Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Quick Comment on the Van Til / Gordon Clark Debate

There is an odd artifact I've noticed in discussions between followers of Van Til and those of Clark. For some reason, those in the camp of Van Til take great delight in pointing out that Clark used the term "know" to refer to what we would call "know with absolute certainty." As such, Clark did not "know" that the woman with whom he was living was his wife. Endless merriment such comments make, particularly when the quotation marks around "know" are removed!

But why? Is it just to goad on the followers of Clark? Is it simply for the pleasure of hearing the sound of "you don't know that I am even real" or is there a deeper reason?

Surely the reason cannot be that the followers of Van Til think that Clark was wrong, and that Clark could know with absolute certainty that the woman he was living with was his wife. After all, it's imaginable that his parents-in-law had identical twins, one of whom was given up at birth. By chance, this twin sister discovered her long separated twin, murdered her in a jealous rage, and took her place. We could think of even more implausible options, but this relatively simple account provides one way that a person might be mistaken about such an important issue. Is it probable? No, it's not (though, of course, Clark was justifiably uncomfortable with such a concept), but the issue is certainty, not probability.

In the end, Clark is right in saying that the only things we can know with absolute certainty are those things that are revealed to us by God (whether through general or through special revelation). The only way to be absolutely sure about something is to obtain that knowledge from an absolutely reliable source.

-TurretinFan

20 comments:

Jeff said...

But is it Clark's position that one can know from general revelation? From my understanding, it is not.

Have you heard Bahsen's lecture titled Van Til and Clark: A Friendly Analysis. If not, it would be worth listening to.

Mitch said...

Turretinfan,

Not having read Clark extensively I was hoping you could shed more light on his view of general revelation. Would he say that general revelation reveals truth about God and that one can *know* this revealed truth without Scripture? Or would he say that we can know general revelation only because the Scripture speaks about it?

My understanding at this moment is that there is an a priori because man is made in the image of God and that would explain the how can you read the Bible and stuff like that.

Thanks

Turretinfan said...

A full discussion would really go beyond the scope of this comment box. Briefly, though, I think that Clark would affirm that we have certain "innate" information (all humans do) as part of the way we are created. But, of course, Clark emphasizes the need for propositions to convey truth. Thus, the highest and best form of revelation is Scripture, since it is propositional.

Another - and more interesting - topic of the Clark / Van Til discussion is the relationship between propositional truth and the human mind: in other words, how are propositions conveyed and how do propositions arrive in our mind.

Clark has a number of relevant books on the subject, but perhaps the best one would be his book, "Three Types of Religious Philosophy." There is an interesting (and it seems fair) summary here.

-TurretinFan

Turretinfan said...

Jeff:

Let's be clear: Bahnsen (one of the leading disciples of Van Til) was not especially friendly to Clark's followers. His lecture may be an interesting listen, but one needs to recognize the fact that he is friendly to the side of Van Til, not that of Clark.

As to your question, of course Clark held the position that one can know things from general revelation. The real question is not that, but whether one can know things with absolute certainty apart from special revelation.

-TurretinFan

natamllc said...

This comment is not off topic but in a broader sense a topic similar.

That saying "know thyself" has gotten me into a lot of trouble simply because to "know myself" the way that idea was put over during my teen years of the sixties led me into many evil and hurtful lusts! I indeed was unbridled and there was never ever a nuance of propositional dialogue to tether me to Godly Truth.

Is it true that we can know ourselves? Absolutely. In fact Paul said this about that:

Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Rom 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Rom 1:19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Rom 1:20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Rom 1:21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Rom 1:22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
Rom 1:23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

I do not believe one needs to "have" read the Bible to "know God by general revelation". But in order to become useful to God that others might "know God" with Truth about self from yourself, you will not only need God's general revelations about Him through His natural creation, you will need the Spoken and Written Word of God too to be established in the Truth!

I was alive apart from the Law once but when the Law came alive in me I died because I then could put a name on my face as I endeavored to "know myself".

