ApologeticsA Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith
Is Non-Christian Thought Justifiable? Jones vs. Parson
Note: This debate originally appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of Antithesis magazine. It is included herein, in its entirety, in a format more suitable for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.
Douglas Jones opens the interchange by sketching the argument for the Christian critique of non-Christian thought. Douglas Jones, an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the editor of Antithesis and a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College.
Keith Parsons offers the first of two atheistic responses to Jones’s essay. Keith Parsons, Ph.D., (Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada) is the founder of Georgia Skeptics and teaches philosophy at Berry College (Rome, Georgia). He is the author of God and the Burden of Proof (Prometheus), and Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis (Peter Lang).
Michael Martin presents the second atheistic critique of Jones’s essay. Michael Martin is Professor of Philosphy, Boston University, Ph.D. (Harvard University), author of The Case Against Christianity (Temple University Press, 1991) and Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990).
To close out the interchange, Jones responds to the essays of Parsons and Martin.
Jones: The Futility of Non Christian Thought
Biblical Christianity, properly defined in terms of classical Protestantism, offers a radical philosophical critique of non-Christian thought. This Christian critique is radical in the sense that it challenges the very core of non-Christian pretensions and demonstrates that non-Christian thought, whether atheistic, agnostic, or religious, ultimately destroys rationality, science, ethics, and every other aspect of human experience.
Moreover, since a properly Biblical critique ought to attack the heart of non-Christian thinking, it may not assume the very standards it demonstrates as futile (a lá Aquinas, Swinburne, etc.) or capitulate to relativism or fideism (a lá Plantinga; Kierkegaard, etc.) or subserviently argue that the Christian worldview is merely “probable” (a lá Clark, Montgomery, Geisler, Moreland, etc.). A properly Biblical critique will not only demonstrate the utter futility of non-Christian thought, it will positively demonstrate that the Christian view of reality is intellectually inescapable. As Cornelius Van Til has argued, “Christianity can be shown to be, not `just as good as’ or even `better than’ the non-Christian position, but the only position that does not make nonsense of human experience.”
I will begin with a brief elaboration of a Christian critique of non-Christian thought and then turn to summarize the positive argument for the Christian view of reality. Though I focus on “secular” non-Christian outlooks in the history of philosophy, the same types of problems arise in “religious” non-Christian outlooks (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), but that discussion is the topic of a different essay.
Sketch of the Christian Critique of Non-Christian Thought
The Apostle Paul famously challenged: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor. 1:20). The Biblical outlook rejects non-Christian claims to knowledge as “knowledge falsely so-called” (I Tim. 6:20) and “vain deceit” (Col. 2:8), since such claims are allegedly justified autonomously rather than by the standard of God’s knowledge (Prov. 1:7; Rom. 1: 18-25; Col. 2:8). In this perspective, then, the chief traits of non-Christian thought are rebellion and its concomitant, epistemological autonomy (self rule).
Epistemological autonomy is the view that the human mind is the final criterion of knowledge. According to this view, common to non-Christian thinkers from Thales to Derrida, the Christian God has to be either non-existent or irrelevant to epistemological concerns. Human categories alone are necessary to determine modality, truth, and value. From a Christian perspective, autonomy is a rebellious attempt to deify human categories or some aspect of creation by attempting to usurp the Creator’s functions — i.e. replacing the Creator with the creature (Rom. 1:25). Nevertheless, the result of this attempt to be epistemologically independent of the Christian God is epistemological futility.
The basis for the foregoing conclusion may be sketched as follows:
(I) Non-Christian autonomy may exemplify itself in three primary ways — epistemological competence, incompetence, or a mixture of competence and incompetence.
(A) Non-Christians thinkers who emphasize the first of these three options are those who maintain that the human mind is competent to interpret, evaluate, and describe reality (e.g., Parmenides, Aristotle, the Rationalists, the Empiricists, etc.).
(B) Non-Christian thinkers who emphasize the second of these three options are those who maintain that the human mind is incompetent to be determinative for reality since humans are finite and reality is characterized by chance eventuation (e.g., the Sophists, various subjectivist traditions, Nietzche, the Existentialists, the later Wittgenstein, Derrida).
(C) Finally, non-Christian thinkers who consciously aim to synthesize the first two options are those who admit that the human mind is partly competent and partly incompetent (e.g., Plato: the realms of Being vs. Becoming; Kant: the realms of the Phenomena vs. the Noumena).
(II) Each of these three non-Christian emphases ultimately destroys knowledge and leaves the non-Christian with radical ignorance about the world, truth, and values.
