Category Archives: Philosophy
The problem with all these theories is that they didn’t truly understand how man actually reasons. We all have worldviews: which is an interconnected web of beliefs that make up a system. This system is supported by supreme norms of thought that serve as an ultimate standard of truths. These standards are not proven by the system of thought rather the system is dependent upon them. These supreme norms are held by faith. This is true of all worldviews. To quote John Frame,
[C]ircular argument of a kind is unavoidable when we argue for an ultimate standard of truth. One that believes that human reason is the ultimate standard can argue that view only by appealing to reason.
The standard of judgment, method of argument, and conclusion are always involved in one another. Every argument contains its conclusion in its starting premise. Here’s a simple example: to argue that the Bible is not the Word of God you have to first assume that it is not the Word of God (i.e. that you have the ability to question it and have the authority to pick what is true in it and what is not).
Another major thinker in the faith/reason discussion is Cornelius Van Til. I believe that his line of thinking bring faith and knowledge into Biblical balance. Here I’ll end this series and pick up with a short series on the major contours of Van Til’s thought.
Logical Positivism. Those who have been paying close attention will notice history repeating itself with the movement known as Logical Positivism. Once again we have a movement, this one started out very aggressive, that has as its goal the elimination of all metaphysical speculation. This means assumptions about the nature of reality. As we have stated before, morality cannot be derived from empirical observation, so ethics is done away with, it is labeled meaningless.
The verifiability principle was the standard that was used by the Vienna Circle to decide what is meaningful and what wasn’t. Roughly stated, this principle states, “for a statement to be meaningful it is in theory verifiable/provable by observation, either directly or indirectly.” This was the sword that they used to cut ethics and religion from meaningful conversation (they were relegated to the realm of “faith”-irrational belief- not “reason”- that which is testable). But this sword did something unexpected; it turned around and destroyed the movement itself! The Verification Principle could not be proven by observation so therefore it isn’t meaningful. It could not meet its own standards.
Kant’s Effect on Theology. Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction had a profound effect on theology. Many theologians sought to refashion their approach to scripture in line with Kant’s philosophy. If we can’t know God through the faculty of human reason, then how can we know him? Søren Kierkegaard placed an emphasis on the subjectivity of faith, i.e. our own personal feelings. He didn’t argue much for Christianity based on what happened in history: he taught that to truly believe, a leap of faith is needed.
Karl Barth and the Neo-orthodox movement followed the example set by Kierkegaard by declaring that God is not known through nature (they denied the effectiveness of what’s called general revelation). So, if God is not clearly revealed in nature, no natural theology can be constructed. That is the opposite of what Thomas Aquinas said, remember? Barth argued that God is truly revealed in the person of Christ, and for us the key place of that revelation is scripture. According to Barth, while the Bible is not the objective word of God, it is nonetheless the instrument, the vehicle that God uses to cause us to have an encounter with Christ in it’s pages.
Kant. Immanuel Kant is a profound force in the history of philosophy. But, while much of philosophy and theology is still effect by his thought, we can only briefly run through his contribution to the faith/reason discussion.
Kant read the writings of David Hume and said that it woke him up from his “dogmatic slumbers.” He answered Hume by, in effect, saying that Hume was right. We don’t sense causation, nor do we sense the uniformity of nature. We don’t find these unifying principles in the world; instead we bring these assumptions to the world. By saying this, he turns Plato on his head. Instead of the forms being “up and out there” somewhere, they are in down here, supplied by our mind. Again, borrowing from Ronald Nash, think of our minds as the jelly jar that gives the jelly shape. Outside of the jar, the jelly would have no such shape. This means that everything we know comes from the conceptual categories of our mind, such as time, shape, space, causation, succession, etc.
According to Kant, everything we see is mediated, filtered by these structures. The implication of this is that we do not know, and in fact can never know, the world as it truly is. Kant calls the world as it appears to us the ‘phenomenal’ realm. The world as it is in itself, the unknowable world, is the ‘noumenal’ realm. God, according to Kant, if He exists, would be in the noumenal realm, unknowable to us.
