Revenge of Objectivity: Preunderstanding, Presuppositions, and First Principles (Part 4)
A Critique of the Sociology of Knowledge and Presuppositionalism
Using the groundwork that has been laid regarding our critique of SOK in general, let us now turn our attention to presuppositional apologetics once more. Naturally, the same problems with any representationalist epistemology are also embedded in the representationalism found within the presuppositional system. While the Thomist would certainly agree that God is the ultimate cause of all reality other than Himself and that the universal forms of things exist “first and foremost in the divine intellect, as the archetypes according to which God creates the world,”42 he would most certainly disagree that man somehow “reconstructs” the “interpretations of God” about reality. As has already been said, Aquinas holds that knowledge is the union of the knower and the known. And for Aquinas, man knows according to his mode of being, based on the kind of thing he is.
Thus, man’s knowledge begins in sense experience and expands from there. As philosopher Peter Kreeft explains, “Again we must distinguish the claim that all our knowledge begins with sense experience from the claim that it is limited to it. From its beginnings in sense experience, by abstractions and reasoning, knowledge can rise to immaterial things [emphasis in original].”43 Claiming that one’s knowledge starts with experience rather than with God (whether information from the Bible or some other type of special revelation) does not limit one to pure naturalism, materialism, or some probabilistic god as many presuppositionalists claim. Again, as Kreeft notes, “We are neither mere beasts nor angels but somewhere between them, and therefore our mode of knowing is neither wholly biological and bodily, nor wholly spiritual and immaterial. For our mode of knowing depends on our nature. Thus we rise from the empirical to the intellectual, and we interpret and understand the empirical by the intellectual.”44 Since epistemology has been freed from the starting point of the mind of man, and it has been shifted to reality as such, the possibility of objective knowledge and interpretation seems to again be a possibility.
But recall that Bahnsen claims their is no possibility of neutrality and that “there are no facts or uses of reason which are available outside of the interpretive system of basic commitments or assumptions which appeals to them.” Others hold that neutrality, and thus objectivity, is impossible because there can be no “brute” or “uninterpreted facts” since all “facts have been interpreted in terms of our existing commitments.” My first question for those holding this view is, are these facts true for everyone, regenerate and unregenerate, or are these facts only facts inside your own interpretive system of basic commitments and assumptions? If it is indeed true for everyone, then it seems this position is false. If it is not true for everyone, then it remains the case that there are facts and uses of reason which transcend world views with which we can reason with unbelievers.
Moreover, those holding the view above are either using words like “interpreted” and “existing commitments” univocally or they are not. If they are, then they are in fact using language in such a way that is the same across world views, but this is precisely the type of thing they are claiming cannot be done. On the other hand, if these concepts are not being used univocally and those outside the Christian world view have no understanding of these concepts, then they also have no reason to understand why these concepts are important or why they should change their world views (more will be said about this momentarily). As Howe points out in referencing a similar scenario with Van Til, it seems the presuppositionalist knows such concepts are the same for all world views which “is why he can successfully and rightly require the non-Christian to give an account of it. This is so, however, only because in fact there are some brute facts which are meaningful in terms of the nature of reality.”45 These brute facts would of course be the Transcendental Presuppositions which everyone undeniably shares.
Yet another problem with the presuppositional view is specifically related to hermeneutics. Bahnsen says, “...to reason with the non-Christian in a fashion purporting to be independent of God or independent of reliance upon revelation is to honor the unregenerate’s notions of ‘evidence’ and ‘verification’ as legitimate and correct. However, for the Christian it is Scripture that governs every area of his life, even his concept of ‘evidence’ and the way he reasons with skeptics.”46 Based on his own view of epistemology, Bahnsen, and Ken Ham who has made similar statements, have dug themselves an inescapable hole. How exactly are they able to understand Scripture? From where would the principles of hermeneutics come? They could not come from the Bible, on pains of contradiction, since one would be able to understand the Bible prior to having any principles of understanding. As philosopher Richard Howe rightly observes in response to Ham specifically, though it applies equally to Bahnsen,
But if Ham cannot get from God’s word his principles of interpretation that he needs in order to understand God’s word (and there are only two ways to understand reality according to Ham) then he would have to say that he gets his principles of interpretation from man’s word. But of course, this will not do since Ham’s ultimate point is that man’s word is faulty (if not deceptive) and thus wrong when it comes to reality. For him to claim that he gets his principles of interpretation from man’s word while arguing what he does about man’s word would be self-refuting....His false premise is that there are only two ways to understand reality, viz., according to God’s word or according to man’s word [emphasis mine].47
As we have seen, we are able to know reality in itself and the Transcendental Presuppositions give us the tools needed to discern between various claims about reality. Thus, we get our principles of hermeneutics from reality as such.
