Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 8: "Ultimate Questions"
So then, "metaphysics" studies such questions or issues as the nature of existence, the sorts of things that exist, the classes of existent things, limits of possibility, the ultimate scheme of things, reality versus appearance, and the comprehensive conceptual framework used to make sense of the world as a whole. It is not hard to understand, then, how the term "metaphysics" has come to connote the study of that which is "beyond the physical realm."" Simple eyeball inspection of isolated and particular situations in the physical world cannot answer metaphysical questions like those just enumerated. An individual's limited personal experience cannot warrant a comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be. Empirical experience merely gives us an appearance of things; empirical experience cannot in itself correct illusions or get us beyond appearance to any world or realm of reality lying beyond. Nor can it determine the limits of the possible. A particular experience of the physical world does not deal with the world as whole. Nor does the nature of existence manifest itself in simple sense perception of any physical object or set of them. (Always Ready, p. 181)
But Bahnsen might have differed with this analysis, for he says that “it is not hard to understand... how the term ‘metaphysics’ has come to connote the study of that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’.” By constraining metaphysics to include “that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’,” Bahnsen implies that metaphysics would have no interest in studying that which is found within “the physical realm” unless “the supernatural” were taken seriously and granted primacy over it. But I see no reason why we should accept this. What exactly is the difference between something that is admittedly natural or physical and that which is “supernatural” or “beyond the physical realm”? Distinctions like this are obviously assumed by Bahnsen, but he nowhere pinpoints them. Consequently any distinction between “the supernatural” and “the physical realm” remains unexpressed, vague, approximate. Perhaps we’re supposed to “just know” how they are distinguished, as if it were a secret we’re not supposed to put into actual words.
Bahnsen seems to think that “’metaphysics’ has come to connote the study of that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’” because, according to him, it also studies the “limits of possibility, the ultimate scheme of things, reality versus appearance, and the comprehensive conceptual framework used to make sense of the world as a whole.” Even if we accept this, it is still not clear why a “supernatural” realm needs to be posited in distinction to “the physical realm.” If metaphysics is devoted to the study of what is real, and “the physical realm” is real, then certainly we should not expect metaphysics to ignore that which is within “the physical realm.” But on Bahnsen’s view, “the physical realm” is, for reasons he does not clearly state, at best relegated to a secondary position and subordinated to a realm which he calls “supernatural” if not shoved aside altogether. The result is that, if metaphysics is “the study of that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’,” it becomes troublesomely unclear why it would have any importance for beings which exist in “the physical realm.” We are physical beings (those who doubt this can verify it by taking a physical knife to their physical skin) and we live in a physical world. We value physical things (e.g., food, water, shelter, clothing, shoes, beds, television sets, CDs, computers, cars, other human beings, etc.), and we obtain them through physical means (action, effort, work, money, trade, etc.). A worldview whose metaphysics focuses on “that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’” seems to abandon man along with “the physical realm” that it seeks to ignore. What could possibly justify this?
Perhaps Bahnsen thinks that metaphysics studies “that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’” because the form in which our knowledge of metaphysical truths and principles is not itself physical. After all, a “comprehensive conceptual scheme,” which Bahnsen lists among the things which metaphysics studies, is not something we put in our pocket or contain in a jar. But this would be most naïve as it would indicate a dismally primitive understanding of man’s mind and the process by which he forms concepts. Indeed, Bahnsen makes mention of a “comprehensive conceptual scheme,” but his biblical worldview provides no native theory of concepts. Concepts do not represent a supernatural dimension; on the contrary, the mind’s ability to form concepts is as natural as its ability to perceive physical objects. But for Bahnsen, the conceptual realm somehow implies a supernatural realm, apparently because the conceptual is not a physical object that can be studied in a chemistry lab.
One of the most important relationships which a serious metaphysics should study, but which Bahnsen nowhere lists among those things which metaphysics – on his understanding – studies, is the relationship between consciousness and its objects. An objective worldview is one in which the object of consciousness is understood to hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. On this view, for example, an object is what it is no matter what the subject wishes it to be. This is the proper orientation between a subject and its objects. A subjective worldview is one which allows the subject to hold – either always (in the case of a privileged subject) or at least occasionally (when such bestowals are distributed) – metaphysical primacy over its objects. On this view, there exists at least one subject which has the power to wish its objects into anything it prefers them to be. This power is often called “authority” or “sovereignty,” as in the case of Bahnsen’s god. The subjective view thus constitutes a reversal of the objective view, for it trades on reversing the proper orientation between a subject and its objects.