David Hume. David Hume was an empiricist. This means that he believed that certain knowledge can only be attained through sensory experience. So he set out to discover exactly what can the senses tell us about reality. We do not have sense experience of structure or unity. We categorize and organize our sense data by using principles such as causation and induction
Causation. We reason from cause to effect. When playing Pool, with but a swing of a stick we see a ball move, make contact with another ball, and then we see the other ball move. Immediately we interpret what we saw as one ball “causing” the other ball to move. Strictly speaking, what we actually saw was a succession of events. One thing happens and then another. Causation is a principle of organization that we intuitively use to make sense of what we saw, but causation, in and of itself, is not perceived by the senses. Why? Because causation is not a “thing” open to be tested by our five sense.
Induction. Not just science, but much of human knowledge relies on inductive reasoning. Besides what I mentioned before, induction relies on the belief that the past informs us of the future. The sun set yesterday at such and such time, so it will set tomorrow at such and such time. How do we know that? Nobody has ever had a sense experience of the future. I know what you are thinking, ‘We know this, because it has happened in the past’. But that is assuming that the past can tell you about the future. You would be assuming that which you are trying to prove, and that’s called begging the question, a logical no-no.
The is/Ought fallacy. The Is/Ought fallacy deals with morality. Can sense experience alone lead us to ethical judgments and values? How do we go from what is the case (the “is”) to what ought to be the case (a moral obligation)? We cannot derive moral obligation from mere observation. There has to be a law outside of us that we all are obligated to obey. If that is not the case, then moral values reduce to mere personal preference. “Murder is wrong” is becomes as morally significant as “I like chocolate.” The Marquis de Sade loved to torture women, I don’t. If sense experience is only way to truth, what makes him wrong, and I right? David pointed out this error in think, and it’s a great logical tool to keep in your back pocket.
The Enlightenment. Skipping now hundreds of years, we now turn to another revolutionary movement in the history of thought. Yet, in a strange way, this new movement that wasn’t too different from the old one, which lead to the birth of western philosophy. it was known as The Age of Reason; Man escapes from the darkness of submission to religious dogma and steps into the light of learning, studying, and experimentation according to the dictates of autonomous Reason (again, note the capital R). Autonomous reasoning is human reasoning that believes that it the ultimate standard of what is true and false, right and wrong, without having to consult an outside referent (such as God).
The Age of Reason is also referred to as the Enlightenment. Out of the intellectual darkness of the middle ages (which weren’t exactly dark at all, with such brilliant minds as Anselm, Boethius, and Ockham), these thinkers sought to break free from all authority structures such as: the Church, Tradition, and Nationalism. Autonomous reasoning, free from these controlling structures, must be its own Judge, its own Master. Followers of Enlightenment thinking believed that this autonomy of Reason could lead us unto perfect knowledge in not only the sciences, but in all areas of life. They applied the method of the physical science (biology, mathematics, etc)to the study of the social science (sociology, politics, religion, etc). In effect, whether they consciously meant to or not, they aspired to the knowledge of God himself.
Philosophical Modernism. In time, the Enlightenment ushered in what has come to be known as Modernism. We are not talking about architectural modernism, or literary
modernism, etc. We are discussing Modernism, the worldview. It is characterized by overconfidence in reason and science. It does not take religion and the idea of a supernatural realm seriously at all. Two subdivisions of Modernism are: Scientism and Naturalism. Scientism is view that only those things that can be tested by the methods of science and be proven by the methods of science are capable of being true. Now this very principle cannot be proven by the methods of science, so therefore according to its own standard it is not true. Science is dependant on induction. Induction is the principle that we can arrive at generalized conclusions from the observance of specific instances. A faulty example of induction is:
Repeated observation: all geese I’ve ever seen are white
Inductive [faulty] conclusion: all geese are white.
Here’s an example that we believe holds true:
Repeated observation: everything I throw up comes back down
Inductive conclusion: what goes up must come down. (for more on induction, click here)
Science also assumes that its findings have universal validity. That whatever it “proves” is true for all, not just for group B. These assumptions cannot be proven by science itself, but must be assumed for science to have any legitimacy. These necessary assumptions are the philosophical underpinnings of science, that which holds it together. These are held by faith.
