Monday, May 30, 2011

Science and the Importance of Opinion

I've noted before that opinion is important because it can, for instance, function as a means by which "problems with various epistemologies or one's own epistemology may be introduced [to oneself]." As it so happens, opinion also very nearly plays as important a role in practical theology as does knowledge.

Gordon Clark and Scripturalists in general are more well-known for refutations of false views of the role of science than for a positive presentation of what the role of science in a Christian world-view really is. To be fair, Clark promoted what he called Operationalism in his Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, in which he wrote that science ought to be regarded as "an attempt to utilize nature for our needs and wants" rather than "a way to any knowledge."

In my latest post, I in part tried to establish that whether or not a work is good hinges upon one's intentions. Intentions with respect to what? What one opines - not necessarily knows - is the case. How does one come to opine what is the case? By God's ultimate, determinative purpose, to be sure, but the means through which ideas are mediated may vary.

Example: to know the meaning of a sign of the covenant we must know Scripture, but the point at which the application of the sign enters into the equation, it is at that point that we must simply believe that it is being administered properly. That is something we opine, not know. I think I saw water and felt sprinkled on me by an ordained minister according to the Trinitarian forumla, but I would not water down the philosophical definition of knowledge as I would have to just so I could say I know such was the case. Regardless, that we do not know it does not mean our belief in the idea it was validly administered can be an instance of disobedience.

As we think, so we are. God has determined our thoughts - our opinions and our knowledge; our responsibility is to intentionally act on those thoughts in a godly manner, and such does not depend on the possibility of empirical knowledge. I may by science come to believe something upon which I must accordingly choose. What is important in the realm of practical theology is the intention of the choice [made on the basis of my belief], not whether or not my belief is true.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Distinguishing Faith from Good Works

I don't dispute the idea good works are caused by God's grace rather than having proceeded from ourselves or by a cooperation between necessary grace and an equally necessary free choice. That said, we are still able to perform good works as believers.

The definition of [good] works is something I think needs to be defined more clearly in Reformed theology. There are some parameters for such a discussion.

Defining the question:

- In what sense can our good works be entirely caused by God's grace, still be thought of properly as our good works, and what is faith such that it is distinguishable from a good work?

Introductory observations:

- Saving faith is not a work (Romans 4:5).

- A believer can do good works (Ephesians 2:10).

- Saving faith is understanding and assent to Scriptural propositions pertaining to the gospel as true (1 Corinthians 1:21-24).

- Therefore, understanding and assent are insufficient conditions for what constitutes a good work.

Towards a definition:

- Intentions refer to why or for what reason we will or choose.

- A necessary precondition for discerning whether or not a work is good hinges on an understanding of one's intentions (1 Corinthians 10:31). E.g. one may refuse to steal, but if he refuses for some selfish reason or, generally, any reason other than that such refusal is right obedience to God's authoritative law which thereby shows right respect for God's glory, such an intention connotes a work which is sinful rather than good.

- Contrarily, one cannot “intend” to understand or assent to a proposition as true; he either does or does not. Both understanding and assent, then, do not hinge on the exercise of one’s own will.


- There seems, therefore, to be at least one way in which saving faith differs from a good work: both may be caused by God’s grace, but only works proceed from our [determined] purposes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Coherence and Semantic Theories of Truth

The coherence theory of truth states that a proposition is true if it is one amongst a set of coherent beliefs. As a necessary condition which must be satisfied in order for a philosophical system to be sound, the test of coherence – or to be more precise, consistency – amongst the pertinent propositions functions very well. Moreover, when coupled with a first principle, one is even able to avoid Russell’s assertion that two equally coherent systems could hypothetically exist on the grounds that such is incompatible with one’s first principle and that “…all other theories of truth lead to skepticism.”[1] Such a belief may not be falsifiable, but then again, the idea that a proposition must be falsifiable in order to be justifiably believed is itself unfalsifiable. Instead, what is important is that which constitutes the preconditions for knowledge.

When not synthesized with a variation of foundationalism, however, the coherence theory of truth is open to numerous criticisms. Firstly,“…for the coherentist…The system of justified beliefs is detached from the world beyond, in a sense that justification is an internal matter totally unaffected by what lies outside.”[2] That is, it is not clear that belief in the proposition “a coherent system does not necessarily reflect reality” is incoherent with a set of otherwise coherent beliefs, in which case the practical value of the coherence theory of truth is questionable.

Another point of concern is whether or not the justificatory method of coherentism is actually foundationalistic. If the method by which one justifies his belief is showing it is “a belief which coheres with a set of otherwise coherent beliefs,” such a definition is a precondition for belief that a given belief is justified. It may be that this definition is self-attesting, but either way, such would not preclude it from being a first principle, for it would in either case not be accepted on the basis of any other belief. Regardless, given the fact there exists a predication of beliefs within the coherentist’s framework, his theory of knowledge will contain a [set of] presupposition[s] from which all other non-arbitrarily accepted propositions are purportedly derived, and these presuppositions are foundationalistic first principles.

The most devastating critique of unqualified coherentism is provided by Bertrand Russell: “…this definition of truth is that it assumes the meaning of 'coherence' known, whereas, in fact, 'coherence' presupposes the truth of the laws of logic...if the law of contradiction itself were subjected to the test of coherence, we should find that, if we chose to suppose it false, nothing will any longer be incoherent with anything else.”[3] Russell alludes here to the principle of explosion, the concept that if any contradiction is true, trivialism follows. The law of contradiction, then, cannot be subject to the justificatory test of the coherence theory of truth without simultaneously affirming and denying the validity of the test, and so the law of contradiction is actually a precondition for it.

