Category Archives: Philosophical Apologetics
In line with other recent response to agnosticism, unicorns, and atheism, I’d like to raise some questions about the approach to knowledge known as empiricism. Empiricism is a tradition which teaches that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. That is, if something is not, at least in principle, able to be tasted, touched, seen, heard, or smelled, then it does not count as a potential object of knowledge. This view of knowledge, the seeing-is-believing- approach, is fairly standard in a secularizing culture and so Christians should know a thing or two about how to respond to this claim.
So first we’ll discuss the claims and difficulties of empiricism. Then, I’ll argue, contrary to the intentions of the empiricist, empiricism can be a vital ally in apologetics, because, when consistently applied, it takes the empiricist to places they do not want to go.
Help from David Hume
The best way to understand empiricism is to learn a little about one who adhered to it with near-perfect consistency. The philosopher David Hume had a two-pronged approach to sifting through knowledge claims. Picking up what a tool of analysis from Leibniz, Hume’s “fork” (at the late Ronald Nash called it) for sifting truth claims is the “analytic/synthetic” distinction.. Analytic statements are relations of ideas, and to deny them necessarily leads to a contradiction (laws of logic, definitions such as “all bachelors are unmarried men”). These are usually what we think of as a priori truths (truths that known apart from sense experience). Hume’s (hereafter H) attack on analytic statements was that they are tautological, i.e. they add nothing new to knowledge. H believed that his rationalist philosophical counterparts (ex. continental rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) were building philosophical systems in mid-air, with nothing empirical to ground their flights of fancy.
Synthetic statements are those which can be empirically explored and verified. An example of such a statement would be “Molly’s dress is green.” How can we truly “know” that this statement is true? By checking it out, it must be subject to an empirical inquiry.
In light of H’s empiricist epistemology, he uses this fork to sort out all philosophical issues. Only synthetic statements lead to true knowledge. So, H asked of the traditional questions of philosophy, are the answers given merely in the realm of relations of ideas, i.e. analytical ? If so, then they are tautological and offer us no help. But since H only accepted as worthy of study and consideration beliefs based on verifiable experience by at least one of the five sense, he lapsed into his notorious skepticism.
Here is a list of things Hume doubted because they cannot be verified by appeals to the five senses:
- The existence of God. God is a spirit, so this should be obvious.
- A continuing self through time. When was the last time you experienced your “self”? Looking into a mirror won’t help, because all you see is a body, not the “self.”
- Causation. We never actually “see” a cause. We see one event followed by another, but we cannot experience in any way the necessity of the procession of events. In philosophical terms, we “see” a succession of events-ball A moves after ball B strikes it- not causation. Remember, H is being a consistent empiricist.
- The uniformity of nature. There is no empirical –and non question begging!- reason to believe that the future will be like the past. We have had no experience of the future, and hence cannot really be sure. An anti-toxin that cures today may poison tomorrow. Of course apart from the uniformity of nature science cannot proceed.
Of course the truth is that David Hume never said that the above mentioned things do not exist, or even that he himself didn’t believe in them. His point was to demonstrate that autonomous reason has no logical reason for believing these things. Again, his point was that empiricists cannot sufficiently ground the belief in anything in the above list given their commitment to an empiricist epistemology.
According to Hume, beliefs in the uniformity of nature and the necessary relationship between cause and effect are rather grounded in our psychological make-up, a “habit of the mind.” Thus, being that Hume rejected the rationality of belief in God, causality, a sustained “self”, etc, he attributed the belief in such things to the irrational aspect of humanity. Without, for instance, a Christian conception that God creates both the world around us and our minds to understand it (being created in His image), Hume had no assurance that the objects of our knowledge and our perceptions of them cohere.
Turning the Tables: The Apologetic Benefit of Radical Empiricism
In David Hume, many philosophers believed they were witnessing the end of philosophy. Immanuel Kant stated the it was Hume that arose him from his “dogmatic slumbers” and driving him to develop his own creative epistemology. Notwithstanding Kant’s evaluation, Hume’s radical empiricism is a great help to Christian apologetics. Hume pushes empiricism to its logical[ly absurd, yet consistent] limits.
