Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Good Work of Philosophy

I only just noticed that some of the material from my essay submission to this year's TrinityFoundation contest was not included in what is published on their website (link). I forgot that in many of the essays which place, what is shown is excerpted from the whole. So, whether for the sake of brevity or because I wrote something which they found to be unjustified (which is possible), my critique of rationalism, conclusion on secular epistemology, introduction to Clark's "Westminster Principle," criticism of logical positivism, and thoughts on biblical politics was left out. [I happen to think this was done for the sake of brevity, since the material I wrote on logical positivism in particular was uncontroversial.] Since some of this material will be relevant to a future post I plan to write, I have here reproduced the full essay:

The Good Work of Philosophy

Christians are in need of an apologetic which can thoroughly equip them for the good work of guarding the gospel against those deceptive philosophies by which men are never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Anyone who has attempted to organize a defense of the faith quickly realizes that it is no small task, as one must successfully integrate diverse fields of study like science, ethics, politics, history, and religion. Gordon Clark, a 20th century Calvinist whose goal was to elucidate such a philosophy, argued that the center of the proverbial web to which each of these disciplines may be traced and by which each may be related to the others is a sound and uniquely Christian theory of knowledge.

Clark’s emphasis on the importance of epistemology as a means to a cohesive belief system is warranted, for to any assertion pertaining to science et. al., the question may be “properly ask[ed], How do you know?”[1] This poignant question is sufficient to refute skeptics who contradict themselves when they claim they cannot know truth, exposes as question-begging statements and actions which advocate a so-called suspension of judgment, and inevitably shapes one’s meta-epistemological thoughts regarding the nature and structure of knowledge itself.

Clark, for instance, contended that “knowledge means the possession of truth”[2] and that truth is “propositions that are consistent.”[3] The criteria to which one can refer to verify that he possesses truth is outlined by Clark in his various works, and a summary of it here will serve as a useful foundation for understanding Clark’s analysis of secular and Christian philosophies as presented in his Wheaton lectures.

Briefly, propositions can be separated into one of two geometrical categories: epistemic axioms and theorems.[4] One can know a theorem is true if it is contained in the body of propositions validly deducible from an axiom which yields a self-attesting, consistent philosophical system in which the ground and means of knowledge are explicated. Hence, while axioms by definition cannot be proven, there is nevertheless a mutual dependency inherent in the relationship between an axiom and its respective theorems. “By the systems they produce, axioms must be judged.”[5] As a theorem can be discredited if it does not follow from a purported axiom, an axiom can be falsified if it bears contradictories.

There are those who accuse Clark of impracticality for demanding that a worldview meet these requirements. Consistency, it is alleged, is an unrealistic, unachievable ideal. In response to such complaints, one can do no more than highlight the chaotic arbitrariness which would ensue if one were to insist on clinging to a self-defeating position. What deserve greater attention are secular axioms – some of which are unfortunately shared by some religious philosophers – chosen for the purpose of acquiring objective knowledge. For despite the impressive number of knowledge claims secular systems have accumulated over time, they are collectively only as rational as the first principle from which they are derived; if one’s axiom is demonstrated to be unsound, then all of his beliefs predicated on it are groundless.

It may be for his survey of these axioms that Clark is most well-known. Due to the continuing popularity of underlying principles first expounded by Aristotle, Clark’s critiques of empiricism have particularly elicited significant replies. Clark believed no empiricist has yet provided satisfactory answers to the difficulties attendant to a theory in which sensation is said to be the means of knowledge. To concisely sketch a few illustrations:

· The capriciousness of individuation: “…for Empiricists… the physical continuum and the Heraclitean flux prevent the identification and even the existence of individuals.”[6]

· Incorporeality: “…if sensory experience cannot deal with mountains and bears, much less can it account for… the ethical concept of justice and the mathematical concept of cube.”[7]

· Inductivism: “…universal judgments… are impossible, because no one has experienced all the past nor any of the future.”[8]

· The arbitrariness of inferences: “In Empiricism there is no reason for choosing six or eight sensations out of the fifty or a hundred we have at any one time and combining these six into the perception of a thing.”[9]

Moreover, these aforementioned problems presuppose that sensation is objective, reliable, self-attesting, and extensive, concessions Clark was by no means willing to vouchsafe.[10] Depending on the qualifications specific to a given empiricist, perplexities may even be multiplied. Any one of these points would corroborate Clark’s inference that empiricism is a futile epistemology; cumulatively, they are conclusive.