Less well-known in comparison to the other theories of truth is Tarski’s semantic conception of truth: “a true sentence is one which says that the state of affairs is so and so, and that the state of affairs indeed is so and so.”[4] It appears to be a sort of correspondence theory of truth which, as is obvious from the context of Tarski’s definition, is meant to include empirical observations and observation statements.

The problem with this theory is that it does not adequately explain the means by which one can justify what is “the state of affairs.” If the semantic conception of truth is only sensible when unified with a particular philosophical system, it is suspect to that system’s attendant difficulties. Logical positivists, for example, used this to connect syntax with semantics or meta-language with object-language, but since the semantic conception of truth is neither tautologous nor empirically verifiable, it fails the verification criterion of meaningfulness. 

[1] Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 34.
[2] Sosa, The Foundations of Foundationalism pg. 557.
[3] Russell, The Problems of Philosophy pg. 122.
[4] Tarski, Logic, semantics, metamathematics pg. 155.

Friday, May 6, 2011


When doing research for my revised essay paper on the nature of truth and epistemic justification, I read a book by Michael Levine called The Possibility of Religious Knowledge: Causation, Coherentism, and Foundationalism. In it, he made a few interesting points which I have at times thought myself but could not put into words. I will try to do so now:

The first point he made regards epistemic relativism, the possibility of two “equally valid” systems of epistemic justification:

“Relativism would be the view that there are different and equally valid methods of reasoning that could be used to justify epistemic judgments (i.e. that there are multiple structures of epistemic justification)…What may be justified on one foundation may not be justified on another, but then how can we ever know if we are really justified in any of our beliefs? …To choose between foundations we would have to rely on some third foundation…and so on. Ultimately we could never be justified in our choice of a foundation. We would be left with an arbitrary decision…the problem is that knowledge would itself be impossible because knowledge cannot be based on an arbitrary decision. We cannot decide to know something simply by specifying a foundation for our knowledge…” (pgs. pgs. 269-270).

In the same way that two hypothetically equally coherent systems would require an arbitrary choice between them if coherentism is true, if there is more than one “valid” method of epistemic justification, then any choice between them would be arbitrary. If we chose one over against the other on the basis of some supra-criterion – if I could legitimately argue believing one method over against another is reasonable – that itself would become the basis of all epistemic justification and mitigate against the idea there really are two “equally valid” methods of epistemic justification. Two “equal” systems or methods of epistemic justification would, as Levine notes and Gordon Clark noted in A Christian View of Men and Things (pg. 34), lead to arbitrariness and, therefore, skepticism. In other words, these hypotheticals must be just that: hypotheticals. They are useful inasmuch as they incline us to think about and address these epistemological issues, but they cannot be substantial enough to justify skepticism.

The second meta-epistemological point Levine makes is as follows:

“…in epistemology once the meta-epistemologist analyzes what is for him the normative sense (e.g. a coherentist account), then that normative position will be presupposed… Therefore, the meta-epistemic presuppositions or analyses have to be dealt with in considering the consequences of a normative analysis for what one can be said to know…” (pg. 260)

This is especially true for one who holds to a sort of foundationalism or belief in first principles. One’s first principle is his first principle. By definition, a first principle cannot be the conclusion of a prior premise. This is not to say that a first principle cannot be shown to be reasonable by inspection of its epistemic explanatory power, its self-attestation, and the consistency amongst the propositions which follow from it.

What Levine means is that when one is evaluating opposing first principles, definitions of truth, or methods of epistemic justification, he cannot pretend that he is evaluating them abstract from his background as a skeptic, agnostic, coherentist, pragmatist, empiricist, rationalist, Scripturalist, etc. Even the meta-epistemological statements I have made throughout this post have been informed by my own epistemological background. Fortunately, my epistemological background is such that I can apply apagogic argumentation to falsify alternative positions in a non-question-begging fashion.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pragmatism and the Nature of Truth

One could suppose, as pragmatists believe, a belief is true if it is useful, which is to say it successfully encourages societal action. Pragmatism, which developed following the Civil War, rejects any definition of truth which connotes certainty, individualism, and basic principles in favor of one tied to action, community, and a web of beliefs, any one of which can be subject to questioning [as to its relation to the web] at a given time. There are a few problems with this understanding of truth.

Firstly, pragmatistic commitment to action begs the question as to what sort of action beliefs ought to stimulate. There seems to be a hidden, unsubstantiated ethical principle. If there were no such principle, one could, for example, claim that the very certainty which allegedly stimulated the Civil War was a belief which, since it led to a communal action, was true. On the other hand, adherence to one certain ethical principle over against another would both entail some sort of foundationalism and beg the question as to whether one can be certain said ethical principle should be that according to which one should seek to act.

An even more fundamental problem with the pragmatist’s account of the nature of truth is that it is not clear how the pragmatist can validly claim his understanding of the nature of truth is [more] useful [than another]. It may be the case that belief in a different theory of truth would be a greater stimulant to communal action. In this case, a pragmatistic truth would be self-defeating. A pragmatist would, therefore, need to demonstrate his definition is more useful than all others, which would presuppose the ability to discern a causal relation between [his] beliefs [regarding the nature of truth in particular] and [its] usefulness. A merely correlative relation would not suffice, as any communal action could possibly be attributable to a belief distinct from the pragmatist’s definition of truth. However, as soon as one recognizes Humean disbelief in the ability to demonstrate causation could too be claimed to promote communal action more successfully than belief in causation – and could thus, on the pragmatist’s ground, be true – it becomes evident that the pragmatist cannot justify his theory of truth.