I believe there is a sense of sadness in here in this article that can only be overcome with His Truth "known" His Way:

Psa 119:1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa 119:2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
Psa 119:3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
Psa 119:4 You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
Psa 119:5 Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
Psa 119:6 Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
Psa 119:7 I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.

Jeff said...

Let's be clear: Bahnsen...is friendly to the side of Van Til, not that of Clark.Most of that lecture he spends commending Clark (perhaps not Robbins). Obviously he sides with Van Til on the specific controvery.

As to your question, of course Clark held the position that one can know things from general revelation. The real question is not that, but whether one can know things with absolute certainty apart from special revelation.And it is my understanding that Clark could not say with certainty that He was saved.

Coram Deo said...

For what it's worth much of the Van Til / Clark saga seems very strange and sad to me.

I was first introduced to Van Til, the presuppositional apologetic approach, and the transcendental argument of "the impossibility of the contrary" through Bahsen's writings.

But it was through a deeper investigation of Van Til that the Clarkian controversies first came to light for me, as well as the discovery of Van Til's aberrant, even errant teachings.

IMHO much of the Van Til / Clark impasse - including the ongoing antics of many of their devout followers - smacks of the hubris of two small children who are both mesmerized by the same shiny object, grabbing and pinching and biting and pulling hair in order to be the one who gets his way.

For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?In Christ,
CD

Andrew said...

Since you believe that Robbins and others have misinterpreted Clark could you write something on what you believe Clark's constructive theory was?

Turretinfan said...

Andrew,

I'm not so vain as to suggest I am more of a scholar of Clark than Robbins was. However, I don't think everything Robbins himself wrote was fully consistent with Clark.

Clark's own work is quite good, and I've already recommended it above. I may try a positive presentation at some point, but not here in this combox.

-TurretinFan

Andrew said...

Turretin Fan,

I didn't mean that to be snide in any way. Clark's works have become so attached to the Scripturalist system of Robbins, which I do not follow, that I would be interested to read another take.

Andrew

Sean Gerety said...

I can't think of anywhere that Clark and Robbins differed, other than stylistically. Robbins was admittedly definitely more of a polemicist along with being a first rate economist.

I don't recall either of these men suggesting that general revelation was cognitive and in any sense a secondary source of knowledge. Can you provide any citations?

Speaking of citations, can you show where Clark was concerned with "certainty"? I seem to recall Clark saying people are often certain of a great many things that turn out to be false. So, certainty, per se, was not his basis for differentiating knowledge from opinion.

My understanding as to why he said he couldn't know his wife, etc., was because there are a great many things which we believe are true and may well be true for which we cannot provide a reason or an account. In his Intro to Christian Philosophy, Clark argued that knowledge requires an account. For a negative example, in his monograph on the Philosophy of Science and Belief in God Clark demonstrates that science is non-cognitive, i.e., it's conclusions do not rise to the level of knowledge simply because the scientific method is a tissue of fallacies. Science fails to account for the conclusions it might claim are true. Of course, no scientist today, with the exception of a confused Christian scientist, believes that science is in the knowledge acquisition business.

Andrew said...

Sean,

Putting aside the 'how to' of sense knowledge, it is my understanding that Clark's primary argument against such was you cannot trust your senses.

He would give two examples that contradicted each other and then would say because you cannot tell which is true, if either, you cannot trust your senses. I recall him using perjury as an analogy. A court does not trust the testimony of a witness that commits perjury. Your senses commit perjury all the time and so you cannot trust your senses.


Is this not the same as saying your senses cannot give you certainty?

Sean Gerety said...

Clark's objections against empiricism are numerous, but the short answer is that empiricism fails on logical grounds. Empiricist beg the question; they simply assert the very thing they need to demonstrate. If knowledge is derived from sensation then they should start by defining what they mean by sensation and show how one can start with something which is, at the very least, non-propositional, and arrive at even one true proposition.

Of course, Clark did argue that sensations are untrustworthy, but also that any empiricist needs at least some theory of images, which has its own set of problems. Aside from the fact that some people have no images, Clark said:

"When you talk about the sensation, when it is gone, and you have an image that is retained, there are other difficulties. If perception is an inference from sensation, and images follow the perception, how can one determine when the inference is valid?

