RazorsKiss on the Christian God as the Basis of Knowledge – Part 8: The “Impossibility of the Contrary”
Unfortunately, however, the “impossibility of the contrary” tactic used by presuppositional apologists typically consists merely of asserting that the Christian position is true and that all others are false, and involves nothing interesting by way of legitimate argument. RK’s deployment of “the impossibility of the contrary” in his debate with LeBlanc is, sadly, no different from this.
RK begins the final section of his opening statement as follows:
So, now we get to where the rubber meets the road. If I claim that non-Christians can have knowledge at all, even if it is faulty knowledge - doesn’t my argument fall apart? I don’t think this is necessitated. What the Christian position alone can guarantee is any contribution to knowledge whatsoever.
At this point, RK quoted Greg Bahnsen:
However, the presuppositionalist maintains that the unbeliever can come to know certain things (despite his espoused rejection of God’s truth) for the simple reason that he does have revealed presuppositions - and cannot but have them as a creature made in God’s image and living in God’s created world. Although he outwardly and vehemently denies the truth of God, no unbeliever is inwardly and sincerely devoid of the knowledge of God. It is not a saving knowledge of God to be sure, but even as condemning knowledge natural revelation still provides a knowledge of God. Thus, according to Biblical epistemology, while men deny their Creator they nevertheless possess an inescapable knowledge of Him; and because they know God (even though they know Him in curse and reprobation) they are able to attain a limited understanding of the world. (Always Ready, p. 38)
Moreover, if we look at what Bahnsen states in the excerpted quote, we will find that what he says is completely arbitrary. If Bahnsen’s god in fact does not exist, what would keep him from making statements about it in this manner? Bahnsen claims that the “unbeliever… outwardly and vehemently denies the truth of God,” but also that he “knows” this god nonetheless. How does he “know” this? Because, Bahnsen claims, he has “revealed presuppositions,” and that’s because he is “a creature made in God’s image.” Thus, “while men deny their Creator they nevertheless possess an inescapable knowledge of Him,” and this in turn allows them “to attain a limited understanding of the world.” Of course, Bahnsen had to learn all this by reading the bible, rather than through “revealed presuppositions” non-believers allegedly enjoy, which simply undermines the credibility of the very point he’s trying to make here. It is disingenuous to learn something by reading a storybook and then claim to have known it directly from a supernatural source by virtue of having been “created” in the image of a divine being.
The notion of “natural revelation,” to which Bahnsen appeals, finds its biblical basis in Romans 1:20-21, which states:
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, because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
The idea here is that the natural world (as opposed to things which are man-made) somehow “reveals” the Christian god as their creator. As Van Til explains:
All men know God. Every fact of the universe has God’s stamp of ownership indelibly and with large letters engraved upon it… All men know not merely that a God exists, but they know that God, the true God, the only God, exists. They cannot be conscious of themselves, says Calvin, except they be at the same time conscious of God as their creator. This general revelation of God stays with man whatever his attitude toward God may be. When he sins against God, he must sin against this God whom he knows. Otherwise sin would be sin in a vacuum. Even in the hereafter, the lost and the evil angels still know God. (Common Grace, p. 130)
But its dubious nature does not stop there. Speaking of “natural revelation,” RK stated the following when Mitch LeBlanc questioned him about how he derives knowledge of his god:
The Created order attests to these things as well, in a lesser, and more inferential way - but as I said, that is sufficient merely to condemn.
Even presuppositionalists should recognize that inference is not a “presupposition-less” mental operation, that it builds upon assumptions which have been accepted prior to working one’s way to the conclusion of said inference. A truth which is inferred is not a truth which is directly perceived, just as “invisible things” are not things which can be “clearly seen.” So the notion of “natural revelation” provides no legitimate support here. Van Til makes a critical admission in this regard when he states:
Men must be told that the revelation of God round about them and the revelation of God within their own constitution is clear and plain, rendering them without excuse. (Op. cit.)
Bahnsen affirms this very point:
Nartural revelation was never intended to operate on its own without God’s verbal communication as a supplemental and necessary context for understanding… In that case, man was never – and is not now – expected simply to observe the natural world or consider his own rational, moral personality and figure out for himself how they are to be interpreted and how their truths are to be verbally expressed. (Ibid.)
