Background and Terminology
Briefly, I will point out that some terminology Hoover uses could be perceived as biased since provided without much explanation. In his introduction, for instance, he writes that “Clark is an uncompromising Idealist and Rationalist.” Now, the idea that Clark was an Idealist is debatable; Clark didn’t necessarily have a problem with it (Clark and His Critics, 2009, pg. 209), and for that matter, nor do I if Idealism is defined as there being a significant sense in which there is no reality independent of God’s mind. Univocal [real] images, for example, are as possible as univocal [real] propositional knowledge; this will be important to remember when discussing how the coherence theory of truth could be supplemented, though it must also be acknowledged that empiricists bear a burden of proof when it comes to so-called knowledge about some allegedly corresponding image.
But given that Hoover was familiar with Clark’s book Three Types of Religious Philosophy, in which Clark differentiates his “Dogmatism” from Rationalism by denying that “all religious knowledge, can be deduced from logic alone, i.e., logic apart from both revelation and sensory experience” (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pg. 21), why Clark is classified as a Rationalist is a bit of a mystery. Whereas “Rationalism believes that it can deduce by its own method what God can and cannot say” (Ibid., pg. 42), Clark held that divine revelation is necessarily self-authenticating. Hoover is fair in his exposition of Clark in most other respects, so it is strange that he does not explain why he considers Clark a Rationalist. He highlights their similarities - such as the acceptance of the coherence theory of truth - at the expense of individuating characteristics.
I do not mean to suggest that Hoover intentionally fails to provide all the pertinent facts. I suspect the real trouble here and elsewhere is that the scope of the article is inherently restrictive. In my opinion, Hoover was given a 10,000 word limit or so to explain and then critique the epistemology of a man who wrote several dozen books on it and dedicated his life to teaching it. Quite possibly, Hoover could have anticipated the sorts of questions I am and will be asking but felt that addressing them would be too tangential or less relevant than what he would have had to cut out. Naturally, Hoover is also not only or perhaps even chiefly writing for readers who are already familiar with Clark, so the space available to present a comprehensive rebuttal - let alone a defense of his own thoughts - is mitigated by the purpose of the article: the focus is meant to be on Clark, not Hoover (so far as this is possible), and the historical “progression” of his thought as well as an evaluation of it. Of course, none of this will prevent me from remarking on what is left unsaid that I think is important, whether or not such was deliberate.
Hoover’s abstract reads as follows:
Gordon Clark is an uncommon presuppositionalist. Dating roughly from the publication of his “Wheaton Lectures” in 1968, he has increasingly stressed the complete impossibility of empirically acquired knowledge. According to Clark, the Bible, and only the Bible, can be known. All observation based truth-claims and all inductive arguments are logically worthless for apologetic purposes. This essay attempts to follow the progression in Clark’s thought which leads to such a thoroughgoing skepticism (with regard to a knowledge of the contemporary world). The essay looks, in turn, at Clark’s reasons for rejecting the reliability of perception, Clark’s adoption of the Bible as axiomatic, and Clark’s propositionalism. Although these subjects are treated critically, the aim of the author is to achieve clarity on what Clark holds and why.Hoover similarly states a little later, “Valid reasoning, for Clark, is the only profitable reasoning one can engage in, and it is definitionally deductively valid reasoning. Inductive arguments whose premises merely support their conclusions are necessarily bad arguments - in fact, worthless.” These ideas warrant further explanation than I think was provided in the article. Clark did agree with Plato that “Knowledge is timeless and changeless and requires, not observation, experiment, and induction, but deduction alone” (Ancient Philosophy, 1997, pg. 141). He also said that “there is no logical place for induction in presuppositionalism. One assumes or presupposes certain axioms and from there on everything is deduction” (The Trinity, 1990, pg. 93). So, if Hoover is meaning only to refer to the fact that “unnecessary inference arrives at no truth at all” (Lord God of Truth, 1994 pg. 39) - as I suppose he could be, given his qualification that Clark argued induction is “logically” worthless - Hoover is as entirely correct in his assessment of Clark as Clark is of induction.