(A) Those thinkers who maintain that the human mind is competent to serve as its own criterion of truth ultimately encounter their own finitude; their particular rational scheme cannot account for everything since the autonomous theorist does not have God’s abilities. Instead of the proposed exhaustive scheme of reality, the non-Christian will either deny or ignore whatever doesn’t fit his rational scheme, thus compromising the proposed scheme (e.g., Parmenides’ “illusion” of change; Aristotle’s unformed matter; the Logical Positivists’ “rejection of metaphysics”) and radically limit knowledge to trivial and/or unsubstantive claims that will apparently fit within the scheme (e.g., Descartes’ “cogito”; the Empiricists’ vacuous sense perceptions).
But whatever the particular tack, the presumed autonomous competence finally reduces to epistemological incompetence — the rational scheme fails leaving subjectivism and skepticism.
(B) Those thinkers who maintain that the human mind is incompetent to serve as its own criterion of truth do not fare any better. Though apparently more humble in their refusal to make the human mind schematize reality, they nonetheless determine to play the autonomous God in their own subjective reality. Nevertheless, they cannot defend their claim to autonomous incompetence without invoking some of the objective standards of their “opponents,” the autonomous competents. In other words, autonomous incompetents must turn to objective, rational schemes in order to defend their opposition to objective knowledge (e.g., Protagoras’ defense of “better” views in the midst of a radical relativism; the later Wittgenstein’s “proper use” of language; Derrida’s use of logocentrism to urge us to abandon logocentrism). Similarly, autonomous incompetents evidence the weakness of their subjectivism by their practical inconsistencies (e.g., Marx’s opposition to injustice; Derrida’s support for Nelson Mandela).
In a direct reversal of the first non-Christian option, the presumed autonomous incompetence finally reduces to epistemological competence — subjectivism needs objective schemes. Non-Christian incompetence fails and starts the circle all over again.
(C) Perhaps the way out of this non-Christian futility is a conscious synthesis of the first two options along the lines of a Plato or Kant. But futility plus futility will not rescue the non-Christian thinker. The same problems raised against the first two options will arise again. For example, Plato’s attempt to exhaustively explain reality in terms of a synthesis of Forms (unchanging; immaterial; human competence) with the realm of Becoming (constant change; material; human incompetence) must have, but cannot have, an unchanging Form of change. His whole synthesis collapses.
Similarly, Kant’s synthesis of competence and incompetence demands that we can say something rational about the noumenal realm (knowledge of the unknowable) and denies that we can ultimately know the “things-in-themselves” of the phenomenal realm (no-knowledge of the knowable). Autonomous syntheses such as these merely compound the epistemological futilities of non-Christian thought.
Van Til noted that “all the antinomies of antitheistic reasoning are due to a false separation of man from God.” Such a separation inevitably leads to the destruction of knowledge. I turn now to briefly examine a particular, contemporary example of non-Christian thought.
Case in Point: Paul Kurtz
Paul Kurtz (The Transcendental Temptation) is well known for his strident philosophical defenses of humanism and atheism, so he is a prime candidate for a Christian critique. If, in general, non-Christian worldviews destroy knowledge, then we should expect to find the same epistemological futility in Kurtz’ worldview; he doesn’t let us down.
Kurtz’ text noted above is replete with examples of how the commitment to autonomous competence gives way to autonomous incompetence and the destruction of knowledge. Consider his comments regarding the knower and the standards of knowledge:
The Knower: On the one hand, we as supposedly autonomous beings have knowledge because “experience and reason are drawn upon in ordinary life and in the sophisticated sciences to establish reliable knowledge” (p. 23); “There is a well-established body of knowledge” (p. 37). Moreover, Kurtz advocates an epistemology of “the act” which rescues us from the “traps of earlier theories of experience” (e.g. the ego-centric predicament) in that the “external world is a precondition for internal awareness” (p. 32). Autonomous, competent knowledge is so reliable that Kurtz can unhesitatingly describe religious opponents as mystics living in “a world of fantasy” and “romantic superstition” (p. xi).
Yet on the other hand, this competent, robust account of knowledge encounters its finite limits and admits its incompetence: “many things in the universe remain beyond our present understanding, transcending the present boundaries of knowledge” (p. 316). In fact, human knowledge “is not an absolute picture of reality” (p. 34), nevertheless, the skeptic’s more heroic stance is to deny that transcendental “forms of reality are knowable or meaningful” (p. 26).
Obviously Kurtz is embroiled in a vitiating tension. His commitment to the competence of human categories is undermined by their finitude. If autonomous categories are so limited as to leave, now or forever, much of reality “unknowable” then Kurtz cannot speak with any boldness whatsoever about our present knowledge since there might be some factor in this unknown realm which makes our robust claim to knowledge false. Kurtz simply can’t justify the claim of epistemological competence. On his own terms, then, we can have no knowledge.
Even if we ignore this tension, how does Kurtz’ epistemology of “the act” give us any non-trivial knowledge? Though he claims to get beyond the ego-centric predicament, he doesn’t get anywhere important. In generous terms, the most his view provides us with is the bare knowledge that there are external objects. But there are light-years between this trivial claim and a “body of well-established knowledge.”