At one time, I inferred that I saw a truck. Another time, a few minutes later, I inferred that I saw a mailbox. But how do you tell whether either inference is valid?"

Don't get me wrong, I very much appreciate Turretinfan wading in on my little fracas with the Triablogue boys. He is correct that the bulk of their objections consist of equivocating on the sense of the word "to know." If knowledge is defined as Clark, Van Til, Bahnsen and virtually all empiricists prior to the rise of postmodernism and so-called Reformed Epistemology, as true belief with an account of its truth, then the account for empiricism in all its forms fails before it starts.

Andrew said...

What does Postmodernism and Reformed Epistemology suggest as an alternative?

Sean Gerety said...

A redefinition and relaxation of what constitutes and is required to obtain knowledge. No longer does knowledge require an account and Scripture's claim to having a monopoly on truth (or, more precisely, the truth that can be known) is ridiculed even by those calling themselves Christians.

Andrew said...

Thanks for answering my questions, after all you could just tell me to go read some books.

Notionally at least those that follow Reformed Epistemology believe the Bible to be knowledge. Scripturalists believe the Bible to be knowledge. The difference, so it seems to me, is that they, and many others, are willing to call other things knowledge in addition to this when Scripturalists are not, but of what importance is this?

We could discuss the philosophical or theological implications of wrongly held beliefs but if Scripture is magisterial and by the grace of God error is avoided in exegesis and systematisation what difference does it make that another claims to know that cows aren't sheep or that man evolved from apes which also are not sheep?

The gastronomes amongst us may be horrified to be told that they cannot tell the difference between the rib roast they ate last week and the haunch of lamb they will consume this weekend but since I'm being facetious few would deny them the distinction.

The stumbling block, for me at any rate, is that no matter how hard I try to convince myself that Scriptural propositions, plus good and necessary consequence, alone constitute knowledge I never manage to live in accordance with this belief. No one can deny experience and if they get me on a technicality then more fool them.

I remember reading about a Baptist pastor on a visit to Jerusalem, one night he was dinning with some friends and somehow or other he got into conversation with some Christian Scientists (the Mary Baker Eddy kind) and one of them mentioned that pain doesn't really exist, so this Baptist swiftly prodded a fork into their leg, well you can guess what happened and the point I am trying to make.

I know I am skipping over many distinctions and philosophical categories but only because I want to get to point. I am quite willing to give pride of place to Scripture in epistemology but not at the expense of cutting off all else. Or if one more analogy is fitting, I don't want to close up the east wing so I can maintain the west.

Sean Gerety said...

The difference, so it seems to me, is that they, and many others, are willing to call other things knowledge in addition to this when Scripturalists are not, but of what importance is this?The importance is that just at the point when Christianity can provide the only answer to the problem of epistemology, seemingly intelligent Christians follow the world instead assist them in lowering the epistemic bar while sacrificing truth in the process. Instead of truth being absolute never changing fixed propositions, these Christians have abandoned truth in the sense of finality and have joined the world in calling that knowledge which is only tentative at best.

To put the situation in military terms, it is either a case of giving aid and comfort to the enemy or simply a treasonous capitulation. Peter said the Scriptures are a light shining in a dark place. The sub-Vantilian RE devotees now claim to find light everywhere.

The stumbling block, for me at any rate, is that no matter how hard I try to convince myself that Scriptural propositions, plus good and necessary consequence, alone constitute knowledge I never manage to live in accordance with this belief. No one can deny experience and if they get me on a technicality then more fool them.More fool them is precisely the reason for the abuse and ridicule Scripturalists have been subjected to by Triabloguers like Hays, Pike and Manata. Manata even wrote a piece comparing Clark to a methamphetamine kingpin. Yet, their endless ridicule only masks the fact that these men have left the philosophic battlefield and despite their posturing as “apologists” for the Christian faith, they’ve abandoned the antithesis.

In his Introduction to Christian Philosophy Clark said,

“A systematic philosophy must take care of epistemology. Knowledge must be accounted for [62].”