At last, we come to what is perhaps the lynchpin of the presuppositionalist view, the effects of sin on the mind of man. Recall that Van Til asserted that the unregenerate man is “unable and unwilling to see anything for what it really is” and that everything is “yellow to the jaundiced eye.” Similarly, Sye Ten Bruggencate, a rather well known presuppositionalist, said in a presuppositional apologetics workshop, “Now, you might get someone out there who has a definition of truth. ‘Truth is that which corresponds to reality.’ That’s what they'll tell you, and you know what, that’s fine. But if you don’t appeal to God to tell you what’s real, how do you know what’s real?!”48 As was noted earlier, if man’s mind is darkened, and knowledge starts in the mind, then it stands to reason that man is incapable of accurately knowing anything about reality.
In actuality, however, man’s knowledge does not start in the mind but rather in the sense experience of reality. There is little argument that sin certainly affects our ability to understand and correctly interpret reality, mostly due to moral reasons because of the weakness of the will, but it seems to me that an entirely different metaphysics is needed in order for sin to accomplish what the presuppositionalist maintains. In other words, in order for sinful man to be completely unable accurately to know reality it would have to be the very nature of reality as such that is transformed by sin rather than man’s mind. Since the basic metaphysical construct of reality, namely form and matter, was the same before the fall as it is today, and since man knows according to his mode of being by virtue of the kind of thing he is, and since he is still the same kind of thing, namely a rational animal (albeit a fallen one), it stands to reason that reality is still knowable for the unregenerate just as much as the regenerate.
Furthermore, as noted earlier, Bahnsen says, “If science proceeds autonomously, then the only thing that can be discovered in the world is man’s own interpretative and ordering activity.” From a Thomistic perspective, however, this makes little sense since man is actually capable of knowing reality in itself and not merely the ideas in his mind. As Feser remarks,
It is because secondary causes are real that natural science is possible. When we study the physical world, we are studying how physical things themselves behave given their nature, not the capricious acts of God....Ultimately the facts studied by science and the facts studied by ethics depend on God, because everything depends, at every instant, on God. In that sense, science, ethics, and everything else depend on God. But proximately ethics can be done at least to a large extent without reference to God, just as natural science can. In that sense, many moral truths would still be true even if, per impossibile, there were no God – just as the periodic table of the elements would be what it is even if, per impossibile, there were no God [emphasis in original].49
Lastly, and by way of summary, Van Til maintains, “The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the ‘facts’ are not facts and the ‘laws’ are not laws.”50 Bahnsen agrees and prescribes the following strategy,
The Christian must challenge the presuppositions espoused by the unbeliever, basing his argument and witness on the presuppositions of God’s Word. The two outlooks, the two life styles with their different language and logic, must meet each other head-on, for the unbeliever will not be able to come to a new worldview by degrees. He must be confronted across the entire field of knowledge and behavior, challenged at the very roots of his form of life (with its language and logic) by the opposing and correct form of life— rather than reasoned with on the basis of commonly interpreted facts and expressions.51
Perhaps most troubling for the presuppositional system is the fact that, according to their own method and assumptions, the project they suggest is not even possible. If objectivity is an impossibility, and if one cannot interpret facts apart from one’s own world view, then it is impossible, in principle, for someone to come to a new world view even after being confronted “head-on” by the “opposing and correct form of life.” If the unregenerate has his own “language and logic” and interprets everything through the filter of his own world view, then will he not also interpret everything from the “opposing and correct form of life” through that same filter according to his same logic? Would he not see his opponents views through the same jaundiced eyes with which he views everything else? According to presuppositional thinking, and as Bahnsen himself said, “...there can be no direct proof offered for the truth of either perspective; direct appeals to fact and reason are emptied of argumentative strength by the opponent’s presuppositions (with which he understands and accepts facts and logic in a different light altogether).” Why should the alleged problems in the unregenerate’s world view be viewed any differently by him than the “facts and logic” to which Bahnsen refers?
