Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Preliminary Thoughts on Van Til’s “Argument from Unity of Knowledge”

In his paper If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til (hereafter IKTG), Christian apologist James Anderson develops a total of seven arguments, three from Alvin Plantinga and four from Cornelius Van Til, which are intended to draw conclusions affirming Christian theism. What unites Plantinga and Van Til for Anderson is that “both have argued that a successful epistemology… must appeal to God at some point” and also that “a thoroughgoing adherence to naturalism (roughly, the view that there are no supernatural beings) is a recipe for debilitating skepticism” (IKTG, p. 2).

This is all very fascinating to me since, back when I was a believer, one thing that did stand out to me in my study of the Christian bible, is that it had next to nothing to say on epistemology. My guess is that Plantinga and Van Til were going off of sources other than what we find between Genesis and Revelation.

Now throughout the paper Anderson does attempt to maintain the somewhat detached air of an academic. For example, when he gets to presenting Van Til’s four arguments, Anderson states:
I remind the reader that my goal in what follows is not to provide a rigorous statement or defense of these arguments, but rather to indicate their basic thrust for the purposes of comparison. (IKTG, p. 16)
I’d say this is a wise move. However, apologists no doubt welcome papers like Anderson's as it supplies “ready material for provocative theistic arguments” (Ibid., p. 33) for those who seek to promulgate their mysticism by insisting that human cognition somehow depends on the existence of imagined supernatural beings. Such a general claim is answered by an objective understanding of metaphysics and epistemology, in particular the objective theory of concepts, indeed the simple recognition that the imaginary is not real.

In this pair of entries (the present one and the following one), my focus is on the second Vantillian argument, which Anderson labels “The Argument from the Unity of Knowledge.” I think argument from the presumption of omniscience would be a more appropriate name for this argument, since functionally it treats omniscience as a precondition for any knowledge whatsoever. However, reading through the remarks Anderson makes in defense of its central premise, other possible names for the argument came to mind. For example, it could be called “The Argument from Noetic Insecurity” or possibly “The Argument from Epistemological Anxiety.” We’ll get to why such alternatives come to mind in my examination of the argument.

A number of points which Anderson makes about the “basic idea” of Van Til’s argumentative strategy are worth visiting before getting to the specifics of “The Argument from the Unity of Knowledge.” So I'll focus on those in the present entry, and in my next entry I will examine the specifics of the argument.

Anderson notes that Van Til’s approach involves “four striking characteristics” each of which “is closely connected to the others”:
(1) there is only one argument involved (indeed, there can be only one); 
(2) this one argument yields not merely generic theism as its conclusion, but specifically Christian theism; 
(3) the argument yields a certain (not merely probable) conclusion; and 
(4) the argument is a transcendental argument. (IKTG, p. 11)
Since Van Til insisted that only one argument was possible to perform the heavy lifting needed to validate Christianity (at least, Van Til’s preferred flavor thereof) as the one and only true worldview, choosing that one and only argument is a critical task. Luckily Anderson provides four arguments (seven, if we include Plantinga’s) to choose from. It’s unclear to me which of these arguments apologists consider to be the strongest; my guess is that committed apologists hold that each one in its own right is an invincible silver bullet.

To inform these “striking characteristics,” Anderson quotes from Van Til’s own writings:
The best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world. ... Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1967), 103.)
The only reason why I would think one might contend that the existence of a supernatural being is “required for the uniformity of nature” is that he presumes the uniformity of nature to be essentially a product of conscious activity – i.e., that the uniformity we observe in the world of objects which we perceive is ultimately subjective, imposed on the world of objects by the brute fiat of a conscious agent. But any argument in defense of such a view would have to be informed by premises which presume either an objective uniformity of nature (and thus draw a conclusion which contradicts presuppositions underlying its own premises) or a subjective uniformity (and thus argue in a vicious circle). No doubt we can imagine that a supernatural consciousness wished uniformity onto the world of objects, but then we’d be operating with imaginary agents and not dealing with objective reality. At any rate, such a view would entail that nature is not inherently nature, in which case all kinds of epistemological havoc could only result from taking it seriously as a metaphysical premise in one’s worldview.