Man was never left to the study of natural revelation alone. Natural revelation was from the outset of history accompanied and supplemented by supernatural revelation. The two were involved in one another; they were supplemental to one another. They are unintelligible the one without the other. (The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel, p. 20)
Moreover, one could claim just about anything using this kind of “reasoning” which Bahnsen models here. The Blarko-believer, for instance, could easily apply the same casuistry which Bahnsen gives as a template for rationalizing his own arbitrary beliefs:
the Blarkositionalist maintains that the unblarkist can come to know certain things (despite his espoused rejection of Blarko’s truth) for the simple reason that he does have revealed presuppositions - and cannot but have them as a creature made in Blarko’s image and living in Blarko’s created world. Although he outwardly and vehemently denies the truth of Blarko, no unbeliever is inwardly and sincerely devoid of the knowledge of Blarko. It is not a saving knowledge of Blarko to be sure, but even as condemning knowledge natural revelation still provides a knowledge of Blarko. Thus, according to Blarkist epistemology, while men deny Blarko they nevertheless possess an inescapable knowledge of Him; and because they know Blarko (even though they know Him in curse and reprobation) they are able to attain a limited understanding of the world.
That the Christian defense must appeal to imaginative scenarios in order to make its points, is evident in what RK says next:
What my claim really entails is that an unbeliever, trying to start from a position of epistemic autonomy, is like a child who sits on his father’s lap - and uses that position for the purpose of slapping his father in the face.
1 ) The fact that existence exists: This identifies the realm of objects which inform our knowledge, answering the question: knowledge of what?
2) The fact that consciousness is consciousness of objects: This identifies the faculty of awareness possessed by the knower, providing the meta-answer to the question: How do you know? The subject knows, and what he knows are the objects of his knowledge. Consciousness gives the knowing subject cognitive access to what he can know.
3) The fact existence is identity: This is the baseline recognition by a consciousness that an object is itself, that A is A, not something other than itself.
4) The fact that existence has metaphysical primacy: This is a baseline recognition that an object of consciousness exists as itself independent of conscious activity.
5) The fact that knowledge depends on concept-formation: This is the ability to form concepts on the basis of objects perceived by the subject. The method of how the mind forms concepts is explained by a theory of concepts.
RK then made a statement which can only be taken as autobiographical in that it tells us about him rather than about the position he deplores so much:
The fundamental disconnect I see in secular epistemology (and Christians who use that same epistemology) is the universal lack of a solution from unbelieving philosophy for problems like that of induction, the one and the many, whether the will is free, and the like.
On the problem of induction, see David Kelley’s Universals and Induction.
On the problem of universals (“the one and the many”), see Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
On the topic of free will, see Harry Binswanger’s Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation
But RK insists that the Christian worldview does have something intelligent to offer on the philosophical problems he cited:
Christianity has an answer for these - provided the Christian answers them from Scriptural revelation, and does not adopt the same principles that unbelieving philosophy does.
What makes his position all the more dubious is his stipulation that the “answers” to the problems he listed are available to the Christian believer so long as he relies on the content of the bible and “does not adopt the same principles that unbelieving philosophy does.” Thus the five facts which I listed above – the axioms of existence, consciousness and identity, the primacy of existence and a theory of concepts – cannot at all figure in any biblical solutions to the problems of induction, universals and free will. To make use of any of these facts would constitute “borrowing” from a non-Christian worldview. So any solution to these problems which RK could possibly get behind must deny the fact that existence exists, that consciousness exists, that identity exists, that existence has metaphysical primacy, and that knowledge is conceptual in nature. I don’t suppose he’s going to get very far without any of these facts. But it is true that faith can achieve in a man great feats of foolishness, so let him try.
RK draws his lines in the sand even deeper:
It is even more so a problem for the unbeliever - because he doesn’t even have (not always asserted, but always present to some degree) the epistemological foundation of the Christian.
By the way, has RK given any indication how the problems of induction, universals and free will can be solved without using these facts? Again, his “impossibility of the contrary” depends on such solutions not only being possible, but impossibly untrue, and yet we’ve not seen anything but hot air in regard to the specifics here.
RK baldly asserts:
An unbelieving man has no justification for his predication.
RK baldly asserts again:
He has no basis for his use of logical laws.
After all, wherefore and whence do these laws get their justification?
RK offers more faith-based universal negatives about the “unbelieving man”:
There is no area in which his thoughts, ideas or concepts can be said to be properly grounded. With feet planted firmly in midair, he asserts his autonomy over his own thinking, and his self-sufficiency for the use of that thinking!
Speaking of the non-believer’s independence of thought, RK tells us that:
This thinking is dangerous - to the unbeliever, and to everyone else.
It is little more than, as many assert, self-worship.
