Gordon Clark on Science and Behaviorism

Recently, I participated in an essay contest through The Trinity Foundation.  The assignment was to read and interact with two books by Gordon H. Clark, whom we have discussed on this site before.  These two books were: The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God and Behaviorism and Christianity.  I was happy to discover this morning [this was originally published in October 2013] that the reviewers at the Trinity Foundation had awarded me with first place.  It was a very long essay (about 36 pages or so) and so I won’t place the whole thing here.  Below is about a third of the unabridged version though.  It is three pages, so don’t miss the page numbers below.  

PDF of the entire essay: Gordon Clark on Science and Behaviorism 

Link to the winners page: http://trinityfoundation.org/13winners.php

Link to the Trinity Foundation abridged version: http://trinityfoundation.org/1stE13.php


There is little question that, in this present life, the Christian will commonly face opponents who are eager to threaten the truth claims of the Biblical worldview.  What is more, it happens to be the very nature of the Christian religion that all who do not embrace it, that is, intellectually assent to its propositions, necessarily oppose it, even if they are not so “eager.”  “Whoever is not with me is against me,” declared Christ, the object of our faith.  Opposition though, while having in common an Antichristian worldview, comes in many different flavors, various styles, and competing epistemologies.  Indeed, the world longs for a doctrine which they can hold on to, anything that will prevent them from accepting the truth of Christianity.  While the Christian would be wise to refer to this as a prime example of Total Depravity, the non-Christian lusts for this false doctrine.  They seek to undermine the Christian position quite often and we are disappointed to discover that many, Christians (so-called) included, fall for their efforts.   And yet, as will be demonstrated in paragraphs following, the wisdom of this world is foolish.  Thus, the great battle of our times is a foolishness that has persuaded the masses against the Wisdom of God revealed in His Scriptures.  A fascinating battle indeed.

It is in this context that we consider Gordon H. Clark, the man John Robbins has referred to as “America’s Augustine.”  The student will happily note that Clark was one of the most comprehensive scholars that Christianity has ever produced.  From ethics and politics to soteriology and epistemology, Clark has understood that the Christian perspective is adequate to address all of reality.  Further, it is the only philosophical system that is adequate.  And thus, when prevalent subjects such as science and psychology “eagerly seek” to dismantle Christianity, Clark is ready with a reply.  It is these two specific fields that we will cover at this present time.  Addressing the topics of science in The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God and the more narrow issue of Behaviorist Psychology in Behaviorism and Christianity, Clark has offered a stunning defense of the Christian worldview by ably revealing the contradictions, confusions, and intellectual dishonesties in these two fields.  It is no easy task to succinctly and accurately summarize a position while at the same time pointing out its flaws, especially with the complicated topics that Clark faces here.  But it can hardly be denied that in these books, Clark is at his very best.[i]

“The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God”

We must be thankful that Clark understood that to discuss science without first having a Philosophy of Science would cause the discussion to be incomplete.  Indeed, without an overall view of what science is, what it should be used for, how can any meaningful discussion proceed?  And yet, as Clark noted in his introduction, “Many scientists have an enormous amount of detailed technical information about electrodynamics and quantum theory, and yet lack an overall view… of science” (Clark, 18).  As will be indicated below, one major difference between the Christian worldview and many who depend on “science,” is that the former places science within a “general philosophy” while the latter group have made science their “general philosophy;” a move that will ultimately undermine the essence of their position.

With this in mind, as Clark explains, “the major part of the present study, as it traces the history of science from older theistic constructions to more recent anti-religious positions, will be an attempt to say what science is: an attempt, in other words, to sketch a philosophy of science” (Clark, 18).  It is by this philosophy of science that we can ask: what is it good for?

The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (originally published in 1964) is a work whose relevance has not gone away.  We live in an age where the advocates of science have, among other things, vocalized their belief that science has disproved religion, rendered Christianity a worldview of the past, and, as Clark says of skeptic philosopher David Hume, “ruled out both miracles and God” (Clark, 17).


The Problem of Motion

While these are quite provoking claims, in order to at the same time question their accuracy and develop a philosophy of science, Clark begins with the ancient Greeks and their attempt to understand the concept of motion.  He writes: “If there were no motion, there would be no science.  Physics could exist in the absence of electricity, and zoology does not absolutely require butterflies.  But neither can do without motion.  Be it physics or zoology, the phenomena examined are either the causes and effects of motion, or the motions themselves” (Clark, 20).

As important as motion is for scientific inquiry, it presents some major problems that the ancient Greeks recognized, but have yet to be dealt with, even today when “science” reigns supreme.  “Most people simply take motion for granted and do not think about it” (Clark, 20).  Can motion even be justified?  Or must we be forced, as Clark intriguingly suggests, “to conclude that motion is impossible?” (Clark, 23).  When we observe the “simple phenomenon of a marble rolling across a table (Clark, 19),” can such motion be explained at all?

To answer these inquiries, Clark gives an overview of ancient Greek consideration.  Zeno the Eleatic noted, with his famous story of Achilles and the tortoise, that in a race where the tortoise was given a head start, Achilles could never truly pass up the tortoise even despite his renowned speed.  For every time he reached the point where the tortoise was, the tortoise, in all his slowness, would have moved at least a small bit.  Again Achilles would aim for the precise spot of the tortoise, but again the tortoise will have moved.  Achilles was bound for defeat.  For are there not an infinite number of points between Achilles and the tortoise?  Surely Achilles could not logically reach the bounds of infinity and thus pass the tortoise!

