Archive for the ‘Philosophy in the Van Tillian Tradition’ Category

I’ve been pondering over David Leech Anderson’s article “Why God is Not a Semantic Realist”.

Anderson’s essay is included in the book “Realism and Anti-Realism” edited by William Alston.  The majority of the contributors are “realists” (in some respect or other), Anderson as well.

But while Anderson claims to be a “metaphysical realist” (ie: he believes there are objects in the world that do not depend on our mental activity for their existence), he, nevertheless, thinks we ought not suggest that our common linguistic habits presuppose metaphysical realism.  In other words, we ought not be global semantic realists with respect to common statements about the external world.

What’s a semantic realist, you ask?

Consider the following proposition:

“There is a tree in my front yard”.

A global semantic realist suggests that all such statements are meant to refer to actual objects; in this case, if I say there’s a tree in my front yard, I really mean that there’s a tree in my front yard.

Suppose metaphysical realism were false though, and we all lived in the “Matrix”.  If that were the case and a person said there is a tree in his front yard, his statement would be false because the statement would be referring to objects that do not, in fact, exist, but are rather illusions created by evil machines. (This assumes, of course, all non-trivial instances.  It could be that machines kidnapped a man, imprisoned him in the Matrix, then ran a sub-routine program that is almost identical to reality…then, when the man says “there is a tree in my front yard”, it might just accidentally be the case that, in the real world, there really is a tree in his front yard…but such would only be accidental.  For the purposes of this illustration, we’re investigating the referents of sentences.  The man might be accidentally correct in saying there’s a tree in his front yard, for example, but if he were to say, “there is a tree in front of me right now”, he would be wrong, from a semantic realist perspective).

The poor soul trapped in the Matrix may have a way out, however.  He might reject semantic realism and accept semantic anti-realism.  The semantic anti-realist would suggest that it’s true there is a tree in the front yard, not because the sentence refers to something that may actually exist, but because the subjective experience of the person was such that he experienced a tree and a front yard.

So, for a semantic anti-realist, the conditions of a propositions being true are different than for a semantic realist.  In other words:  the conditions which make a proposition true are different for both positions.  The realist needs the tree to actually *be* in the front yard for the proposition to be true; the anti realist needs only the subject to have experienced there being a tree in the front yard for the proposition to be true.

Criticisms:

Anderson argues against global semantic realism.

“Global” here, means a semantic realist who believes that *all* such propositions about the external world are generally meant to be propositions about extra-mental objects.

Instead, Anderson wants to claim that some of our propositions are to be taken as having anti-realist truth-conditions, while others are to be taken as having realist truth-conditions.  Thus, he suggests a “semantic-dualism” which is robust enough to allow for the full range of our linguistic habits.

His arguments against semantic realism don’t strike me as very convincing.

They amount to arguments from audacity.  “If it were true that we lived in a world where something like Berkeleian Idealism were true, and if we were also semantic realists, then that would mean that almost all Biblical propositions would be false”.

Well – granted…but then again, if we lived in a Berkeleian Idealist universe, Scripture would have implied as much and we would be able to properly deduce that Scriptural statements about the external world are really not referring to mind-independent objects, but rather, are referring to objects which depend (in non-trivial ways) on the mind of God.

Additionally, for an essay to have such an interesting title, it says little to nothing about God’s situation with respect to semantic realism or anti-realism.  Anderson, if successful in this article, will have shown that humans should be semantic dualists…but that’s not to say that God should also be a semantic dualist.

In fact, if we say that God is a semantic anti-realist in some respect, then we might be in danger of shaving away the classic doctrine of the “Creator / Creature” distinction…and that leads to all sorts of heresies.  Additionally, given God’s status as creator, when God speaks about a world outside of Himself, it comes to be; in other words, it becomes “real” by virtue of Him speaking about it.  It doesn’t seem (on this view) that God could be an anti-realist with respect to His experiences of extra-mental objects.

While Anderson does a good job of convincing me that I ought not be dogmatic about my “realist” views, and while he’s sparked my interest in the possibilities semantic anti-realism (or even his own semantic “dualism”) might offer to the Christian, I’m not convinced that he’s made a good case here against semantic realism.