Here I borrow Ronald Nash’s notion of a box to understand naturalism. Nature is the box and everything in it has to be explainable by something else in the box. This leads to determinism, the theory that all observable events have fixed natural causes. A consequence is that all of our emotions, hopes, desires, and thoughts would be completely explained by chemical and physiological causes. The boomerang effect of this is that it serves to sabotage the very reasoning that came up with this theory in the first place. According to determinism, I’m not a naturalist because I reasoned my way to this position, I actually had no choice. Chemical collisions in my brain made it so that I had to say this….and this….and this….
Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas held that faith and reason are separate and distinct, but that both have a place in leading us to knowledge. His position was that reason, apart from God’s word, could lead us to knowledge of God. Reason, unaided by faith, can prove, according to Thomas, the existence of God. This is called Natural Theology (NT). NT posits that there is much we can know about God by merely analyzing the world and nature. This is because nature is God’s creation and therefore would reveal some of his divine qualities. Aquinas does believe that there are things that NT cannot uncover, such as the Biblically teaching that God is a Trinity and creation out of nothing (ex nihilo), which means that the world was created out of nothing. These truths cannot be ascertained by what reasoning can discover from nature. These can only be believed by faith in Scripture.
Thus, on Aquinas’s view, in order to be considered “reasonable” one does not need to accept the teaching of the Bible (i.e. express faith in the Bible). Someone is perfectly okay within the realm of “reason” when is comes to “natural” (as opposed to “spiritual”) things. So, while Augustine believes that faith precedes understanding (giving faith the priority), Aquinas privileges Reason (note the capital R).
After the spread of Christianity, many thinkers debated on how God could be known. Exactly, how does man make contact with God? Is He known solely through faith or can man’s rationality lead us to knowledge of God?
Augustine, one of the most important and influential Christian thinkers in history, believed that faith was instrumental in finding truth. Only by first believing can one ever start to truly understand God and his creation. Both he and Anselm of Canterbury, (who though born 600 years after Augustine, was very much influenced by his thought), held that it is faith in God that makes understanding possible. Once illuminated by faith, reason can now correct misunderstandings, such as misinterpretations of scripture. We need Scripture to guide our reasoning, because man is inclined to rebel and deny his Creator. This inclination comes from sin. And sin affects every aspect of our reasoning. The ethical is set against the metaphysical. By “metaphysical” I mean ultimate reality. By rebelling and refusing to submit to the God of Scripture, we do not see the world and ourselves as we truly are: created by God.
Upon review, Plato and Aristotle, while more sophisticated then the pre-Socratics, were in fact trying to do the same thing. And what was that? They both tried to come up with an all important principle that unites elements of reality. This principle would provide the basis for categories that we use to make sense of individual things. They were doing this through reasoning; in order to start they had to assume that reality was a certain way. Plato assumed the existence of the Forms (Question: if forms were perfect is there a form of filth?). If you need the Forms to make sense of everything else, how can you prove the existence of the Forms? Aristotle assumed the existence of matter, but matter has no qualities apart from Form. So the question becomes, what is Form a form of? Matter, strictly speaking is nothing (no-thing) according to Aristotle.
Their unifying principles proved to be no more effective then the Pre-Socrates’ “all is…” It is important to keep in mind that their arguments were based on assumptions/foundational beliefs that were not proven but rather served as standards that were used to prove everything else. Plato believed in the Forms, the same way that Aristotle believed in the unmoved mover, through blind faith.
Though it’s probably crazy to do this if we’re discussing the history of philosophy, for the purposes of keeping within boundaries of this presentation we’re going to skip over Socrates, who is an eminent figure in the history of philosophy, notwithstanding. We are going to go directly to two thinkers that understood what the Pre-Socratics were trying to do. These two philosophers took it up a notch: Plato, student of Socrates, and then Aristotle who was a student of Plato.
Plato. According to Plato, the underlying unity that is necessary to make sense of things is not found in the world, i.e. in the world of sensory experience, what we can feel, eye, touch, taste, and hear. Senses can deceive us. In effect Plato split reality into two worlds; the world of the “forms” and the world of sense experience. The forms are perfect and without flaw; immaterial, you can’t touch, smell, hear, or taste them. They can only be grasped by the mind. They are changeless, stable so therefore all can be understood by reference to them. They act as the eternal, unchanging blueprints or receipt for all thing in the material, whether physical (like trees or dogs), or abstract qualities (like goodness, justice, redness, etc.). When things are similar, it is because they derive from the same form. The perceptual world consists of imperfect copies of the forms. Imperfect, so that they are not exactly the same as one another, but the similarity is based on the form that they are defective copies of.
