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Many religions like Islam and Hinduism have holy books(the Quran and the Vedas, respectively) which claim some kind of superhuman origin. However, are the limitations of languages then counter to their claims? For example:

  • Since the languages are human inventions, that means that humans predate the books.
  • Languages, in general are not complete, so it's pretty convenient that whatever these books want to say fits in the languages.
  • Since the languages change over time, this means that the meaning of these books also changes over time(which the books deny).

Are these arguments valid? What can be good counters to such arguments? What are some other similar arguments?

closed as not constructive by Joseph Weissman Aug 26 '11 at 4:07

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    I downvoted for the unclairity of "Languages, in general are not complete." I'll revert if you edit to clarify your meaning. – vanden Jun 11 '11 at 16:59
  • @Joe I don't think it is an especially good question. But, I would also suggest that my answer shows it is not "unanswerably argumentative." – vanden Jun 11 '11 at 20:32
  • @vanden there are some very good answers here, I just wonder if the question couldn't be posed less argumentatively. – Joseph Weissman Jun 11 '11 at 20:38
  • The divinity is not constituted by the scriptures, the divinity constitutes the scriptures. That means the scriptures can convey any meaning, to anybody, at any time, in accordance to the will and working of the divinity. – christo183 Jan 8 at 7:12
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Point #1 - I only know a little about the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions that assume a moment of divine revelation. With the exception of certain creationists, I don't know of any religious people who would deny that human beings predate the holy books.

Point #3 – I don't know of any religious books or educated minds that would deny this fact or pin their faith on the immutability of language.

Point #2 – this seems to be the crux of the issue. Is language complete? What does that mean? What is the assumed status and significance of a "holy book?" Is language an effective (complete) medium for capturing the content of these books?

Some facts to take into account:

In the form of great poetry and literature, language can be beautiful and inspiring. Great change and powerful emotions can be effected in the space of just a few syllables. If religious texts are a form of divine literature, if the goal of a holy book is to inspire, precipitate change, and instruct about observance and morality, than language is a reasonable medium for this content.

There may be some philosophical difficulty in trying to articulate some ineffable and immutable truths about infinite and transcendent beings through the medium language. But the philosophical problem would be to define the terms: “ineffable, immutable truth," “infinity" and "transcendence” in this context.

In summary:

You may or may not care for it, but some people have dedicated their entire lives and everything they own for the sake of poetry and beautiful literature. We tend to think of language as a clunky and imprecise medium for conveying facts, but when implemented artfully, the power of writing is often best described in pseudo-mystical and pseudo-religious terminology. Why should language have this power over human thought and human emotions? Is it a good thing to be inspired in this way? These are valid questions, but irrespective of their answers it is not trivial to criticize the implementation of religious language in religious contexts.

Appendix – Examples of poetry characterized in mystical and religious terminology:

The famous postscript to Howl (It starts 3 minutes and 26 seconds into this video):

"The typewriter is holy, the poem is holy, the voice is holy, the hearers are holy."

Jorge Luis Borges – Salvation by Deeds:

It is true. They have thought up that atrocity, but there is also this something quite different, which fits in the space encompassed by seventeen syllables.

The divinity intoned them. They were in an unknown language, and I could not understand them

The leading divinity delivered a judgment:

Let men survive.

Thus, because of a haiku, the human race was saved.

  • I think this is a fine answer that takes a far different tack than mine. It earned my upvote. – Jon Ericson Jun 10 '11 at 18:57
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I don't know about Hinduism, but you jumped of the track right off the bat with Islam. Muslims I've talked with believe that Arabic was the pre-Babel language and that it is a gift from Allah. They also pride themselves in knowing or learning Classical Arabic, the dialect of the Qur'an, which is viewed as being identical to the language the Prophet used. Arabic is said to be uniquely expressive so that translations into other languages necessarily diminish its meaning to the reader. There are even theological questions, as I understand, about whether the Qur'an was created or if it always existed.

In other words, this entire approach is uncompelling, especially if you don't speak, read and understand Classical Arabic.