The Standards of Knowledge: Knowledge requires objective standards, and, on the side of epistemological competence, Kurtz speaks of “deductive necessity” (p. 38), “logical consistency” (p. 46), “canons of induction” (p. 55), “the rule of contradiction” (p.28), “simple and beautiful mathematical and causal laws” (p. 292), “the magnificent splendor of nature and the order and regularities we discover in it” (p. 316), and the cosmos appearing “to behave in terms of immutable and universal laws” (p. 288).
Yet with equal vigor, on the side of epistemological incompetence, he must defend the view that “there are no firm and unchanging, absolute binding principles involved in scientific inquiry” (p. 44). “There are failures in nature and there are fluke occurrences…..Chance factors intervene” (p. 291). Moreover, evolution is a “key principle in interpreting the universe” (p. 288) and most notably, “Change is not a human invention, but a cosmic fact, applying to all forms of life” (p. 289).
Such horrendous epistemological conflicts within a non-Christian worldview are common; they are results of epistemological autonomy. First, we can challenge the non-Christian to justify the standards of rationality he appeals to. Kurtz ultimately justifies the standards of inductive and deductive logic as “simply convenient rules of inquiry, vindicated by their consequences” (p. 88). Aside from Kurtz’ question-begging appeal to pragmatic “vindication,” if the standards of rationality are merely convenient rules, then we need not take anything Kurtz says seriously, including his objections to Christianity.
But even more damaging on this score is the metaphysical conflict between logical laws which are supposedly necessary and unchanging that magically appear in a non-Christian cosmos of “no unchanging principles,” where change applies to all of life. Which is it? Whichever path Kurtz follows will lead to the destruction of rationality, science, ethics, etc.
None of the above criticisms and challenges are unique to Paul Kurtz. You will find the same problems in atheists such as Nielsen, Flew, Parsons, Martin, and throughout non-Christian philosophies and religions. Non-Christians need to justify these elementary concerns about their worldview before they attempt to foist their secular myths upon Christians. To reverse a line from Kurtz, “[Christian] skeptics ought to refuse to be lured by the [autonomous] myths of the day.”
The Inescapability of Christianity
In brief, Biblical Christianity avoids the futilities of non-Christian philosophies by rejecting epistemological autonomy. In contrast to a futile epistemological competence, the Christian acknowledges that the universe is fully knowable to the Christian God and to us as far as He reveals his knowledge to us. Hence, Christian philosophy does not destroy knowledge by means of the self-vitiating finite criteria or impotent knowledge claims. Moreover, in contrast to a futile epistemological incompetence, the Christian acknowledges that the human mind must look to the objective standard of God and His revelation, thus not falling prey to subjectivistic dilemmas which vex non-Christian thought.
Hence, instead of hopelessly attempting to determine truth by means of finite products of chance, a Christian view of reality acknowledges the Christian God as the inescapable precondition of all thought. Thus we offer a transcendental argument to establish the truth of Christianity: If the Christian view of reality is not true, then knowledge is impossible. Only the Christian view of reality provides the conditions necessary for logic, induction, scientific progress, ethics, history, and the arts. As Van Til says, “Science, philosophy, and theology find their intelligible contact only on the presupposition of the self-revelation of God in Christ.” Hence, a consistent Christian philosophy takes most seriously Christ’s claim that “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Though non-Christians will strenuously object to such claims, their objections against Christianity will all the while presuppose the truth of Christianity.
Parsons Responds: Is Non-Christian Thought Futile?
Readers of recent theistic philosophers are likely to be struck by contrast between the sophistication of the logical machinery employed and the modesty of the claimed results. Alvin Plantinga expends vast labors of modal logic to argue that theism is no less rational than atheism. Richard Swinburne devotes his enormous expertise in Bayesian confirmation theory to the claim that God’s existence is rather more likely than his non-existence. In such a context, Douglas Jones’s claim is truly breathtaking: “…non-Christian thought, whether atheistic, agnostic, or religious, ultimately destroys rationality, science, ethics, and every other aspect of human experience.” Further, ” A properly Biblical critique [of non-Christian thought] will not only demonstrate the utter futility of non-Christian thought, it will positively demonstrate that the Christian view of reality is intellectually inescapable [emphasis in original].” All this in a little over two pages!
Clearly, Jones is making some very big claims, and very big claims take a lot of proving. Further, philosophical claims are like the proverbial prizefighter: The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Jones’s claims fall very hard.
According to Jones, the fatal flaw of non-Christian thought is “epistemological autonomy,” which he defines as follows:
Epistemological autonomy is the view that the human mind is the final criterion of knowledge. According to this view, common to non-Christian thinkers from Thales to Derrida, the Christian God has to be either non-existent or irrelevant to epistemological concerns. Human categories alone are necessary to determine modality, truth, and value.