A little later on he wrote:

“ What account shall be given of everyday “knowledge” that common sense thinks is silly to doubt? Don’t I know when I am hungry? Can’t I use road maps to drive from Boston or Los Angles? Indeed, how can I know what the Bible says without reading its pages with my own eyes? It was one secular philosopher criticizing another, who said that knowledge is a fact and that any theory that did not account for it should be abandoned. But all such criticism miss the point. The status of common opinion is not fixed until a theory has been accepted. One may admit that a number of propositions commonly believed are true; but no one can deny that many such are false. The problem is to elaborate a method by which the two classes can be distinguished. Plato too granted a place to opinion as distinct from knowledge; he even admitted that in some circumstances opinion was as useful as knowledge with a capital K. But to dispose of the whole matter by an appeal to road maps [or computer keyboards or 999 ravens], that we can see with our own eyes is to ignore everything said above about Aristotle [90,91].”

If you’re at all interested in what Clark said about Aristotle, this time I will suggest you buy the book. ;)

I know I am skipping over many distinctions and philosophical categories but only because I want to get to point. I am quite willing to give pride of place to Scripture in epistemology but not at the expense of cutting off all else. Or if one more analogy is fitting, I don't want to close up the east wing so I can maintain the west.Neither are Scripturalists “cutting off all else.” See Clark’s comment on Plato's view of opinion above. However, if you’re going to engage people in the field of philosophy then those distinctions and categories need to be pressed and never surrendered.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I do own, and have read, most of Clark's works, although it has been a few years since I read his major philosophic works.

If there are, amongst others, such things as maps, biology, keyboards and computers some kind of explanation is necessary. You say, and so it seems Clark, these things are opinions. Whether or not you call them knowledge I don't really care, what I want to know is how and why you believe them.

It may be that these opinions are mistaken, a roadmap to Boston may be a roadmap to Rome but as all roads lead to Rome it doesn't matter that in my opinion it has been wrongly labelled, nevertheless I want to go to Boston and have bought a roadmap to show me the way.

What about the Texan who thought he saw a mirage and drove into a lake; was being submerged a suitable rejoinder that perhaps he was mistaken? Could he reasonably opine that the lake really was a mirage and he was fast approaching his destination? In either case how did he opine a proposition from sensation?

Clark taught that all knowledge is propositional for only propositions can be true or false. Are opinions propositions? When an opinion is asserted is it a truth claim or not? If not, it follows that all propositions are true because a false proposition is an opinion and no opinion is a proposition. Given that Clark taught belief is volitional assent to understood propositions, an opinion that is non-propositional cannot be believed, how then does one hold an opinion? If, however, opinions are propositions, and if all knowledge is propositional, opinions are claims to knowledge.

Whether or not the claim can be defended as knowledge is a separate issue.

John Adams once said that facts are stubborn things, if by facts he meant the way things are then I would tend to agree.

I do appreciate the exchange, if nothing else to show me where I may have misunderstood Scripturalism.

Sean Gerety said...

Are opinions propositions?Of course opinions are propositions, and, yes, only propositions can be either true or false. Further, and just so we're clear, a proposition is the meaning of a declarative sentence. So, I guess that pretty much eliminates most of your objections.

The problem is how do you account or justify any number of opinions all of which may or may not be true? Concerning empiricism Clark's critics would often attack him saying don't you have to read the Bible with the eyes in your head? To which he would reply, "How do you even know you have a Bible in your hands?" Again, Clark was not happy just begging the question.

Just because we take the truthfulness of any number of things for granted, knowledge requires an account.

John Adams once said that facts are stubborn things, if by facts he meant the way things are then I would tend to agree.Indeed, facts may well be what Adams said they are, but I think he would be shocked by what most people think are facts these days. For example, I don't know if he'd agree that it is a fact that some companies are "too big to fail" and therefore fleecing taxpayers is justified. It seems to me that facts are often in the eye of the beholder. Maybe people ought to define exactly what they mean by "facts."

I do appreciate the exchange, if nothing else to show me where I may have misunderstood ScripturalismThen it was worth it. Thank you.

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.