called a self-refuting statement. It’s as if I said, “I can’t speak a word of English,” and said it in English, that would be self-refuting of course. The claim “There is no truth” is one of those kinds of statements. Even to utter the statement itself is a statement of truth, and so the statement “There is no truth” can’t stand. It defeats itself. It commits suicide. So it’s true that the statement, “There is no truth” is false. That’s one thing that’s true. But there’s more.
In order to state the phrase “There is no truth,” an individual must exist to make the statement and to ponder whether there are truths or not.
Remember Descartes, sitting in his oven back in the 17th century? He said, “I can doubt everything except for one thing. I can’t doubt that I am doubting.” From this reflection came his famous dictum, Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.”
I must exist if I’m pondering my existence, Descartes concluded. Someone who states that there is no truth must exist to make the statement, and so it’s true that at least one individual, the one uttering the statement, must exist. So now we have at least two things that are true. But there’s more.
Time must also exist.
In order to express the sequence of words “There is no truth”—or even have such thoughts in one’s mind—the word “is” must come after the word “there,” and the word “no” after both of them, and one thing can only follow another in temporal sequence if time exists—present, past and future. So time must exist as an objectively true thing, because this statement was uttered with words in temporal sequence.
- The statement itself is a proposition, so propositions must exist. That’s a truth.
- The phrase also contains tokens, words that token the ideas (types) behind them. It’s true that tokens and types must exist.
- The concept of negation expressed in the word “no,” must exist as an idea.
- There has to be the concept of unity (the idea that the four words work together in a sentence).
- There must be plurality (the multiple words each distinct from one another).
- Individuality must exist to differentiate one word from another, separating the units.
- The law of non-contradiction must exist and be true. If the statement “There is no truth is true,” then its opposite must be false, i.e., if there is no truth, then it is not the case that there is truth.
- That statement is also distinguished from all of its contradictions, so the law of identity—that a thing is identical to itself—must be true. A thing is itself and not something else.
- There’s at least one sentence that exists, because the person just uttered it. That must be true.
- There are English words, and grammatical relationships between the words—subject and predicate. That must be true.
- The numbers one through four must exist because there are four different words.
- Addition must be true, because you add those units up and get the number four.
- The alphabet exists.
Parts of speech, like nouns and verbs, exist as truths.
Do you see the point? In order to even utter the statement, “There is no truth,” there must be at least 17 things true. They must, in fact, be necessarily true, given the statement itself. When I say necessarily true, I mean there’s no way they can be false, given the statement “There is no truth” uttered in English. If there is such a statement uttered in English, then all these other things must be true. It’s impossible for them not to be true.
That’s why radical skepticism like this is not justified. As one thinker put it—Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher at USC—if we want to be intellectually honest skeptics, we must be as skeptical about our skepticism as we are about our knowledge. We should take the burden of proof to defend our skepticism instead of simply asserting our skepticism. Anyone can assert disbelief. Whether they can make sense out of it is a different thing.
Just uttering the statement, “There is no truth,” in itself establishes the truth of many different things. And if we can establish their truth just by uttering such a statement, then it seems to me there are a whole lot of other things we can determine to be true as well, and can be just as certain about.
Therefore, radical skepticism is unjustified. The statement “There is no truth” is false.