But all of this only pertains to Clark’s own positive, [meta]epistemological views. A recurring theme throughout this post will be that Scripturalism is a philosophy which attempts to promote and supply the need for infallibilistic knowledge. Insofar as an apologetic or belief is unnecessary, it isn’t epistemically relevant - which is, I stress, not to say it is completely irrelevant. But what we need, what we must have - in short, that which is necessary - should come first, and fundamentally, this is “philosophical knowledge.” Induction, therefore, cannot be epistemically profitable, but at the same time, Clark’s philosophy is compatible with the opinion that induction can serve a pragmatic function. And even in the context of apologetics, Hoover notes elsewhere that Clark believed:
The apologete can take up archaeology only in its potential for logically embarrassing the opponent to Christianity. That is, “scientific discourse” can be taken up only ad hominem against the individual who puts credence in science.
Thus, it is somewhat misleading to suggest that the ability to refute or disconcert an opponent with his own methodology is “worthless,” even if the methodology itself can (and should) be demonstrated to be so; in fact, assuming his faulty basis in order to show it leads to [other, more overtly recognizable] undesirable beliefs seems to me to be a rather common-sense apologetic attempt to persuade an individual that it is his basis that is in need of correction. Apologetics needn’t be restricted to the providing of a defense of one’s own position, although and notwithstanding Hoover’s seeming disagreement (cf. footnote 24), that is certainly a precondition for an analysis of another’s (link).
Cognitivity and Sentience
Early on in the article, Hoover does a relatively good job of restraining himself from incredulous dismissal of the consequences of Clark’s arguments, evident, for example, in the following:
The very legitimacy of questioning the reliability of sentience (the capacity to discriminate the environment by the senses) seems to imply that there are perhaps other (non-sentient) modes of cognitive access, other methods for finding out, that might be used instead. And if sentiently gleaning content goes part and parcel with inductive method, then the question becomes whether there is a better method than observation and testing to find a cure for AIDS. But what might an alternative be like? Divination? Inspecting tea leaves? Saying the first (second, third) thing that pops into one’s head? (Observing tea leaves is, of course, ruled out.) Or perhaps there is no such disease as AIDS since its occurrence is alleged on the basis of observation! And by parity of reasoning there are no diseases afflicting anyone! But if we find that we cannot help but admit that we do have the capacity for making observations in God’s world and that sentience is inextricably tied up in the making of observations, we will find Clark’s position even startling. But it is important to state that Clark’s position cannot be put away by a string of rhetorical questions.Still, a few points on Clark’s behalf seem to be required. In the next section of his article, Hoover correctly writes that “Clark’s ultimate concern for presupposing, it seems to me, is more nearly the philosophical one of overcoming skepticism (by exhibiting at least one logically irrefutable truth).” But in that case, what do “the reliability of sentience,” “the reliability of perception” and “cognitive access” to one’s environment entail? In particular, do any or all imply one should be able to have infallibilistic knowledge of his environment? If so, why does Hoover even think one needs to know his “environment” in the first place, assuming there even is such an environment? If not, then I do not see how any of this is relevant to the business of Clark’s epistemology given what Hoover himself acknowledges to be its primary concern: the refutation of skepticism by the establishment of infallibilistic knowledge. Other theories of “knowledge” may ask that less stringent conditions be met, but for that very reason Clark would not be as interested in them; they would have no value in making headway toward Clark’s goal. In one of his footnotes, Hoover says:
...the fact that informal cognition (knowledge by sentient acquaintance) is subject to well-known limitations and pitfalls does not argue that there can’t be sentient acquaintance with the world. To have a cognitive capacity does not entail the having of it to a superlative degree or the having of it without limitation with regard to the sort of capacity it is.