Of course, as an Objectivist, I am an unflinching advocate for the morality of selfishness. This bothers many people, not because they truly think that selfishness is wrong, but because they want others to accept the notion that they have a duty to sacrifice themselves to their desired ends. The Christian believer wants others to worship his god and be willing to sacrifice themselves to that god, even though it could have no need for their sacrifices in the first place (it’s said to be “perfect” and “lacking nothing,” “absolutely necessary” and not “contingent” in any way).
At any rate, accusing people of “self-worship” does not constitute an argument, nor does “self-worship” – by itself – seem to pose the danger which RK warns us about. Perhaps he needs to elaborate on this a little more, and fill in the gaping blanks.
RK confesses that:
If the unbeliever thinks he is the ultimate, not simply the immediate basis for epistemology - I see no possible way for that assertion to be justified.
But RK would be in error if he assumes that non-belief in his god logically entails that one “thinks he is the ultimate… basis for epistemology.” While it is not clear what this is precisely supposed to mean, presuppositionalists (RK included) offer no reason why someone cannot reject Christianity and yet hold something other than himself as “the ultimate basis… for epistemology.”
Again, no argument is offered here.
RK then quotes Greg Bahnsen again:
[The unbeliever] thinks that his thinking process is normal. He thinks that his mind is the final court of appeal in all matters of knowledge. He takes himself to be the reference point for all interpretation of the facts. That is, he has epistemologically become a law unto himself: autonomous. (Always Ready, p. 46)
First of all, suppose that a non-believer “thinks that his thinking process is normal.” Does Bahnsen think that people should generally adopt a thinking process that they do not think is normal? Does it bother Bahnsen if a given non-Christian “thinks that his thinking process is normal”? Speaking for myself (if Bahnsen will allow it), I think my “thinking process is normal,” since I govern my thinking process according to objective norms, namely reason and its method, known as logic. These are not only normal in the sense that they provide a standard to which my thinking conforms, but also because they are suited to the kind of consciousness which I possess. Naturally I did not create my own consciousness or choose what kind I possess. I have it due to causal conditions that were beyond my control, namely the biological causality which made my existence a reality and the genetic basis of my nature as a biological organism. I perceive and have the ability to form concepts on the basis of perceptual input. These are facts, and my epistemology takes these facts, which are wholly relevant to the purpose of epistemology and my need for it, into account from its foundations on up. So yes, if Bahnsen considers my thinking of my own thought process as normal is a “sin,” I’m happy to confess my “guilt” on this. Don’t expect it to change.
Bahnsen’s next characterization of the non-believer of course does follow from the previous one. To suppose that my “thinking process is normal” in no way necessitates that I think that my mind “is the final court of appeal in all matters of knowledge.” On the contrary, objective facts are the final court of appeal. I’m adult enough to know that I am neither omniscient nor infallible, that I can and sometimes do make mistakes, and that my mistakes do not alter reality or revise the nature of the objects they involve. Moreover, since knowledge is knowledge of reality, I defer to reality in my mental activity, since it would do me no good to substitute what I imagine for what is real. Rational epistemology equips thinkers for making this fundamental distinction by its adherence to the primacy of existence. So I suspect that Bahnsen is projecting here. Since Bahnsen’s worldview is premised on the primacy of consciousness, he does not have the objective principles by which the distinction between imagination and reality can be made at his disposal. While Bahnsen would call his god’s mind as “the final court of appeal in all matters of knowledge,” since his god is merely imaginary, he is in fact placing his own mind in the seat of the court judge, telling us what his god can and cannot do, will and will not do. Pretty easy to make these kinds of statements about something that is only imaginary. But Bahnsen cannot maintain this kind of pretense consistently, which is why it only works in the case of his theological claims. When he’s working with reality and trying to achieve any kind of goal, he has no choice but to abandon his mystical epistemology and deal with reality on its own terms. In this way the Christian operates on a mixed epistemology, proclaiming a specifically Christian epistemology while clandestinely borrowing from a non-Christian, this-worldly reality in order to get anything of value done.
Bahnsen then takes a page right out of Van Til when he says that the non-believer
takes himself to be the reference point for all interpretation of the facts. That is, he has epistemologically become a law unto himself: autonomous.