No doubt some will retort that it is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that makes possible such an encounter with the unregenerate. Indeed, Bahnsen says,
...the unregenerate cannot be logically maneuvered into Christian faith but requires a complete change of paradigm and life style. Such can be effected only by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit....Without our apologetic the Holy Spirit’s influence would be blind power; without the Holy Spirit our apologetic would be meaningful but impotent.52
I certainly agree that the Holy Spirit draws to Himself those who believe and convicts them of their sin and need for a savior. But that is quite different than Bahnsen’s pious sounding appeal with which the problems associated with a representationalist epistemology remain. Suppose it is true that the unregenerate cannot rightly know, or think about, reality apart from the Holy Spirit working in his mind or God telling him what is real. How does having a “regenerate mind” help one rightly know reality? One would only know the thoughts about reality given by the Holy Spirit and not reality in itself. Hence, the unbridgeable gap between mind and extra-mental reality remains.
To elaborate, punting to the Holy Spirit to solve this problem simply moves the problem back a step. How would one know that it is actually the Holy Spirit working in his mind and not the devil or the tacos he ate last night? Simply claiming that it is the Holy Spirit would do little good since, for example, the Mormon would claim the same thing. How does one know who is telling the truth? And if knowledge begins in the mind, then there is still the unbridgeable gap between one’s thoughts about the Holy Spirit working in his mind and the reality of whether or not the Holy Spirit is working in his mind. Again, how is one to know that it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit working in his mind? Would the answer not be yet another appeal to some confirmation from the Holy Spirit that it is the Holy Spirit working in his mind? But how would one know that for sure? Are we to make appeals to the Holy Spirit ad infinitum? On the other hand, the only way, it seems to me, to bridge the gap for the presuppositionalist would be an even greater appeal to the Holy Spirit. But if the Holy Spirit becomes the bridge, whatever that would even mean, would it not result in some ultra-mystical non-Christian view where the Holy Spirit is actually the one doing all the thinking? To steal an illustration from Feser, this seems a bit like saying a baseball makes contact with a bat by hitting, not the surface of the bat, but a surface provided by the baseball. The problem then becomes how does the surface provided by the baseball have any efficacy in relation to the bat?
Based on this view, the only options in the end seem to be complete skepticism, relativism, or a fideistic faith. Not only are such views unbiblical, but I submit that at some point human nature and man’s innate ability to know reality in itself must be appealed to. As Gilson summarizes,
Between the Christian God and things there is a metaphysical fissure, separating the necessary from the contingent. The world only exists by a free ordinance of God; consequently, it cannot be deduced from God....The human mind cannot have God as its natural and proper object. As a creature, it is directly proportioned only to created being, so much so that instead of being able to deduce the existence of things from God, it must, on the contrary, of necessity rest on things in order to ascend to God.53
As has been made clear, the presuppositional apologetic enterprise being espoused here assumes objectivity and the validity of first principles in order for any meaningful encounter between a believer and non-believer to take place. To maintain that this is not the case results in a self-defeating, and thus necessarily false, position. Whether one is regenerate or unregenerate, and whether one has jaundiced eyes or clear eyes, the first principles of thought and being apply equally, and we all experience the same reality, which means that objectivity is at least possible and reasoned dialog about reality, which the Holy Spirit can use as an occasion to draw men to Himself, is possible as well.
It is true that we all approach reality with various presuppositions and therefore view things through our own set of colored lenses, however, it is not the case that that is the end of the story. To say that it is a universally true statement about reality that there are no universally true statements about reality is self-defeating, and thus necessarily false. Additionally, the notion that all knowledge begins in the mind and that ideas are that which we know rather than that by which we know is also false and results in the self-defeating objective truth claim about reality that we cannot objectively know things about reality.
Given reality’s metaphysical makeup, it is undeniably the case that universally valid Transcendental Presuppositions, known as first principles of thought and being, exist by which we are able to examine our preunderstanding and world views and adjudicate between true and false propositions. This means that objectivity of knowledge and interpretation is possible for our communication as well as for our understanding of the Bible. In other words, we can rise above the SOK concept.