Odd. I thought Thales flourished circa 600 B.C. and so would be most unlikely to have any sort of opinion about the Christian God. Anachronisms aside, there are a number of puzzling things about this remarkable passage. For one thing, what are we to make of the charge that non-Christians regard the human mind as the “final criterion for knowledge”? We have to know what Jones means by this last phrase before we can understand his accusation.
Perhaps, and this seems the most reasonable construal of Jones’s meaning, he is accusing non-Christians of recognizing no higher authority for their judgements about truth, value, etc., than what their own minds tell them is true, valuable, and so forth. As a non-Christian, I hasten to plead guilty to this accusation.
All I want to know is, what is the alternative? Should I believe that something is true or valuable that my mind tells me is not? Should I suspend my own judgements about truth and defer to some alleged revelation? How, then do I know that it is a true revelation? Jones cannot say, on pain of appealing to the very criterion he rejects, that I could trust my own mind to tell me that it is a true revelation. Could another revelation tell me that the first revelation is true? But how, then, would I know that that revelation is true? Surely we are on the road to an infinite regress.
The upshot is that nobody, not even Jones, has any choice in the matter. We must trust our own minds about what is true, even if there is revealed truth. Purported revelations are a dime a dozen. As Mark Twain allegedly said, “Mankind has discovered the one true religion. Lots of `em.” Why should we believe in Christ rather than Quetzalcoatl? The only possible answer is that our minds tell us that the Christian revelation is true and the Aztec one not. Hence, epistemological autonomy must be exercised to discover the true revelation, if there be any. Thus, it is Jones, not the non-Christian, who is in an epistemologically self-vitiation predicament.
In the main part of his article, Jones pillories Paul Kurtz, holding up Kurtz’s book, The Transcendental Temptation, as exhibit number one in his prosecution of the case against non-Christian thought. Now Paul Kurtz is certainly capable of defending himself, so I would not have much to say here except for the fact that Jones tells us that Kurtz’s errors are also common to such other atheistic miscreants as “Nielsen, Flew, Parsons, [and] Martin,” What, then, are Kurtz’s epistemic sins that we others have shared in?
Jones claims to perceive a tension in Kurtz’s thought. On the one hand, Kurtz emphasizes the competence of the autonomous human mind to arrive at reliable knowledge: Science and common sense employ objective standards to arrive at reliable knowledge. On the other hand, Kurtz emphasizes the incompetence of human knower: There is much that we do not and perhaps cannot know. Epistemological standards change and we cannot ever say that human beliefs represent an absolutely correct picture of reality. Jones sees such alleged tensions as “horrendous epistemological conflicts.”
What exactly is the problem here? How is my claim to know some things in any way vitiated by my admission that there are many things I do not know? Suppose I even admit that there are some things, like, say, how bread and wine can simultaneously be the body and blood of a man crucified 2000 years ago, that utterly transcend my understanding. Does my inability to fathom the mysteries of transubstantiation mean that I must, for instance, entertain serious doubts about the existence of gravity? Does the fact that epistemological standards change mean that I am incompetent to judge the validity of modus ponens?
Jones tells us that “If autonomous categories are so limited as to leave, now or forever, much of reality `unknowable’ then Kurtz cannot speak with any boldness whatsoever about our present knowledge since there might be some factor in this unknown realm which makes our robust claim to knowledge false.” In other words, if we don’t know everything, we can’t know anything. The fact that I cannot conclusively demonstrate that I am not a brain in a vat means, according to Jones, that I can make no confident claims to knowledge at all.
In short, Jones is reviving the old project of Descartes’s Meditations: Knowledge is defined as absolute certainty. How, then, can we be absolutely certain that we are not the dupes of an evil genius, an omnipotent demon who amuses himself by making us err in all our knowledge claims? The only way, Descartes realized, is to become absolutely certain that an omnipotent good being exists who will not allow us to err in all our judgments about truth. But there’s the rub; how can we be absolutely certain that such a good omnipotent being exists? Descartes’s theistic “proofs” are embarrassingly weak, and his whole project founders on them.
As with Descartes, the only way out of the dilemma Jones sets for the secular thinker–absolute certainty or complete skepticism–is absolute certainty about the existence of God. Where, then, are Jones’s proofs? To escape from the dilemma we must have absolutely indubitable theistic proofs, and Jones provides none. If Jones replies that, unlike Descartes, he does not equate knowledge with certainty, then what is the force of his objection to Kurtz? Why, in that case, cannot Kurtz and the rest of us make bold, confident knowledge claims even though we cannot be absolutely certain that they are not wrong?
Finally, and fatally, Jones’s argument is self-defeating when addressed to non-Christians. Jones’s conclusion is that non-Christian thought is futile. The non-Christian can evaluate this conclusion only by employing those very criteria and categories stigmatized as futile by that conclusion. Hence, if the conclusion is true, the non-Christian’s attempt to evaluate the claim “all non-Christian thought is futile” is futile. It follows that if Jones’s argument is sound, the non-Christian must necessarily lack rational grounds for accepting its conclusion. Surely I am justified in dismissing out of hand any argument that guarantees that I cannot rationally accept its conclusion.