Though Hume thoroughly discredited epistemological empiricism hundreds of years ago, most outspoken forms of atheism (ala Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) are “religiously” empiricist. Likewise the average “man on the street” unbeliever functions on the basis of a “seeing is believing” epistemology. When we encounter unbelievers with this framework we should always ask the same questions and hold them to the same level of consistency.
First is the issue of consistency. Ask the empiricist unbeliever to be absolutely consistent with their theory of knowledge. Politely question them on whether they believe in true and objective moral standards, justice, laws of rationality and mathematics, human dignity, beauty, and real cause-and-effect relations. Now, surely most will. Even those who see where you’re going and attempt to deny these things (by saying, for example, that they are merely social constructs) should be reminded that their everyday actions betray that they really do believe them.
Second, we need to ask revealing questions. Empiricism as a theory of knowledge and truth largely depends on materialism and naturalism (the belief that only the physical realm exists, only matter in motion coming together in strange ways). So, here are some questions to ask the empiricist:
- Have you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen a law of logic? (hereafter i’ll substitute “tasted, touched, heard, smelled, or seen” with “sensed”)
- Have you ever sensed a law of mathematics such as A2 +B2= C2?
- Have you ever sensed a number? (and here I don’t mean a numeric inscription such as 1 or I, 2 or II, but the number itself)
- Have you ever sensed “human dignity”?
- Have you ever sensed caused and effect? (I don’t mean succession-I covered in the first post-I mean causation)
- Have you ever sensed the chief empiricist principle, “all knowledge comes from sense experience”?
By asking such kinds of questions, you’re simply asking the empiricist to be consistent with their principle that all knowledge comes from the five senses. After all, the answer to all the questions above is a resounding No. The naturalist worldview denies a basis for affirming these things and hence cheats when it tried to “borrows” these concepts for it’s anti-God project. And if the empiricist approach doesn’t even provide a sound basis for it’s chief principle (the last question above), then it disqualifies itself as a serious theory of knowledge and challenge to Christianity.
Now, naturally the Christian rejects the principle of empiricism, though we do not deny the need in many cases to be empirical regarding study, research, science, etc. (cf. 1 John 1:1).
There are really only two worldviews. John Frame helps us see the contrast:
If the world is basically impersonal, it is a pretty dark, dreary, and hopeless place. Happiness, justice, love, beauty might spring up for a while, but they are cosmic accidents of no ultimate importance. Finally they will be consumed in various cosmic explosions, and nothing will remain to remember them. Ultimately they are meaningless. If the world is basically personal, the situation is different: personal values like happiness, justice, love, and beauty are wrapped up in the very core of the universe. They are what nature and history is all about. In time, it will be the matter of the world that will be burned up, to be replaced by a new heaven and earth wherein dwells righteousness.
Contrast this with the view of highly regarded atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins. . . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” Why I Am Not a Christian, ed. Paul Edwards)
This leaves us with a choice to make.
So: is the world basically personal, or basically impersonal? One would think that either hypothesis is at least worth considering at the outset of the discussion. But do the secularists give equal attention to both? Do they consider equally the evidence for both? My sense of it is that they routinely assume that the universe is impersonal, and they do not give any serious consideration to the other possibility. Consider Darwinian evolution, Marxist economics, Freudian psychology. Did Darwin, Marx, or Freud consider the evidence for the existence of God and conclude objectively that God did not exist? Certainly not. They assumed that God did not exist, and they went on from there to develop impersonalist explanations of life, history, economics.
Why? Because impersonalism and autonomy go together. If God exists, then autonomy is at an end; we must bow the knees of the mind. But if God doesn’t exist, then we are on our own, free. We can set our own standards, believe what we want to believe. So to assume autonomy, the secularist also assumes an impersonal universe. (John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God,)
For more see:
Christian apologetics aims at a defense of Christianity against oncoming attacks on all fronts. So there’s the field of historical apologetics, scientific apologetics, counter-cult apologetics, philosophical apologetics, and so on. The brilliance of the apologetic approach known as presuppositionalism (also known as covenantal apologetics) is that it aims at the foundations of unbelief. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the flexibility of the term presupposition. So here I’ll used the term ‘transcendental.’ Cornelius Van Til and his apologetic disciples advocate a transcendental approach to defending Christianity. But what do Van Tillians mean by this often-confusing language?