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(**UPDATE**… Glenn Peoples has replied to this post in the comment section, insisting that I’ve misunderstood his statements somehow.  I’m not clear on how I’ve misunderstood him, so I haven’t changed my post.  Still – let the reader be aware that I may be critiquing a straw-man. — A.D.)

I like Glenn Peoples but I think he’s a little presumptuous sometimes.1

His podcast “Say Hello to my Little Friend” is enjoyable and helpful to me as a Christian apologist.  From time to time he even says positive things about Van Til.  Unfortunately, he has a few criticisms as well2; one being that Van Tillians are cliquish.

Well Glenn Peoples, I’m not cliquish, but I’m not willing to allow that you’re a “presuppositionalist” either…at least not in the popular sense.  Anyone, even secular philosophers, can look at their opponents’ assumptions and investigate whether they’re consistent with the proposition being contested.  That doesn’t mean they’re presuppositionalists.  It just means they’re good philosophers.  The Van Tillian wants to go a step further and say that *only* Christian assumptions will be consistent with *whatever* proposition is being contested (and also the only assumptions consistent with the proposing of it).

In podcast 011, “What is Presuppositional Apologetics?” Peoples suggests that Van Til *never* presents an argument for this.  Consider his words starting at 42 min:

“Van Til believed that he had a silver bullet.  He didn’t have to, so he thought, tackle non-Christian worldviews one at a time and show that they lack the necessary basis for intelligibility.  He thought that the argument just outlined did show that for all non-Christian worldviews.

How exactly did he argue that his transcendental argument achieved this?  Well here’s where things get frustrating.  He never really explained exactly how his argument showed this.  He uses the term “Christian theism” in his arguments like in the quote you just heard, he talked about the Christian theistic point of view, but he never justifies that limitation.  He never justifies saying that it is Christian theism alone that provides the necessary grounding here….no where in any of his writings or the writings of Greg Bahnsen for that matter, will you ever find an argument for the claim that *only* Christianity could ever supply these things.”

While I don’t blame Peoples for not being a Van Til scholar, I do blame him for making these sorts of categorical claims without scholarly support.  As a matter of fact, Van Til (and Dr. Bahnsen as well, but I’ll focus on Van Til in this post) *did* offer (or at least: alluded to) a theological argument for why it would be the case that Christian theism alone provides for the preconditions of intelligibility.

Of course, this argument is only successful if Christianity is, in fact, true.

Glenn Peoples isn’t alone in misunderstanding this tidbit of Presupper thought – people ask me questions about it all the time.  So I’ll try to briefly outline the argument below.

As a preface:  Van Til was seeped in the Reformed scholastic tradition and much of his work might be interpreted as an attempt to take that tradition seriously, re-package it, and assert it polemically.  Accordingly, Van Til relied on (what were considered: established) theological arguments.  He argues that the divine attributes imply each other.  Dr. Scott Oliphint, in following Van Til, offers an example of this sort of argument:

“If we affirm that God is essentially a perfect Being (one who lacks nothing), if we affirm his character is a se, then it cannot be that he is in any way essentially limited by anything outside of himself, since to be limited would by definition be a lack; it would be a constraint placed on God by something else, be it space or time or human choices.” ~ “God With Us” pg. 16

But now, consider a typical citation from Van Til which directly applies to the topic at hand:

“Then, too, man could not be otherwise created than in accordance with the image of God, since there were no idea or patterns above or distinct from the nature of God according to which God could create him.” – Intro to systematic Theology, pg. 119.

Here we have it Glenn Peoples.

You may not like it.  You may snub it with characteristic snobbery (so common among those who study analytic philosophy)…but this constitutes an argument for why, if Christianity is true, it must be exclusively so.3

 I’ll try to polish up the argument and state it formally (although I hope no one faults Van Til or presuppositional apologetics for my bad formulations):

—————————————

P1:  God is A Se

P2: God’s being A Se implies there is no concept outside of Himself by which He might pattern any of His works. 

P3:  If God works, His work will be fashioned after concepts which are internal to (and identical with) His character.

Conclusion:  Therefore, all of Creation is, necessarily, “reflective” of God. 