But would Clark necessarily disagree? After all, Clark does at times informally refer to sensation as that which stimulates actions designed to preserve the body from [perceived] harm or an occasion on which knowledge occurs (cf. Lord God of Truth, pgs. 16, 23); at least, I am not aware that he has provided a strict definition of it, although he certainly chastised those who attempted to found their philosophy on it without defining it. So it’s not so simple as Hoover’s conclusion that “Clark simply refuses to acknowledge informal noetic capacities in man.” It’s not a question of whether we must have “faith that we inhabit a real and discriminable world of real and discriminable sinners” in order to evangelize or whatnot. Clark agreed that we should act as if all our beliefs (opinions included) are true:
Although not usually recognized as such, a certain claim to infallibility meets us in our everyday affairs. When an accountant balances his books, does he not assume that his figures are correct? When a college professor hurries to class for fear that his students will disappear if he is late, does he not make judgments as to the time of day and the proclivities of students? When a chess club challenges another to a match, does any suspicion of fallibility impede its action? Cannot this club distinguish the dogma ecclesiastica that there actually is another club from the dogma haeretica that no other club exists? Must not all people act on the assumption that their beliefs are true? (Karl Barth’s Theological Method, 1997 pg. 146)But it is clear that all of this is has nothing to do with whether our inferences not based on divine revelation can be infallible, let alone why they need to be (link). I am pretty sure, then, that Clark would ask Hoover if or how he infallibilistically knows he has this capacity. How does Hoover account for how Timothy could infallibilistically know he has found Paul’s cloak? Or doesn’t he? If Hoover were to demure but protest that Clark is being reductionistic - as he does in the rest of the aforementioned footnote - I think Clark would say this is all besides the point, for the refutation of skepticism requires a narrower focus as to what sort of knowledge could count as a defeater. Hoover may not care as much about skepticism as does Clark, but then it would be an “empiricist” rather than a “rationalist prejudice” that is at issue here.
Additionally, regarding so-called “ostensive clarity,” Hoover never really explains how or if one can discriminate between conflicting claimants. This may have less to do with Hoover and more to do with whatever particular brand of empiricism he espouses, but it’s hard to tell because nearly all allusions to it are either mentioned in passing or phrased in such a way that the reader is not sure whether Hoover is committed to the idea in question.
On the one hand, Hoover says “What is important to see is that one cannot discredit [ostensive (or inductive) demonstrability] by showing that it cannot be analyzed in terms of [discursive demonstrability].” Does that not also imply one can’t be credited over another? Epistemologically, that would be a point Clark would consider in his favor.
On the other hand, Hoover clearly wants to avoid arbitrarity. In one footnote, he suggests that empiricists “can maintain that there is an intimate and necessary relation between sensory stimuli and the perception facilitated thereby, but deny that stimuli and perception relate by logic. A stimulus, after all, is a stimulus a causal sort of thing.” In another, he says the possibility of “phenomenal indistinguishability... can be contested,” but instead of explaining how, he goes on to argue that our epistemological limitations don’t affect ontic statuses. Now, anyone “can maintain” any position. The real question is why he would. So wouldn’t it more be more helpful to explain what grounds an empiricist could have for these positions? Maybe he is presupposing them, though he continually seems to want to contrast presuppositionalism with his evidentialism.
Why, then, does Hoover think sensations cause perceptions? And then how can perceptions be used to form abstract concepts or universals? I mean, there must be some point at which propositional beliefs are connected to sensation, perception, images, etc., right? I had thought that was the whole point of “empirical” knowledge. But since the predication of truth-values is propositional enterprise, then in contrast to what he states above, mustn’t there be discursive reasoning or logical relations somewhere in this empirical process? Well, where and how?
In yet another footnote - which one can probably by now sense is where most of Hoover’s positive [counter-]assertions have unfortunately been relegated - he writes: “From an aggregate of black dots which ostensibly occupy an area on a newspaper page, one cannot deduce the likeness of President Reagan. The President’s likeness is gestaltic in character, not discursive.” What does that mean? Does one have legitimate reason to infer a resemblance to President Reagan or not? Could one have legitimate reason for denying a resemblance? What suffices as a “likeness”? The reader is left guessing. If this is all purely intuitional - Hoover asserts that “there is an inherent informality in the very meaning of truth and in the human being’s mode of cognizing truth” - then I would consider empirical knowledge to be rather arbitrary and subjective.