Inherent in Bahnsen’s habit of conflating metaphysics with supernaturalism is the reversal of the relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects. Note that, in addition to studying “such questions or issues as the nature of existence, the sorts of things that exist, the classes of existent things” and other matters, metaphysics is also the branch in which the relationship between consciousness and its objects is first encountered. The object of study in metaphysics is reality, and the awareness that there is a reality requires a means of awareness. The issue of metaphysical primacy asks whether reality exists independent of consciousness, or whether it conforms to consciousness. This is the most fundamental issue in all philosophy, for however one answers it, defines the rest of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc. Unfortunately, Bahnsen expresses no concern for understanding this fundamental relationship. Whatever observations, inferences, conclusions or verdicts one reaches in metaphysics, they are by means of consciousness about some object of consciousness. Thus the question of the relationship between consciousness and its objects is inescapable.
The closest Bahnsen comes to the issue of metaphysical primacy is “reality versus appearance.” But he does not bring this issue up because there is an actual problem here, or because he has an actual solution to the supposed problem. Rather, Bahnsen brings it up in order to sow doubt in the mind of the reader about the efficacy of his own mind, for he nowhere explains how appearance is different from reality, nor does he explain how any difference between how reality appears and how reality actually is can be overcome. He interjects this dichotomy for the express purpose of posing a conflict between man’s mind and the world he perceives. In actuality, the problem is between Bahnsen’s worldview and the world in which we exist.
On an objective theory of perception, there is no insidious conflict between appearance and reality whatsoever. Appearance is merely the form in which we are visually aware of something. In any instance of awareness, there is the object of which we are aware (the what of awareness) and the form in which we are aware of it (the how of awareness). When we perceive an object, we are perceiving that object. Kelley explains:
Consciousness is not metaphysically active. It no more creates its own contents than does the stomach. But it is active epistemologically in processing those contents. What we are aware of is defined by reality – there is nothing else to be aware of – but how we are aware of it is determined by our means of awareness. How could there be any conflict between these two facts?... Metaphysically, our cognitive faculties determine the manner in which we grasp reality, but it is reality we grasp. In perception, the way objects appear to us is partly determined by our perceptual apparatus...; but the objects themselves appear, the objects themselves we are aware of by means of their appearances. (The Evidence of the Senses, p. 41)
Again, the topic of Bahnsen’s chapter is “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’.” In knowing anything, there is, as Kelley reminds us, the what of which we are aware, and the how by which we are aware of it. For Bahnsen to gain any credibility in his endorsement of supernatural claims, he would at minimum have to enlighten us on both of these concerns. Remember that on the jacket of Always Ready, Douglas Wilson hails Bahnsen’s mind as “nothing if not precise.” What precisely does the term “supernatural” denote? How precisely does Bahnsen have awareness of it? At every turn, Bahnsen resists addressing both questions with any specificity, even though they are fundamental to any claim to knowledge of “the supernatural.”
Bahnsen goes on to tell us that “simple eyeball inspection of isolated and particular situations in the physical world cannot answer metaphysical questions like those just enumerated.” In other words, he is saying, perceptual observation “cannot” address such issues as “the nature of existence, the sorts of things that exist, the classes of existent things, limits of possibility, the ultimate scheme of things, reality versus appearance, and the comprehensive framework used to make sense of the world as a whole.” Bahnsen’s reason for stating this is clear enough: “An individual’s limited personal experience cannot warrant a comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be.” This can only mean that Bahnsen is taking omniscience as a minimum necessary condition for answering the metaphysical questions he mentions and forming “the comprehensive framework used to make sense of the world as a whole.” To possess answers to the issues he lists, one would presumably need “unlimited personal experience” and something more than “simple eyeball inspection of isolated and particular situations in the physical world.” On this view, in order to have “a comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be,” he would presumably need to have exhaustive knowledge of “every sort of existent there may be.” So on Bahnsen’s own standard, unless he himself was omniscient, he didn’t have any answers to these questions. Bahnsen would likely reject this conclusion for he holds in his back pocket a substitute consciousness which allegedly possesses the omniscience his standard requires. Thus we have an epistemology of vicariousness: the believer himself confesses that his own mind, allegedly created by a perfect, infallible and omnipotent creator, is basically worthless when it comes to supplying “the comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be” which metaphysics is intended to deliver, but this does not matter for he has access (by means he does not identify) to a consciousness which is supernatural (which he does not precisely define in positive terms) and which has all the answers already. It’s the standard “I may not know, but my god knows” position in philosophy.