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Consider John Frame’s reassertion of this point in typical Van Tillian jargon:

“God’s covenental presence is with all His works, and therefore it is inescapable… all things are under God’s control, and all knowledge… is a recognition of divine norms for truth. Therefore, in knowing anything, we know God” (18). Frame elaborates: “[B]ecause God is the supremely present one, He is inescapable. God is not shut out by the world… all reality reveals God” (20).”  These citations are taken from “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”.  H/T to J.W. Wartick.

An implication of all this is that no non-Christian conceptual scheme will ever be able to successfully account for a Creation that is reflective of the Christian God.

In addition to this theological argument we have exegetical arguments which would demonstrate from authority that *only* the Christian worldview will, in final analysis, be successful at “mapping” our experience. I’ll not delve into the relevant Scripture passages in this post, however (in a future post I may do an outline of relevant verses and if I do, I’ll link to it here).

Christian theology is, on this view, exclusive.  Islam can’t cut it, Atheism can’t cut it, Hinduism can’t cut it, and so on ad infinitum. Even if we can’t say (off the tops of our heads) how each of these non-Christian systems fail, Van Til’s argument shows that *if* Christianity is true, then all non-Christian views will fail some how or other.  It’s the task of the individual presupper to skillfully confront whichever he’s approached with when the time comes.

Hope that helps clarify the situation for those interested in this aspect of Presuppositionalism (even Glen Peoples).


1. He “dissed” me once:  I was about to have a debate with a moral anti-realist and I posted a question about it on Peoples’ blog.  He emailed me a quick paragraph telling me that he didn’t allow pseudonyms and asked if I could please re-submit my question under my real name.  Of course I did – then he ignored it. He could have spent that paragraph directing me to good literature or offering a few much-needed tips, but no. For God’s sake, if you’re going to devote your life to esoteric disciplines like the philosophy of religion, at least throw a bone to young bucks from time to time who might need your help! How often do philosophers get to do something meaningful for others? Not often.

2. For an interesting criticism that I hope to address in a future post, see People’s article “One of the Ways in Which Van Til Was Wrong”.

3. While this particular citation refers to the creation of mankind, Van Til commonly applied the same sort of thought to all Creation. For a rigorous discussion of his doctrine of creation and why it necessitates the exclusivity of Christian theology, see Nathan Shannon’s article comparing Van Til to John Locke: http://philosophyandtheism.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/christianity-and-evidentialism-van-til-and-locke-on-facts-and-evidence/  

Back in 2011, Dr. James Anderson wrote a blog post arguing that “TAG” does not (maybe: cannot) provide us with “epistemic certainty”.  He provides three reasons (along with prefatory comments) why he holds this view.  I’ll try to briefly interact with each of his three reasons, but first, a question:

He says many of TAG’s advocates have suggested that it *can* provide “epistemic certainty”.  He takes this for granted (and it’s never challenged in the comments), but I wonder whom he has in mind, exactly?  Van Til was not analytically precise in his language and doesn’t use the “epistemic certainty” jargon (as far as I’m aware).  Given how ambiguous his writing is, and given how the presuppositionalist community has evolved (such that Van Til is taken in certain ways, regardless of what he originally wrote), we might do better to look to Dr. Bahnsen for a clearer statement.  Dr. Bahnsen, though, was notorious for blending technical jargon with his preaching, sometimes flowing back and forth between philosophical analysis and helpful metaphors for his lay-audiences.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t use the jargon of “epistemic certainty” either (again, as far as I’m aware) in the same sense that it’s used in contemporary analytical philosophy.

So where does James Anderson get the idea that TAG advocates argue that TAG provides “epistemic certainty”?  Well, the presuppositionalist community has thrived among a lay-audience, many of whom (like the notorious Sye Ten Bruggencate) operate on talking-points and simplified arguments they’ve learned from popularizers like Dr. Bahnsen.  And Dr. Bahnsen *did* insist that arguing presuppositionally leaves us better off somehow than arguing “evidentially” or “classically”.  The following statement is typical and probably most apt to our present considerations:

I began yesterday with the opening salvo that I believe the existence of God is objectively provable.  Then I took that and started to do an analysis to qualify and explain what I’m getting at.  And we took awhile to talk about the notion of proof.  When I say “objectively provable”, what am I getting at?  By a proof that is “objective”: not interested in the man or source of opinion or how people personally respond or so forth.  We’re talking about proof, not persuasion.  We’re recognizing the difference between metaphysics (what is the case) and epistemology (how people think, what they believe and how they know and things of that nature).