Here’s a quick example: According to Plato’s doctrine of the the “forms” there exists in the eternal world a form of “treeness.” This form possesses all the necessary qualities that make a tree a tree. Every single tree down here in the physical world is patterned after this form of treeness. Down here, all tree are but imperfect copies of the form, and that’s why no two trees are exactly alike here in our world. Things in the perceptual world are perishable, because of their imperfection and changeability.
Aristotle. Aristotle does away with the platonic idea of the Forms. They are too other worldly for him. Forms, for Aristotle, are not found in a separate world, it is rather an element of a thing in the world. The form is not “out there” but instead, the form is found “in the thing” itself. Now he sees things in the world, through the category of substance. A substance is an individual thing, a person, chair, etc. These things, these substances, are a combination of form and matter. Form is what a thing is, the whatness of a thing. Matter, is what it is made of, the thisness, that which makes it this particular thing. Brad Pitt and I share the same form, the form of man. Matter is what makes him that particular man (a much better looking man).
According to Aristotle, only the unmoved mover (Aristotle’s deistic god) is pure form without matter. It is the one exception to his rule. The unmoved mover is not influenced by anything in the world, yet it is what causes all motion, all change. The unmoved mover is the final answer to that ever so popular question, with not only kids but also with adults, “what caused this to happen?” A is explained by B, B by C, you eventually get to the unmoved mover and nothing caused it to happen. Unmoved mover is an abstract entity not a person; it does not have personality characteristics.
The birth of the discipline known as philosophy resulted in the utter rejection of mythology as an explanation for the world of our experience. Many of the ancient philosophers did not want to outright proclaim their disbelief in the Olympic/Greek gods, because they didn’t want to offend the people. More importantly they didn’t want to get in trouble with the governments that used mythology and superstition to keep the people in check (an oversimplification, but nonetheless true).
First philosophers were called the Pre-Socratics. They asked some pretty important questions like: (1) where does everything come from? (2) What is reality made of? (3) How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
So they were trying to find an underlying/foundational unity that would enable us to make sense of all the particular/individual elements of reality as we know it. While they came up with fails to impress us: all is water (Thales), all is fire (Heraclitus), etc, what strikes us as worthwhile in the long run are: (1) their questions. It is these questions that early on set the direction of philosophy and (2) their strong belief that must be a unifying principle, some unity, to provide categories that are necessary to identify any particular thing. (Categories that actually tell us about the world and are not merely constructs. We’ll talk more about this in upcoming posts).
We begin our little survey by going back to ancient Greece where the start of western philosophy began. Western philosophy places a great emphasis on rationality, coherence and makes a strident effort to abide by the laws of logic. It claims to frown on beliefs based on feelings alone. Some of the laws of logic would be:
A) The law of non-contradiction- Something cannot be both A and non-A (it’s negation) at the same time and in the same respect.
B) The law of identity- A is A
C) The Law of the excluded middle: A is either A or it is not A, it cannot be both.
Approx. 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, a movement arose whose purpose was to develop an understanding of the world that didn’t depend on the ancient pagan religions. The members of this movement sought to interpret what was around them without reference to a Mind that was above and beyond them. They were called “philosophers”; that’s Greek for ‘Lovers of Wisdom’. The early Greek philosophers were quite diverse and held various views but there were common features to their thought. Those features are:
1) The supremacy of human reason (rationality). The human intellect is fully able, under perfect conditions, to construct a true-to-life system that properly interprets and explains all of life (i.e. an all encompassing and fully developed worldview). The chief failing of humankind is not moral (i.e. sin, or something like that), but epistemological and metaphysical (i.e. we’re finite and ignorant)
2) The acceptance of nothing on the sole basis of tradition. This develops are the first point above. Since humans are fit within themselves to understand reality, revelation or tradition isn’t needed in telling us where we came from or where we’re going. Stories can be true or false, but the facts of reality, so it was believed, are just that, facts.
Introductory marks for the upcoming series.