Bahnsen is on record repeatedly claiming that the Christian worldview is the precondition to intelligibility of human experience. This is one of his fundamental debating points, a claim which is couched in the context of epistemological vicariousness described above. Naturally we would not expect Bahnsen to confess that he himself lacks “the comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be.” And although he would likely claim to possess such a framework, he would likely admit readily that he himself does not have direct awareness of “every sort of existent there may be.” He does not need such awareness, for all he needs to do is stipulate that “every sort of existent there may be” was created by his god. Since his god is omniscient and created every existent distinct from itself, it necessarily has exhaustive knowledge of “every sort of existent there may be,” and that exhaustive knowledge is the master “comprehensive framework” in which “every sort of existent there may be” finds its proper orderly place. So on this view, Bahnsen himself does not have the requisite exhaustive knowledge needed to inform “the comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be” which is allegedly the precondition to the intelligibility of human experience, but he claims his god has this knowledge. How could he know this? Well, that question comes under the topic of his present chapter: “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’.” So again, the what and the how of this alleged cognition are what Bahnsen needs to address, but so far he’s not addressed either in the slightest.
All throughout, Bahnsen seems to be denigrating the role of sense experience in developing the “comprehensive framework” that metaphysics is supposed to deliver. Indeed, if Bahnsen thinks that this “comprehensive framework” is pre-packaged by an omniscient deity in the first place and somehow deposited into select human minds (such as Bahnsen’s own), then talk of “developing” this comprehensive framework from some fundamental starting point is anathema to Bahnsen’s position. Since Bahnsen’s “limited personal experience cannot warrant” this “comprehensive framework” any better than anyone else’s experience can, he wouldn’t know where to begin if he had to assemble it on his own. He’s so familiar with it and his own mental abilities that he doesn’t know how he or any other human being could build such a contrivance.
But whatever the case may be, Bahnsen is sure that one cannot develop such a “comprehensive framework” from the “limited personal experience” man has in the world. No experience that man can have will ever be enough for Bahnsen. The senses are inappropriate anyway, because whatever divine agency created them, in all its otherworldly brilliance, saw to it that they merely give us awareness of appearances, not of reality proper. As Bahnsen puts it, “Empirical experience merely gives us an appearance of things; empirical experience cannot in itself correct illusions or get us beyond appearance to any world or realm of reality lying beyond.” Bahnsen happily tells us that “the Bible distinguishes appearance from reality,” perhaps in order to nag his readers without going into any detail. At any rate, all this means that empirical experience could not be the means by which Bahnsen acquires awareness of “the supernatural.” Again, Bahnsen only tells us how he does not know what he calls “the supernatural”; he does not explain how he could know what he claims to know. He constantly keeps this issue conveniently and safely out of sight.
Bahnsen avoids disclosing his position on what role empirical experience does play in acquiring knowledge. Does sense experience for Bahnsen play no role in acquiring any of the knowledge which ultimately informs the “comprehensive framework” by which we make sense of the world? Bahnsen does not confront this question, but from what he does say one can easily get the impression that, on his view, the senses (“empirical experience”) play no role of any significance. Sense experience is limited, and what we presumably need is unlimited experience. Also, “empirical experience merely gives us an appearance of things,” which suggests that the senses cannot give us direct awareness of reality itself, or anything “beyond the physical realm.” “Appearance” is a kind of distorting filter through which we can only “see... darkly” (cf. I Cor. 13:12). Bahnsen never questions his supposition that there is a “beyond” to begin with, for he assumes that there is such a place, even though he nowhere explains how he or anyone else could know this. And in spite of this failing, rejecting “supernatural” claims is always unwarranted and indicates an unjustifiable bias. Go figure. And since for Bahnsen there is a difference – indeed, a conflict – between appearance and reality – a conflict Bahnsen nowhere explains how one could resolve – sense experience could only deceive or at best lead us off track. Man’s cognitive inabilities are no doubt a testament to the infinite wisdom of his creator.