Then after we discussed the notion of proof, we began to look at the kinds of proofs that are available.  The Cosmological Proof was taken as our stalking horse.  I said the Cosmological Proof is bad as a proof.  Really bad philosophically as a proof.  However there’s something to that, this notion of causation, that if you go back and now do a transcendental analysis of it, does turn out to be, I think, a very strong proof for the existence of God.  So now we have the notion of transcendental proof…”1

Additionally, much presuppositionalist rhetoric suggests there is a moral failing in evidential and classical arguments because these arguments only arrive at probabilistic conclusions instead of definitive truth claims.2

But must the special status often claimed for transcendental arguments, be construed as “epistemic certainty”?  Might we not maintain popular ideas about transcendental arguments (that they provide us with “objective proof” and that arguing otherwise may be immoral) while still bowing knee to secular philosophical truisms (which say no argument can provide “epistemic certainty”?)

I suspect James Anderson could easily do so if he wanted.

But on to his three reasons:

His first reason for rejecting the idea that TAG provides “epistemic certainty” is that TAG must be thought of as a group of arguments instead of a single one.  So before analyzing the claim that TAG provides epistemic certainty, Anderson would need to know “which TAG” is being discussed.

This is readily granted, but I do wonder how diverse Dr. Anderson thinks TAGs can possibly be.  It seems that if the transcendental thrust of the argument is successful, the formal “trappings” (be they modus ponens, modus tollens, or what have you) are secondary considerations.  And I’m not sure there can be different types of transcendental “thrusts” such that were Dr. Anderson to successfully critique one, a presuppositionalist might run to another.

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His second reason for rejecting the idea that TAG provides “epistemic certainty” is, he’s (supposedly) unaware of any formulation of TAG that proves specifically Christian theism.

Of course, this is a cheeky blow to the lay Presuppositionalist community.  We might easily interpret him here as smacking us around and telling us to wake up from our Bahnsonian delusions.  But in his seminar on Transcendental Arguments, Dr. Bahnsen distinguishes “Van Tillian-styled” transcendental arguments from secular transcendental arguments, by noting that the former are “worldview” in scope, while the latter, argue piece by piece, or proposition by proposition.

Van Tillian TA’s then, says Bahnsen, are distinct precisely because they argue that the entire *Christian* worldview is the necessary precondition of human intelligibility.  Granted, when we demonstrate this, we don’t simultaneously demonstrate that every proposition about the Christian worldview is a necessary precondition of human intelligibility…as if the color of Jesus’ hair, or the number of lions in the den with Daniel were important epistemologically.  But without the entire Christian worldview, all the preconditions of intelligibility provided by Christianity would become “rocks in a bottomless ocean”.

I know Dr. Anderson is aware of this sort of presuppositionalist rhetoric.  To see him dismiss it out of hand, without even an off-the-cuff analysis, is frustrating (to say the least).  I can accept if he thinks it’s wrong to distinguish between Van Tillian TA’s and secular TA’s as Dr. Bahnsen does, or if he thinks Van Tillian TA’s, even when so-construed, fail…but to gloss over the issue as if it’s too unimportant to even mention and to simply conclude that he’s “never” seen a TAG prove *Christian* theism, is … well… again: frustrating.  *ALL* TAGs offered by Van Tillians are meant to prove specifically Christian theism.  But here, Dr. Anderson is implying that despite our best efforts and despite our long nights of apologetics, despite our blood, sweat, and tears, we’re simply failures.

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His third point is the most important as far as determining if TAG can provide “epistemic certainty”, and so I’ll cite him directly:

Thirdly — and this is the most important point — we need to be clear on what it would take for any argument to deliver its conclusion with epistemic certainty. The strongest type of argument is a deductive argument, in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises: if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true. But even in a deductive argument, the conclusion cannot enjoy greater epistemic warrant than the premises (at least in the case where the warrant for the conclusion is taken to derive from the argument itself). What this means is that TAG can deliver epistemic certainty only if all of its premises are epistemically certain.3

He goes on to note that important premises in the TAG argument are not self-evident and thus, the conclusion, even if deductively valid, can never be epistemically certain.