In conclusion, Jones has shown absolutely no problems with the sort of fallibilistic epistemologies favored by many secular thinkers. Worse, an appeal to revelation, if it is not to be completely irrational, must be judged by the autonomous human mind. Without such judgements, what is Revealed Truth to you will only be hearsay to me. Finally, as a polemic directed to non-Christians, Jones’s argument is an utterly self-defeating failure. Thus, in his effort to prove the futility of non-Christian thought, Jones only succeeds in tying himself in conceptual knots. There certainly is evidence of futility here, but not on the part of non-Christians.
Martin Responds: Is A Non-Christian Worldview Futile?
Douglas Jones’ “The Futility of Non-Christian Thought” raises important epistemological questions that both Christians and non-Christians need to address. However, as I will show, Jones’ argument for his main thesis that non-Christian worldviews destroy the possibility of knowledge rests on unsound arguments and confusions. In addition, it contains false implications and leads to inconsistencies.
The Transcendental Argument
Jones’ main argument, what he calls a transcendental argument, proceeds as follows:
(1) If the Christian view of reality is not true, then human knowledge is impossible.
(2) Human knowledge is possible.
(3) Hence, the Christian view of reality is true.
Non-Christians would have no problem in accepting the validity of this argument, i.e. accepting that if the premises were true, then the conclusion would be true. The question is not, then, the validity of the argument but its soundness, i.e. whether the premises are true. Since, many non-Christians would accept premise (2), the key problem for most non-Christians is the truth of premise (1).
Two Indirect Arguments Against Premise (1)
Before I directly consider the first premise of Jones’ transcendental argument, two lines of reason should be noted that indirectly tell against it.
First, if Jones’ argument is sound, the Christian worldview is true. But there is excellent reason to suppose that it is false. So it follows that Jones’ argument is not sound. Since the most problematic aspect of Jones’ argument is premise (1), it is likely that (1) is false. Why do I say that there is excellent reason to suppose that the Christian view of reality is not true? As I argued in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990), traditional arguments have failed to prove the existence of God. Moreover, there are good reasons to suppose that the concept of God is incoherent. In addition, the argument from evil and other inductive arguments make the existence of God unlikely. Furthermore, in The Case Against Christianity (1991) I have shown that the major doctrines of Christianity are improbable. The strength of my detailed arguments developed in approximately eight hundred pages of text should be weighed against the force of the argument sketched in three pages by Jones.
Second, the great ancient, modern and contemporary Christian apologists have not used Jones’ transcendental argument. Although it is possible that philosophers from Aquinas to Swinburne, from Descartes to Plantinga have overlooked it, this seems unlikely. It is much more plausible to suppose that these thinkers rejected premise (1).
The Possibility of Human Knowledge
Preliminary to a direct evaluation of premise (1) it is necessary to say a few words about premise (2), for Jones’ reasons for accepting (1) seem to result from confusions concerning the meaning of (2) and what it entails. First of all, to say that human knowledge is possible is not to assume that human knowledge claims can be made with absolute certainty. Many people, e.g. those trained in scientific method, would admit that any claim of the form “X knows that p”, although justified in light of present evidence, might have to be withdrawn in the course of further inquiry. New evidence might induce us to change our minds. However, this does not mean that truth is relative. What is relative here is knowledge claims, for these are dependent on the amount and quality of available evidence. The thesis that knowledge claims are always subject to revision in the light of new evidence is known as fallibilism.
Furthermore, to say that knowledge is possible is not to assume that humans know, or some day will know, everything. There will always be something more to be known even if fallibilism is true. Again this does not entail that knowledge is relative in any sense but the following: We may know certain propositions in the future that we do not know today or did not know yesterday. Naturally there may be some propositions that we will never know. Humans are not omniscient. I will call this the thesis of human epistemic limitation.
Neither of these theses entails skepticism. That is, the view that human knowledge is impossible. What they do entail is that certainty and complete knowledge are impossible for human beings. However, this view is not very controversial and has in fact been embraced by many Christians. Nor do these theses entail subjectivism, that is, the view that there are no objective standards of knowledge and no norms for reconciling disagreements between knowledge claims. The use of objective standards, e.g. intersubjective testability, is compatible with the theses of fallibilism and human epistemic limitation.
Direct Challenge to the Transcendental Argument
On what direct grounds can premise (1) be challenged? The arguments Jones provides for (1) are unsound and premises that seem as justified as (1) can be used in other transcendental arguments with conclusions that conflict with (3).
