Whenever you perceive something, you inevitably and simultaneously perceive both factual and existential (that is, meaning-related) aspects of it.
Take a piece of furniture, for example: factually speaking, it has certain dimensions, certain colors, and is made from certain materials. It was made a certain amount of time ago, and it can bear a certain amount of weight without breaking. But you also – quite automatically, without having to even think about it – see it as beautiful or ugly, as conveying a particular mood or atmosphere, going well with or clashing with other pieces of furniture in the room, and perhaps having some connection to memorable events in your life or ideas that are important to you.
That latter set of characteristics can’t be demonstrated to be present in the piece of furniture objectively, but you still can’t help but perceive such characteristics. You can’t prove to others that they’re there, but for you, they’re as undeniably there as are the furniture’s factual characteristics.
When we attempt to describe a phenomenon’s factual properties as directly as possible, we inevitably gloss over its existential properties. And when we attempt to describe a phenomenon’s existential properties as directly as possible, we inevitably gloss over its factual properties.
Factually speaking, thunder is the sound made by lightning, an electrostatic discharge that occurs during a storm. But that description, while true for what it is, doesn’t do justice to, for example, the sense of awe and fear that thunder so readily evokes, as if it were made by a mysterious celestial being with violent intentions. There are characteristics of the phenomenon that are central to our experience of it that the factual description excludes.
When we attempt to characterize those other, existential aspects of thunder, our descriptions will likewise probably exclude the facts about it. We might say that the thunder is the sound made by the hammer of a god as he rides through the sky in a war chariot dealing death blows his enemies, the giants – which is exactly how the Vikings and other pre-Christian Germanic peoples characterized it. (This was their god Thor, whose name literally meant “Thunder.”) Or we might describe it in any number of other ways that are equally non-factual but depict those same intangible qualities of the phenomenon on their own terms.
Such characterizations are not in competition with the factual characterization, because the factual characterization by definition can’t speak to those existential qualities, and vice versa. They’re two different types of descriptions that pertain to two different domains of life: fact and meaning.
When we’re trying to articulate facts, we’re speaking the “language of fact.” When we’re trying to articulate meaning, we’re speaking the “language of meaning.” These are effectively two different languages because when two people talk to each other, with one speaking the language of fact and the other speaking the language of meaning, they talk past each other as surely as if one were speaking Norwegian and the other Spanish.
Imagine that two people are standing next to each other and hear the same thunderclap. One describes it in the language of fact, and says, “Ah, there’s an electrostatic discharge.” The other describes it in the language of meaning, and says, “Ah, there’s Thor riding through the sky and smiting giants.” Each would likely think the other to be crazy, because at face value, the two statements are irreconcilable. But the truth is that it’s entirely possible for both of them to be correct with regard to the different aspects of the phenomenon that each is attempting to describe.
Of course, the speaker of the language of fact could demonstrate to his or her interlocutor that, factually speaking, thunder is indeed the sound of a massive electrostatic discharge. But the speaker of the language of meaning could also demonstrate that the other person experienced some existential qualities in the thunder, whatever they happened to be. They might be different from those that the speaker of the language of meaning experienced, but they were there nonetheless. The facts are objective, whereas the meanings are subjective, but both are unavoidably present. If we are to face truth in its totality, then we must grapple with meaning just as we grapple with fact.
That requires becoming as fluent as possible in both the language of fact and the language of meaning – and learning how to tell the difference between the two in practice.
How can we tell the difference between the two? Simple: discern the intention of the speaker. Is he or she primarily making a claim about facts independent of meaning? Then he or she is speaking the language of fact. Is he or she primarily making a claim about meaning independent of facts? Then he or she is speaking the language of meaning. Both are making truth claims, but these are two very different types of truth claims.
Of course, it’s not infrequently the case that someone will make a claim about both fact and meaning simultaneously. But these are two different claims, and they can and should be evaluated separately – one according to the standards of fact, and the other according to the standards of meaning. When a “creationist” says “God created the earth,” he or she is typically – and awkwardly – attempting to speak both the language of fact and the language of meaning at the same time, much as if he or she were attempting to say “Dios creó la tierra” and “Gott schuf die Erde” at the same time. As a factual claim, “God created the earth” is untestable, and therefore of little to no value. But as an existential claim, “God created the earth” can demonstrably felicitously account for many of the existential qualities of the earth as some people experience it, and, for them, it is therefore of considerable – perhaps even extraordinary – value.
Science is the human endeavor with the greatest mastery of fact, and scientific language is the language of fact par excellence. Religion is the human endeavor with the greatest mastery of meaning, and religious language is the language of meaning par excellence. When science tries to answer questions of meaning, or when religion tries to answer questions of fact, they’re trespassing outside of their proper territory and into the realm of the other, where they can’t possibly hope to compete. They should be held accountable for these errors, but it should also be recognized that these errors are exceptions rather than the rule. They don’t diminish the importance of science as such or of religion as such.
Everyone speaks both of these languages, and needs to speak both of these languages. No one is entirely without a structure of meaning, even if the type of meaning around which that structure is based isn’t what we would call truly “religious.” The language of meaning doesn’t have to be used in a religious context; it can be used in more mundane, secular contexts as well. Whenever we describe any existential qualities, whether religious or secular, we’re speaking the language of meaning. “You are beautiful” and “Science is valuable” are statements of meaning, not of fact – for what do facts know of beauty or value? These are subjective, rather than objective, determinations.
Many – quite possibly most – criticisms of religion on scientific grounds arise from mistaking the language of meaning for the language of fact. The recognition and understanding of these two different uses of speech almost automatically clarifies the relationship between science and religion, why we need both, and why neither one ultimately has to come at the expense of the other.
It just so happens that I’ve written an entire book on this topic, unsurprisingly entitled The Language of Meaning: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion.