Thursday, January 06, 2022

An Examination of Van Til’s “Argument from the Unity of Knowledge”

In my previous entry we surveyed the salient background features propping up Cornelius Van Til’s arguments for the existence of the Christian god as formalized by apologist James Anderson in his paper If Knowledge Then God (IKTG). The four biggies here are that (a) there can be only one argument (hence Anderson presents a total of seven formalized arguments in his paper, four of them on behalf of Van Til), (b) this argument establishes specifically Christian theism (as opposed to some “generic theism”), (c) the argument’s conclusion is certain (“not merely probable”), and (d) the argument must be a “transcendental” argument (by which means the apologist “discovers” or rather asserts what the necessary preconditions of knowledge must be). Thus we witnessed Van Til boast that “there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism” (The Defense of the Faith, p. 103.) and that “this one proof is absolutely convincing” (Common Grace and the Gospel p. 192). 

So the very nature of knowledge as such, which human beings do in fact acquire and possess, is purportedly of vital interest in drawing the conclusion that there must be a god, and accordingly this god must be the god described in the Christian bible. What always strikes me as a fundamental liability to the presuppositionalists’ project here is that their procedure exhibits virtually no awareness of how the human mind forms concepts or even any discussion of whether concepts even play an integral role in epistemology. This omission is evident even in the fourth argument which Anderson attributes to Van Til, the so-called “Argument from Conceptual Schemes” (cf. IKTG, pp. 23-24), which is where one would most expect to find an analysis of concepts, but does not. If knowledge is conceptual (and it is), this oversight is quite a liability. In fact, I’d go even further and wager that not only is it because Christianity lacks an understanding of concepts – their nature, how they are formed, how they relate to and depend on the perceptual level of awareness, etc. – that believers might therefore imagine that knowledge must somehow be sourced in the supernatural, but also that supernatural notions cannot be rationally inferred from an objective understanding of concepts. 

How all this plays out is very instructive when it comes to assaying the intellectual deficiencies of presuppositionalism in particular, and Christianity in general. So with my earlier points in mind, let’s turn to the Argument from the Unity of Knowledge and see how “absolutely convincing” this “absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism” might be. 

This argument has three premises and a conclusion and appears on page 20 of Anderson’s paper:
P1. If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe. 
P2. Only God could have comprehensive knowledge of the universe. 
P3. We have some knowledge of the universe. 
C: Therefore, God exists.
There’s a lot to say about this argument, so much so that I have broken things out into several sections below. 

Initial Disappointment 

I just have to say that, if I were a budding Christian and wanted to be authentically certain that the Christian god were in fact a real being, I would be disappointed by what is offered here. For while the presentation here may be impressive, with numbered premises and curated syllogistic formality, by the time I get to the argument’s conclusion, I find that I still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence it is purported to establish. But if I were a Christian, I would have already been imagining the Christian god along, so this exercise would be fruitless – it would not add any genuine confidence to my faith. I know this because I was a Christian earlier in my life, and I knew then that I was merely imagining the god which I attended church in order to worship. Everyone else there was imagining as well. I have more to say on this in one of the sections below. 

Is this argument biblical

Now I don’t recall ever seeing any course of reasoning which resembles this line of argumentation anywhere in the Christian bible. In fact, Anderson states that this argument is “inspired by themes in idealist philosophy” (IKTG, p. 20), which by itself should put us on alert given idealism’s denial of the primacy of existence metaphysics (and believers should be wary of any “borrowing” from non-Christian worldviews). Specifically, Anderson has in mind “the notion that everything in the universe is related to everything else” (Ibid.), which is quite the generalization, though it remains to be explained what exactly it means to say that “everything in the universe is related to everything else.” Is this a metaphysical relationship? If so, what exactly is that relationship and how would anyone know this about “everything in the universe”? Is it a conceptual relationship? If so, what is the Christian account of concepts which makes such a postulation possible? How is this view distinguishable from just another assumption accepted on faith? 

Points from Van Til 

Not that it helps address these questions, Anderson quotes Van Til (IKTG, p. 19):
This modern view is based on the assumption that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication. When, therefore, man cannot know everything, it follows that nothing can be known. All things being related, all things must be exhaustively known or nothing can be known. (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 163.)
Again, we have more chronic vagueness wadded up into a snowball and thrown at a granite monolith. What does it mean to say that “man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication,” and who exactly affirms this view? And how exactly does it follow from “the assumption that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication” that “when, therefore, man cannot know everything, it follows that nothing can be known”? None of this is self-evident, and I suspect there are hidden premises underlying all this which need to be brought out into the sunlight. Maybe they’re kept hidden for a reason. 

It is a fact that, in order to apply the Baconian dictum “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” man must devise conceptual tools for bringing that which is not available to his perception into a form which is available to his perception. This is the purpose of measurement, which Ayn Rand explains as follows:
Now what is the purpose of measurement? Observe that measurement consists of relating an easily perceivable unit to larger or smaller quantities, then to infinitely larger or infinitely smaller quantities, which are not directly perceivable to man. (The word “infinitely” is used here as a mathematical, not a metaphysical, term.) The purpose of measurement is to expand the range of man’s consciousness, of his knowledge, beyond the perceptual level: beyond the direct power of his senses and the immediate concretes of any given moment. Man can perceive the length of one foot directly; he cannot perceive ten miles. By establishing the relationship of feet to miles, he can grasp and know any distance on earth; by establishing the relationship of miles to light-years, he can know the distances of galaxies. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 7-8)
If basing standards of measurements on units which are available to man’s perceptual capacity because they are so available, is tantamount to assuming “that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication,” it would be most ironic if Van Til’s argument takes as its premise that omniscience is a precondition for any knowledge to be possible, since it is by means of applying measurements that man expands his awareness beyond the limits of his perception. I can only suspect that Van Til was so preoccupied with the deity in which he invested his psychological energies that he simply did not consider how the human mind works. This doesn’t bode well for the claim to have some kind of direct pipeline to a supernatural, omniscient mind! 

Beyond that, it is not clear how it follows, as Van Til seems to have believed, “that nothing can be known” from the fact that “man cannot know everything,” nor is it clear how it follows from the premise that “all things [are] related” that “all things must be exhaustively known or nothing can be known.” 

Anderson provided another quote from Van Til:
Here too every non-Christian epistemology may be distinguished from Christian epistemology in that it is only Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere but this comprehensive knowledge need not and cannot be in us; it must be in God. (Van Til, The defense of the Faith, 41.)
If by “comprehensive knowledge” Van Til essentially exhaustive knowledge of everything that exists (and even of everything that does not but could exist or has existed, etc.), i.e., omniscience, where does he establish that “every non-Christian epistemology… set[s] before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man”? Objectivism surely does not do this, but Van Til seems to be inferring that this must be the case for all forms of non-Christian epistemology from the assumption that “there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere.” What could possibly justify such a sweeping generalization? I do not see that Anderson has presented any quote from Van Til vindicating this view. It may be that this is yet another one of many unexamined presuppositions Van Til seems to have accepted at some point in his life and never questioned. 

The Argument’s Flawed Assumptions about Knowledge 

The cogency of this argument depends entirely on a particular analysis of knowledge which is rationally untenable. The conception of ‘knowledge’ as it is used in this argument divorces the content of said knowledge from any dependence on the biological means of awareness which make actual knowledge of objects possible. The dependence of this argument on such an analysis is actually borne out more clearly in remarks which Anderson makes in regard to the fourth Vantillian argument which his paper explores. There he writes:
Kant made much philosophical hay from the conviction that our minds play more than a merely passive role in gaining knowledge of the world. This seems intuitively right: our judgments about the objects in our experience are not simply “given” to us by way of the stimulation of our senses, but are shaped by a considerable raft of a priori concepts concerning the fundamental structure of reality — logical principles, causal relations, metaphysical necessities, notions of self, and so forth. (IKTG, p. 23)
To say that “our minds play more than merely a passive role in gaining knowledge” is such an understatement that it comes across as a concession to the actual state of affairs made reluctantly at the last minute in order to salvage whatever can be preserved in idealism. The human mind is indeed actively engaged in gaining knowledge, but not for the reasons Anderson calls “intuitively right.” Anderson wants to maintain that “our judgments about the object in our experience… are shaped by a considerable raft of a priori concepts concerning the fundamental structure of reality,” which is the part of idealism being protected here. The notion of “a priori concepts” - that is, ideations which man allegedly “just knows” or are somehow canned into his psyche from the point of conception – is an outright assault on man’s mind and the way in which he acquires and validates knowledge. Every step which a thinker performs in gaining knowledge of reality – from perceiving entities to differentiating them from one another, from isolating objects against a background to observing similarities in them, from integrating perceived units to forming concepts of entity classes, from abstracting attributes to integrating broader abstractions, etc. – are types of actions which the mind must perform in order to develop knowledge. No genuine knowledge is available to man without actions of these sorts, even the “logical principles, causal relations, metaphysical necessities, notions of self,” etc., which Anderson may have in mind as examples of “a priori concepts.” To assert that man has such “a priori concepts” is to signal fundamental ignorance on the process by which concepts are formed in the first place. It is tantamount to saying, “I have no idea how one could derive logical principles and fundamental concepts from perceptual contact with reality, so they must have been in our minds all along!” 

Contrary to this, as Binswanger points out:
1) perception is the base of all knowledge; 2) valid concepts are formed from perception by an objective process. (Harry Binswanger, How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation, p. 58.)
Elsewhere Binswanger summarizes:
The primacy of perception leads to a wider point: knowledge is essentially “bottom-up,” not “top-down.” Conceptual knowledge is acquired by building up from perceptual data. (Ibid., p. 371.)
This entails that
Man is born tabula rasa: his consciousness is only a potential – until it is actualized by input to his sensory organs. The fetus in the womb does not have any theories, thoughts, concepts, or even percepts. An infant born without any senses would never be conscious. A boy may dream that he is driving a car; a fetus cannot. Even to dream about cars, one must have perceived them (or have been told about them by someone who has perceived them). Directly or indirectly, perception of cars is necessary to remember cars, imagine cars, form the concept “car,” make propositions about cars, draw conclusions about cars, or develop the field of automotive engineering. (Ibid.)
All these points may seem uncontroversial, perhaps even self-evident, to some thinkers – in particular, those who are in touch with reality. But, asks Binswanger: “Who could deny this?” His answer:
Explicitly, Plato. Implicitly, every Rationalist philosopher, every theologian, every believer in God, Allah, or Vishnu, every advocate of some realm that is neither perceivable nor logically derivable from perception. In other words, the bottom-up nature of knowledge has been rejected, in theory and in practice, by 99 percent of mankind, including the majority of the leading figures in the history of philosophy. (Ibid.)

Justification for P1? 

Anderson admits that the argument’s initial premise (“If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe”) is the most controversial in the argument. About this premise, he states the following:
What reason is there to think it true? To my knowledge, Van Til never explains the argument for [P1] in any detail, but the idea seems to be that unless one knows everything about the universe, the interrelatedness of the universe means that whatever reasons or grounds one has for one’s beliefs the possibility remains of some fact coming to light that radically undermines those reasons or grounds. Indeed, for all we know (or think we know) that possibility could be a significant probability — but whatever the case, without comprehensive knowledge we will always end up peering into darkness at the boundaries of our purported knowledge. The probability that what we don’t know will support rather than undermine what we think we do know is, as Plantinga might say, inscrutable. Ignorance seems to have an unsettling infectiousness about it. The very fact that we are ignorant about those areas of which we are ignorant means that we do not know how they bear on everything else — and thus how everything else may depend on them. The old adage “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” may reflect an admirable optimism, but on sober analysis it couldn’t be more wrong. (IKTG, p. 20.)
And wouldn’t you know? The solution to this supposed problem is to posit a supernatural mind which allegedly knows everything, thus accommodating a conclusion like the one Van Til would have liked to have drawn. Anderson explains:
God, of course, is immune to such worries. Knowing everything in the nature of the case includes knowing how one’s knowledge of one fact bears on one’s knowledge of another fact. Furthermore, if God exists, then presumably he is able to so arrange things that the noetic faculties of human beings function in such a way as to implicitly take into account all that God alone knows. The idea is not that each one of us has an exhaustive knowledge of the universe tacitly built, as it were, into our cognitive apparatus. Rather, it is that — to use a motoring metaphor — we have been given reliable vehicles and set off in the right direction on accurately signposted, well-constructed and well-connected roads. Or as Van Til remarks: “My unity [of knowledge] is the unity of a child who walks with its father through the woods.”(Van Til, Why I Believe in God.) (IKTG, pp. 20-21.)
No doubt, we can all imagine what Anderson describes here – namely a conscious agent which “knows everything” – and pretend that what we imagine is real and that it neutralizes the epistemological threat described above. The solution, then, is to imagine an omniscient mind which created the entire universe, further imagine that, when creating human beings, it saw to it that our “noetic faculties… function in such a way as to implicitly take into account” everything that this imaginary mind is imagined alone to know, and thus assume from all this fantasy that our minds are noetically reliable and therefore that our knowledge is at least generally on the right track. In other words, the problem could very well be real, but we’re protected by a being that is available to us simply by imagining it. 

If only philosophical problems were so easy to dispel! Unfortunately, none of this rests on any observed facts. 

P1 Self-Destructs 

But is the problem which generates P1 truly a problem? 

I grant that Anderson’s analysis supporting P1 very likely summarizes Van Til’s operating assumptions more than adequately, and maybe even better than Van Til himself could ever hope to articulate. In fact, I would even go further in suggesting that such a conception of knowledge is logically inevitable given rationalism – where rationalism is essentially deduction without reference to observed facts. The whole chain of reasoning here screams out for want of an objective understanding of concepts, in particular the formation of concepts on the basis of objective input. Knowledge which is built from the ground up on the basis of perceptual input and developed logically within the framework of the norms of objective abstraction, is knowledge which remains anchored to reality and thus is not under the threat of reality coming along and knocking it off its feet. And given Christianity’s lack of objective grounding, we might expect such an analysis as we see here from the Christian camp. 

One assumption which the analysis Anderson presents here takes for granted and which is essential to that analysis, is the assumption that knowledge in fact has a hierarchical structure: knowledge has “grounds,” and if those grounds are challenged and defeated (or perhaps merely challenged!), the rest of our knowledge – knowledge that rests squarely on those imperiled grounds – could very well come toppling down, like walls at the sound of Jericho’s trumpet. The worry here can really be just a benign hypothesis in the quarantined vacuum of an innocuous thought-experiment (namely, if one’s grounds for knowledge have the insuperable security of an objective starting point) and thus be ignored, or a menacing phantasm with real teeth that haunts a thinker in the middle of his deepest sleep (such as when one’s “knowledge” in fact rests in subjective dogma which attempts to strike a bargain between what’s real and what’s imaginary, with the latter winning out). But I notice that the belief that knowledge has grounds itself is not treated as though it could be vulnerable to correction by some yet-to-be-discovered fact possibly coming to light at some point. And yet, for such a worry to be taken seriously (as Van Til and Anderson want us to do), it would have to apply consistently to everything one knows or believes he knows, including the belief that knowledge has grounds in the first place. But if this belief itself could possibly be called into question – such that some as-yet-unknown fact proves after all that knowledge does not need grounds – then the knowledge one has (or thinks he has) may very well be immune from the kind of challenges it worries about, for if knowledge does not need grounds, then some new fact challenging its would-be grounds would in fact not pose a challenge to the whole. So to the degree that the worry here is consistently applied, the whole analysis contains within itself its own seeds of destruction. 

So much for the first premise of Van Til’s Argument from the Unity of Knowledge. Sadly, however, the problems of the argument’s initial premise do not end there. 

Counter-Examples: Knowledge that is Impervious to Van Til’s Attack 

On an objective understanding of knowledge, the idea that some new fact possibly challenging its fundamentals and thus toppling that knowledge is absurd. Let’s consider some fundamentals and see just how subject they would be to the kind of “inscrutable” possibilities which worries Van Til and his ilk: 

1. Knowledge of the fact that there is a reality. Consider Objectivism’s initial axiom, existence exists. This is the fundamental recognition, in the form of a conceptually irreducible primary, of the fact that there is a reality. It does not state what reality consists of (such discovery comes later), nor does this recognition entail the presumption to know everything that exists. It is simply the recognition that things exist. Now what kind of new fact could possibly challenge this knowledge? Facts are entities in actual contexts, so any new fact would have to be something that exists. Thus it is logically impossible in the most extreme sense that a new fact could come along and disprove the recognition that things exist. On the contrary, every new fact we discover only positively reinforces the recognition that existence exists. Quite simply, the axiom of existence is immune to Van Til’s confused analysis. 

2. Knowledge of the fact that existents have a nature. This is the Objectivist axiom of identity. This is the fundamental recognition that to exist is to be something specific, to have a nature. If A exists, it must be A. Now what kind of new fact could possibly challenge this knowledge? For it to be a fact, it would have to exist (see above) and thus it would have identity; indeed, by calling it a fact, we would be granting that it has identity. Plus, to suppose that it could pose a challenge to any premise or belief, it would have to have a nature of some sort, otherwise it could not be said with any veracity to pose any kind of challenge at all. But if this new fact exists and thus has a nature, it would only confirm the knowledge of the fact that existents have a nature rather than challenge it. The axiom of identity is thus immune to Van Til’s muddled analysis. 

3. The knowledge that one is conscious. This is the Objectivist axiom of consciousness, the fundamental recognition (even if only implicit) that when one has awareness of objects, he is conscious of something. So what could possibly challenge this knowledge? Any new fact, far from posing a challenge as we have seen above to the knowledge that existence exists and that existents have a nature, would have to be known in order for it to be regarded as challenging any of our knowledge, for regarding is a type of conscious activity. But if we knew of this fact, then it would yet again confirm our knowledge that we are conscious, and this knowledge itself would prevail unscathed. So as with the axioms of existence and identity, discovering new facts can only positively reinforce the axiom of consciousness, not challenge it. The axiom of consciousness is thus also immune to Van Til’s addled analysis. 

4. Many facts pertaining to man’s nature are likewise immune to challenge by the worry of some alleged new fact coming to light. For example, the fact that man is a living organism. What alleged new fact could possibly challenge this? Blank out. Or consider the fact that man requires values in order to live, including food and water. What alleged new fact could possibly challenge this? Blank out. Or how about the fact that man’s consciousness is capable of acquiring and retaining knowledge in conceptual form? What alleged new fact could possibly challenge this? Blank out. There are more facts, such as the fact that man must act in order to acquire those values which his life requires, that man can procreate, that man must use symbols in order to communicate abstract ideas to other men, that man can achieve his goals if he uses his mind properly, etc. What alleged new fact could possibly challenge any of these items of knowledge? Blank out. Then there are facts which are now in the past, such as the facts that I was born into a family with three older siblings, that my father was a businessman, that my mother was at one time a school teacher, that one of my sisters was involved in a harrowing car accident in 1980, that my other sister graduated from UCLA, that I have traveled in Asia, etc. Navel-gazers can delight themselves with concocting “possible world” scenarios in which some imagined fact comes along and topples all of these actual facts, but I’ll gladly pit reality against their imagination any day of the week. 

Now it is not up to me to prove that no as-yet-unknown facts of a certain nature exist; I’ve done enough to neutralize the argument by identifying many items of knowledge that are safe from any challenge whatsoever. Rather, if the theist wants to insist on the self-undermining analysis of knowledge assumed by Van Til’s Argument from the Unity of Knowledge, it is up to him to explain exactly how some new fact could possibly overturn the items of knowledge I have affirmed. There may be items of knowledge which I have incidentally accepted as knowledge that can be challenged by new information, but not the grounds which I have listed above. Those are invulnerable and insuperable. The justification for P1 which Anderson attributes to Van Til has merit only insofar as the grounds of our knowledge could be vulnerable to some imagined challenge, not the incidental trivia we have acquired along the way in our journey through life. Removing a few leaves from a tree still leaves the tree standing. 

Examples of Vulnerable Beliefs 

Note also that neither Van Til nor Anderson presents any evidence for what they take to be a real possibility, nor do they offer even an example of some fact “radically undermining” one’s overall knowledge. But this points to a systemic flaw in Van Til’s entire line of thinking: any defense of this analysis of knowledge makes its burden even more dubious since its defender will have no alternative but to imagine scenarios in which some beliefs could be fundamentally dislodged by alleged new facts; those alleged new facts would, by virtue of what is being argued, need to be imagined in order for any example to be assembled. 

Now it is true that some beliefs can be fundamentally dislodged by newly discovered information, or even by a realization of facts that have been available all along, but ignored. Speaking from personal experience (and thus not from mere imagination), when I began to understand explicitly the facts pertaining to the issue of metaphysical primacy, my belief that theism was at least a valid worldview was fatally challenged. And this did not come without resistance on my part. I can recall quite clearly how, when I would engage in conversation with my fellow believers about “the Lord,” about angels, about demons and devils, about Jesus’ presence, about repentance, deliverance, and salvation, etc., I sensed that in fact I was really just imagining these things – I was imagining Jesus standing beside us and approving of our speech. (The scenario described in my blog entry Carr vs. Cole is very instructive on this point; warning: that entry was posed over 15 years ago now, so many of the links are broken because the pages they linked to are no longer on the web!) But I suppressed this realization as best I could for as long as I could bear it. I had invested myself emotionally in the Christian worldview, so admitting the fact that I was simply imagining all of this would jeopardize all that I had banked on it – major life decisions, social circles, life changes, daily routines, mental habits, expenditures (e.g., tithing), etc. I would also have to admit that all that I had given up (which was tremendous) was all for naught. But every time I would talk about Jesus doing this, “the Lord” doing that, demons doing this, devils doing that, etc., I could hear my own words and was thus continually confronted with a fact that had been there all along: I was merely imagining all of this. 

However, I already knew – Van Til would say at the presuppositional level - that the imaginary is not real. This was not a newly discovered fact, but rather a fundamental fact that I had already learned early in life but was essentially “suppressing in unrighteousness” (cf. Rom. 1:18), doing my best to keep this truth out of view so that I wouldn’t have to confront it. In spite of this, everywhere else in my life, where I actually had to succeed in existence – at work, meeting expenses, procuring supplies, serving bodily needs, navigating the city where I lived, balancing accounts, etc. – I had to conform my choices and actions to the fact that the imaginary is not real. Since religious devotion is at its core psychological, I could compartmentalize my performative denial, my “suppression of the truth” as it were, within the confines of my life that were reserved for religious indulgence – e.g., prayer, worship time, communing with fellow believers (who were doing the same thing I was – compartmentalizing their denial of the fact that the imaginary is not real to spheres of their lives where it did not matter so much), and the like. So it is something one can evade in a sector of one’s life. 

Though some might find it inconvenient, I have always been keenly self-aware and acutely conscientious. Hence, I could try to outrun the fact that the imaginary is not real for only so long, and only so long as I could successfully submerge my conscientiousness in the baptismal waters of mystical self-delusion, which is what religious devotion requires of every believer. Essentially, as I started to realize what I was doing, I more and more found myself confronted with a choice: do I continue to suppress the truth in unrighteousness and pretend that these religious fantasies were true, or do I finally admit to myself that I had been lying to myself all along and acknowledge once and for all the fact that what I imagine is in fact not real after all? As time went on, I realized also that making this decision would only get harder the more I invested myself psychologically in the imaginary. 

Eventually I relented and faced the truth, admitting to myself what Steve Hays himself acknowledged when he remarked, “An imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” And it’s true: that which we imagine is in fact merely imaginary, and ever since then (this was in the early 1990s) I made it a personal policy of mine never to lose sight of the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Looking back on my experience, I came to the realization that the first order of business of the Christian mind-game is to keep this distinction as far from one’s mind as possible. 

So here we have an example of a set of beliefs which can indeed be toppled by acceptance of actual facts. 

Why the Argument from the Unity of Knowledge is Wrong 

We saw above that the analysis of knowledge which Van Til’s argument assumes is flawed. But there’s even more to say on this point which makes it absolutely certain that the argument’s initial premise must be rejected. 

Another way to illustrate the argument’s folly is to dial back its key terms a few steps epistemologically and see how well the general thinking here holds up at a more primitive stage in the cognitive process. Suppose the argument under review here stated the following: 

P1a. If no one perceives everything that exists, then no one can perceive anything that exists. 
P2a. Only God could perceive everything that exists. 
P3a. We perceive some things. 
Ca: Therefore, God exists. 

Or similarly: 

P1b. If no one has awareness of everything that exists, then no one can have awareness of anything that exists. 
P2b. Only God could have awareness of everything that exists. 
P3b. We have awareness of some things. 
Cb. Therefore, God exists. 

Both of these variations are entirely parallel to the one Anderson presents on behalf of Van Til, each at a more fundamental level of cognition to boot, and they bring into sharp focus the fundamental nature of the presuppositional argument’s inherent defects. Knowing as such is dependent on more primitive functions of consciousness, namely sense perception. Without perception, there’s no possible knowing subject. Also, knowing is dependent on awareness of objects, for it is the objects of awareness which inform the content of our knowledge. Without objects, there’d be nothing to know, just as without consciousness, there’d be no knowing subject to know anything. But it is not simply the case that knowledge is dependent on consciousness, but rather that knowledge is gathered and integrated on the basis of the objects of consciousness through the process of concept-formation performed by the knowing subject. A human mind can do this all by itself, without the assistance of other minds, and it is something human beings learn to do in the early years of their lives. The formation of concepts on the basis of perceptual input ensures that one’s knowledge is grounded objectively – i.e., on the basis of objects which have entered into the subject-object relationship which constitutes conscious experience. 

It should be readily apparent to any honest thinker that having awareness of everything that exists is not a precondition for having awareness of any individual thing that exists. No one reading this is aware of every object in existence, and yet you are reading these words. How can this be? How can you be aware of these words and not also be aware of everything else throughout all of reality at the same time? The notion of having awareness of everything in reality is a fantasy and as such has no bearing on what actually exists and what is actually possible epistemologically. We perceive those objects that are within the range of our senses, and for awareness of everything beyond that, we form concepts. Conceptualization expands our awareness beyond the reach of our senses, giving flight to our minds while anchoring our knowledge to the facts with which we have direct contact. 

Boiled down to its essence, if knowledge is based on perception, and perception of actual things is not dependent on perception of everything which exists, then knowledge as such is not dependent on knowledge of everything which exists. Knowledge is in fact based on perception, therefore knowledge of everything is not a precondition for knowledge of some things. 

Moreover, we do have concepts which subsume everything which exists. The indefinite pronoun “everything” does just this! Similarly the axiomatic concept ‘existence’ subsumes everything that exists, even of things which we have not perceived, even of things which we may never discover. If something exists, regardless of whether or not we perceive it, that item is included in the scope of the concept ‘existence’ by virtue of the fact that it exists. We do not need knowledge of an existent’s particular attributes in order for it to be included in the meaning of the concept ‘existence’ because the mere fact that it exists is the only qualification needed for it to be included in the scope of this axiomatic concept. 

So if universal knowledge is required for any knowledge whatsoever, no gods are needed: human beings already possess this by implication already in the form of axiomatic concepts, concepts which subsume and apply to everything which exists in the realm of existence. 

Many thinkers no doubt have historically rejected the dependence of knowledge on perception, and their rejection of this relationship hinges on at best a false understanding of concepts. Indeed, many thinkers who have rejected the role of perception in conceptual awareness simply have no theory of concepts to begin with, and it is this void in their understanding of knowledge which allows them to retreat further and further into mystical speculation, as we find here in Van Til-Anderson. They end up using concepts in order to obviate the very basis of the conceptual level of awareness, very likely not realizing that their entire artifice constitutes a mass of stolen concepts. 

Now none of these pointers will prevent us from imagining an omniscient being and even imagining that an omniscient being’s comprehensive knowledge of the universe is prerequisite to man having any knowledge at all. But given the primacy of existence, we must keep in mind the fact that what is real and what we imagine are two different things entirely. We can, with the Christian, dream up any series of “what ifs?” about the world given certain hypothesized conditions that we draw up in our imagination, but none of this speculation can substitute for knowledge of how things actually are. We need an objective process for this, and that’s not faith! 

Another flaw of the argument is that it begs the question. It essentially argues: God is necessary for anyone to know anything; people know something; therefore God exists. Thus it assumes that the conclusion must be true as a precondition of the truth of its premises by implicitly underwriting “God” as a precondition of knowledge from the outset rather than showing this as a product of a discovery process that any thinker should be able to repeat on their own (for otherwise, we’re just left with the believer’s say so, and that’s pretty weak, to say the least!). Rather, why not first establish that said god exists, and once this has been achieved, investigate the question whether or not its omniscience is a prerequisite to human knowledge? The presuppositionalist, unfortunately, does not take this approach. Rather, he seeks to establish the existence of his god by characterizing human knowledge (through superficial and indefensible means) as though it needs his god, even though he hasn’t established its existence to begin with. He uses an argument scheme to cover up the fact that he really has no argument at all!

For those who do not see the inherent circularity here, think of it this way: the argument clearly grants legitimacy to the notion ‘God’ when in fact this is the very thing the apologist is essentially called to defend. He’s assuming what he needs to prove in the first place and what the Objectivist critique calls squarely into question. Where did he get the notion ‘God’ and to what does it refer? How does he validate this notion? What method of validation does he use to ensure that what he calls “God” is not a notion that’s intermingled with the product of imagination? By what means can a human being, given the nature of his consciousness, have awareness of what the believer calls “God,” and how can we be certain that the believer’s own imagination is not playing a functional role here? The apologist’s beloved argument nowhere comes close to acknowledging these concerns as legitimate issues of inquiry, let alone addressing them. And yet, since human beings do have the capacity to imagine whatever they choose as something that “transcends” the reality we perceive and the experience we enjoy firsthand, the intrusion of imagination into these matters is something from which the apologist, given his outward expressions for concern for truth, would, one would think, seek to safeguard his argument. But he doesn’t! 

Given these remarkable defects, I conclude that the Argument from the Unity of Knowledge is beyond salvaging. 

by Dawson Bethrick


Robert Kidd said...

It was the very idea in premise one of his argument that led me away from Christianity in my early teens. I couldn't reconcile the notion that God had created me with this wonderful mind and these wonderful senses but then expected me "not to lean on my own understanding". So I thought that it was a test. I thought that God did want me to use my mind and the ones who didn't take things on faith but instead used their minds to the best of their ability would be the ones who got to go to heaven. The ones who went by faith would be punished.

Robert Kidd

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

That was another great read!

I know I sound like a broken record lately, but…

Thanks again!