In my 2010 blog entry on the topic, I offered the following understanding of “uniformity of nature” drawing on the Objectivist axioms:
the applicability of the axiom of existence to all of reality and the absolute (i.e., exceptionless) concurrence of identity with existence. Both of these aspects of the uniformity of nature are undeniable – that is, they cannot be denied without self-contradiction. Since reality is the realm of existence, the axiom of existence necessarily applies to all of reality. Since reality is the realm of existence, existence and identity are concurrent absolutely - i.e., without exception.
The uniformity of nature is indeed a feature of reality which thinkers do take for granted – indeed, it is part of the metaphysically given and nothing can alter it, even silly beliefs, but this does not mean that it is philosophically up for grabs to the first witch doctor who claims to “explain” it by asserting the existence of a supernatural consciousness. Rather than a product of consciousness, the objective view teaches us why the uniformity of nature is something we discover as part of our experiential interaction with the reality in which we live.

Another quote from Van Til’s writings which Anderson cites is the following:
The theistic proofs therefore reduce to one proof, the proof which argues that unless this God, the God of the Bible, the ultimate being, the Creator, the controller of the universe, be presupposed as the foundation of human experience, this experience operates in a void. This one proof is absolutely convincing. (Common Grace and the Gospel (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1972), 192.)
Consider what understanding of “human experience” would need to be assumed in order for such a claim even to make sense. Human experience would have to be a phenomenon whose very nature and the nature of the realm in which it operates hinge on whatever one presupposes, which means: the nature of one’s experience and the realm in which it operates depends on what one “presupposes.” But presupposing is a conscious activity and as such it needs an object. Thus, the presupposing in question here could not be informed by experience since experience is construed here to be dependent on the presupposing, which raises the question: what informs that presupposing to begin with? Certainly it could not be “revelation,” for any instance of revelation would have to be something one experiences. So on this analysis one would have to perform his presupposing in an utter void in order for experience and the realm in which it operates to have a nature. Van Til’s entire claim here comes crashing down into a pile of stolen concepts. If Van Til’s “theistic proofs… reduce to.. the proof which argues” essentially this, they’re doomed from the start.

An organism’s experience (fundamentally, its conscious interaction with the world around it) operates according to its nature (the law of identity applied to causality) regardless of what that organism “presupposes” (assuming it has the capacity to presuppose anything; non-human animals, which operate on the perceptual or even more primitive level of consciousness, don’t “presuppose” anything, and yet they have experience, which proves, contra Van Til, that experience is independent of presupposing), and the realm in which one experiences things is what it is independent of any conscious activity, presupposing or otherwise (cf. the primacy of existence). Van Til’s basic approach taken as a unit (“each point is closely connected to the others”) constitutes a wholesale denial of objective reality, making everything contingent on some psychological activity (“presupposing”) which could not be possible if experience were not already taking place and if reality did not exist independent of conscious activity.

But Van Til insists that his “proof is absolutely convincing.” Perhaps he was prone to exaggeration.

Van Til of course insisted that his theistic argument was “transcendental” in nature. It is not always clear what exactly this means in practice (some apologists seem to think merely asserting the existence of the Christian god constitutes an instance of transcendental argumentation in action), but fortunately Anderson helps us out with another quote from Van Til:
…the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. (Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 11.)
Anderson himself echoes this when he writes:
…transcendental arguments purport to uncover what must be the case (or alternatively, what we must take to be the case) in order for various kinds of intentional operation (e.g., individuating, predicating, perceiving, knowing) to be possible. (IKTG, p. 14.)
Apologist Michael Butler provides a very similar explanation:
Transcendental arguments attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience. They do so by taking some aspect of human experience and investigating what must be true in order for that experience to be possible. Transcendental arguments typically have the following form. For x [some aspect of human experience] to be the case, y must also be the case since y is the precondition of x. Since x is the case, y is the case. (Michael R. Butler, “The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence,” in The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen (ed. Steven M. Schlissel), p. 79; see also here.)
I’ve always found the wording here (“…seeks to discover…” [Van Til], “…purports to uncover…” [Anderson], “…attempt to discover…” [Butler]) rather peculiar if not ironic, for apologists who champion the transcendental argument for the existence of a god never explain exactly how anyone can discover the god whose existence said arguments are supposed to establish. Rather, the renditions of such arguments which I have examined do not identify steps which one can perform in order to retrace a process of discovery independent of any alleged discoverers’ mere say-so (e.g., “first I went here and did A, then went there and did B, then I did C, D and E, and if you perform the same steps, you’ll see exactly what I discovered…”), but rather appear to be exercises in assertion and stipulation. A case in point is from Greg Bahnsen’s own opening statement in his debate with Gordon Stein, where he closes his opening statement with the following set of assertions:
The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist world view is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist world view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes. In that sense the atheist world view cannot account for our debate tonight.
I can read through this a hundred times, but I’m not discovering any “preconditions of human experience” here, let alone any supernatural being which has the power to create an entire universe. Bahnsen’s remarks about “the atheist world view” do not overcome this failing, nor do they add any substantiation to the claim that “without [God] it is impossible to prove anything.” One worldview’s alleged deficiency’s do not validate another worldview’s positive assertions. Moreover, if “the preconditions of human experience” are at all of any interest here, the subjective analysis we saw above undergirding Van Til’s entire approach only raises the suspicion that presuppositionalism is simply on the wrong track.