The Argument From Finitude
Although I find Jones’ reasoning unclear, one of his arguments for premise (1) seems to be the following. Non-Christians assume that human beings are competent to achieve knowledge without God. (“According to this view, common to non-Christians… the Christian God has to be either non-existent or irrelevant to epistemological concerns.”) However, the knowledge claims of non-Christians are limited. (“Their particular rational schemes cannot account for everything since the autonomous theorist does not have God’s ability.”) If non-Christians’ knowledge claims are limited, then the knowledge claims of non-Christians could not really be knowledge. (“Instead of the proposed exhaustive scheme of reality … the rational scheme fails leaving subjectivism and skepticism.”) Therefore, human knowledge is impossible in a non-Christian view of reality.
Many non-Christians would agree with the first two premises. But the third premise is questionable. There is no reason to suppose that limited knowledge claims cannot be true. As I have already argued, the truth of premise (2) is compatible with the theses of fallibilism and human epistemic limitation and these do not entail skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism. Jones seems to be confusing the competence to achieve limited knowledge with the competence to achieve total knowledge or else the competence to make probable knowledge claims with the competence to make certain knowledge claims. Humans have the competence to make probable knowledge claims and achieve limited knowledge but not to make certain knowledge claims and achieve unlimited knowledge.
The Appeal to Trivial Knowledge
Another consideration used by Jones to bolster his case is that non-Christian schemes of knowledge omit what does not fit and limit knowledge to trivial and/or unimportant claims. (“…the non-Christian will either deny or ignore whatever does not fit his scheme, thus compromising the proposed scheme….and radically limit knowledge to trivial and/or unsubstantive claims that will apparently fit within the scheme…”)
Apart from citing a few names and ideas, e.g. the Logical Positivists’ rejection of metaphysics as examples of this charge, this position is not argued for in Jones’ essay. In order to substantiate his charge Jones has his work cut out for him. He would have to argue for, and not just assert, the particular claims made in his article — for example that the Logical Positivists were wrong — which at the very least would involve refuting my long and detailed defense of their program. (See Atheism, chapter 2). He would also have to show that non-Christians must radically limit knowledge to trivial and/or unsubstantive claims. This he has not done.
It is important to notice that the thesis of human epistemic limitation does not entail this charge. From the fact that human knowledge is limited it does not follow that it is trivial or unsubstantive. Indeed, scientific knowledge is limited but hardly trivial or unsubstantive. Jones may wish to argue that scientific knowledge is only possible with God’s help. But this argument is not made in his paper.
The Argument from an Unknown Factor
In discussing Paul Kurtz’s view Jones presumes what seems to be a different argument but is not. Pointing out that Kurtz admits that many things in the universe are unknown, Jones argues that Kurtz “cannot speak with any boldness whatsoever about our present knowledge since there might be some factor in the unknown realm which makes our robust claims to knowledge false.” However, the possibility that an unknown factor might undermine our knowledge claims is just another way of pointing out that our knowledge claims are uncertain and limited. Yes, there might be such factors. If there were, our knowledge claims would be false. But this should not prevent us from making tentative claims in light of present evidence and arguing in its light that we are probably correct. I cannot speak for Kurtz but I would think that he would say something similar. That Jones finds this position incoherent seems to be a function of the confusions that have already been noted.
Inconsistencies and the Transcendental Argument
It is difficult for one to see why the basic idea behind Jones’ transcendental argument is particularly Christian. God of the Jews or Islam would also seem to provide the epistemological foundation that Jones wants. For example, it would seem that premise:
(1′) If the Islamic view of reality is not true, then human knowledge is impossible.
could be substituted for (1) and combined with (2) would entail:
(3′) Hence, the Islamic view of reality is true.
The same arguments that are used to support (1) could be used to support (1′). However, since (3) and (3′) are incompatible, Jones’ mode of argument leads to inconsistencies. Jones surely owes his readers some explanation of why his Christian transcendental argument is permissible but an Islamic or Jewish one is not. Unless objective grounds for distinguishing the two cases are provided, one is entitled to conclude that the exclusion of Islamic and Jewish uses of the argument is arbitrary. Failure to provide such grounds would in turn provide reasons for claiming that a Christian based epistemology is a subtle form of subjectivism.
Christianity and Subjectivism
Are there other reasons to suppose that a Christian based epistemology provides no objective foundation for epistemology? A cursory glace at the controversies within the Christian religion must surely banish any illusion of the objective nature of Christian belief. The many sectarian and denominational squabbles, the numerous heresies, the schisms within the major churches shows that any certainty associated with Christian belief is nonexistent. Indeed, even in the pages of Antithesis (March/April 1991) one finds deep controversy over whether the Bible permits moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, there seems to be no objective means of reconciling any of these differences. If this uncertainty and the lack of objective standards of reconciliation are found at the very heart of basic Christian doctrine, there seems to be small hope that the Christian religion can provide any objective foundation of epistemology in general. Yet Jones remains confident that a non-Christian based epistemology leads to subjectivism whereas a Christian based epistemology does not. One can only wonder why.