Regarding presuppositional apologetics, I wish to point out that those holding to this method which we have critically examined are to be commended for their desire to maintain the supremacy and truthfulness of God’s Word, and I am glad to call them brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, as Geisler observes, “It is no accident that there were no presuppositionalists before Kant and fewer nonpresuppositionalists after him.”54 The fact that such a method is based on a representationalist epistemology resulting in the same basic ideas held by modern philosophy means that, ultimately, presuppositionalism encounters seemingly insurmountable problems. Presuppositional methodology appears to be wrong about the metaphysics of reality, self-defeating in places, and simply impossible in principle (from both apologetic and hermeneutic standpoints). In reality, the presuppositional method, at best, proves the first principles we have discussed, but that is a far cry from proving the God of the Bible.55 As a friend rightly observed, it appears the presuppositional system is an attempt to solve a problem that does not exist.
I certainly believe in the Triune God of the Bible, however, I do not simply assume His existence or the trustworthiness and authority of His Word, nor do I expect that of others. Rather, because the Moderate Realist view of reality is true, I am able to observe and know reality in itself and, while challenging the presuppositions of others, reason with people to the facts that God exists, He has a certain nature, He has revealed things about us and our salvation in the Bible, He has confirmed the authority of the Bible via Jesus’ resurrection, and therefore, based on the Transcendental Presuppositions, anything that contradicts the Bible must necessarily be false. Such an endeavor is ultimately based on revelation, to be sure, but it is the general revelation of reality to which we all have access.
While it may be true that each of us is wearing colored glasses, it is also true that we are, in principle, able to see past them and know the movie is actually black and white as it were. Because we can know reality in itself, as Richard Howe notes, “This is the only God-honoring view to hold, for it acknowledges that there is nowhere the unbeliever can hide in all reality where he is not standing on some ground that can be shown to point to its Creator.”56 In the end, thanks to the first principles of thought and being, objectivity has its revenge on modern philosophical notions, and the possibilities of reasoned dialog about God and the objective understanding of His word are restored.
42 Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, Kindle Location 640.
43 Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), 139.
45 Howe, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, 286.
46 Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics, Kindle Locations 3011-3016.
47 Richard Howe, “It’s Worse Than I Thought,” Quodlibetal Blog: Musings from Anywhere by Dr. Richard G. Howe, entry posted July 12, 2011, http://quodlibetalblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/its-worse-than-i-thought/ (accessed August 2, 2012).
48 transplantministries, “Sye Ten Bruggencate: Apologetics is Easy, Believe Your Bible,” YouTube video, 0:46:19, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkQvDsBr3l4&feature=youtu.be (accessed Feb. 9, 2013).
49 Edward Feser, “Does Morality Depend on God,” Edward Feser Blog, entry posted July 19, 2011, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/07/does-morality-depend-on-god.html (accessed March 30, 2013).
50 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith.
51 Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics, Kindle Locations 2914-2921.
52 Ibid., Kindle Locations 2925-2929.
53 Gilson, Methodical Realism, Kindle Locations 575-580.
54 Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 404-405.
55 That is not to say that the apologist should not be concerned with uncovering his opponent’s world view and discussing how his opponent came to those conclusions. But that is not presuppositionalism, and it is here that epistemology and ontologly are often confused. For instance, in Presuppositional Apologetics (Kindle Locations 2564-2566) Bahnsen says, “Therefore, the unbeliever’s understanding and justification of logic have not been made clear or evident; his autonomous appeal to the laws of logic has not been made intelligible...His standards can be critically questioned.” Understanding, and using, the laws of logic, which are undeniably true for everyone, is an entirely different matter than justifying the existence of such laws. I can believe the absurd notion that tiny fairies are in my car engine making it run, but the fact remains that I can still drive my car. Likewise, one may recognize and use the Transcendental Presuppositions we have discussed without adequately accounting for their ultimate existence. Thus, while their existence is undeniable, the existence of the Triune God of the Bible would still be open for debate for the presuppositionalist’s interlocutor.
56 Richard Howe, “It’s Worse Than I Thought.”
Content in blogs does not necessarily represent Ratio Christi’s views. Details