Frankly, I don’t think assembling an argument is the proper place to make discoveries of the kind in question. Rather, a more prudent approach would be to make the discoveries in question through some kind of research, then review the steps one took to make said discoveries, and then document those steps to allow others to test the findings. Once those findings have been validated and verified, then one can busy himself with constructing arguments. This is all to say that, I don’t think these apologists are really angling to “discover” anything. Belief and obedience are the hallmarks of religion, not enlightenment. Besides, if one were truly interested in identifying “the preconditions of human experience,” what’s wrong with the axioms and the primacy of existence?

But, according to Anderson, Van Til had his reasons for preferring the transcendental mode of argument. Anderson summarizes some of those reasons as follows:
In any apologetic dialectic between a Christian and a non-Christian, Van Til noted, it is not simply that the two parties disagree about whether or not some entity of a certain description exists or whether or not certain events in history have occurred. On the contrary, if the God of the Bible exists, and if he relates to us and our universe as the Bible suggests, that fact has the most profound implications for our epistemology and epistemic practices: what we know and how we know it, how we determine facts, how we interpret evidence, how we weigh lines of reasoning, what we consider probable, plausible, possible, and so forth. As a consequence, the two parties will adhere, in principle, to quite different sets of epistemic norms, that is, canons of proper reasoning and knowledge acquisition. The apologetic dialectic thus involves a clash of whole systems, each of which prescribes a different view of how one should properly adjudicate between those systems (and each constituted, if coherent, so as to ultimately favor itself by its own rational standards). In such a situation, appeals to “facts” and “evidence” by either side will prove woefully inconclusive because of the epistemological differences between the systems being debated. (IKTG, p. 13)
Notice that the focus here is on conflict engagement between believer and non-believer rather than on any “attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience.” If anything, the focus here implies that if any preconditions of human experience are to come into play, they have somehow already been discovered, and the steps involved in that discovery are no longer of any concern, for now the issue is one of engagement with adversarial parties and the gulf which divides the two. Is the goal here to validate Christianity as a worldview, or to score points in public debates? If the former is the aim, I think it would be more fruitful for the apologist to relax his defenses long enough to explain the steps he took to come to the conclusion that the god he worships is real, to whatever extent that is in fact a conclusion to begin with. If he simply started out with that assumption (cf. his “ultimate presupposition”), then he should at least be forthcoming and admit just this. “I begin by assuming God exists” may not constitute a proof that is “absolutely convincing,” but wouldn’t it be more honest?

At this point, both sides of the engagement should simply identify what their respective starting point is, identify the means by which they have awareness of that starting point (e.g., is it discovered by looking outward at the world of facts, or by looking inward into the depths of one’s imagination and fantasy?), explain why they think their starting point in fact qualifies as a starting point, why it’s true, etc., and compare notes, as it were. (I have done this on behalf of my worldview here: here.) Developing an argument per se expressly as an obligatory debating device (as Anderson puts it, “one party must argue that the very possibility of debate presupposes the falsity of the other party’s system,” IKTG, p. 13) is, I suspect, at least one of the factors which explains why “many presuppositionists [sic] come across as cocky know-it-alls who continually try to insult non-Christians” (S. Joel Garver, “A Primer on Presuppositionalism”).

