Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Philosophy of Gordon Clark - Response from a Pragmatist

A few months ago, I posted an essay to my blog which I had submitted as a research paper in my Theories of Knowledge class. My professor, a Ph.D from UMich who throughout the semester had proudly stated he was an atheist, a pragmatist, and empiricistic, was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic upon reading my rough draft. Bottom line: after reading it, he suggested I write on a different topic or accept a C-. I chose the former (see excerpts here, here, and here), and did well in the class.

However, he did take the time to reply to the rough draft on Gordon Clark's philosophy... kind of. In addition to a few general comments in an email, he wrote some questions and comments in the margins of my rough draft - 17 in total. I thought about re-writing the original submission with answers and rebuttals to his comments, but decided against it for reasons which may become apparent after I post them. The sentence in the essay to which he responded is italicized, the professor's comment is in block quotes, and my response is in normal text.

1. Clark successfully developed a philosophical system commonly referred to as Scripturalism, the central tenet of which may be said to be that the Protestant canon comprises the sole, extant source of knowledge available to man.

Of all knowledge?? Seems implausible.

It will become clear that this comment was made before the professor read the rest of the paper. See point 9.

2. The demonstration of a proposition, such as any theorem in geometry, is completed only when it is referred to the axioms. If the axioms in turn required demonstration, the demonstration of the proposition with which we began would remain incomplete.

This is foundationalism. See general comment in e-mail.

In the email to which he refers, my professor was apparently under the assumption the class accepted everything he taught as fact and that I therefore must simply have forgotten his lecture points. In this case, he is referring to class time in which he spent discussing foundationalism as a remnant of the 17th century rationalists in contrast to the coherentism of Quine and other pragmatists. Actually, I forwarded a nuanced view of foundationalism throughout the essay (see also here).

3. Clark, rather than appealing to an indubitably self-evident postulate as do some rationalists, held that one could judge them by gauging the consistency amongst the propositions pertaining to the respectively educed systems.

This is vague, but if I understand it, (maybe I don’t), it says that one can choose a unique principle based on thh consistency of “theorems” derive in systems based on the principle. This is false—disprovable by attention to logical systems. Maybe he means something else.

I really don’t have any idea what he is talking about here. My point was twofold: 1) a philosophical system contains a first principle and theorems which are deduced from that first principle; 2) a way in which one can gauge the justifiability of a first principle is by studying whether or not its respectively derived theorems contradict each other. If so, then by a reduction ad absurdum, the first principle is falsified; it leads to a self-defeating system. If not, then a criterion of a justifiable first principle is satisfied.

4. …if one system can provide plausible solutions to many problems while another leaves too many questions unanswered, if one system tends less to skepticism and gives more meaning to life, if one worldview is consistent while others are self-contradictory, who can deny us, since we must choose, the right to choose the more promising first principle?

This seems to refer to “completeness”—which would be a third, independent principle, separate from foundationalism and coherentism.

This is true. A philosophical system must deal with epistemological issues.

5. …there is a theory that the ultimate test of truth is coherence, and on this theory it would be impossible to have two self-consistent, mutually contradictory philosophies… One might hold that all other theories of truth lead to skepticism.

Note that this claim is directly denied by Russell in our reading by him on truth.

My professor missed the point of Clark’s argument, which was that if Russell’s hypothesis were true, skepticism would be the result. Since skepticism is false, there cannot be two such systems.

6. Appearances to the contrary would simply evidence insufficient acquaintance with the relevant intricacies of the systems in question.

Claims like this are not falsifiable.

Of course they are. The professor could disprove Clark’s aforementioned theory upon which this conclusion is based by doing what Russell did not do: show two “self-consistent, mutually contradictory philosophies.”

7. …common belief provides a point of contact whereby two worldviews may apagogically interact but belies the fact that whichever first principle yields contradictories or insufficient epistemic explanatory power is a worldview which must be unsound.

Is this yet a FOURTH criterion?

No. Insufficient explanatory power is simply another way of stating that epistemology requires answers to certain questions which, if left unaddressed, results in skepticism. See point 4.

8. Clark may be most well-known for his criticisms of the epistemological proposals of secular philosophers. Because it seems he considered the majority of religious philosophy to implicitly rely on similar constructions and because it follows that if one’s epistemology is disproved then his [religious] beliefs are correlatively disproved – at least in that they cannot be justified – Clark’s epistemological assessments can be broadly categorized as applying to one of the following: irrationalism, empiricism, rationalism, and dogmatism (i.e. Scripturalism).

This point is unclear to me.

Clark believed irrationalism, empiricism, and rationalism represent the most popular alternatives to his own philosophy, so he examined these philosophies. He also believed that most religious persons hold to [a variation of] one of these alternatives.

9. The skeptics call propositions false, doubtful, probable, and plausible. Their basic principle, however, does not in consistency permit them to use any of these terms. A false proposition is one opposite to the truth… A doubtful proposition is one that might possibly be true; a probable or plausible proposition resembles or approximates the truth. But it is impossible to apply these terms without knowing the truth by which they are determined.

I don’t get this argument. Worse, it just seems arbitrary to argue that any philosophy that does not produce certainty is anti-philosophy. This is an example of winning an argument by tendentious definition.

Is my professor certain that this is an example of winning an argument by tendentious definition? No. Is my professor certain it is arbitrary to claim that those who are “epistemologically set against the idea knowledge can be certain… are… anti-philosophy”? No. Does my professor show any indication that he is making Clark’s point for him? No.