Van Til defines a transcendental argument as one that “takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.” According to the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Transcendental reasoning [focuses] on necessary enabling conditions either of coherent experience or the possession or employment of some kind of knowledge or cognitive ability, where the opponent is not in a position to question the fact of this experience [or] knowledge… and where the revealed preconditions include what the opponent questions.” (see the entry on “Transcendental arguments,”). According to presuppositionalism, the existence of God is the necessary “enabling condition” for coherent experience. The job of the presuppositionalist is to make the case that the “revealed preconditions” of discourse include what the anti-theist questions, namely the existence of God.
The basic argument. Contrary to the claims of some, Van Til’s approach to apologetics isn’t allergic to presenting positive evidence in favor of its theistic claim (i.e. the God of the Bible exists). I would argue that a transcendental argument is indeed a form of positive apologetics.
Here’s transcendental claim:
1. If God doesn’t exist, then there are no objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc.]
2. There are objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc]
3. Therefore, God exists.
This is a straightforward version of the argument. If the argument is both valid (constructed correctly) and sound (the premises are true) then the conclusion follows without fail. In fact, given the content of the claim (Logic presupposes the existence of God), if the conclusion is vindicated it turns out that it was possible because of the sustaining activity of God!
Van Til himself advocated a kind of two-step approach:
That means that the apologist is required to place himself on his opponent’s position, assuming its correctness for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position “facts” and “laws” have no meaning. Conversely, the non-Christian will be asked to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order to show that only upon the Christian basis are “facts” and “laws” intelligible. Van Til’s aim is to challenge the knowledge of God that the natural man has but suppresses. (quoted from Wesley A. Roberts, “Cornelius Van Til,” Reformed Theology in America, ed. David F. Wells, 183)
The point is that there are certain things the (average) non-Christian affirms. These things (epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc) are foundational to his thought and behavior. There’s no escaping them because they’re woven in the fabric of who we are as creatures of God living in his creation. The presuppositionalist is called to unmask the shocking truth that they cannot meaningful hold to these beliefs and also deny the existence of God. If you lose the foundation the building comes crashing down. An atheist no less than Nietzsche acknowledged this.
The attentive reader will note that in subsequent entries to this series this is what I’ll be doing, though not in a mechanic way. There is no establishing the truth of my position without also demonstrating the failure of its opposition.
For those interested, here’s my article, “Between Scylla and Charybdis: Presuppositionalism, Circular Reasoning, and the Charge of Fideism” (Originally presented at the 2009 annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society).
Perhaps the single most common argument against a presuppositional apologetic methodology is the charge of fideism. One doesn’t have to look far in the relevant literature to find Van Tillian methodology dismissed or said to hold to a position that undermines the task of Christian apologetics. Though the term “fideism” is being rehabilitated in some circles, it is still widely understood as a dogmatic proclamation of one’s view irrespective of rational argumentation. Nothing, it is believed, seems to demonstrate the fideism of the presuppositional method as well as their rejection of linear argumentation. Van Tillians are said to embrace, as a fundamental rule of their approach, circular reasoning.
The aim of this essay is twofold. First, I will show that the charge of fideism against Van Tillian presuppositionalism is both imprecise and inaccurate. This will be done by showing that while some definitions of faith and reason are incompatible, others are not. Second, we will examine the charge of presuppositionalism’s alleged embrace of begging the question. This will be done by distinguishing between vicious and virtuous circularity, arguing that presuppositionalists embrace the latter, but eschew the former as strongly as their critics.
It’s also posted on the resources page. I’d love your comments and feedback.