As for “the different sets of epistemic norms” to which Anderson refers, I can think of no more fundamental principle than the primacy of existence – i.e., the recognition that existence exists independent of conscious activity (cf. wishing doesn’t make it so), as the most critical standard by which one should regulate his understanding of reality, validation of knowledge, view of man, etc. The primacy of existence is normative (see here) since its very locus lies at the very foundations of thought.

Speaking more directly to the concerns which Anderson does touch on in the paragraph above, I’d love to see where the Christian bible addresses them. For example, how does the Christian bible elucidate “what we know” and more importantly “how we know it”? It’s curious that Anderson includes this latter concern, even though it is of central importance to epistemology, for John Frame, himself a decorated Christian theologian, seems to find it satisfactory to confess “we know without knowing how we know” (cf. here). Where does the Christian bible elucidate “how we determine facts” and “how we interpret evidence”? What is its theory on “how we weigh lines of reasoning” and on “what we consider probable, plausible, possible”? If Anderson is going to claim that Christianity is true and that it must be “presupposed” in order to have an answer to all these concerns, concerns which I agree are important, why doesn’t he point out where the Christian bible addresses them?

Anderson’s view that “appeals to ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ by either side will prove woefully inconclusive because of the epistemological differences between systems being debated,” is rather dubious. What is the alternative to facts and evidence? Here Anderson is concerned to preserve the presuppositionalist tenet of “antithesis” between believing and non-believing worldviews, but as I pointed out in my recent entry on this notion, this tenet hazards the risk of surrendering important facts to “unbelieving thought” for the sake of maintaining division and refraining from any semblance of being “yoked” with non-believers. If I say the sky is blue, the believer will have to find some reason to nitpick that for the sake of denying it. But there are inescapable facts which the believer, in order to avoid utter absurdity, would have to grant. For example, the Objectivist axiom that existence exists. Then again, at least one defender of Christianity has gone on record denying even this (see here), which only underscores the concern that Anderson’s concern about appeals to facts and evidence invites certain liabilities that I think a more sober-minded man would make sure to avoid.

But we can go down the line with other fundamental facts. On the Objectivist worldview, for example, wishing doesn’t make it so. In fact, we can test this: try wishing for anything and see if it comes to pass. Perhaps you can wish for $100,000.00 to suddenly appear in your wallet. Will it happen? On the Objectivist view, the answer is a firmly unflinching NO: no amount of wishing will fill your wallet with unearned cash. Indeed, if one test of the truthfulness of a worldview is fulfilled predictions, I hereby predict that none of my readers will find $100,000.00 in his wallet as a result of merely wishing for it. If you find that your wishing is in fact successful in conjuring cash ex nihilo, don’t stop there!

So where does that leave the Christian? Will he deny the truth of the recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so? Perhaps he will, for not only does his commitment to antithesis require this, he will also need to make allowance for what Christianity actually does teach, which is that there are supernatural beings which have the ability to conjure existents out of nothing and control reality through wishing. And yet, he will function every step of the way as though wishing doesn’t make it so, for in fact wishing does not make it so, regardless of what one might otherwise want to believe.

What relevance does this fact have? In fact, it is a very important fact, for it points to the fundamental reason why wishing doesn’t make it so, which is the primacy of existence – a principle of which the theist himself makes implicit use every time he makes a truth claim even though his declared worldview emphatically denies it (cf. here). The very act of asserting a truth presupposes an orientation between the subject of consciousness and any object(s) to which that truth claim refers, and this relationship is not a relationship of equals. When I say, for example, that the Pacific Ocean is bigger than Lake Michigan, I am making a truth claim and by doing so I need to make sure that what I say and the words I choose (a conscious action) conform to what is actually the case (existence), and in so doing I am performatively acknowledging that the act of constructing a proposition must conform to what is the case independent of my conscious activity. This is what it means to say that existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness as it applies to truth. My effort to ensure that my truth claim conforms to existence also signals that I implicitly recognize that if I say Lake Michigan is bigger than the Pacific Ocean, I am not expecting reality to re-arrange itself in order to conform to my statement; if I say that Lake Michigan is bigger than the Pacific Ocean, I will be wrong, not because of some “a priori concepts,” but because my proposition does not conform to reality.

Now these facts are certainly not philosophically compatible with Christianity, given its assertion of a being to whose conscious dictates reality is imagined to conform, so Anderson is to a degree being consistent with what Christianity teaches if he seeks to disqualify facts and evidence as inadmissible in debate. That, however, is hardly an enviable position to find oneself in, so he can have it!

