Some Reformed apologists who describe themselves as followers of Gordon Clark, suggest a new formula for knowledge (I’m thinking of Jason Peterson, a self-identifying “Clarkian”). The traditional formula for knowledge is the following:

Knowledge = Justified, true, belief.

I’ve seen Peterson suggest (in numerous places although I can’t recall any specifics), that this formula ought to be re-worked so that, instead, we have:

Knowledge = true, belief.

In this post, I’m not concerned with Jason Peterson specifically, nor am I concerned with getting into what counts as true expressions of “Clarkian” philosophy. Instead, I’d like to look at the above formula, as posed, and note that if we accept it, we’ll be obligating ourselves to a weird anti-realist metaphysic that almost no Christian – certainly not Reformed orthodox – ought to hold.

We’ll take the following belief as a test case:

“There is a book on my coffee table.”

Many who claim to be Clarkians do not want to grant that the above sort of belief also counts as knowledge. Since if it is known, it is known empirically, and since most Clarkians believe knowledge cannot be obtained empirically, the belief must not be knowledge.

Nevertheless, the belief is either true or false. When asked, the Clarkian might respond that we don’t have enough data to determine the truth value of the belief. Namely: we wont be able to figure out if the belief is true or false unless God directly tells us. Lacking this authoritative data, we simply can’t determine the truth value.

Even granting that, however, it seems the belief still has a truth value. It is either true or it is false. Let’s explore what might happen in either case:

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is true, then, given the formula “Knowledge = true belief”, he’ll have to say I know there is a book on my table. But he doesn’t want to say that. It would undermine the strong position he’s taken against empirical methods of acquiring knowledge.

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is false, then he’s saying there actually is *no* book on my coffee table. This is to make a very large metaphysical claim. It’s to say that the world is very different than how it appears to us.

He might try to avoid this dilemma.

He might want to keep the idea that the world is, for the most part, how it seems to be. But, he’ll add, we simply can’t know that it is one way or the other. In this case, he might suggest there is a book on my coffee table, I just can’t know if it is there or not. But that, unfortunately, is a violation of the proposed knowledge formula: “Knowledge = true belief”. If the formula holds, then if it’s true there is a book on the coffee table, and I believe it’s there, then I know it’s there. All that’s required for a belief, proposition, etc., to count as “knowledge” is that it simply be true. Consequently, all cases of accidentally true beliefs (eg: I believe there are two million craters on the moon, and surprise, surprise, scientists discover there actually are two million…), would have to automatically count as knowledge.

Another way the Clarkian might try to rescue a sane metaphysical view is by claiming that while I might know there is a book on the table, I don’t know that I know it until God reveals the true nature of reality to us.

While we Van Tillians have made it very clear people have the psychological ability to know a proposition without knowing they know it (Dr. Bahnsen’s thesis on self-deceit), what’s being suggested by our hypothetical Clarkian isn’t a mere psychological feat. What’s being suggested is that a person can know a proposition and not know the same proposition at the same time and in the same way; and, that doesn’t seem to work.

Best, by far, in my opinion, that if the Clarkian is going to insist on being a Clarkian, he not accept the simplified “Knowledge = true, belief” formula unless he’s also willing to defend radical metaphysical views.


Arguments from Authority

Posted: January 15, 2015 in General Presup Issues

As presuppositionalists, we’re often accused of being … wait for it…

…wait for it some more because it’s an exhausting and played out argument…

“Circular” in our reasoning!

But of course we’re not.

Our theology is self-authenticating!  That doesn’t mean we commit logical fallacies nor are we irrational. As Christians, we make an ultimate appeal to authority, and that’s simply not “circular”.

Consider this excellent illustration:

Suppose we’re in a court room and the defendant swears he’s dead.

The prosecutor brings in an expert witness – a Doctor.

“Doctor, am I dead?” he asks.

“No, of course not. You’re alive!” says the Doctor.

“How about you, doc? Are YOU dead?”

“Of course not! I’m alive!” says the doctor.

Now imagine the defense attorney objecting.

“I OBJECT! The doctor’s authority does not logically extend to self-referential statements! He might have the authority to say if other people are dead, but he can’t say so about himself!”

Such an objection would be overruled. If the doctor really is an authority on who is alive and who is dead, then his statements about himself are as equally valid as his statements about others.  It’s the same way with God.  If God really is an authority on all things, then He’s also an authority on His own status as an authority!

Unbelievers may not like that we have a God who is powerful enough to authorize Himself, but that’s simply the nature of the Christian system.  I wouldn’t like it much either if I were trying to suppress truth with lies.