Contrarily, it is noteworthy that Clark was able to qualifiedly agree with some key ideas found in rationalism as “exemplified by Plato and Hegel.”[11] Contrary to the incoherence of pluralism, Hegelianism and theism both “hold that everything must be related to everything else in some way; there are no two things utterly independent, though… they may nonetheless be distinct.”[12] Also, because “all thought and speech depend on classification… no epistemology can succeed without something like the Platonic Ideas.”[13]

What both Hegel and Plato have in common with Clark is the recognition that omniscience is an epistemic necessity. Unfortunately, neither Hegel nor Plato adequately details how man accesses omniscience. Plato suggested that man’s senses occasion reminiscence of a part of the innate omniscience with which he was born. “The difficulty is that… sensation stimulates different notions in different people… The failure of Platonism… to ascend from Earth to Heaven leaves the theory ineffective.”[14] Hegelianism, due to its dialectic, maintains that knowledge of a given concept requires knowledge of the way in which it relates to other concepts. Clark pointed out that if such were true, “…we cannot know one relationship without knowing all. Obviously we do not know all. Therefore we know nothing.”[15]

From these considerations, one could argue Clark applied at least a variation of the following elenctic argument against rationalism in particular and secular philosophy in general. To claim to know a given proposition is true without knowing that another proposition is true begs the question: if truth is “a logically ordered series,”[16] it could be that the truth value of a given proposition depends on the truth value of a different proposition. For man to know even one proposition, then, he must either know all propositions or rely on one who does – one whose knowledge must be eternal, comprehensive, and intuitive.

As was seen, locating omniscience in man fails. Attempts to do so were not entirely fruitless, for they highlighted a philosophical problem in need of addressing and acted as a foil against which Clark was able to credibly propose his own axiom for scrutiny; namely, “the Bible is the Word of God.”[17] Faith in an omniscient God whose revelation is necessary for man to know [Him] was Clark’s reasonable alternative to secular axioms which, since they lead to inconsistencies, cannot function as a basis for an epistemic system. It now must be determined whether or not the propositions contained in Scripture can justifiably be said to comprise that which one is presently able to know.

If Clark’s Westminster Principle is to be taken seriously, “there is no reason for making assertions beyond those that can be validly inferred from the statements of the Bible.”[18] Scripture is full of statements affirming its divine origin (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19-21). Inter-textual analysis (Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Peter 3:15-16) and divine illumination (John 10:3-5, 26-27) constitute the means by which one becomes enlightened as to the extent and contents of the canon. The role of sensation in Clark’s system is, at most, as an occasional stimulant God uses to mediate knowledge to men’s minds. As God perspicuously spoke to the patriarchs and Jesus to His disciples, the Spirit unequivocally communicates God’s eternal word to modern men through Scripture.

Indeed, the purpose of language is that believers might be able to worship God in truth (John 4:24). If man’s knowledge is merely analogical to God’s, not only would it be impossible to worship Him, but it would also connote that men are skeptics or that they know a proposition which God doesn’t. Either of these deductions would be fatal to Christianity. Providentially, there is no indication that exhortations to grow in knowledge (Colossians 1:10, 2 Peter 3:18) refer to a subspecies of truth, and that one becomes a participant in the divine nature itself by knowledge of God[’s word] necessitates that what men know is univocal with what God knows (2 Peter 1:3-4).

In fact, man was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). God is truth and logic (John 1:1, 14:6), so one would expect that in these respects the structure of man’s mind mirrors that of God. Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 confirm that man was created originally righteous. Furthermore, because he naturally possessed knowledge and righteousness, Adam must also have been concreated with the a priori equipment necessary in order to think logically and rightly.