In my next entry, I will look at the details of “The Argument from the Unity of Knowledge” from James Anderson’s paper If Knowledge Then God. So stay tuned!

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson. And Happy New Year!

Jason mc said...

Congrats on your 500th blog post, DB! And happy new year to all readers!

James P. Caputo said...

Thanks for all your hard work. And happy New Year!

Bahnsen Burner said...

Happy New Year, everyone! Thanks for reading!

500th entry? Oh shoot! I'm off by one. I thought my next one would be #500... Well, I must have misplaced one!

Stay safe, everyone! The world is really getting crazy. Interesting times.


Jason mc said...

My own count might be off... I will check.

Speaking of counting things, I find it interesting that Anderson is willing to separate and enumerate Van Til's points, to clarify what he's arguing, but this is something I've noticed presuppers tend to resist. C.f. Douglas Wilson's reaction to Theodore Drange's attempt to do the similar:

"[...] premises one, two, three, four, stark and severe outlines, and nifty acronyms for arguments. The historic Christian position cannot pushed into modernity’s categories, which is to say, our discussion of the great questions ought always to be pursued with reason, joy, humor, poetry, and gladness. We must take care to think like men, and not rattle and hum like a badly-oiled machine."


Jason mc said...

Source for the above quote:

Jason mc said...

I found where your count got thrown off:

348. I Reject Christianity Because It’s Not True, Part II - March 19, 2014
348. I Reject Christianity Because It’s Not True, Part III - March 21, 2014

Robert Kidd said...

Which has primacy, consciousness, or reality? It really is the heart of the issue, isn't it? The answer is so simple and readily available to everyone. Then why, why, why are so many people ensnared in religious belief?

Bahnsen Burner said...

Oh rats! That's way back in Year Nine! All this time? Ha!! Great sleuthing, Jason! Thank you for discovering that! So I guess I really am at 500 now.

Well wait a minute! Without God, how do you *really know* that there's no 348 appearing twice consecutively in the number series?

I have a bit of a project now...

Bahnsen Burner said...


Yes, ultimately, the issue of metaphysical primacy is the heart of the matter. In philosophic terms, it might seem a very alien idea - someone on the defensive will use the novelty of the language to distract.

Ask them if wishing makes it so, and if they say no, saying it's obvious that wishing doesn't make it so, ask: why is it the case that wishing doesn't make it so? It's plainly evident that wishing doesn't make it so, but beyond that most thinkers haven't given the issue any further thought, and of course they don't grasp the fundamental importance of this fact given its implications for knowledge. They need a guide here.

Then go through other types of conscious activity - e.g., imagining, remembering, hoping, believing, wanting, even perceiving. Does seeing something make that something exist? These are questions that even very educated thinkers have never really pondered. It is not complicated, and if someone tries to make it complicated ("It's not that simplistic!" some might say), then it's likely they're squirming for a reason - they feel threatened.

Look, I don't want to threaten anyone. But I do think adults need to use their minds in an adult manner. Religion requires an arrested state of psychology, at the pre-adolescent level. As children much of our playtime involves imagination. It's a hugely valuable resource. But it's not a means of knowledge, and this fact escapes us if we don't explicitly understand it.

It's also evident that religious persons will compartmentalize - they'll insist on the existence of their god, the reality of miracles, the power of prayer, the benefits of faith, etc. But in their day-to-day actions, they behave in conformity with the primacy of existence. Do they want to get into a car? They open the door. Do they want light in the room? They flip the light switch. Do they want to fill their stomach? They go to the refrigerator. Etc. Their actions prove the lie behind their beliefs. Presuppositionalism tries to flip the tables on this, but by now it should be clear they have things entirely backwards.


Robert Kidd said...

Hi Dawson,

I have asked that question, does wishing make things so, and the answer usually is: Well no not for us as finite humans but for God it does. LOL. I then explain that they are proposing that the universe has one nature in relation to one consciousness and that it has a different nature for others and that is a blatant contradiction and it's the very definition of subjectivism. You can't reject the primacy of existence without rejecting the law of identity. At this point I have it pointed out that only those crazy Ayn Rand followers use such terms and she wasn't a real philosopher. Oh well, I try, LOL.

I guess the best response is to say that's true for you but it's not true for me. What can they then say?

Thank you,

Robert Kidd