Here’s the conclusion to my article, ‘Perspectives on Multiperspectivalism, in the work written in honor of John Frame, Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009). Maybe it will get a few people interested in reading the whole thing:
In the first part of this article I have introduced John Frame’s perspectival methodology. I have also clarified what multiperspectivalism is not. It is not relativism, doesn’t reduce all differences to one of perspective, it isn’t inconsistent with an affirmation of sola Scriptura, and is not an unbiblical construct. By addressing these misunderstandings I have hoped to have shed light on the issues between perspectivalists and non-perspectivalists.
In the second section I have sketched out the benefits of a perspectival engagement with postmodernism. Positively, postmodernism has rocked the foundations of Enlightenment faith in autonomous reason, reevaluated language and social discourse, emphasized presuppositions, and attacked modernist individualism. Despite its severe imbalances, this is a needed redirection after the last few centuries. Nevertheless unqualified approval cannot be given to postmodernism. As previously noted, common grace is active in every era, but so is the principal of antithesis. While relativism is not something distinct to postmodernism-lest we forget the ancient sophists- never before has there been such a dominant and widespread ethos supporting and nourishing relativism in a variety of flavors.
But we can say both yes and no to postmodernism. I have organized a number of postmodern concerns by perspectival emphasis. Lyotard’s discussion of metanarratives launches a powerful attack against the myth of neutrality. Jesus made the same point when he declared that no one can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24) Derrida aims to highlight that interpretation is never final, is never adaequatio intelletus ad rei (i.e., the perfect adequation between intellect and substance). Paul said this two millennia ago when he wrote that “we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) Postmodern insights may serve as excellent illustrations and reminders of what God has already told us in his word. Between Van Til’s example of a bilingual presentation of biblical content and Frame’s methodology, perspectivalists are in an excellent position to speak the truth in love to postmoderns.
Here J. P. Moreland gives us a short and helpful introduction to epistemology (the theory of what we know and how we know it).
We now continue with our survey of the key concepts in the thought of Cornelius Van Til.
Reality and revelation. Because this universe is the creation of the all-wise God of Scripture, everything in it bears eloquent testimony to his character and wisdom. Truly, the “heavens are telling of the glory of God.” God is not known simply at the end of a syllogism. Every fact of the universe directs us back to its source. Van Til speaks of reality in this fashion:
Created reality may be compared to a great estate. The owner has his name plainly and indelibly written at unavoidable places. How then would it be possible for some stranger to enter the estate, make researches in it, and then fairly say that in these researches he need not and cannot be confronted with the question of ownership? To change the figure, compare the facts of nature and history, the facts with which the sciences are concerned, to a linoleum that has its figure indelibly imprinted. The pattern of such a linoleum cannot be effaced till the linoleum itself is worn away. Thus inescapably does the scientist meet the pattern of Christian theism in each fact with which he deals.
God’s interpretation of reality fixes the ontological structure of the universe. All of it is fully known and ever-present to God’s awareness. Just as in Genesis God speaks to the waters and tells them “you can go no further,” so His determination of creation fixes any ontological free-play. In all of this, man is not ignorant, for God’s wisdom, divine nature, and sovereignty over times and seasons are made known to him.
Man’s epistemological responsibility. Flowing from his teaching on the self-contained nature of God and the semiotic structure of reality is Van Til’s position on human nature and our epistemic responsibilities that follow. While Van Til affirms the biblical record that our first parents were created imago Dei, he moves beyond simply affirming the indicative aspect of this design, and focuses in closely on its imperative dimension. Man’s thought is a replica of God’s thought, but it is a finite image, insufficient to function as its own self-attesting authority. Adam, even in paradise, needed to make the voice of his creator the canon for his interpretive life.
Van Til’s two-circle epistemology. God’s analytical knowledge is self-attesting and acts as the objective structure of reality. This is God’s authoritative interpretation of creation (I’ll call this AI1). God’s interpretation of reality is unique to Him because only he comprehends all the facts and their relations. Nevertheless, man can have true knowledge. This knowledge is attained by creatures that submit to His revelation and “think God’s thoughts after Him.” Such servant-knowledge is pro mensura humana, knowledge fit for a creature, or what Van Til called analogical interpretation (AI2). On the lower circle, AI2 is spoken of as creaturely reconstruction of God’s original interpretation. Thus, the world is not a tabula rasa, a blank tablet whose meaning is ultimately deciphered by man.