But remember earlier when he suggested there’s no single formulation of TAG?  So it’s not clear if he means, at this point, that *all* formulations of TAG will be guilty of including propositions which aren’t self-evident, or if only some of them do.

Further – it’s at this point we should look to the theologians to help us with our philosophy.  Consider:  Dr. Anderson thinks the following proposition is not self evident:

“God’s existence is a metaphysically necessary condition of some essential feature of human thought or experience”

But often theologians speak of theological truths that, on Christianity, would be self-evident.  The fact that God exists, for example, is often said to be self-evident.  Couldn’t we argue that God’s existence being self-evident also means that certain relationships between God and His creation are also self-evident, even if we can’t immediately articulate (with analytical precision) what the precise nature of this relationship is?

Now, Dr. Anderson might suggest that, even if we have regenerated intuitions about God’s relationship to His creation, we would never be “epistemically certain” that we’ve stated them correctly when formulating a premise for a TAG.  But that simply requires us to learn a little analytical precision … it doesn’t seem to preclude us (especially if we work hard) from articulating a premise that is self evident to every Christian.  So I’m not convinced that God’s being metaphysically necessary for essential features of human thought, is not self-evident, even while granting that it might not always be easy for the average Christian to articulate.

But even supposing it’s self evident, can we say we know it with “epistemic certainty”?  And if not, then Anderson’s point still seems to stand.

But then again (as I pointed out initially), I’m not sure anyone is really concerned with that anyway.4  If Van Til (and his disciples after him) relied on Bavinck, then we might consider the following statement from Bavinck’s book “The Certainty of Faith” pg. 74, to be an apt summary of the attitude towards “epistemic certainty” we’d wish to maintain:

“If neither rational argument nor moral experience can explain how the Christian faith comes into being, the question arises whether there isn’t a better way in which man may be lead to trustingly embrace the truth revealed in Christ….This is an unalterable fact.  That the Gospel is made known to us, confronting us with the call to believe and repent does not depend on our will, but on a decree of God. It is He who ordains us to be born of Christian parents, raised in a Christian environment, and without any merit on our part makes us acquainted with the way of salvation in Christ.”

What we want to say then, as presuppositionalists interested in maintaining the Neo Calvinist tradition with Bavinck, is that God can miraculously provide us an epistemically certain Faith (perhaps through some externalist mechanism described by the likes of Plantinga), even while most (I suspect) would be fine with admitting (as James Anderson does) that any argument offered, even one as deductively valid and useful as TAG, can’t get us there.5

Faith is an act of God…not of reason.


1. This is from the opening comments in lecture 7 of Dr. Bahnsen’s seminar on Transcendental Arguments. Purchase the seminar here: http://www.cmfnow.com/transcendentalarguments.aspx 

2. It’s commonly suggested these apologetic methods are immoral because they, in some sense, “give up God” in order to defend God. For a typical argument, see the last ten minutes of lecture 2 of Michael Butler’s course on Presuppositional Apologetics, available from Sermon Audio.  This aspect of popular presuppositionalist rhetoric doesn’t seem immediately relevant to the topic at hand.

3. In his collection of writings “On Certainty” proposition1, Wittgenstein notes something similar.

When one says that such and such a proposition can’t be proved, of course that does not mean that it can’t be derived from other propositions; any proposition can be derived from other ones. But they may be no more certain than it is itself.

4. Critics of Van Til often maliciously note how he would assert one proposition then immediately assert its opposite. For instance: Unbelievers can know things, but unbelievers cannot know anything. In the same way, consider the following citation in light of our discussion:

“…man’s creation in God’s image involves (a) the fact that man’s ideal of knowledge should never be that of the comprehension of God, and (b) the fact that man’s knowledge is nevertheless true.” Intro. to Systematic Theology, pg. 119.