The following series is a look at the relationship between faith and reason and how their relation has been perceived throughout the history of philosophy. One thing you may notice is that people and schools of thought covered here are also covered elsewhere. Where this is the case, I’ll link to the other discussions. But what’s different here is that this series puts these thinkers and schools of thought [more] in their proper historical context. Once you understand what issues where driving their thought it can often aid in understanding why they believed the things they did.
This is a very general overview, so please don’t hold us to the standards of rigor that you’d find a published textbook. That being said, knowing major thinkers and how what they got either right or wrong aids in developing a sharper apologetic edge when speaking to unbelievers. Also, knowing the history of philosophy opens our eyes to seeing that so much of the weird, dangerous, and “latest” trends in unbelieving thought are more often that not old ways of thinking in new clothes.
For those of you who are interesting in beginning a study in philosopher, I pray that this series will both inform and edify you. The best intro to the history of western philosophy is Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy made Lighter, by Donald Palmer. His analysis and explanations are both clear an insightful, and his cartoons are funny and geared towards maintaining interest.
In closing, this series absolutely would not be possible without the assistance of my brother, David. Most of what you’ll find was originally written by him as an outline for a presentation that he once gave on this subject. Being that the original was in bullet-point format, I’ve expanded it and added brief explanations. Thus, this is a team effort.
John M. Frame has brilliantly formulated what I believe is an extraordinary biblical epistemology in his book, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (henceforth DKG). In this work Frame develops what he calls triperspectivalism, or multiperspectivalism (the truth is that if you can pronounce either of these terms properly, you’re halfway to mastery!). Now, what I’d like to do it walk my read through an explanation of what Frame is doing here, and why is helpful to the thought-life of a Christian.
In any and every act of knowing something we are in constant contact with three things, or as Frame calls them, three perspectives. These three perspectives are 1) the person doing the knowing (what we call the “knowing subject”), 2) the thing being known (i.e. the object of knowledge), and 3) the standard or criteria by which knowledge is attained. In knowing each of these we actually know the other two. Each are interrelated to the others in such a fashion that each could be seen as a perspective on the whole knowing process.
Here’s an example of how these perspectives are connected (though I realize that it probably raises further questions). Let’s take the example of me getting to know my nephew’s dog, Rusty. Perhaps I’ve come to the conclusion that Rusty is a short-haired dog. How does this talk of “perspectives” relate to this act of knowing? Well, first there’s the subject of knowledge, that’s me. Second, there’s the object of knowledge, that’s Rusty and his coat of fur. Third, there’s the standard that I use to evaluate whether Rusty’s hair is long or short. Of course, there’s also in play my knowledge of what does and doesn’t count as fur, etc.
Now let’s get to this all a bit further. (What follows is a revision and expansion of the original article I wrote on this subject for the Frame’s Mutiperspectivialism entry on wikipedia.)
The Normative Perspective (i.e. law or standards that govern thought and action). In all of our actions there is some standard that serves as a guides us, for example, in telling us what is proper to question, what actions should we pursue and avoid, what the universe is really like, and how we should seek out knowledge. The marketplace of ideas is full of systems that compete for our acceptance, longing to set themselves up as god over our hearts and minds. For some people final allegiance is due to sense experience (“Seeing is believing”), their emotions (“If it doesn’t move me, it isn’t real.”), or political allegiances (“I couldn’t believe in a system that is so hostile to individual free speech”), for others it is their particular religious tradition (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Ba’hai, etc) or secular philosophy (empiricism, rationalism, Marxism, etc.). Whatever serves as our final authority functions as our normative perspective.
Christians believe that God has verbally revealed Himself to mankind in Scripture, providing all the words from God that we need for life and godliness (cf. 2 Peter 1:3) God’s inspired word serves as the standard by which all truth claims are to be checked. God’s word dictates to us who He is, the true nature of the world around us, and who we as creatures are in relation to both Him and the world. As John Calvin has said, Scripture serves as the lenses through which we see everything. But even in knowing Scripture we know both the world, and ourselves and in knowing them both we come to know Scripture better.