Apart from the more serious concerns, I find it quaint that both Parsons and Martin apparently hold to the notion that truth is in part determined by the number of pages one writes. Though my opening essay is directed to a non-technical audience, perhaps no such discussion need take many pages given the inability of the non-Christian program to get off the ground. Nevertheless, neither of my interlocutors chose to sketch how their particular epistemological standard might aim to justify knowledge of any sort. I will begin by examining and rejecting Parsons’ two primary objections (a remaining concern will be examined under Martin) and then turn to do the same for Martin’s four.
Parsons 1: Autonomy is inescapable — Parsons (1) pleads guilty to epistemological autonomy, “recognizing no higher authority for…judgments about truth, value, etc.,” since it is inescapable and (2) argues that a Christian alternative would produce an infinite regress.
(1) Parsons here at least recognizes that some knowledge involves certainty even though he later attempts to deny it; nonetheless, the Christian challenge isn’t whether one should ultimately choose between a competent autonomous standard and a subordinate revelation but rather: where is a competent autonomous standard? For example, if Parsons, not being a subjectivist, seeks to determine knowledge by means of an empirical criterion, then he needs to demonstrate how he gets from particular perceptual states (“appearing redly”) to general propositions of common experience, logic, mathematics, and values; alternately, if he seeks to determine knowledge by means of some modern Rationalist line (“self-evident”, a priori general truths, etc.) and deduce a system of knowledge, then he needs to demonstrate how he gets beyond the most trivial generalities to knowledge of particular facts. Whichever option or variation on these themes the non-Christian takes will end in skepticism, as the history of philosophy demonstrates so aptly. In contrast, the Christian worldview provides the necessary preconditions which make these sorts of knowledge possible.
(2) Parsons’ argument threatening an infinite regress rests on a confusion over the nature of ultimate standards. Parsons argues for his ultimate standard by making it self-validating (“nobody…has any choice in the matter”), and Christians argue for theirs in the same way. Neither group could do otherwise. Hence, an infinite regress does not threaten either, but the pressing question is: which view of reality provides the preconditions of knowledge which we all agree that we have? The answer: Christianity.
Parsons 2: Self-defeating futility — Parsons argues, “finally and fatally,” that if the Christian argument regarding the futility of non-Christian categories is sound, then the non-Christian is “justified in dismissing… any argument that guarantees that I cannot rationally accept its conclusion.”
First, note that Parsons doesn’t follow his own reductio in his objection; on the one hand he claims that he would have no rational criteria available, but then he also claims to be “justified in dismissing” the argument. Which is it? To be more consistent, he should either be philosophically silent or reject the non-Christian principles which led to such an absurd position.
Second, the Christian critique recognizes that Christians can reason with non-Christians only because the latter don’t act in accord with their basic principles. Non-Christians can reason, do science, ethics, etc. because they live in a Christian universe which makes these activities possible (as opposed to a non-Christian universe where, for example, materialism precludes universal and necessary logical principles or a eastern monism which obliterates ethical and mathematical distinctions). Moreover, Christians maintain that this sort of “rebellious borrowing” from the Christian view of reality has occurred since the Fall of man, and, hence, would include all non-Christians (including Thales, contrary to Parsons’ rather narrow understanding of a Christian God who just pops onto the historical scene during the Roman Empire).
Martin 1: Indirect Arguments — Martin begins his discussion by offering two indirect arguments against the claim that knowledge presupposes the Christian God: (1) His own arguments (over “eight hundred pages” remember) allegedly demonstrate that (a) traditional arguments have failed, (b) the concept of God is incoherent, and (c) the argument from evil, etc. make God’s existence “unlikely,” and (2) no great apologist has used this sort of transcendental argument for Christianity.
None of these concerns, however, counts even indirectly against my case, given that (1a) traditional arguments fail in part because they are based on philosophical compromises with self-defeating non-Christian views, (1b) Martin’s arguments for the incoherence of the concept of God begs-the-question (see below), and (1c) Martin cannot justifiably distinguish evil from good in order to raise the objection from evil. Finally, Martin’s indirect argument (2) regarding the history of apologetics is really more of an autobiographical comment on what Martin has and hasn’t read rather than an argument against the view I defend, given the rich development of this sort of Christian outlook in the Scripture, Augustine, Calvin, Dutch Reformed and Princeton/Westminster theology.
Martin 2: Direct Arguments — Martin’s direct objections against a Christian transcendental argument fail because they do not address ultimate epistemological standards but instead focus on lower-level knowledge concerns. Christians obviously hold to some version of fallibilism and human epistemic limitation in regard to most knowledge claims, and so his three arguments miss the target.