If Dr. Anderson wanted, he might use passages like this from Van Til to correct less-sophisticated Van Tillians when they assert that we might attain “certainty” that can (in principle) rival God’s comprehensive knowledge of a subject. The presuppositionalist community desperately needs leaders to offer these sorts of interpretations of Van Til.

5. Interestingly enough, secular philosopher Barry Stroud, (in “Scepticism, Externalism, and the Goal of Epistemology” on page 292 of “Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader” edited by DeRose and Warfield,) suggests that even if a workable externalist account of knowledge is provided, one which, if true, would yield knowledge, the knower would still have an intuitive doubt as to whether his model is actually true.

Ironically, in that same article, Stroud posits a hypothetical “Descartes” who provides a theistic externalist account of knowledge that, to a presuppositionalist, looks exactly like what we’d want to advocate. Stroud arbitrarily rejects it as false, but overlooks the fact that, if this particular externalist model were true, and if it were provided with specifically Christian connotations, it would not be subject to the same sorts of discomforts that his and Ernest Sosa’s non-theistic externalist models would be. A defense of that claim, however, must wait for another blog post.

Presuppositionalists often say something like:

“There are no brute facts!” 

But what do we really mean by it?

John Frame states it a little more clearly when he says:

If God is to be thought of at all as necessary for man’s interpretation of the facts or objects of knowledge, he must be thought of as being determinative of the objects of knowledge. In other words, he must then be thought of as the only ultimate interpreter, and man must be thought of as a finite reinterpreter.

To state it even more plainly, God’s “conceptual scheme” is the way the facts of the world really are.  Philosopher Hilary Putnam calls this the “God’s eye view” of the world.  Also, as I pointed out in my last post, this is what Michael Butler refers to as the Christian worldview.

Calling it the “Christian Worldview” or “God’s conceptual scheme” or “The God’s eye view” is ambiguous.  None of the phrases avoid confusion.  Supposing we combine them all and call it simply:  “God’s Worldview”?  We might be closer to what we mean to say, but we’d be swimming against cultural habit which, in the Presuppositionalist community especially, uses “Christian Worldview” ubiquitously.

But the point of this post is to note that, whatever we call it, we should not let our ideological opponents refer to it in terms of:  “the world as it is in itself”, or to use the Kantian phrase:  “the Ding an Sich”.

Why not?

Well, this phraseology presupposes that some facts exist on their own, apart from God’s creative action.  Van Til called this the idea of the “brute fact” – or a “fact that speaks for itself”.  From the Van Tillian perspective, there are no such facts.  To posit such a fact would be to posit a fact existing outside the creator / creature distinction (if that sounds abstract and unclear to you, I apologize.  I can’t expound further here.  The point of this post doesn’t hinge on this statement, so if you find it contentious, simply ignore it for now).

Contemporary philosophers, especially the anti-realists (who agree that there are no brute facts), have specific jargon for describing brute factuality.  For example:

“Putnam says that his anti-realism denies that there are any experiential inputs to our knowledge which are not themselves to some extent shaped by our concepts, by the vocabulary we use to report and describe them.”

And also:

“Goodman remarks that talk of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given or a substratum without properties is self-defeating; for the talk imposes structure, conceptualizes, ascribes properties.”1

Anti-realists like Putnam and Goodman think there are no brute facts because man “interprets” every fact.  Man “conceptualizes” every fact of his experience, and thus, there is no non-interpreted “fact”.  Of course, this view leads to difficult paradoxes, not to mention all the skeptical issues this would raise.  (How do I know you’re conceptualizing the facts in the same way I’m conceptualizing them?!)

Putnam is a good philosopher though, and in the end, he realizes the difficulty of rejecting the “God’s eye point of view” in favor of anti-realist conceptual pluralism.  He concludes:

I am not inclined to scoff at the idea of a noumenal ground behind the dualities of experience, even if all attempts to talk about it lead to antinomies.  Analytical philosophers have always tried to dismiss the transcendental as nonsense, but it does have an eerie way of reappearing.  Because one cannot talk about the transcendent or even talk about its existence without paradox, one’s attitude toward it must, perhaps, be the concern of religion rather than that of rational philosophy. “Realism and Reason” pg. 226.