Ironically, Hoover is so busy chiding Clark for “begging the question” against empiricists when he agrees with Blanshard in one instance or picks apart empirical particularities which Hoover doesn’t hold to in another - as if Clark were always obliged to refute all of empiricism and all empiricists universally and at once or else refrain from making any attempt at refuting individual arguments empiricists have used - that in the remaining space it seems he can do little more than make offhanded comments about or references to what he does hold to and why. But this in turn begs questions too. If Hoover’s empiricism really is so different than that of those whom Clark critiqued, I would have expected a bit more effort to distinguish his views, especially given his insistence that Clark’s opponents did not actually “fail to identify clear alternatives.”
Anyway, when the reader recalls that this article was written in 1984, only one year before Clark’s death, it should not surprise him that the mainstream views of contemporary empiricists (like Hoover?) should have changed so quickly from what the mainstream views of the empiricists of yesteryear believed. Clark himself noted this as a recurring trend throughout the history of philosophy. When it comes to secularly approved epistemologies, the only constant is change. Then again, even if none of what he said in his books is applicable to modern empiricists - which I doubt - Clark can hardly be held responsible for not responding to empirical ideas which had not yet been invented when he originally published them. But this is an impression one can sometimes receive from Hoover’s article.
The Coherence Theory of Truth
Hoover defines the coherence theory of truth as follows:
Briefly, the coherence theory of truth holds that there is only one ultimately coherent system of truth. Truth, that is, is a system of geometrically organized propositions. If a certain proposition is true, it is logically entailed by the system—or less stringently perhaps, a true proposition is one which is simply not inconsistent with any of the other propositions in the system. On the other hand, a proposition is false if and only if it fails to be entailed by the system—or, if and only if it is inconsistent with the system. The system contains all truth and only a truth can properly be said to be a knowable.
The telling criticism, however, is that, contrary to Clark’s belief, the coherence theory of truth does not provide a theory of the meaning of truth, but only a criterion for its recognition within a formal system. Thus, if presented with a proposition P, and I know that P is a member of a set of propositions which is consistent, then if that set is sanctioned by a true axiom, P must be true as well. The mere coherence of P is a sufficient criterion of its truth. But note that P’s content, by the coherence criterion, is irrelevant. My point is that a sure—fire criterion for the identification of a true proposition as a true proposition is not necessarily an insight into the meaning of truth.
But for the moment, let us suppose that the coherence criterion is also the meaning of ‘true’ as predicated of propositions. Suppose that Clark is right. Take the proposition, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” (I John 4:2). The recipients of John’s letter, let us assume, rejoiced in this truth as over against the docetic teaching about the incarnate Christ. But in what, exactly, could they have rejoiced given that the coherence theory of truth is true? If we are indeed given the meaning of truth by the coherence theory, then John’s proposition’s truth consists in its formal consistency with the larger set of propositions of which it is a member. They rejoiced, then, that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” is logically consistent with all the other propositions they held for true. Conceivably, there may have been in that early church some rather eccentric academics and logicians who had the necessary expertise to delight in the logical fittingness of John’s statement, but did not the early church rejoice rather in this statement’s content? In what this statement is about? The Apostle John’s faithful witness is that we do not serve a docetic Christ, but a Christ who became flesh. The proposition in question, if we are to make sense of being encouraged and gladdened by it, is about a non-proposition—viz., the Incarnation of Christ. Its coherence may be a criterion or sign of its truth but its truth is more plausibly construed as its faithful recounting of what had taken place in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. So unless a mere mark of truth is the meaning of truth, coherence cannot be definitional of truth.
As for the first paragraph, I don’t understand why Hoover thinks that “P’s content, by the coherence criterion, is irrelevant.” How could one gauge coherence between two propositions unless he can compare their content?
Furthermore, as hard as it is to believe - which is why I say I could be missing something - it looks as though Hoover conflates the coherence theory of truth with coherentism. The former has to do with what truth is as such; the latter has to do with the “recognition” of it. These don’t refer to the same thing, though they may seem to. The latter is essentially a theory of how we can justify some knowledge-claim, and as a Scripturalist, Clark certainly didn’t think we know a proposition is true if and only if it coheres with other propositions. He acknowledged this could be possible in the case of God (cf. Clark and His Critics, 2009, pg. 287ff.), but he equally makes clear that he doesn’t consider coherence a “sufficient criterion” for men. “One who believes in the unity of truth may still believe that the false system entails contradictions; but to prove this is the work of omniscience” (Historiography: Secular and Religious, 1971, pg. 370). So our [justified] knowledge of what truth is as much depends on divine revelation and that which can be derived from it as anything else.