Because so much of what is said on this blog is undergirded and rooted in the thought of Cornelius Van Til, I thought it would be a good time to finally give my readers a more formal introduction to his contribution to both Christian theology and apologetics/worldview studies. These entries will be a bit longer than my usual posts, so please bear with me.
Dr. Van Til (1895-1987) was Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Seminary from 1929 to 1972. Raised squarely in the Reformed tradition, Van Til cut his theological teeth on the Three Forms of Unity. Much of his approach to both theology and apologetics was greatly shaped by several leading Reformed theologians, from the Dutch wing of Reformed thought, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and Abraham Kuyper, and from the Princtonian American tradition, B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge. Though he differed from them at crucial points, his approach was essentially an outworking of what he believed were their most penetrating insights. He sought to correct what he believed to be their inconsistencies and follow the path they pointed out but never quite walked. For instance, Van Til’s critiques Warfield’s approach to apologetics often noted that Warfield wasn’t consistent with his biblical anthropology.
Several key themes, or master motifs, dominate Van Til’s thought. If one can master these central concepts, much of his work will open up with greater ease. For the purposes of this series, I have selected only a few of these themes. Here we’ll examine Van Til’s (VT) teaching concerning the nature of God, his doctrine of creation and providence, and his biblical anthropology (with it’s corollary regarding the function of Scripture).
God, the all-sufficient. For Van Til, a genuinely Christian philosophy must first properly hammer out its doctrine of God. If this essential task fails, all else is doomed. The chief principle in VT’s doctrine of God is what Frame calls “God’s self-contained fullness.” In rooting all things in God, VT, following Scripture, stresses God’s independence from anything in His creation. In VT’s words,
Basic to all the doctrines of Christian theism is that of the self-contained God, or, if we wish, that of the ontological Trinity. (The Defense of the Faith [Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975], 100.)
A truly Christian philosophy should, it seems to us, begin with the notion of God as self-contained.” “We must take the notion of the self-contained, self-sufficient God as the most basic notion of all our interpretative efforts. (Christianity and Idealism [Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955], 85)
A truly Christian philosophy should, it seems to us, begin with the notion of God as self-contained. (Ibid., 88.)
In fact, VT finds that this concept of a completely self-sufficient God, one in need of nothing to define either His character or attributes, is completely original to Christianity. He states, “There is no speculative system that entertains the idea of such a self-contained God. It is only the Scriptures which teach us about this God.” (The Triumph of Grace [no publication data, 1958], 28)
God’s plurality does not depend any contrast between Him and creation, for within the Trinity, the persons of the godhead are clearly distinct from one another. Thus, unity and plurality exist in God, without the need of creation to introduce this distinction. Neither is God’s goodness anything that He is dependant upon outside of his own nature.
All of this though, ties in quite consistently with Van Til’s two-circle metaphysic. According to Frame:
Over and over again in class he would draw two circles on the blackboard: a large circle representing God and a smaller circle below it representing the creation. The two were connected by lines representing providence and revelation, but Van Til emphasized the distinctness of the two circles from one another. He insisted that Christianity has a “two-circle” worldview, as opposed to secular thought, which only has “one circle” thinking. Nonbiblical thought makes all reality equal: if there is a God, he is equal to the world. But for Christianity, God is the sovereign Creator and Lord: The world is in no sense equal to him. This is, in essence, the “simple structure” of Van Til’s thought. (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 53)
Nearly every additional point in Van Til’s system is an outworking of this crucial distinction, if you get this you’re half way to understanding Van Til.
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.
Now, in wrapping up our discussion on the One/Many problem from a theological point of view (precious posts have focused on the philosophical dimensions).