In fact, what Bahnsen is expressing here is a very narrow understanding of how the mind works which has resulted from his acceptance of the primacy of consciousness. This causes him to operate on a false dichotomy, both horns of which assume a subjective orientation to “all interpretation of the facts”: either a divine mind is “the reference point for all interpretation of the facts,” or a human being’s own mind is. Either way, some “mind” must be the final “law unto itself.” This could only make sense if the mind operates in a vacuum, denied of awareness of any independently existing objects which could serve as the ultimate reference point in “interpretation of the facts.” This imaginary condition, which theism in facts takes seriously, represents the original state of the mind of its god, as I point out in my blog Before the Beginning: The Problem of Divine Lonesomeness. Since it is part of theism that any objects independent of the divine mind were created by the divine mind in the first place, we need to ask: of what was the divine mind aware prior to creating any objects independent of itself? Logically, there would have been no independent objects for it to be aware of at all. The original state of the “ultimate mind” was a subject in complete isolation from any independently existing objects, which means: the ultimate condition of divine reality is pure subjectivism. Hence, we can attribute the false dichotomy implicit in Bahnsen’s declaration here to the subjectivism inherent in his god-belief.
Why cannot the facts themselves be “the reference point for all interpretation of the facts”? Bahnsen does not say. His insistence on the view which he has presented suggests that he has not even considered such a possibility. This would be understandable if he were prone to swallow pretty much everything his teacher, Cornelius Van Til, asserted, and in the area of apologetics this was the general rule for Bahnsen for the most part. (If you examine his massive Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, in which Bahnsen comments on very lengthy excerpts from Van Til’s writings, you’ll find that in many places Bahnsen prefers to explain statements by Van Til which were obviously faulty in order to make them seem reasonable, rather than admit their inherent faultiness. Van Til’s “floorboards” analogy is one example here.)
Is the non-believer then truly “a law unto himself” in epistemological matters? Not if this means he makes up the laws which govern his thinking process, as an omnipotent, sovereign deity would presumably be capable of doing. If the non-believer is one who has adopted an epistemology based on the primacy of existence, then he conforms his thinking to the facts he discovers existing independent of his conscious activity. These facts, rather than, say, his own wishes, provide the standard to which his cognition must conform. So Bahnsen is wrong to level this blanket charge against non-believers in toto, and by doing so he only announces his own ignorance of rival epistemologies and his unchecked bias towards the primacy of consciousness.
Then again, isn’t the subjective paradigm of the divine mind described here understood as perfection by the Christian, and the Christian himself commanded to “be perfect” like his god (Mt. 5:48)? Perhaps it’s acceptable for the Christian to be “a law unto himself” in matters of epistemology (for many believers in fact act like they are), while for some reason this is wrong for non-believers.
Again, so much for “the impossibility of the contrary.”
To further solidify his point, RK then resorted to a scenario which is only accessible to us if we indulge our imagination without adhering to the constraints of reality:
It is like the famous (and farcical) story of the scientists who discover how to create life from common dirt! Excited, they suddenly stop - A voice challenges them - “I doubt you can.” “All right, then” (say the scientists) - “we will!” As they pick up shovels, they stop again, as the voice says “No, no. Get your own dirt.”
But RK thinks this story, which he himself admits is “farcical,” is illustrative of the non-Christian’s epistemological situation:
This is what reasoning is like without the foundation of God’s self-existence, known through His self-revelation. It is a man trying to justify his “own” knowledge - when everything he encounters - including himself, belongs to God. The very idea is utterly absurd.
RK calls “reasoning… without the foundation of God’s self-existence, known through His self-revelation” – i.e., any form of non-Christian reasoning – “absurd.” But what he misses is the fact that the story he presents as an illustration of what he calls the absurdity of non-Christian thought, is itself absurd, because of its assumption of the primacy of consciousness. Nowhere in his discussion of epistemology does RK ever come close to addressing the issue of metaphysical primacy (i.e., the question of what is the proper relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects), so this point would likely be lost on him. What RK also misses is the fact that, it is only by accepting Christianity’s premises in the first place that we could agree with RK’s opinion that “the very idea” of non-Christian reasoning is “utterly absurd.” But RK has provided no reasons why one should accept Christianity’s premises in the first place!
On the other hand, if one does lower his intellect enough to accept Christianity’s premises, on what basis could he deem anything “absurd”? With stories about talking serpents, virgin births, walking on unfrozen water, casting out demons, curing blindness with spittle, and raising the dead from their graves, what could the Christian possibly take to be “absurd”? And why? On what basis? To assess an idea as an absurdity, presupposes a constellation of prior worldview presuppositions, specifically those which have a grounding in the objectivity of reality, which means: a worldview which adheres to the metaphysical primacy of existence. It is most ironic when “presuppositionalists” fail to take into account the presuppositional context of concepts like “absurd,” which they tend to throw around as if they made sense in the context of their theistic worldview. But if notions like angels, demons, and other supernatural beings, the virgin birth, the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and other miraculous elements of the Christian worldview are not absurd, why suppose the concept has any objective meaning in the first place? Blank out.