Instead, I think it is better to attack the metaphysic which undergirds an exclusive adherence to the coherence theory of truth. If there are realities other than propositions and the concepts of which they are composed, then one who [correctly] believes that everything is related will have to relate his theory of truth to that. Earlier, I noted Hoover calls Clark an Idealist and that this is not necessarily false or a bad thing. But I would argue and have argued (see here, here, here, here, and here), however, that if Idealism implies the “propositional monism” to which Hoover attributes to Clark - viz. that “the set of all real objects and the set of all knowables is the same set” - this metaphysic is inconsistent with Clark’s stated philosophy, which in the main is sound.
While what has been said above may address the concern that “Clark’s epistemology requires a serious distortion of human nature, to that extent it is ill-suited to serve as a basis for defending the Christian faith,” Hoover also questions Clark’s metaphysical thesis of persons as a congeries of propositions [or, perhaps a little more precisely, thoughts]. Now, as Hoover says upfront that he wishes to “sketch a reductio ad absurdum argument against Clark’s insistence that persons are propositions,” the challenge will be to refute Clark while operating within Clark’s epistemological framework. Indeed, as the Bible just is a series of sentences, and the Bible alone is, on Scripturalism, the source of all [infallibilistic] knowledge, the only way to show to Clark that there are realities other than sentences is if it is shown that sentences are in some respect deficient in explaining things the Bible refers to. So it might be true that on Clark’s metaphysic of persons, propositions must be regarded as bearing capacities or properties like moral character, rights, and so forth, but Hoover’s conclusion that this is “curious” seems to dangerously imply that Hoover is begging the question. But then he says that this is not “formally decisive,” and so we are really just left with the following paragraph:
According to Clark, persons are propositions (i.e., “complex definitions”). Drawing from Leibniz, Clark affirms that a given person is precisely the set of propositions that make up his life history. And a person is all his propositions. From this it follows that personal identity, self-knowledge, is utterly problematic if not impossible. This follows for two equally sufficient reasons—the first posing a strictly epistemological problem and the second, a logical problem of individuation: (i) Epistemologically, at any point in one’s “autobiography” one has only a finite sample of a possibly infinite set of propositions that will go to constitute his identity. Recall that propositions based on sentient awareness do not count. Now if one has but a finite sample of propositions relevant for his/her identity, the probability that one has enough propositions for a correct identity judgment is either exceedingly small or zero (a finite number over infinity is zero). (ii) Logically, Clark’s theory identifies the person as a “complex definition”—or, to say the same thing in a way that will help us make the point about individuation more clearly, a person is a set of propositions. Persons, then, are individuated by propositional sets, by propositional totalities. This has the exceedingly odd consequence that persons can be told apart, so to speak, only by virtue of their entire life histories. Because no person in this life has the requisite omniscience to know total life histories, it follows that persons in this life are not the sort of thing that can be told apart. But perhaps more seriously—and this brings us around to the test question concerning the exercise of moral agency—if persons are thus individuated (by logically complete propositional sets), how is it imaginable that persons could be moral agents within their life histories? For in Clark’s sense of person, the person seems to be his life history and not a participant within it. And it does no good to invoke the omniscience of God. The fact that God can individuate the propositional sets in question still does not allow persons to be agents within history. Propositional sets are simply not the sort of entities that could commit adultery, care for the sick, or resist temptation. Thus it would appear that a propositional monism is insufficiently rich in basic categories to allow even the Biblical David to sin and repent.
Now, I have defended the possibility of self-knowledge with a Scripturalistic framework here, among other places. I also think I’ve also pointed out a fallacy in the idea that a function in which x is some finite number and y approaches infinity equals zero when the former is divided by the latter (link).