Clark is trying to show why knowledge connotes certainty, contrary to pragmatists such as my professor. Recall that in the first point, my professor stated Scripturalism “seems implausible” Note here that he says Clark’s argument “seems arbitrary.” The reason why pragmatists have to weakly qualify their insinuations is because if they were to actually argue that 1) Scripturalism is implausible or 2) it is arbitrary to claim truth and knowledge connote certainty would 3) be to concede Clark’s argument. That they can’t argue for either of these contentions, then, makes it all the more ironic that my professor would say Clark’s arguments are arbitrary.

10. Depending on the qualifications made by a given empiricist, these frictions could be multiplied, and even if several are resolved by admitting empiricism is not compatible with them (e.g. induction; ethics), close examination of the majority portend the truth of Clark’s illation.

You would do better to concentrate on a few arguments and evaluate one or two of them rather than listing many arguments without comment.

Although I did, in fact, provide three bullet points in which I did just that, this suggestion is fair enough. However, see comment 16.

11. By observing what Clark considered to be the principal faults common to each of these philosophers, it may then be possible to conclude on what basis Clark rejected rationalism in toto.

Are there no epistemological problems with “revelation” as a method? If not, I guess I can believe anything as long as I dreamed it.

Even if we overlook the fact this doesn’t address Clark’s assessment of rationalism, this comment is still curious. Earlier, my professor incredulously wondered at the number of requirements Clark believed must be met in order for belief in a given philosophy to be considered justified. Now he completely ignores them by randomly likening Clark’s philosophy to dreaming.

Furthermore, if one cannot be certain as to what is true, then why would my professor have a problem with believing something on the basis of a dream? Is there a better method? Does he know this with certainty?

12. Hegel held that the definition of a concept entails knowledge of its relationship to all other concepts. For instance, the meaning of “cat” includes the idea that it is “not-a-dog,” “not-a-tree,” etc. Clark noted the fatal flaw of this philosophy: “…we cannot know one relationship without knowing all. Obviously we do not know all. Therefore we know nothing.” Hegelianism, therefore, cannot be accepted.

But why not accept that we have only partial knowledge and embrace fallibilism?

We can accept the fact we have partial knowledge, so long as this knowledge comes from one who is omniscient. Fallibilism, on the other hand, is self-defeating, as I noted in my revised essay:

//Fallibilism, the belief that certainty is impossible, ought to be rejected, for the claim is itself either certain or uncertain: if the former, fallibilism is self-contradictory, and if the latter, it can be ignored as an arbitrary approximation of an ironically non-existent standard (certainty). One can be certain what he believes is true, although one’s means of confirmation of such will depend upon whether or not a given proposition believed is a first principle or something which supposedly hinges on a first principle.//

13. Plato, on the other hand, is perhaps most famous for his theory of Ideas, something Clark thought must, in some form or another, be affirmed in order to avoid nominalism. According to this theory, the possibility of classifications or genera stem from the fact there is an archetypal world of Ideas after which the world in which we live is.

Note that this is the position held by Agassi, discussed at length in The Met Club, and for two class periods. Its as if you haven’t taken the course...

Actually, we did not discuss this in class. Classification in the context of Plato has to do with whether or not the concept of classification is objective. Classification in the context of Agassi (what we discussed in class) has to do with the legitimacy of a teleological scientific method.

14. Legitimate knowledge presupposes an eternally omniscient being, and any epistemic axiom must account for that or be subject to this.

What justifies this claim? It seems completely arbitrary to me.

Apparently, my professor skipped the prior sentences in the paragraph which were meant to support this as a conclusion:

//…to assert one knows a proposition is true without knowing whether or not another proposition is true begs the question. What if the truth of the former hinges on the truth or falsity of the latter? For man to justifiably know even one proposition, then, one must either know all propositions or rely on one who does – one whose knowledge must be eternal, comprehensive, and intuitive.//

15. The propositions contained in the Bible collectively form the content of what one is able to, at present, tenably know. Distinguishable from this is the means of knowledge, the historical process by which one gains access to Scriptural propositions.

This is simply an argument from authority. Cf. Peirce and his refutation of these arguments.

Well, It is an appeal to an authority, but it’s an appeal with reasons for believing that what the alleged authority says is true. Again, note the contrast in tone in my professor’s comments towards the end of the paper with his comments in the beginning. Here the professor dismisses my arguments without further ado even while I am explaining how exactly these contentions made by Clark satisfy the epistemological criteria for a justified philosophy.

16. Clark submitted that anthropological considerations and linguistics explain the reason man is able to understand God’s thought.

I’m not sure what anthropology Clark read, but these claims are directly contradictory to the actual findings of anthropologists who have found no universal/a priori truths believed by all cultures.

Note that my professor doesn’t explain the epistemological means by which these anthropologists arrived at said findings. I’m going to guess it was by the very empirical means I critiqued earlier in my paper which was essentially ignored (see point 10).

17. Clark’s theodicy is actually an assertion of what must be the case as much as it is a defense of what is the case.

He makes this claim despite the apparent fact that sinning was necessary for God’s plan to work? Come on. Don’t be so gullible.

What does my professor mean by "despite"? He correctly paraphrases my point but seems to think it contradicts the idea Clark's theodicy is as much an assertion of what must be the case – i.e. that people sin, since it is necessary for God’s plan to work – as it is a defense of what is the case. I can’t help laughing a little at his attempt to shame me out of Christianity, though.


Patrick T. McWilliams said...

Excellent. I would have rewritten it and turned it in, and worn the C- as a badge with pride.

But you're probably wiser than I :)

Ryan said...

I thought about it, but it's just as well that I didn't since I was able to learn some interesting stuff in my research for the revised essay which I may not have found had I chosen not to write it.

carl said...

I've had better luck introducing Clark to philosophy professors at UM Flint. It is hard for many people to understand what seems simple to those of us who have read his work. Kudos to you for trying to shake the professors beliefs