Review. The Christian solution to the One/Many problem makes one very important point: Only the Christian trinitarian understanding of God provides us with a good reason for accepting truths discovered by both reason (i.e. here I’m talking specifically about universals) and beliefs acquired by our five sense (particulars). Thus the Christian understanding of God solves a basic metaphysical and epistemological problem. There simply aren’t any other contenders.
How is this point made theologically? A simple, unitarian understanding of God (i.e. the belief that God is one Being, as well as only one person) makes the display of His attributes dependent on His creation, i.e. God cannot be “loving” until after he creates the world. Only then would he be able to “actualize” his love. Contrast this with the Christian position of Intra-trinitarian love, the love that the three persons of Godhead have for one another. This demonstrates the unitarian understanding of the God does not provide us with a self-sufficient God, denying His aseity. A god that is not completely self-sufficient cannot act as the final anchor for all things (as Scripture clearly states he does).
Moreover, and more pragmatically, if the preconditions for rationality are provided to us from the whole of Scripture, both OT and NT, then we should see what all of Scripture says about God, demonstrating from Scripture that God is Triune, using the historical proof-texts and exegesis for trinitarian belief. Van Til was right in saying, “In fact it then appears that the argument for the Scriptures as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God.”
So, while this isn’t an easy issue to master, the benefits of trinitarian belief serve as a powerful reason for why Christianity, and not traditional Judaism or Islam, gives us a worldview that makes life meaningful.
Picking up where we left off, the problem of the One and the Many has also been known as the struggle between realism and nominalism. Realists sees universal categories (something similiar to Plato’s forms) as truly possessing an objective existence. Nominalists, on the other hand, believe that universals are merely the titles we give groups of things by mentally abstracting the similarities between various things (like “redness” from our observation of a fire truck, an apple, the sight of blood, etc.). Usually realists are rationalists and nominalists are empiricists.
Our own living experience tells us that both universals and particulars are needed in order to make sense out of life. Examples could be endlessly multiplied, but for the sake of space one will have to do. The classic example in teaching students of logic what a deductive argument is this:
- All men are mortal
- Socrates is a man
- Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Both universal categories as well as empirical particulars are needed in order for this syllogism to make sense. When we look at the first premise we ask, What is a “man?” Socrates is an example of a man. But Socrates, understood by himself, severed from the category of “manness” does not make sense. What is this creature (another universal!) that stands before me? Without a class in which to place this creature called “Socrates,” I have no way of understanding him. Universals are needed. Yet, if I so exalt the form of man so that is refers to no individual men I lose the individuality of Socrates and destroy his personhood and uniqueness. The higher we go into the realm of categories and forms, the less and less we are speaking about actual, concrete, tangible realities (as in the case of Rusty).
The Christian Answer. So, how do we avoid these pitfalls? Though many philosophers no longer discuss these issues (explicitly, at least), their answers are assumed in all of our everyday endeavors. The Christian vision of life, as derived from the Bible, provides the answer that neither any secular philosophy nor any religious system can. Scripture presents us with a framework within both universals and their particular instantiations are kept significant and intelligible. Cornelius Van Til finds the solution in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
How is this? The Triune God is both one and many, and neither unity or plurality is more important, basic, or fundamental that the other. So the farthest thing back, the really real, God, grounds and gives worth to both unity and plurality. Van Til States:
Using the language of the One-and-Many question we contend that in God the one and many are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity in God is no more fundamental than unity. The persons of the Trinity are mutually exhaustive to one another. The Son and the Spirit are ontologically [i.e. in their very nature] on par with the Father. (The Defense of the Faith)
God, the one and many, creates a world with both general concepts (providing unity) and many specifics that participate in those concepts (providing rich diversity). So God has a idea of what characteristics according to which he will create all dogs (“dogness”) and he also creates each individual breed of dog (pugs) and each individual dog (“Winston”).
Thus, the Christian understanding of God solves, and indeed makes understandable at profound level, how it is that we can make sense of the world. Plurality is not absorbed into unity, and unity is not lost among plurality. God, the eternal One and Many created and formed the temporal one and many (the universe). This solves the “metaphysical” and “ontological” issues raised by the One/many problem. But, we also realized that this One and Many God has created, organized, and ordained everything that happens in this world (as mysterious as that may be), and provides the unity behind the plurality of the historical One and Many (the One being the ultimate goal and purpose of creation, the Many being the various “chapters” of history leading us there).