Sin distorted man as the image of God, but he still retains the distinction (Genesis 9:6, Acts 17:28). The image of God, then, must refer to the rational faculty. Unregenerate individuals are by nature extensively depraved because their thinking is, at root, fallacious, but they are still able to understand and construct valid arguments. Restitution of the divine image now requires that man become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). This renewal by the Spirit and word of truth conforms man to the image of Christ, the Logos in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Saving faith in the last Adam obtained by this regeneration, far from being blind, is actually the result of man for the first time being able to see (2 Corinthians 4:4-6).

Logical thinking, then, must be continuously exercised by Christians. As Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Jesus is the teacher, and the sword of the Spirit is the tool with which He instructs a believer to be furnished for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). Sanctification is by the truth, not an analogy thereof (John 17:17). Upon glorification, the Christian’s transformation will be complete and confirmed, but until then, he must live in and deal with a fallen world. For though their epistemic axioms are erroneous, secularists are still influential. Thus, it will be useful to compare secular ideologies to what Scripture has to say on science, ethics, politics, history, and religion.

In discussing the purpose of science, the previous remarks on empiricism must be remembered. While scientific discoveries cannot produce knowledge, it is often the case that they trigger belief. For example, Hume famously observed that correlation does not imply causation, and yet it is customary to assume a uniformity of nature. Rather than viewing an artificial experiment as a bearer of truth, Clark regarded the purpose of science as “manipulation”[19] or “an attempt to utilize nature for our needs and wants… not a way to any knowledge.”[20] Because Clark accepted that God has determined all of man’s thoughts – his opinions as well as his knowledge – man’s responsibility is to intentionally act on those thoughts in a godly manner. Such does not depend on the possibility of empirical knowledge. One may, by scientific procedures, come to believe something upon which he must accordingly make a choice. What is important in the realm of practical theology is the intention of the choice made in conjunction with one’s belief, not whether or not the belief is true.

This leads to the question of ethics, a less compromising subject. After all, either one is obliged to obey a given precept or he is not. Ethical dialogue can, however, lead to confusion if one does not carefully define his terms. Is good that which one ought to do, or is that which one ought to do good? To be more precise, what principles ought one to follow, if any? It seems intuitively obvious that rape and murder are unethical, but ethical relativists or emotionalists would have to acknowledge that one may validly consider them to be good.

A. J. Ayer, consistent with verificationism and Positivism, taught that ethical posits are neither true nor false. “Ought” and “should” statements are emotive. Stevenson, another logical positivist, contributed to this theory by explaining that emotivism does not preclude a means of ethical dialogue. By distinguishing between facts and preferences, Stevenson commented that increasing one another’s awareness of facts can only provoke beneficial conversation. But Stevenson too realized that fundamental differences in preferences are irresolvable. As such, some logical positivists bite the bullet and accept moral nihilism. One will not usually encounter persons who will admit that murder and rape are amoral choices – and in any case, one can always point out that ethics as well as science is tied to epistemology – so it may be permissible to pass over these rarities for a more representative stance.

Utilitarianism, possibly the most widely acclaimed secular position, is an ethical theory which defines “good” along a spectrum. A choice which causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is said to be the greatest good, and a choice which causes the greatest pain to the greatest number of people is said to be the greatest evil. This understanding of good and evil leads to irrationality. As a form of consequentialism, choices made by Utilitarians must be prospectively amoral; since one cannot know the future consequences of his choice, choices are arbitrary. Possibilities of future consequences also suggest that the moral value of any choice is subject to change at any instant. Even [relatively] simple knowledge of all the ways in which a past choice has affected present reality is itself a problem, as one would need to be omniscient to know his calculations are both accurate and exhaustive. Another problem is that in order to judge the comparative “goodness” of one’s choice, one would need to know counter-factuals; ironically, such is only possible by divine revelation. There are still more complications when one considers, within a Utilitarian framework, whether or not one individual’s pleasure could qualitatively exceed the sum pleasure of many, whether or not it is proper to state minorities possess rights, and whether or not utilitarianism can escape the demerits of empiricism, inductivism, and subjectivism. Given the extremely relativistic and flawed nature of Utilitarianism, one may well believe the demise of Utilitarianism would maximize the pleasure of those who sincerely desire to be moral.