On a rational worldview, i.e., one which is dedicated to adhering to the metaphysical primacy of existence, theistic ideas are absurd, just as these tales of miracles and supernatural interventions are absurd. In fact, for RK to affirm theism on the one hand, and on the other condemn non-Christian reasoning as “absurd” while using utterly unrealistic scenarios (which RK himself calls “farcical”) about scientists who, in their efforts to discover how life formed, hear voices from the beyond commanding them to “Get your own dirt,” to inform his point, is itself absurd. That RK is not careful to anticipate this in the defense of his position, seems inexplicable to me, especially if I am to suppose that he is being guided by the revelations of an omniscient and infallible supernatural mind.
On the other hand, in the context of a worldview which enshrines the idea of miracles, what could possibly substantiate the assessment that a mere idea is “absurd”? Theism is a worldview which insists that the miraculous has actually occurred in reality, not merely in the imaginations of believers. The theistic worldview requires men to believe that all kinds of miraculous events have actually occurred, that the supernatural characters which are portrayed in its defining stories are real, that there really are angels and demons behind the objects we perceive moving and interacting in a battle between “good” and “evil,” etc., etc., etc. If these supposed “realities” are not themselves “absurd,” how can a mere “idea” be absurd? RK does not explain this. On theism’s premise of the metaphysical primacy of consciousness, which denies all objectivity (since it makes everything dependent upon the intentions of a ruling subject), RK must in fact borrow from a non-Christian worldview even to invoke the concept ‘absurd’ in any meaningful way.
None of these points occurs to RK as he concludes his section on “the impossibility of the contrary”:
Since it is impossible to have knowledge on any other basis, save that of God’s intrinsic nature and self-communication of the properties of that nature - it is impossible for any human system of reasoning to have justification at all. In short, Christianity’s epistemology is the only epistemology possible - because it’s impossible to have any other coherent, true, and justified basis for thought, perception, knowledge, or understanding of ourselves, or the creation in which we dwell.
RK’s claim that “it is impossible for any human system of reasoning to have justification at all,” represents a faith assertion, a claim which he hopes to convince himself by repeating it. From what he has presented (and from what can be garnered from the presuppositionalist literature of Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Richard Pratt, and others), it does not represent the conclusion of an intensive, comprehensive survey of “human system[s] of reasoning” by any means, but rather a view which the believer hopes is true, but whose alleged truth he cannot demonstrate. If RK had something solid to present in favor of such assertions, bare and unsupported as they are, no doubt he would have at least alluded to it in his opening statement.
Instead of positive argument on behalf of his claims, RK prefers to go with self-service circularities: “Christianity’s epistemology is the only epistemology possible – because it’s impossible to have any other coherent, true, and justified basis for thought, perception, knowledge, or understanding of ourselves,” etc. His “support” for his position consists solely and exclusively of repeating that position using different wording. RK provides no analysis of “thought, perception, knowledge, or understanding of ourselves” which objectively demonstrates their alleged dependence on the existence and character of an invisible magic being. He provides no substantiation for the universally negative generalization that “it is impossible for a human system of reasoning to have justification at all.” For him even to embark on proving such a contention, he would at minimum need to conduct a thorough analysis of the Objectivist epistemology, including its metaphysical basis, its theory of concepts, its adherence to objectivity and reason, its recognition of the nature of man’s need for knowledge and an objective process by which he discovers and validates it, in order to have any hope at all in the faith-assertions he announces here. Since RK has not done any of this, it can safely be said that his “impossibility of the contrary” is simply an expression of his own ignorance on the matters which he discusses, and such ignorance is not a worthy basis on which to premise one’s condemnations.
In answer to RK’s position, all that needs to be pointed out is the fact that knowledge is impossible without the ability to form concepts, and that a comprehensive epistemology needs to account for this ability. There is no rational basis to contend that human beings do not have this ability, for any human being attempting to dispute this ability would himself need to possess it in order to formulate his contentions against it. But in all his discussion of knowledge, RK never provides his worldview’s definition of knowledge (does he even have one?) or its understanding of concepts (including an explanation of their nature, their formation, and their purpose). It may be that R’s worldview has nothing to say on these matters (if it did, his failure to indicate what his worldview does have to say on these matters is inexplicable), in which case his worldview is simply insufficient to have anything worthy to consider on these matters. This can only mean: the claim that the Christian god is the basis of knowledge because of “the impossibility of the contrary” is simply false, and should be rejected without further consideration.
by Dawson Bethrick