  • My approach is not based on any specifics of the language. I am just interested in how philosophy of knowledge/language interacts with religion. – apoorv020 Jun 10 '11 at 18:45
  • @Ami: It's a separate answer. As far as I understand your answer, it seems good to me. – Jon Ericson Jun 10 '11 at 18:52
  • @apoorv020: Whether or not your arguments are valid are of no moment if the other side does not agree with the premises. Unless, of course, you are mostly interested convincing people who are already convinced. In that case, I find the question a waste of time. – Jon Ericson Jun 10 '11 at 18:55
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To add a slightly different viewpoint than Jon Ericson and Ami, I think one must ask who is the intended audience of holy books? Even if you take these books as completely divine, they are presumably intended for human consumption. Many books are taken to have different levels of meaning depending on the ability of a particular reader to understand. The upper limit on such understanding would be the most wise and intelligent human, who would presumably still be infinitely less wise and intelligent than the whichever deity one is imagining as the author of the book. A good teacher does not teach material at his own level of understanding, but at the level of understanding of his students. A great teacher is able to teach at the level of understanding of both his quickest and slowest students.

  • Good insight. If I may be so bold, I'd suggest Jesus was an example of a great teacher. He used simple, agricultural metaphors that appealed to his generally uneducated followers (see Acts 4:13), but also spoke to highly educated Christians for the last 2000 years. And his teaching has survived translation, for what it's worth. – Jon Ericson Jun 11 '11 at 0:00
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    @Jon Ericson: I think that's a feature you find in a great many holy (and non-holy) books. Of course, sometimes you find it because it was deliberately put there, and arguably sometimes you find it (or another layer of it) solely because you want it to be there. (I have a particular tradition in mind with the latter, but I do not want to mention it specifically. Let's just say it invokes numerology.) – Ben Hocking Jun 11 '11 at 11:03
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Let us suppose that a given text is indeed of divine origin and that the language in which it is expressed is a human creation. (Another answer points out that some religious traditions would reject that second assumption.) There seems to me to be no incompatibility in these two assumptions.

Let me take your various points in turn:

Since the languages are human inventions, that means that humans predate the books.

Yes, it would. But, I don't see how that in itself poses a problem for the claim that a given text has a divine origin. If one thinks of God (or the gods) as intervening in human affairs, one could happily say that human language developed and at some point God chose to communicate to the humans, doing so in the language that they had developed. It seems no different than how I can communicate with a Parisian even though French existed before I did and before I ever formed the intention to convey a message.

Languages, in general are not complete, so it's pretty convenient that whatever these books want to say fits in the languages.

I am not sure what you intend by saying that "languages are not complete." I'll interpret that as saying that there might well be messages that one would wish to convey that a given language does not provide the resources to convey. On that understanding, there also seems no problem here. If I convey a message to you in French, necessarily, the message that I do convey must be conveyable in French. If (not that I think that this is the case) there were some content that I wished to convey which English could express and French could not, it wouldn't be possible for me to convey the entire message that I wished to convey. It isn't "convenient" that what I do convey is expressible in French; it is a necessary consequence of my selecting French as the vehicle of communication.

It could well be that God might have wished to convey a message to us in a human language where that message was not expressible in the human language. That seems little different than the cases that arise when you speak to young children or adults who are not fluent in the language that you are communicating in---you select a sub-language of the language you are speaking, picked so as to be understandable to your audience. Sometimes, in so doing, you lose the ability to say that which you would like to say.

Since the languages change over time, this means that the meaning of these books also changes over time(which the books deny).

This also seems no particular problem. The meanings of words in a language do alter over time, yes. That means if I read a letter written in English in 1500, and interpret it according to the prevailing meanings of its words in the English of 2011, I will likely misconstrue the writer's meaning. But, all is not lost. I can instead interpret the letter according to the meanings of its terms that prevailed in the English of 1500 (as best as I can discover them). Not having anything quite so good as the Oxford English Dictionary for many of the languages in which various religious texts are written, the problem might be harder to resolve in those cases. But, unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of scholarship on the languages in which those texts are written.

So, while "text of divine origin" is not one of my concepts, I don't see that any of the considerations that you have pointed to pose any particular problems for the claim that this or that text has a divine origin.

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