Nonetheless, no one is a consistent fallibilist in regard to ultimate standards of knowledge — claims to certainty at some point are unavoidable. As we’ve seen, Parsons holds to epistemological autonomy with the utmost certainty, and Martin wants to defend objective standards of knowledge. Nevertheless, unless Martin distinguishes between lower-level knowledge claims and his ultimate objective standards of rationality, then his version of fallibilism will entail epistemological relativism. If “knowledge claims are always subject to revision in the light of new evidence,” then Martin’s “objective standards,” which he defends with such zeal, are really just passing prejudices which will someday be rejected. If he’s willing to adopt this sort of consistent Quinean relativism, then perhaps he ought to place disclaimers on his books warning readers that he only intends to offer contemporary logical prejudices.
So, though both Parsons and Martin argue that knowledge does not entail certainty in some Cartesian sense, they are partly right and partly wrong (Parsons’ assertions regarding my attempt to resurrect some Cartesian argument is quite off the mark; Descartes used blatantly autonomous and anti-Christian categories, thus leading to skepticism, though it took the likes of Hume to point this out). Parsons and Martin assure us that “unknown factors” do not generally count against lower-level claims; this would just be silly. But, “unknown factors” may count against ultimate standards since we are dealing with universal and certain claims. And this is one place among many, where non-Christians will make sweeping claims to knowledge but cannot deliver what they promise. In short, we should compare the opposing Christian and non-Christian claims to certainty, and choose the one which doesn’t vitiate science, logic, history, ethics, language, art, etc.
Finally, on this score, Martin challenges me in regard to the claim that non-Christian philosophies produce, at most, trivial knowledge claims. He insists (1) I haven’t argued for this claim or (2) refuted his “long and detailed defense” of the Logical Positivists.
(1) Though I did argue for this claim, the burden is really on non-Christians to defend their own worldview. Though a thorough survey of every non-Christian thinker is not possible, let me, once again, just challenge two strains of non-Christian thought: rationalisms and empiricisms. If Martin is so confident in non-Christian knowledge, then he should show us how we get anything beyond the most general platitudes in rationalism and vacuous perceptual states of empiricism. As Martin himself says, “scientific knowledge is limited but hardly trivial or unsubstantive.” Exactly. So how does the consistent empiricist (or modern Logical Positivist) ever get there on the basis of his autonomous standard?
(2) In Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Martin defends a revised version of verification principle which focuses not on meaning in general but on factual meaning (i.e., a criterion of what sentences express statements) in which meaningful statements are those which are “confirmable or disconfirmable in principle by nonreligious, straightforward, empirical statements.” He concludes, not surprisingly, that “religious language is…factually meaningless.”
First, how does this formulation not rule out the standards of logic? Has Martin confirmed or disconfirmed the law of non-contradiction and a host of other similar criteria? How would one find an “empirically determinate state of affairs…to count against” the truth of a foundational statement like this? Second, the standard begs-the-question against the Christian in the most egregious fashion: “The very notion of referring assumes some temporal or spatial or spatial-temporal scheme.” With that sort of guiding dogma, how could one not be an atheist?
Martin 3: Alleged Inconsistencies — Martin’s third argument against the Christian critique I offer is that it is too general since, he claims, that the “God of the Jews or Islam would also seem to provide the epistemological foundation that Jones wants.”
First, Islam vitiates knowledge as much as any non-Christian “secular” philosophy. Though a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this discussion, the Islamic God is not the God of the Bible, and so we should expect that it undermines knowledge. For example, depending on the version of Islam one focuses on, the general and absolute unity of Allah is so guarded against the imperfections of plurality that Allah cannot be said to know any particular items or facts, including the historical Muhammad. This has long been a vigorous problem in Islamic philosophy/theology. The implication of this and similar problems are many, but Allah in no way provides a transcendental foundation for knowledge as we find in the triune God of Christianity. Beyond this, Christians also rule out Islam on the basis of its gross theological departure from the Old Covenant.
Second, since Christianity in its best form is the most orthodox form of Judaism, i.e., the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, Christians have no philosophical dispute with a faithful Judaism since the two would ultimately be identical. Nevertheless, until we reach that point, our disputes will be exegetical and only philosophical to the point where Judaism (or Christianity) compromises with non-Christian thought. In short, Martin’s arguments again misfire.
Martin 4: Christianity and Subjectivism — In his most disappointing section, Martin argues that Christianity fails to provide an objective foundation for epistemology given even a “cursory glance at the controversies within the Christian religion.” Consider what Martin’s reasoning would do to numerous historical disputes in science: As James Rachels has argued, “We cannot conclude that the world is shapeless simply because not everyone agrees what shape it has.” Moreover, Martin himself answers opponents of his verification principle who claim that “since some people disagree over whether some examples of putative statements are factually meaningful, one cannot appeal to any examples to support this principle. But this is a non-sequitur.” Well said.
In all, neither Parsons nor Martin come close to getting the non-Christian program off the ground. Their criticisms are either irrelevant, beg-the-question, or rest on confusions. They have yet to meet the Christian challenge head-on or justify their own standards of knowledge. As the Apostle Paul declared, we should look to Christ for “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”