From a presuppositionalist’s perspective, Putnam is very close to the truth here.

Van Til often reminds us that, because God is infinite (and we are finite creatures) we’ll never understand His “point of view”.  We’re necessarily stuck re-interpreting His revelation of the infinite – which means we’ll necessarily have paradox within our conceptual scheme.

One thing is clear – if an unbeliever wishes to posit the existence of “brute facts”, he’ll have to deal with the arguments of the metaphysical anti-realists (like Putnam and Goodman); he’ll have to demonstrate to us that there is some fact so “brute” it cannot possibly be mis-interpreted.


1. Both of these were cited by Wolterstorff in his essay “Are Concept-Users World-Makers?” The Putnam citation is from “Reason, Truth, & History” pg. 54. The Goodman citation is from “Ways of Worldmaking” pg. 6.

There’s a problem rife among presuppositional apologists.  Much of our most frequently used jargon is ambiguous and ill-defined.  In this post, I’d like to specifically focus on the word “worldview”, contrast it with the phrase “conceptual scheme”, and highlight why the distinction is important for presuppositionalists to keep in mind.

To begin, consider philosopher Andrew Cortens’ statement about conceptual schemes:

…if we plan to make use of such ill-defined technical terms as ‘conceptual scheme’, ‘ontological framework’, and the like, we had better be prepared to give a clear account of such notions.  Many relativists run into serious trouble on this score; rarely do they provide a satisfactory explanation of just what sort of thing a conceptual scheme is.  I have argued elsewhere that even if the notion of a conceptual scheme is taken for granted, the view that existence is always relative to a conceptual scheme has the absurd consequence that we can never explicitly state the content of a sentence that has existential implications.  Whether or not my argument was successful, many will agree that there are legitimate worries about the intelligibility of relativism about truth or existence. ~ From William Alston’s “Realism & Antirealism” pg. 46.

Cortens is a good Christian philosopher (though not a presuppositionalist) and is concerned with countering epistemological relativists who claim the world can be legitimately conceptualized differently for different people.

We’ve all heard it suggested that “what’s true for you may not be true for me”, right?  This sort of absurd rhetoric is supported by assertions of the possibility of a plurality of equally-valid conceptual schemes (here – we mean a class of concepts through which the actual world is conceived.  In Van Tillian jargon: a conceptual scheme is the lens through which you view the world.)

As presuppositionalists, we might agree with the conceptual-scheme pluralists who suggest the world can be “conceptualized” in different ways by many different people.  We know this because we spend the majority of our time as apologists dealing with false conceptual schemes.  Further, the Bible gives us hints about the psychological situation of unbelievers; their rebellion against God gives them emotional reasons to form incorrect beliefs about the relationship between different facts of their experience, which leads to the creation of an entire scheme of incorrect beliefs.

A brief illustration will help here.  Again, I’ll cite portions of Dr. Cortens’ article:

At noon, an ice cube measuring 2cm x 2cm x 2cm is placed on a table.  Slowly it melts, so that after an hour has passed, all that remains on the table is a small puddle of water.  One person – call him ‘A’ – describes the situation in the following words:  “At noon a single thing measuring 2 cm x 2cm x 2cm was placed on the table, namely, an ice cube.  Shortly afterward it began to shrink and eventually, sometime between noon and 1pm, it ceased to exist altogether.  Just as the ice cube began getting smaller, a new thing came into existence: a puddle of water.  Although it began as a very tiny puddle of water, its volume is now roughly equal to that of the ice cube at its largest.”  Another person, B, provides a strikingly different account of the facts.  “The one and only 2cm x 2cm x 2cm object that was placed on the table at noon still exists”, says B.  “It has merely ceased to be an ice cube.  Now it is merely a puddle of water.”  Doubtless we can think up still other descriptions of the situation that might be offered.  One can imagine, for example, someone insisting that two cubical objects of the same size were placed on the table at noon, one of them an ice cube that went out of existence shortly thereafter, the other a quantity of water that went right on existing but in a different state.  But I trust I have said enough to give you a feel for the various “versions” of the facts that might be offered in this situation. ~ pg. 43

However – as presuppositionalists, we most decidedly do *not* agree that all these conceptualizations of the world are equally correct.  In keeping with the ice cube illustration, we would say that only one conceptualization of the facts in that scenario is correct.  We believe there is only one correct way to conceptualize the world.

