I’ve been pondering over David Leech Anderson’s article “Why God is Not a Semantic Realist”.

Anderson’s essay is included in the book “Realism and Anti-Realism” edited by William Alston.  The majority of the contributors are “realists” (in some respect or other), Anderson as well.

But while Anderson claims to be a “metaphysical realist” (ie: he believes there are objects in the world that do not depend on our mental activity for their existence), he, nevertheless, thinks we ought not suggest that our common linguistic habits presuppose metaphysical realism.  In other words, we ought not be global semantic realists with respect to common statements about the external world.

What’s a semantic realist, you ask?

Consider the following proposition:

“There is a tree in my front yard”.

A global semantic realist suggests that all such statements are meant to refer to actual objects; in this case, if I say there’s a tree in my front yard, I really mean that there’s a tree in my front yard.

Suppose metaphysical realism were false though, and we all lived in the “Matrix”.  If that were the case and a person said there is a tree in his front yard, his statement would be false because the statement would be referring to objects that do not, in fact, exist, but are rather illusions created by evil machines. (This assumes, of course, all non-trivial instances.  It could be that machines kidnapped a man, imprisoned him in the Matrix, then ran a sub-routine program that is almost identical to reality…then, when the man says “there is a tree in my front yard”, it might just accidentally be the case that, in the real world, there really is a tree in his front yard…but such would only be accidental.  For the purposes of this illustration, we’re investigating the referents of sentences.  The man might be accidentally correct in saying there’s a tree in his front yard, for example, but if he were to say, “there is a tree in front of me right now”, he would be wrong, from a semantic realist perspective).

The poor soul trapped in the Matrix may have a way out, however.  He might reject semantic realism and accept semantic anti-realism.  The semantic anti-realist would suggest that it’s true there is a tree in the front yard, not because the sentence refers to something that may actually exist, but because the subjective experience of the person was such that he experienced a tree and a front yard.

So, for a semantic anti-realist, the conditions of a propositions being true are different than for a semantic realist.  In other words:  the conditions which make a proposition true are different for both positions.  The realist needs the tree to actually *be* in the front yard for the proposition to be true; the anti realist needs only the subject to have experienced there being a tree in the front yard for the proposition to be true.


Anderson argues against global semantic realism.

“Global” here, means a semantic realist who believes that *all* such propositions about the external world are generally meant to be propositions about extra-mental objects.

Instead, Anderson wants to claim that some of our propositions are to be taken as having anti-realist truth-conditions, while others are to be taken as having realist truth-conditions.  Thus, he suggests a “semantic-dualism” which is robust enough to allow for the full range of our linguistic habits.

His arguments against semantic realism don’t strike me as very convincing.

They amount to arguments from audacity.  “If it were true that we lived in a world where something like Berkeleian Idealism were true, and if we were also semantic realists, then that would mean that almost all Biblical propositions would be false”.

Well – granted…but then again, if we lived in a Berkeleian Idealist universe, Scripture would have implied as much and we would be able to properly deduce that Scriptural statements about the external world are really not referring to mind-independent objects, but rather, are referring to objects which depend (in non-trivial ways) on the mind of God.

Additionally, for an essay to have such an interesting title, it says little to nothing about God’s situation with respect to semantic realism or anti-realism.  Anderson, if successful in this article, will have shown that humans should be semantic dualists…but that’s not to say that God should also be a semantic dualist.

In fact, if we say that God is a semantic anti-realist in some respect, then we might be in danger of shaving away the classic doctrine of the “Creator / Creature” distinction…and that leads to all sorts of heresies.  Additionally, given God’s status as creator, when God speaks about a world outside of Himself, it comes to be; in other words, it becomes “real” by virtue of Him speaking about it.  It doesn’t seem (on this view) that God could be an anti-realist with respect to His experiences of extra-mental objects.

While Anderson does a good job of convincing me that I ought not be dogmatic about my “realist” views, and while he’s sparked my interest in the possibilities semantic anti-realism (or even his own semantic “dualism”) might offer to the Christian, I’m not convinced that he’s made a good case here against semantic realism.


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