Here’s a helpful chart that makes this a bit more understandable.
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 🙂 )
A brief example of the rationalist/irrationalist principle can be illustrated from the history of philosophy. The epistemology of Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804) taught that the concepts the are necessary for our understanding the world around us, such as causality, laws of logic, time, space, and order, are structured by our minds and imposed upon the things we experience. In order to be rational and make sense out of life we must assume, or presuppose, these notions. Because we cannot prove these categories by touch, smell, sight, etc. they must be thought of as created by, and arising from, our minds, thus ordering and providing the standard for those things that we can empirically verify. This lead Kant to conclude that if we are to think of anything at all we must think in terms of everything being caused by something logically and temporary prior to it. This lead to a fairly deterministic view of mankind (man’s actions are strictly the result of prior conditioning, by both nature and nurture).
But what becomes of personal freedom, and moral responsibility? Kant believed that while we could not prove that man was a responsible moral agent we must nevertheless act as though this were the case. Philosophers have described these as Kant’s two worlds, the world of nature (which leads to determinism), and the world of freedom (where responsibility is found). Kant spoke of the “starry skies above” and the “moral law within.” While Kant could not deny the splendid regularity of the natural world and the reality of humanity’s “moral motions,” his philosophy could not bring these two worlds together. With no rational justification, Kant made the “upper story leap” to irrationalism.
Thus in Immanuel Kant we find both rationalism, and irrationalism.
Likewise, every non-Christian system contains what Jacques Derrida calls “alterity”, i.e. their own system contains the very principles for its downfall. They all “auto-deconstruct.” Esther Meek notes that much of the history of western philosophy can be described as the path from skepticism to “certainty” back to skepticism. The history of secular philosophy, up to this present day, is the story of man’s downward spiral
from epistemological presumption to chaotic relativism.
The Enlightenment project, which started with thinkers such as Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), begun from a theistic basis. Descartes considered himself a Christian and, in principle, sought not to undermine the faith he held. Yet, because his philosophical method began with the human mind as completely sufficient to determine the nature of the “really real,” later generations abandoned the idea that belief in the Biblical God was necessary for understanding reality. Soon enough rationalistic deism was born.
As the downward spiral of western philosophy continued, rationalistic deism gave way to pessimistic nihilism, followed by rebellious existentialism, eventually leading to relativistic postmodernism . Thus, non-Christian thought, when consistent with its own principles leads only to deeper and deeper levels of hopelessness and despair.
A powerful tool for apologetics is the awareness that all non-Christian thought can be categorized by the tug-of-war between rationalism and irrationalism. For our present purposes, we’ll define rationalism as any attempt to establish the fallen human mind as the ultimate standard of truth. This establishing of the intellect as a law unto itself is done when non-Christians reject God’s testimony to Himself in both nature and Scripture. A rationalist, in this sense, states that the human mind is able to fully and exhaustively explain reality. (I continue to qualify what I mean by rationalism here in order to avoid confusion with rationalism, the epistemological school of thought)
Non-Christian thought also is characterized by irrationalism. How is this the case? Because inevitably the finite and fallen human mind cannot fully capture all of reality into a man-made system. At the point in which the non-Christian rationalist realizes that they cannot account for everything (i.e. makes sense of everything within his worldview), they engage in what Francis Schaeffer called an “upper story leap.” An “upper story leap” is when someone arbitrarily appeals to something that their worldview cannot makes sense of by simple appeals to “the facts” of their worldview. The have to do this because they live in God’s world can thus cannot help but affirm certain things. We can’t escape our design
Next we’ll take a look at one example and conclude…
Michael Butler is one of the finest Christian apologists in the presuppositionalist school of thought. On his blog, he has posted some really great articles that develop some of the material one can find here.
2. The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence (Philosophical Apologetics)
3. A Truly Reformed Epistemology (Philosophical Apologetics)