Thursday, June 21, 2012

Presupositionalism and Sense Experience

The Vantillian attack against Clarkian epistemology has so far seem to be based upon blatant misrepresentation and failure of logical thinking. One direction of attack which Vantillians such as Greg Bahnsen has advocated is the objection of sense experience.

According to Greg Bahnsen:

ARGUMENT I — Clark contends:

P1. Any position that leads to skepticism is false

P2. Empiricism leads to skepticism.

C1.: Empiricism is false.

ARGUMENT II — Furthermore, Clark argues:

P3. Man cannot know anything through his senses (from C1).

P4. Human knowledge is limited to the contents of divine revelation (The Bible).

P5. But man cannot know the content of the Bible save through his senses.

C2. Therefore, man cannot know the truths God has revealed in the Bible.


P6. The only knowledge available to man is contained in the Bible (from P4).

P7. But, for Clark, man cannot attain this knowledge (from C2).

C3. It follows that Clark's view reduces to skepticism.

C4. It follows further that Clark's view is false (from P1).

[Greg Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended (ed. Joel McDurmon; Powder Springs, GA: American Vision & Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media, 2008, 2011), 194]

The issue arises from premise 5. If Bahnsen has accurately represented the problem, then of course he is right in his argument.

Leaving aside discussion of premise 4 for now and granting its truth for the sake of argument, the main problem with premise 5 comes about through the confusion between senses functioning as the instruments and as the grounds. Bahnsen's error is that he does not differentiate between the two. For example, in justification the grounds of justification is Christ's merit, and the instrument of justification is faith. To confuse the two would be fatal, for making faith the ground would imply that our faith is meritorious towards our salvation.

Likewise, if we claim that the senses are instruments for knowing and not the grounds for knowing, that implies that knowledge is not dependent upon the use of the senses; only our process of knowing is dependent upon the senses. Therefore, both Bahnsen's premise 5 and conclusion 2 are amphibolies.

To clarify Clark's argument, we should amend the argument as follows:


P3*. Man cannot know anything based upon his senses (from C1).

P4. Human knowledge is limited to the contents of divine revelation (The Bible).

P5*. Man cannot know the content of the Bible save through the instrument of his senses.

C2*. Therefore, man cannot come to know the truths God has revealed in the Bible without his senses. But man can know the truths of the Bible without grounding it in his senses.

With this amended argument, we can see that Bahnsen's criticism is invalidated.

The Vantillian critique should lead us to ask of Vantillian presuppositionalism some questions. Do the Vantillians mean to say that sense experience can help us to know the truth? If sense experience in some sense functions as part of the ground for knowledge, then Vantillianism does not have Scripture as its ultimate authority epistemologically.

To be sure, Vantillianism and Greg Bahnsen in particular claim that one must presuppose God and Scripture in everything. How this works out however is an ontological presupposition not an epistemic presupposition. In other words, all manner of knowing (e.g. sense experience, science etc) are legitimate tools to gain true knowledge. What Vantillianism teaches however is that these grounds must be ontologically corrected by a Christian worldview. In other words, a "Christian worldview" as an ontic entity, for the knowledge that comes from treating Scripture as the principium cognoscendi, norms all knowledge (viewed ontologically). But epistemologically, how one knows something is pretty much irrelevant.

Clarkian thought is true and proper presuppositionalism. Vantillian thought is presuppositional only in its ontological view of knowledge. In its epistemic grounds however, it is not truly based upon Scripture but regards all grounds and methods as legitimate as long as they are normed by a Christian worldview and thus presupposed God.

1 comment:

Charlie J. Ray said...

Clark never once argues that the Bible can be known through the senses! Rather Clark argues that the Bible is revealed in verbally inspired words that are the inerrant revelation from God. Since God is rational and logical His revelation is comprehensible to man in the form of logical truth claims/propositional statements that are non-contradictory.

Clark contends that the Bible does not contradict itself since God would not contradict Himself without denying who He is as being inherently divine logic. Logic and reason are part of who God is. A god who is illogical would not be God at all.

Empiricism of any form or sensation cannot and never will prove Scripture to be true. The axiom, "Scripture IS the Word of God" is Clark's presupposition and that all knowledge can be deduced from Scripture through logic.

At least that's how I'm understanding Clark. Also, Clark does not say that man is trying to know the secret being or nature of God. On the contrary, Clark says that what God reveals in Scripture is univocally given knowledge on man's creaturely level and that this knowledge coincides precisely with God's knowledge. It is not an analogy of God's knowledge but it IS God's knowledge, albeit given on a creaturely comprehensible level. Man thinks God's thoughts after Him.

Any idea of analogical revelation is essentially the same argument as neo-orthodoxy: The Bible is not THE word of God but merely an analogy of God's word. In short, Van Til agreed indirectly with the axiom of neo-orthodoxy that Scripture "contains" the Word of God but does not coincide "at any single point" with God's thoughts or God's knowledge. Needless to say, this opens the door to liberalism and relativism.