The Situational Perspective (i.e. the object of knowledge). This perspective daws our attention to the facts of reality, i.e. the things our persons we are trying to know. With this perspective in mind, we should pay close attention to the details of history, science, and evidences for various beliefs. Yet science, history and the evidences are never to be interpreted in a fashion that ignores or sets aside the authoritative nature of the normative perspective. Remember, they’re all tied together.
Without an understanding of our world, we cannot understand or apply Scripture to our lives. An ethical example should help. The standard argument against abortion on demand is this:
1) Murder is a sin
2) Abortion on demand is murder
3) Therefore, Abortion on demand is a sin.
Point 1 provides us with the command of Scripture; it serves to provide us with a objective moral principal. But in order to arrive at point 3 we need to know whether or not abortion on demand is taking the life of an innocent unborn person. Coming to grips with the facts of abortion (the situational perspective) helps us to apply the command of God (the normative perspective). Our attention is drawn to the medical information on the nature of the unborn, the law of biogenesis, and the abortion procedure. Without this crucial information we could never know whether or not we where faithfully understanding God’s word as it applies to our lives.
The Existential Perspective (i.e. the knowing subject). This perspective draws our attention back to the person doing the knowing. As individuals, we bring our personal dispositions, temperaments, biases, presuppositions, and life experiences to every act of knowing. We ignore this crucial aspect of knowledge at the risk of constructing an unnatural, wooden, approach to knowing that is in conflict with the body-soul unity taught in Scripture. One of the nagging problems to epistemology is that when we’re trying to formulate a true-to-life approach to knowledge we are examining an action (“knowing”) that we perform almost every moment of our lives. While tacitly we perform these actions, putting then into carefully formulated propositions is quite tricky.
The approach that largely characterizes modernism is an epistemology that viewed the knowing enterprise as something hampered by human subjectivity in search of a sterile ”objective” mode of knowing. Frame notes that the search for a purely objective knowledge is not only impossible, but also idolatrous. He says,
Sometimes we dream fondly of a “purely objective” knowledge of God–a knowledge of God of freed from the limitations of our senses, minds, experiences, preparation, and so forth. But nothing of this sort is possible, and God does not demand that of us. Rather, He condescends to dwell in and with us, as in a temple. He identifies himself in and through our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. And that identification is clear; it is adequate for Christian certainty. A “purely objective” knowledge is precisely what we don’t want! Such knowledge would presuppose a denial of our creaturehood and thus a denial of God and of all truth. (DKG, 65)
The Integration of the perspectives. In order to appreciate the richness of the human knowing process we must see that every instance of knowing involves three perspectives. Esther Meek, following Frame closely, calls these perspectives ”the rules, the self, and the world.” (See her extremely helpful and fun book, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People) Emphasizing the existential perspective Meek states, ”Knowing is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality.” Viewed from the this perspective, knowing is the process of integration, where we focus on a pattern by and through the means of various clues, which she calls subsidiaries, in the world (i.e. the situational), our body-sense (the existential), and in our norms for thinking (the normative).
Much of the pattern-making process is hard to articulate, yet this more-than-words aspect of knowing cannot be ignored, for it is crucial in our common, everyday process of getting to know things and people. Through the integration process the clues now take on greater significance. No longer are they viewed as seemingly disconnected occurrences, but rather meaningful portions that make up a greater reality (Meek uses as a example a “magic eye” puzzle). Yet, in a very real sense the pattern or integration, once achieved, retroactively throws light on the subsidiaries that made it up. The particulars retain their meaningfulness, but one that is enhanced and transformed.
These patterns now shape us, because, ideally, they connect us with a reality independent of ourselves. We come to see the fullness of the pattern when it’s truth is lived in, habited, thus extending ourselves out into the world by means of it.
Hopefully in the near future I hope to expand on this a bit, pointing out what I think are the theological, and philosophical benefits to Frame’s approach.
All throughout the history of philosophy, especially in the early philosophers before Socrates (called “pre-socratics”), a debate over the ultimate nature of reality has gone on. The debate is over what can be said to be the skeleton key that unlocks the treasure chest of knowledge. Is the key the notion of unity or plurality? Many of the pre-socratics favored unity (the One over the Many). Different answers were proposed as to what provided that ultimate unity, Thales believed all was water, Heraclitus believed all was fire, while others came up with there own theories.