So two assumptions are vital to Bahnsen’s discounting of sense experience, at least to the extent that he wants to marginalize any cognitive role they may play in providing man with the “comprehensive framework” he needs for making sense of the world in which he exists. They are:
Bahnsen apparently has both angles covered. Even if one wants to argue that man can assemble a “comprehensive framework” suitable for making sense of the world in which he exists on the basis of the limited experience that his senses provide, Bahnsen can hit him with the “reality-versus-appearance” conflict. And if one wants to argue that the distinction between reality and appearances do not in fact prohibit the senses from providing him with the “comprehensive framework” he needs to make sense of the world in which he exists, Bahnsen can hit him with the “sense experience is limited” objection.
- sense experience is limited (and our “comprehensive framework” must have
- sense experience leads to the “reality-versus-appearance” conflict (and sense experience is unable to resolve it)
Unfortunately, throughout all this, Bahnsen ignores two important factors:
- the need to identify some alternative means of awareness to supply the inputs needed for objective knowledge of reality (since sense experience has been discounted)
- the nature and role of concepts which inform that knowledge
The other reason he wants to discount the senses is because they only give us limited awareness. But what could possibly be an alternative to limited experience? Unlimited experience? Why suppose such a thing is either possible or achievable? Why suppose such a notion is actually meaningful? What would “unlimited experience” be like? We can put the words “unlimited” and “experience” together, just as we can put the words “square” and “circle” together. But together are they really meaningful? Indeed, it seems that once we have called something “experience,” it is limited to what is meant by the concept ‘experience’. Since to exist is to be something specific, since A is limited to itself, the claim that “unlimited experience” is either possible or real seems quite incoherent. If Bahnsen wants to argue that “limited experience” is insufficient, and his preferred alternative is supposed to be “unlimited experience,” then he needs to explain what he means by it before it can be seriously entertained. Otherwise, it seems that he is straining to manufacture points against the efficacy of the human mind, something which he wants to claim his perfect creator-deity created. Quickly it appears we will find ourselves in the quicksand of a Kantian gimmick if we follow Bahnsen on his wild goose chase.
Meanwhile, we should ask: What is so insufficient about “limited experience”? When I see a tree, my experience is limited to what I experience. But if I see a tree in my experience, I still see a tree. I still have awareness of an object. Indeed, I do not need awareness of all trees in the universe and across eternity to have awareness of the one tree before me. It is a fact that I am seeing something. Perhaps at this point Bahnsen would like to raise the “reality-versus-appearance” objection. “How do you know what you’re seeing is a tree?” So now I am supposed to have a mind sufficiently sophisticated to produce all kinds of reasoning to prove that what I see is actually a tree, and yet I am supposed to buy into the premise that my senses are so deceptive that I might not actually be seeing a tree. And really, what argument would Bahnsen accept at this point? Perhaps Bahnsen would be satisfied if I were to say something like, “I am absolutely certain that what I perceive before me is a tree because the triune God of Christianity has guaranteed that He will not lie to me, that as creator of my empirical apparatus He will not allow me to be so misled.” This is nothing more than the invisible magic being defense: it does not deal with the issue whatsoever, and only lays a new, completely arbitrary burden on the load of burdens Bahnsen would have us accept on our way to adopting such confessions.
Now, the conventional attack against the senses has often been the charge that knowledge has universal scope while the senses do not provide universal awareness. Therefore the leap from awareness of particulars to universally binding knowledge is unwarranted, unjustified, arbitrary, subjective, or any other denigrating adjective the haters of man’s mind want to apply to it. Perception on this view could hardly serve as a suitable tie between knowledge and reality. This is Bahnsen’s (unargued) assertion that “empirical experience merely gives us an appearance of things.” Couple this with the supposition that the senses distort the objects we perceive, and we have Bahnsen’s two-fold attack against empiricism in a nutshell. Keep in mind that, all the while, we as readers of Bahnsen’s writing are expected to follow the arguments of this “precise” and “brilliant scholar,” even though our faculties are too incompetent to distinguish between the reality of what he has written and he may merely appear to have written.
