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Van Til

In critical rationalism, fideism, justificationism, van til on 29/07/2011 at 5:14 am

I mentioned in passing some time ago the name ‘Van Til’ in the context of presuppositionalism. It is a prime example of what Lee Kelly (see this article) refers to as ‘objective dogma,’ for the structure of the presuppositionalist stance is so that any criticism of it is rejected as impermissible. I’ve done my best to reconstruct Van Til’s argument as best I can, but if there are any glaring mistakes, please correct me in the comments …

I.

The argument, sketched out as broadly as possible, is the following: whether we like it or not, we all have starting points when it comes to anything, be it religious, commonsense, or scientific commitments. Any thinking person has, wittingly or not, propositions that are self-evident. What the non-Christians do not realize is that all have within them the ‘semen religionis‘, the innate, hidden awareness of a deity. Van Til claims,

We thus stress Paul’s teaching that all men do not have a mere capacity for but are in actual possession of the knowledge of God (Defense of Faith, 109)

Those that do not believe in the evidence for the existence of a deity have already organized their beliefs around false and incoherent commitments, for they already deny such a basic knowledge of a deity. The atheist is then aware of a deity, and their atheism is best explained by intellectualizing a wall they have built up against something they know to be there. While Van Til admits that “the Reformed apologist will frankly admit that his own methodology presupposes the truth of Christian theism,” (ibid., 101) but this is of no importance, for all must presuppose the truth of Christian theism, on pain of contradiction. But how can the apologist demonstrate the error of the atheist’s denial of a belief so properly basic?

Our argument . . . would be that the existence of the God of Christian theism and the conception of his counsel as controlling all things in the universe is the only presupposition which can account for the uniformity of nature which the scientist needs. (ibid., 103).

Non-Christians then cannot account for all the same facts as the Christian — Christianity is logically sufficient to explain all facts in the world of in every respect. The presuppositionalist is not done, for by their reckoning, the mere sufficiency of Christianity is not enough: it is always possible that another system might be sufficient to account for the universe as well. The apologist must not be content with sufficiency, but be able to reduce all possible alternatives to the Christian stance, therefore demonstrating that all positions surreptitiously commit themselves to something they deny, producing a contradiction. And how does this take place? Van Til says,

The best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and the coherence of all things in the world. (ibid, p.103.)

The proof is rather mundane: all other accounts of knowledge are insufficient to justify anything of worth about the world, leaving the non-Christian ignorant about the truth. The Christian account stands alone.

In response, the non-Christian may point out contradictions within the Christian stance. Van Til does away with such objections by claiming that while Christian doctrine about the Trinity appears contradictory, but it is only appearance. The Christian stance is saved once more with a wave of the hand. Van Til again:

Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. We say that if there is to be any true knowledge at all there must be in God an absolute system of knowledge. We therefore insist that everything must be related to that absolute system of God. Yet we ourselves cannot fully understand that system. (ibid., 61).

I suggest listening further to this:

II.

We now have a system that claims that (1) any criticism of its coherence amounts to nothing, for it must be coherent because it is (obviously) true. (2) All other systems are unsatisfactory in justifying our beliefs about the most obviously true statements where there is an unquestionable line between the deity and the process of justification. But notice: there is no discussion of the content of the system, only its defensive structure. One could ‘plug in’ the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or pixies as alternatives to the deity and still come out with the exact same argument.

An infinite number of imaginary beings may be protected from criticism by way of its structure. The impenetrability of the argument, stronger than diamond and thoroughly encasing the content, says far more about its assumed defensive stratagems than it says about the truth or falsity of its assumptions. One need only deflect all possible criticism a priori, nor does it consider any alternative viable, for all alternatives have assumptions that do not satisfy an impossible requirement.

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