Others, like the atomists, held that the key to understanding reality was plurality. They denied that anything (other than the human mind) brought unity to the world. An example of this would be the ancient philosopher Democritus, who believed that everything was made up of atoms (what he thought of atoms is slightly different from what we know of them today). According to Democritus, everything we see around of is the result of these atoms (which are always in motion) banging around and becoming latched on to each other in various ways.
In historic Christianity, not only are rationalism and irrationalism avoided but also the war between monists (those who favors unity, or the “One”) and pluralists (those that favor plurality, or the “Many”), as well as the battle between epistemological rationalism and empiricism (the question what is the ultimate source of knowledge, abstract concepts or data gained by the 5 senses), is dissolved. Rationalists, such as Plato, have asserted that that which is the “most real thing” is the world of ideas. This world of ideas, or “forms,” as he called them, where more real than the physical objects we encounter everyday. This, Plato believed, was because the forms provided physical matter with the concepts or patterns after which they were to be made. For instance, a round object is the combination of base matter (wood, steel, clay, etc.) participating is the form of “roundness.” Therefore, according to Plato’s line of thought, the form of “roundness” is more important, more real, and more fundamental than the matter than round object is made from. Plato was wrestling with the One/Many problem, but favored unity over plurality.
Though few went as far as Plato in denouncing all physical knowledge as mere opinion, other rationalists, such as Descartes, believed that only ideas, or “pure reason” could furnish one with absolutely certain knowledge. Others denied the existence of such “forms”, such as Aristotle, John Locke, and David Hume, believe that the only true reality is the world of particulars, sensible objects. If something is not susceptible to observation or experience by the five senses then it simply cannot be an object of knowledge. (Note: Aristotle is the exception here, he didn’t deny the existence of “forms”, but did deny that they existed in another realm, apart from matter.)
Thus rationalists exalt generalities, categories, and abstracts over concrete realities. Empiricists exalt the sensible over and above the general, abstract, etc. But a danger lies on either side of this bridge. When one emphasizes the abstract categories of understanding over and above particulars the particular lose their individuality and uniqueness.
Let’s see how this works out in everyday life. if I wanted to know, say, my nephew’s dog, Rusty, what do I really need to know in order to really know him? According to those who emphasize unity, “forms” or abstract concepts, what I really need to know about Rusty is the “dogness” that he “participates” in. Why? Because how can we know Rusty the canine, without knowing the thing that he is (a “dog, an abstract concept). According to those who emphasize diversity and plurality, what I really need to know about Rusty are the features of his face, his weight, the shape of his legs, etc (i.e the particulars of this particular dog).
The problem with the first approach (placing all the weight in Unity) is that the further I abstract into Rusty into “Jack Russell Terrier” and further more to “dogness,”the further away I move from Rusty. In fact, if i abstract somuch that I’m thinking about the thing that unifies all breeds of dog, then I’m left with nothing, because there’s always going to be qualities that apply to a couple of breeds and not to others. Once I’m down to the lowest common denominator, I’m left with nothing distinctive to dogs. This approach doesn’t work.
The problem with the second approach (reducing Rusty down to particulars) is where do I stop? After all, Rusty is made up of ears, eyes, paws, fur, legs, a tail, colors, smells, etc. Do I really know Rusty is I “know” these aspects of him? But, these aspects of him are further broken up into smaller parts, like cells, atoms, protons, and neutrons, etc. The snag is that if I’m focusing all my energies to knowing these things, I miss Rusty. Rusty is the total combination of all these things and cannot be reduced to the parts he’s made up of.
Here’s an example of how one comes down on this issue plays out in real life. In political theory favoring the One leads to totalitarianism, where the goals of the state supersede the “rights” of the individual. According to Rousas John Rushdoony:
If the many, or plurality, best describes ultimate reality, then the unit cannot gain priority over the many; then the state, church, or society are subordinate to the will of the citizen, the believer, and the man in particular. If the one is ultimate, then individuals are sacrificed to the group. If the many be ultimate, the unity is sacrificed to the will of many, and anarchy prevails. (The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy. Fairfax: Thoburn Press, 1971, Pg. 2.)
Next we’ll look at the Christian response to this problem and see whether the Bible has anything to say about this (Hint: it does )