Most preusppositionalists, at this point would reply that it’s only the Christian *worldview* that rightly describes the world.  But this would be a little hasty.  Instead, I’d like to argue that we should say, rather, that it’s the Christian conceptual scheme that rightly construes the objects of our experience.

I got this idea from Dr. Bahnsen’s protege’, Michael Butler.

In lecture 23 of his introduction to presuppositional apologetics, Butler attempts to respond to one of the most biting criticisms of transcendental arguments.  In short:  the argument says that the transcendental argument can only ever provide us with conceptual necessity, never ontological necessity.  In other words – the non-Christian might grant that he has to think like a Christian (use the Christian conceptual scheme) for human experience to make sense, but that doesn’t prove Christianity is actually true.

In response, Butler suggests that this criticism misconstrues the Presuppositionalist.  We are not arguing for the necessity of mere conceptual scheme, rather, we are arguing for the necessity of a “worldview”.  Butler uses “worldview” here, to mean how the world *actually* is.  From Butler:

Before we abandon hope, there may be a way out of this problem.  The source of the present difficulty seems to be the way in which the TAG has been set up.  Given the context of this discussion, the tendency is to conflate the notion of the Christian worldview with the notion of a conceptual scheme.  This is where I think the problem really lies.  It’s viewing the Christian worldview as, really, a conceptual scheme.

Now, what is a conceptual scheme?  It’s some conception of our experience that comes in a systematic way.  So we think of the “Copernicum” conceptual scheme.  This is where we view the planets as objects we’re traveling with around the sun.  You can conceptualize it that way.  On the old theory, you conceptualize the relation of the Earth, planets, and sun, as very different.  The sun was going around the Earth. So we look today and see the same information our ancestors did, but we conceive of it differently.

All that to say is … this objection, I believe, conflates a worldview with a conceptual scheme.  But a conceptual scheme and a worldview are quite different.  We can conceptualize the world differently without necessarily changing the essential elements of our worldview.  Our worldviews commit us ontologically to things, where as conceptualization doesn’t necessarily commit us to foundational ontological commitments. ~ starting at 19:40 into lecture 23.

I think it’s fair to expound on Butler’s view here by remembering a hard-learned truth of Van Tillian thought.  In our infamous disagreements with the disciples of Gordon Clark, Van Tillians make it clear that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge is of a different type.  What we, as creatures, know, we know derivatively.  The objects of God’s knowledge, however, are made what they are by virtue of His knowing them.  In many cases, God’s knowledge of an object is creative (ie: when God thinks of a material object, and if He so wills, the object will become a material reality).1

Keeping this in mind, and in light of Butler’s discussion above, I suggest we think of a “worldview” as God’s conceptual scheme.  It is how God conceptualizes (and thus, creates) everything that has been created.

To determine which human conceptual scheme is correct then, requires us to figure out which conceptual scheme conceptualizes the world in the same way God conceptualizes the world.  We must figure out which conceptual scheme correctly construes the Christian worldview.  In Van Tillian jargon, we must:  “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

In sticking with the ice cube illustration:  we must determine if God thinks of the ice cube as an object that transforms into a new object (a puddle), or if He thinks of it as a class of water molecules that change form over time, etc. etc.

Figuring this out will provide us with the necessary “norm” by which we can measure the correctness of any given conceptual scheme.


1. Van Til’s writings hint at this. Consider the following: “God must be taken as the prerequisite of the possibility and actuality of relationship between man’s various concepts and propositions of knowledge. Man’s system of knowledge must therefore be an analogical replica of the system of knowledge which belongs to God.” ~ Defense of the Faith, pg. 138.

Also, see pg. 228 of Dr. Bahnsen’s “Van Til’s Apologetic” for commentary on the difference between human acts of knowing and God’s act of knowing.

Also, see John Frame: “To say God is incomprehensible is to say that our knowledge is never equivalent to God’s own knowledge, that we never know Him precisely as He Knows Himself” (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 21).