Paul Kjoss Helseth has written an excellent essay clarifying B.B. Warfield’s understanding, not only of the innate knowledge of God in all men, but also how Warfield applied this to apologetics.  From the essay:

man’s power of attaining truth depends . . . first of all upon the fact that God has made man like Himself, Whose intellect is the home of the intelligible world, the contents of which may, therefore, be reflected in the human soul; and then, secondly, that God, having so made man, has not left him, deistically, to himself, but continually reflects into his soul the contents of His own eternal and immutable mind – which are precisely those eternal and immutable truths which constitute the intelligible world. The soul is therefore in unbroken communion with God, and in the body of intelligible truths reflected into it from God, sees God. The nerve of this view, it will be observed, is the theistic conception of the constant dependence of the creature on God. ~ B.B. Warfield “Calvin and Augustine”, pg. 145.

Charles Hodge also taught that knowledge of God was innate.  His book “Theology Proper” is posted online.  From the book:

Those who are unwilling to admit that the idea of God is innate as given in the very constitution of man, generally hold that it is a necessary, or, at least, a natural deduction of reason. Sometimes it is represented as the last and highest generalization of science. As the law of gravitation is assumed to account for a large class of the phenomena of the universe, and as it not only does account for them, but must be assumed in order to understand them;so the existence of an intelligent first cause is assumed to account for the existence of the universe itself, and for all its phenomena. But as such generalizations are possible only for cultivated minds, this theory of the origin of the idea of God, cannot account for belief in his existence in the minds of all men, even the least educated. ~ chapter 1 sub-section: “The Knowledge of God is not due to a Process of Reasoning”. 

Some youtube atheist has made a video called “Five Stupid Things about Presuppositional Apologetics”. (Thanks to my friend Taylor Watkins for bringing this to my attention).

I’ll briefly reply to each:

Reason 1: The truth of its first premise cannot be demonstrated.

He’s wrong to say we don’t argue that God is the *only* possible precondition of intelligibility. We argue this in three ways. 1) It’s taught in Scripture. 2) It’s a necessary deduction from theological truths which are also taught in Scripture. And 3) We demonstrate this by challenging unbelievers to prove it wrong – and none of them can. The best atheist philosophers admit that they cannot account for human intelligibility, even though they might hem and haw about it.  (For example, check out Ernest Sosa’s article on “Epistemic Circularity”.  See also Barry Stroud’s article “Skepticism, Externalism, and the Goal of Epistemology”, where he notes that, even on an externalist model of warrant, he would still have intuitive doubts about his knowledge claims.  Many more examples could be provided).

Reason 2: Its proponents remove themselves from the problem of perception.

We (as presuppers) do NOT “excuse ourselves” from the problem of perception. We point out that the unbeliever cannot solve problems with the philosophy of perception, then we show them how our worldview *can* solve the problems. The author of the vid is ignorant of how Christians justify empirical methods. Additionally, does he seriously raise the “God could be lying” argument? If God *was* willing to lie to us, then the author would be right in suggesting that Christians would be in the same epistemological boat as an unbeliever…but then again, he wouldn’t be critiquing Christianity. He’d be critiquing some non-Christian belief-system that teaches that God is able and willing to lie.  For a definitive “savaging” of the “God might be lying” argument, see my article here.

Reason 3: Its proponents claim to know what everyone else knows.

We *do* know what all humans believe about God because God (a valid and relevant authority) has told us. Additionally – given an atheistic view of philosophy, they have to surmount the philosophical problem of “personal identity”. In other words, they’re not even able to consistently claim that they know their own first-person subjective feelings or mental states. (This lead atheist philosophers like David Hume to posit a “bundle theory” of mind, where a series of unrelated, disjointed experiences seem to be “bundled” together in one mind, and that’s what we call “I” or “me”…but we have no reason to think these experiences are at all related.)  How can they say, with any authority, what they do or don’t know?  None of us has any good reason to believe them when they comment on their own mental states.

Reason 4: It shifts the burden of proof.

We shift the burden of proof?

While the author might be right to suggest that some presuppers (who don’t know the method very well yet) have tried to fallaciously “shift” the burden, in reality, we’re not shifting the burden. We’re suggesting that atheists who make positive claims need to shoulder the burden of proof and explain to us why we ought to accept their claim.

If an atheist says: “Jesus never existed” for example, he’s got the burden of proof, not only to show that Jesus never existed, but to show that he can know anything about history whatsoever. Additionally, how can an atheist even account for a “burden of proof” in the first place?! Did a God tell them about this magical burden? No…the sad fact is, they never meet their own “burden of proof” when making assertions about the burden of proof.  And even if we grant them some arbitrary “hypothetical” model of the burden, they can’t even meet *that* (they’ll never be able to demonstrate, for example, that they have rational justification for talking about history, and thus, their claim that “Jesus never existed” can never fulfill the burden of proof).

Reason 5:  Presuppositionalists prefer confusion and trap-laying over honest argumentation.

It’s true that not all presuppositionalists are equally adept or clear or articulate in their presentation of the method, but this guy can’t even critique the most basic presentations…we can all guess how well he’d do against more sophisticated versions.

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.


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.