Of course, attacks like this only tell us that the attacker does not understand how concepts are formed in the first place. Universality is a property of concepts; it is not a property we should expect to find in perception. Even more importantly, neither “unlimited experience” nor omniscience is a precondition for the universal scope of conceptual reference. Concepts are how the human mind expands its awareness beyond the immediate inputs provided by sense perception. The content of concepts is based ultimately on what we perceive, but it is not limited to only those units which we have encountered personally. In fact, if the Objectivist account of concepts is true, then there is no problem in supposing that we can acquire knowledge having universal scope on the basis of “limited personal experience.” On the Objectivist account, concepts can be formed by integrating as few as only two units which are similar in some way. All objective units have the minimal similarity in the fact that they exist. (Incidentally, these points blow Van Til’s “One-Many” argument out of the water.) If we are able to form concepts – i.e., open-ended classes which are universal in their scope of reference – on the basis of only two (or more) units, then “limited personal experience” is no hindrance to developing a “comprehensive framework used to make sense of the world as a whole.” If “an individual’s limited personal experience” incorporates the Objectivist account of concepts, he has all the “warrant” he needs for informing the “comprehensive framework” he needs to make sense of the world and his existence within it. And if we have such a “comprehensive framework” along with the “warrant” we need for whatever reason to have it, then we have what we need to “correct illusions.” This is one of the functions of reason: to correct misidentifications. But what reason will not do is take us from this world to another world contradicting it. The only thing that can do this is the imagination, and its product is fantasy, not knowledge. And it is against these – fantasy and imagination – that Bahnsen fails to distinguish his god and whatever else he claims exists “beyond the physical realm.”
Now internal to Christianity, Bahnsen’s attempts to discredit empirical experience are not without their consequences. If empirical experience is insufficient to get us from the world of appearances to some realm that exists “beyond the physical realm,” then what are we to make of Romans 1:20? This passage, beloved by many Reformed apologists, states the following:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
As for the “limits of possibility,” this actually belongs to the branch of epistemology, since possibility is epistemological, and what we determine to be possible depends on our understanding of what is actual rather than the other way around. Indeed, it is in the context of a “comprehensive conceptual framework used to make sense of the world as a whole” that we are able to rationally assess the possibility of any proposals.
And though for some thinkers “the term ‘metaphysics’ has come to connote the study of that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’,” this is misleading. It is not as if metaphysics as a field of study were happy to ignore “the physical realm”; however many thinkers may in fact feel intimidated by physical realities which do not conform to their preferences, and thus retreat into an imaginary realm where anything goes. If one is serious about studying “that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’,” he would at minimum need to identify the means by which he acquires awareness of “that which is ‘beyond the physical realm’,” if anything in fact exists “beyond the physical realm.”
Simple eyeball inspection of isolated and particular situations in the physical world cannot answer metaphysical questions like those just enumerated. An individual’s limited personal experience cannot warrant a comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be. (Always Ready, p. 181)
If “a comprehensive framework encompassing every sort of existent there may be” does not come from “an individual’s limited personal experience,” then where does it come from? Is it magically installed into our minds? Is it then infallible? What if mine disagrees with someone else’s? Is the “comprehensive framework” that Bahnsen has in mind conceptual or something other than conceptual? If it is conceptual, what is Bahnsen’s account of concepts? If it is something other than conceptual, how can Bahnsen claim to know it? Blank out.
The task of statements like the one Bahnsen gives above, is to discount the role and relevance of one’s own firsthand perception of the world in developing “a comprehensive framework.” Essentially, Bahnsen’s reasoning is: ‘Since one’s own firsthand awareness is not awareness of everything (i.e., since one is not omniscient to begin with), he cannot formulate his own “comprehensive framework”.’ If man’s consciousness were bound to the perceptual level of consciousness (i.e., if it had no recourse to the conceptual level), there might be some argument for this; though as an argument for skepticism, it would still have its work cut out for itself. However, since man has the ability to form concepts on the basis of what he perceives, Bahnsen’s argument is not only fallacious, it’s downright naïve, especially coming from someone sporting a philosophy degree. At the very least, such statements betray a glaring ignorance of concepts, how they are formed and how they expand our awareness beyond the perceptual level of consciousness.
It needs to be pointed out that we demonstrate the ability of concepts to expand our awareness beyond our perceptual limitations whenever we talk about great distances, for example, in terms of units that reduce to the perceptual level. Applying arithmetic operations to units of measurement is one means by which we expand our awareness beyond what we perceive at any given moment.
Sadly, Bahnsen himself probably did not even realize how profoundly he was undercutting his own case by slipping his own head through the noose he had just fashioned, for after all, he was operating on the basis of a Dark Ages worldview.
by Dawson Bethrick