What about Language?

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Postmodernists argue that "truths" are understood and expressed by language, and that language is itself contingent on culture, ethnicity, and tradition. According to postmodernists, this fatal defect of language impacts every aspect of our lives, including our ability to connect words with "reality." In fact, "reality" itself is called into question. Frederich Nietzsche explained: "We believe we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, color, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things - metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities."

Let's set aside the irony that postmodernists use language to discount the value of language. If we look past the incongruity of their argument, we must admit that, if indeed we can't rely on language to accurately convey truth, then truth would be very difficult (indeed impossible) to ascertain. Language, however, is not the only truth-bearer. Awareness of certain facts is not at all contingent on our ability to comprehend language or communicate in words or symbols.

When a baby is hungry, she knows this to be true, even before she has a word to describe her hunger. When she wets her diaper, she knows she's uncomfortable, even though she can't express that in words. Sure, she can express hunger or discomfort vocally by crying, but that's hardly representative of the type of language which we are discussing. Crying is a baby's form of communication early on, so in that sense, crying is language. But it is most certainly not language in the sense that the baby is connecting words, tones, or signs to specific concepts. That comes later. My point here is simply that babies have an instinctive, intuitive grasp of very basic truths ("I'm hungry," "I'm uncomfortable," "I'm scared," "I'm lonely," etc.) long before they understand language. The realities are there long before the language is present to define or explain those realities.

Let's take animals. While my dog Rex understands only a few English words (like "walk" and "play" - we're still working on "no"), he is nevertheless able to understand a great many things without attaching words to those things. The same is true for animals in general. They know when they're hungry and when something (to them) appears edible and desirable. They understand when they want to walk, run, play, fight, and procreate. They know these things instinctively, without regard to any language.

There are also plenty of examples from Nature. The Earth revolved around the Sun long before human beings learned that or how to explain that. The planet Neptune existed long before humans spotted it or named it. Gravity was a part of life well before Isaac Newton explained it to the world. I could go on. The point is that facts do not depend on language for their truthfulness. I will grant that language influences (indeed, in some ways, it controls) our ability to understand and explain facts. But most facts (certainly the examples I've cited) exist apart from our ability (or lack of ability) to understand or explain them.

There are many facts we can know beyond any real doubt, and many more we can know beyond any reasonable doubt. We can know that that Earth revolves around the Sun, that gravity is real, that human beings exist, that the Roman Empire was real, that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President of the United States, that Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for portraying him in a movie, that Mickey Mouse is a popular cartoon character, that the National Basketball Association banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life, and that lima beans taste awful! Okay, that last one is admittedly an opinion, but it's one to which I strongly hold - and that statement (that it's an opinion to which I strongly hold) is a knowable truth.

There are many more examples I could give, because there are many truths (many of which are irrefutable and undisputed) which are commonly known and understood. Yes, there are some truth claims which are very much disputed. And there have been many cases where certain truth claims were later overturned or reversed based upon the acquisition of new knowledge. That the truth is sometimes difficult to know is not disputed here. My point is that some truths are knowable.

Discovering the truth is indeed difficult. Accordingly, no one person will ever understand all truth. And, frankly, no society will likely fully conquer all knowledge and reason. But while it's not possible for us to know all truth, it's a lie to then conclude that we can't know any truth. Some facts are discoverable and understandable, and thus at least some truth is knowable.

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