In response to the other arguments, that we cannot now knowingly individuate ourselves would not be to say that it cannot be done, nor that we cannot have an opinion as to how we are distinct subjects. This may remove some of the sting of the criticism, at least until it is explained why infallibilistic knowledge [of ourselves or, for that matter, extra-biblical realities in general] is necessary in order to obey God.
I do think Clark was a bit unclear as to whether a person is “what he thinks” (The Trinity, 1990, pg. 129) or, in agreement with Leibniz, whether a person is the sum of what may be predicated of him (cf. Clark and His Critics, 2009, pgs. 148-149). Maybe he thought these two ideas can be resolved. But I didn’t really understand the criticism that a “person seems to be his life history and not a participant within it.” On Clark’s view, how could there be the former without the latter? Perhaps Hoover’s philosophy of time or history is different from Clark’s, but if so, he never says it.
In short, Hoover seems to be attacking all the right doctrines in all the wrong ways. While I agree with his conclusion that persons cannot just be propositions, I provide other reasons for it (e.g. here).
While I don’t seem to agree with many of his answers, Hoover does ask some really good questions. On the subject of language, he writes:
What it means to presuppose the truth of all this content is itself far from clear. And the question is important beyond a mere philosophical quibble. For one thing, there is the character of truth itself according to the different presuppositionalists. Does truth attach to locutions within the various literary genre in a univocal way - e.g., in poetry, didactic passages, historical narrative? How does truth qualify, and provide implication for, imperatives, interrogatives, counter-factual subjunctives? When one avows that one “presupposes Biblical truth” one does not, ipso facto, answer this sort of question.These are all excellent, each deserving of more development than I have the present capacity to give. I have written about counter-factuals here. Regarding imperatives and interrogatives, they must mean something just as declarative sentences must mean something, and we must be able to understand them. So perhaps it is possible to reformulate these types of sentences in declarative form without a loss of meaning. For example, per Augustine, a question could normally refer to an expression of desire that a person teach him about some subject. A command could be thought of as an [assumed] authoritative declaration that one [is obligated to] perform some action. In any case, both types of sentences connote that the utterer has certain hopes or expectations of his interlocutors. As for there being various literary genres, even such being the case, one point they all must have in common is to communicate some understandable meaning, in which case historical-grammatical exegesis should be able to be indiscriminately applied.
But Hoover makes other, more provocative relations between language and Scripturalism, such as:
Suppose, for example, that I want to determine whether “Hoover is using the Axiom” (1) makes sense, and (2) whether it is true. Since on Clark’s assumptions knowledge is the system headed by the Axiom (as identified), the individual terms if they can be assigned content, must be defined in the Axiom, and the proposition as a whole is certifiably true only if it is either mentioned in the Axiom or deducible from the Axiom. Taking the truth of “Hoover is using the Axiom” first, we see at once that it is neither mentioned in the Bible nor is it deducible from the Bible. It follows that I, Hoover, can never know whether I am using the Axiom—whether reading, applying, or reflecting on it. More drastically, perhaps, the very proposition “Hoover is using the Axiom” contains one prominent term for which no Clarkian meaning can be assigned. On the criteria already given, no acceptable definition of “Hoover” can be acquired. Hence, it seems to me, the formula “Hoover is using the Axiom” fails to constitute an intelligible proposition.As for the idea that something must be explicitly defined in order for one to be able to understand what it means, I see no reason why, if every concept is “a name given to a very lengthy complex of propositions” (Modern Philosophy, 2008, pg. 273), our ability to understand what any one of them means cannot be due to meaning that is inherent or implicit in their usage. After all, if concepts are like empty receptacles into which meaning is poured, defining a concept by making it a subject of a proposition is no good, for the predicate turns out to be just another empty receptacle. See here and here for more on the ideas of necessary and intrinsic meaning.
Now, when it comes to the ontology of man, the “innate knowledge” of language and logic which is evoked upon “the heat of experience,” and so forth, there is much more that can and must be said. But given these available speculatory answers, Scripturalism doesn’t stand or fall here (link), so I will leave further thoughts for another time.