In short, secularism fails to forward a legitimate theory of ethics because it cannot solve issues like Hume’s is-ought dilemma, the problem of suicide, and moral authoritativeness. Christianity can and does. God, as the creator of all things, made things to be as they are. God created men with the intention that they be responsible to obey His precepts, and so men are (Romans 9:19-21). The chief end of man is to glorify God by following His commandments (1 John 5:3). As a matter of fact, the chief end of God is to glorify Himself in all that He does (Romans 9:22-23, Ephesians 3:10). Consequently, the problem of evil is no problem at all, for sin can function as a means by which God’s glory – His power, wrath, compassion, mercy, grace, wisdom, etc. – is manifested.

Although God is ultimately sovereign, He has seen fit to authorize subordinate institutions such as church and government to dispense discipline and regulations to discourage sin. While a comprehensive political theory was not the focus of the authors of Scripture, there are statements pertinent to private ownership (Acts 5:4) and duties (Genesis 9:6, Romans 13:1-7) which make it possible to delimit the power and design of government (Daniel 6:7-10, Acts 4:19).

Forasmuch as many grumble that Clark’s theory of knowledge is unrealistic, when it comes to matters of science, ethics, and politics, it is more often the secular philosopher than the Christian who must assume an ideal reality. Forced submission is the logical end of any secular society in which there can be found differences in opinions. Totalitarianism or majority rules have historically conquered individual “rights.” Even the hypothetical alternative, anarchism, presupposes an optimistic view of human nature which is simply not historically tenable.

The philosophy of history itself is a matter of debate in secularist circles. Some naively think that history – or any study – can be approached objectively or without presuppositions. Those who admit that history is tinged with an author’s bias are at least honest. Subject matter, source material, significance, and attributed causes are all subjectively chosen by the writer. And, just as with any other topic, history must fit within a coherent epistemic system. The tentativeness of science and the historic horrors which secular philosophers largely ignore have to be accounted for by the historian.

The theistic account of history is somewhat varied and determined by broader religious beliefs. Neo-orthodox theologians, because they consider Scripture to be a human record of divine acts, posit Scripture is fallible and even mistaken on a few points. Additionally, some of the events recorded in Scripture are for didactic purposes only; that is, events need not be assumed to have literally occurred. That these “scholars” do not have immediate recourse to an omniscient God is enough to epistemologically disqualify their view on the nature and hermeneutic of Scripture. It is confusing, though, that one would so highly esteem a source which admits errors. These being the same sorts of individuals who utilize the law of non-contradiction in order to deny it, however, maybe it should not come as surprising. Notwithstanding, the more historical Christian perspective discerns the progressively revealed, cyclically patterned, and eschatological character of history as told by God (Romans 11:36).

In comparison to the assertions made by secularists, what can be extrapolated from Scripture may seem relatively small. More important than this, however, is that a Christian can substantiate his claims. “…whatever knowledge revelation gives us, however restricted, is to be received with thanksgiving.”[21] Or, in the joyous words of the Psalmist, “the sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Psalm 119:160). Because the Axiom of Revelation satisfies the preconditions for knowledge, “…secular philosophy is not a greater failure than revelational philosophy is a success.”[22]

[1] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 28.

[2] Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 33.

[3] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 149.

[4] cf. Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey pg. 88.

[5] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 53.

[6] Gordon Clark, Ibid. pg. 32.

[7] Gordon Clark, Ibid. pg. 33.

[8] Gordon Clark, Ibid. pg. 34.

[9] Gordon Clark, Ibid. pg. 34.

[10] cf. Gordon Clark, Language and Theology pgs. 132-134.

[11] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 29.

[12] Gordon Clark, Modern Philosophy pg. 288.

[13] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 29.

[14] Gordon Clark, Ibid. pg. 30.

[15] Gordon Clark, Christian Philosophy pg. 153.

[16] Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 23.

[17] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 74.

[18] Gordon Clark, God’s Hammer pg. 3.

[19] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 40.

[20] Gordon Clark, Modern Philosophy pg. 76.

[21] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 56.

[22] Gordon Clark, Ibid. pg. 78.

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