Lewis and Wittgenstein on Facts and Meanings

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Our second author illustrates the danger of this kind of misunderstanding with respect to the sentence, “God exists.” He  says:

To believe that God-at least this God [of Christianity]-exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. What would, a moment before, have been variations in opinion, now become variations in your personal attitude to a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.[13]

Again, what appears to be a statement of fact-and may, in fact, be a fact-is not, in ordinary circumstances, used to state a fact.

There are countless cases like this everyday. Think of the uses of these sentences:

“The building is on fire!”

“I don’t have any money.”

“You saved my life.”

“She left me. I’m all alone now.”

“Bush won the election.”

“It’s a boy.”

“I’ve told you a hundred times to pick up your things.”

“I’ve been up all night, writing this paper.”

“There’s no law against charging high interest.”

“And in those days, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

This last sentence you may recognize as being from Scripture. Like all the other examples, the sentence is (or was) true. It might be seen as a statement of fact, and if it were looked at as a statement of fact, it could be judged to be either true or false. And, I am perfectly ready to admit, it was true. It may even be a true description of certain portions-perhaps even large portions-of our own societies and times. But the meaning of the sentence does not lie in its correspondence with the facts. What does it mean? And in what does its meaning lie?

Perhaps the first thing we ought to note is who said it. Who is speaking (or writing)? Well, the author of the book of Judges. And who was that? Joshua? God himself? Yes. Joshua wrote what God inspired him to write, and that inspiration enabled him to convey both the facts and the meaning in what God had to say. I make a point of this here because, even though Joshua might have said such a thing all on his own and been right about it, the meaning of it would not quite be the same if it were merely Joshua’s word and not God’s as well. For the meaning of a sentence or a word often depends a great deal on who says it. This sentence is from God: pay attention!

Another important determinant is who is hearing what is said. To whom was God speaking (and to whom was Joshua writing) when he said what he said here? Well, to His people, to those of his people who came after. It is part of the historical account of the Hebrews during the time of the Judges. “In those days. . .” here is what happened: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This is the fact. But who is-or ought to be-interested in such a fact? Is it enough to just be a Hebrew? What we learn from the New Testament is that God’s people (the “true Hebrews”) are those who “believe God,” who “have faith,” who “follow Him,” “fear Him,” who say “not my will, but Thy will be done.” We are also told that God’s people were, and are, “chosen by him.” God meant what he said to His people, and he meant it for them, so it is his people who are best able to know what he meant. And, again, this is almost always the case: what a word or a sentence means is known best by the person or persons to whom it is spoken. So, what does the sentence mean to God’s people? At the very least, it is a warning to them (us). “Do not think that what is right in your own eyes is what’s right. Do not be proud!”