The implications are obvious.  Regarding the marble that rolls across a table, is it not true that the marble, just like Achilles, must cross an infinite number of points if it is to reach its destination?  Further, must it not also cross an infinite number of points before it reaches the midpoint to its “destination?”  And are there not an infinite number of “midpoints?”  Can the marble then even move at all?  If we cannot decide on a solution to Zeno’s problem, Clark wonders (with humor) if “we may be forced to conclude that motion is impossible.  And where would science be then, poor thing?” (Clark, 23).

But Zeno was not alone in his deliberation of motion.  If Zeno discovered that motion might indeed be impossible, it was Heraclitus before Zeno who’s “slogan… was, ‘All things flow” (Clark, 23).  And thus he reached a conclusion opposite to the result of Zeno’s logic.  All things flow, all things are constantly changing, and nothing remains at rest.  His example was that “one cannot step into the same river twice” (Clark, 23).  For not only is the river (and its river bank) in constant movement, but so is the individual who stepping into this river.

But if everything is in constant and universal motion, then what could possibly be meant by “river?”  There must be something that does not change, for otherwise how can it be recognized as a river?  How could we discuss this flowing stream of water?  Indeed, by what amount of logic can we even refer to a river as a “flowing stream of water” unless there is something that remains unchanged?  The fundamentals of communication are thus abolished by the “Heraclitean flux.”  Plato recognized as much and, when he questioned Heraclitus’ disciple Kratylus about the fact that opinion and consistency becomes impossible if everything is ever changing, Kratylus was left to answer Plato with a “waving of the hand” (Clark, 24).  And yet, how else could he have answered?  Surely not with words that are meaningless due to the ever changing nature of the mind itself.

Kratylus’ consistency had rendered intelligence and meaning impossible.  “All things flow,” noted Heraclitus.  But this phrase too becomes meaningless under such a worldview.  And so, in self-defeat and contradiction, the Heraclitean flux becomes utterly nothing.  And “nothing” is non-existent.  Truly, to quote Gordon Clark again, “if everything is changing, nothing exists” (Clark, 25).  Thus, “changing is unreal and reality is unchanging” (Clark, 25).

“Reality is unchanging.”  Have we then retreated back to Zeno?  Where is science now?  “Poor thing.”

So then, if we can neither say that nothing moves or that everything always moves, who can help to lead us out of our predicament?  For science is impossible without motion.

Clark takes us next to Aristotle, perhaps the most famous philosopher of Greek antiquity.  “Aristotle agrees that if everything were always changing, nothing would exist and knowledge would be impossible.  Therefore, he concludes, something must exist that does not change” (Clark, 25).  It is vital for our discussion that we note, as does Clark, that Aristotle is not attempting to dismiss Heraclitus simply because he has a desire to claim that knowledge is possible.  Rather, Aristotle recognizes, and Clark emphasizes, that unless Heraclitus is wrong, that is, unless “something exists unchanged,” science itself cannot be studied.  To reiterate, motion depends on something existing unchanged, science depends on motion, and therefore science depends on something existing unchanged.  Clark gives the example of a “green leaf turned brown:”

“When we express an instance of motion or change, we say the green leaf turned brown….  In every case something must remain unchanged during the change.  A leaf can turn brown only if it is the same leaf at both ends of the change.
Suppose it were not the same leaf….  Then we would have seen a green leaf and a little later a brown leaf but there would have been no change, for nothing would have changed from green to brown” (Clark, 25).

The importance of our present discussion is this: in order for us to determine our overall philosophy of science, we must first have an idea of what science is, and we must know its limits and boundaries.  Therefore, with an analysis of Aristotle and his denouncement of Zeno and Heraclitus, we aim to discover whether science is even possible, given that it depends so heavily on the concept motion; a concept we have yet to justify intellectually.

Clark was right to note that neither the extremes of Zeno nor Heraclitus could provide us with the foundations of scientific inquiry.  But did Aristotle solve the problem?  Can Aristotle provide a solution to the mystery of motion which can be used as the basis for the modern scientific claims that God does not exist?  Our philosophy of science depends on the answer.

Aristotle sets himself apart from Zeno, Heraclitus, and their contemporaries by beginning with a courageous effort toward a definition of motion.  Clark explains that “the pre-Socratics had failed to unravel the enigma of motion chiefly because they did not know what motion is [italics are Clark’s].  Their halting hints were faulty as definitions” (Clark, 28).  In Aristotle’s Physics III, he “formulates the definition of motion three times” (Clark, 28).  Unfortunately however for both Aristotle and the dignity of science, he was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt at a definition.  The second of the three definitions defined “motion as the actuality of the movable….”  But this is problematic, for “how could one know what movable means, that is, able to move, unless one first understood motion?” (Clark, 28).  And thus the second definition is unhelpful due to its circularity.

As for the first and third definitions, motion was defined “in terms of potentiality.”  While this might seem fine to the reader, Clark points out that, when looking for a clarification of the word potentiality, we find that Aristotle has defined that word “in terms of motion” (Clark, 29).  And thus, we have still not overcome Aristotle’s disappointing circularity in his attempt to define motion –that concept which is so very necessary for science!

As we near the end of Clark’s first chapter Antiquity and Motion, we note his “disturbing conclusion” in all of this: “The problem of motion remains unsolved.”  We have failed to justify it.  Aristotle’s ancient rival Democritus had suggested that, rather than try to demonstrate motion, we must simply assume it.  We must see motion as our presupposition, or, to use Clark’s phrase, our “indemonstrable axiom” (Clark, 26).  But not only have the Greeks failed to demonstrate motion, their inability to define it “has annihilated Democritus as well as Aristotle.”

For how can one assume what has yet to be defined?  Was Clark on to something in his concluding sentence, namely, that “perhaps motion, and science along with it, is just nonsense”? (Clark, 31).

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