May 26, 2018

Theistic Apriorism

By In Articles, Philosophy

What follows is hardly an attempt at a defense of my epistemological convictions. That would have to come at another time. I don’t aim here to justify it, only offer context and overview, since I haven’t done so in a while.

I recently conceived of the phrase “theistic apriorism” as a way to describe my epistemological convictions. In the history of philosophy, there have been several approaches or types of philosophy. Gordon Clark in some places categorizes them as empiricism, rationalism, and dogmatism; in another place he distinguishes between empiricism, irrationalism, and apriorism/presuppositionalism.

The former division is important and I hope to comment on it soon. But first I need this so I can refer to it in the future. The latter division is immensely intriguing, it does well in clarifying something important. Consider an example. I have a Van Tillian friend who calls himself a presuppositionalist. I also have an empiricist friend who rejects all presuppositionalism. The Van Tillian thinks that the very use of presuppositions in defense of his worldview is something unique to the Van Tillian tradition; sure, Van Til learned from Kuyper and Bavink, but he is alleged to have sparked a copernican revolution.

My empiricist friend finds Van Til largely unreasonable and even unintelligible (as do I) — on the basis that he differentiates between quality in God’s knowledge and the quality of man’s knowledge— and therefore rejects all those who operate under the umbrella phrase of presuppositionalism.

But in framing the history of thought as Clark does above, we discover something interesting. After overviewing the faults of empiricism (people like Locke) and irrationalism (people like Karl Barth), he moves to a better alternative.

There is a third view of truth that attempts to escape these difficulties. It might be called apriorism, presuppositionalism, or intellectualism, if these terms are not too definitely connected with earlier, specific systems. The subjective aspect of this theory requires a body of apriori forms or truths as a guarantee against skepticism. In empiricism the mind begins as a blank sheet of paper, and to use Aristotle’s phrase, it is actually nothing before it thinks. Then sensation furnishes data. But the apriorists find themselves unable to understand how universal and immutable truth can be constructed out of constantly changing particulars. How can the laws of logic, which are not sense data, be constructed from bits of experience when these bits must first be connected by the laws of logic?

Instead of beginning with nothing and failing to arrive at universal propositions through [experience or] sensation [such as empiricism],… apriorism allows a body of primary principles on which further knowledge may be built up.

Apriorism recognizes that thinking man has to start somewhere and he therefore makes a decision as to his starting point. That is, he must have an axiom in order to get started— something on which to base the reasoning process, but something that was not previously proven (otherwise it wouldn’t be an axiom).

In this way, it was the apriorists, including, much later, Ludwig von Mises, who are truly presuppositionalists. Apriorism is presuppositionalism and therefore presuppositionalism is much larger tradition than just the Van Tillians. Now, Van Til is not really an apriorist and actually in some ways has more empiricist tendencies; but the point is that the methodology of starting with “first principles” has a long and noble history.

Now, the seventeenth century rationalists are often skewered by Clarkians for trying to deduce all components of a worldview from logic alone. While I certainly agree that their attempt was a failure, I’m quite open to the language being applied here. The seventeenth century rationalists tried to argue from logic toward God, but for the Clarkian, logic itself is God. Consider Gordon Clark:

That Logic is the light of men is a proposition that could well introduce the section after next on the relation of logic to man. But the thought that Logic is God will bring us to the conclusion of the present section. Not only do the followers of Bernard entertain suspicions about logic, but also even more systematic theologians are wary of any proposal that would make an abstract principle superior to God. The present argument, in consonance with both Philo and Charnock, does not do so. The law of contradiction is not to betaken as an axiom prior to or independent of God. The law is God thinking.

For this reason also the law of contradiction is not subsequent to God. If one should say that logic is dependent on God’s thinking, it is dependent only in the sense that it is the characteristic of God’s thinking. It is not subsequent temporally, for God is eternal and there was never a time when God existed without thinking logically. One must not suppose that God’s will existed as an inert substance before he willed to think.

As there is no temporal priority, so also there is no logical or analytical priority. Not only was Logic the beginning, but Logic was God. If this unusual translation of John’s Prologue still disturbs someone, he might yet allow that God is his thinking. God is not a passive or potential substratum; he is actuality or activity. This is the philosophical terminology to express the Biblical idea that God is a living God. Hence logic is to be considered as the activity of God’s willing.

This conclusion may disturb some analytical thinkers. They may wish to separate logic and God. Doing so, they would complain that the present construction merges two axioms into one. And if two, one of them must be prior; in which case we would have to accept God without logic, or logic without God; and the other one afterward. But this is not the presupposition here proposed. God and logic are one and the same first principle.

Thus, logic is our presupposition, as it was for the rationalists. The difference, however, is that we are theistic apriorists. Logic as our presupposition is not different than saying that God is our starting point. They are one and the same first principle. And since a person is his thoughts, and God has personality (three persons), the thoughts of God, which are all true propositions, are also equated with logic. We literally worship logic, for logic is a transcendent mind. How’s that for the modern claim that Christians, being religious, are irrational? This was Augustine’s Logos doctrine that the rise of scientism, behaviorism, modern psychology, materialism, and logical positivism completely overran. It is here my minority position on logic and God really shows; especially compared to people like Van Til.

In conclusion, I want to mention something about the nature of truth and why the “theistic” in theistic apriorism is necessary. Ronald Nash wrote a good summary of Clark’s “argument from truth,” transcribed here (it should be read to grasp the full meaning of below. Readers well-read in Hoppe and Mises will see familiar principles.)

The nature of truth, is that it is propositional. Propositions cannot be independent of the mind. We only say a proposition exists if it is conceived or thought of. Thus, truth is mental. The apriorists agree. But this is not enough. For if we merely state that truth is mental, and there are millions of minds throughout the earth, then whose propositions are true? Moreover, man has not existed in eternity past, but propositional truth must have (see the Nash link above). Thus and therefore, there must be a mind that transcends all other minds.

Clark:

With considerations such as these Augustine was able to explain the learning and the teaching process. The teacher in the classroom does not give his students ideas. The ideas or truths are discovered by the student in his own mind; and as he contemplates the truth within, he judges whether the teacher has taught the truth. But though the truth is discovered within the mind, it is not a product of the student. Truth is not individual, but universal; truth did not begin when we were born, it has always existed.

Is all this any more than the assertion that there is an eternal, immutable Mind, a Supreme Reason, a personal, living God? The truths or propositions that may be known are the thoughts of God, the eternal thought of God. And insofar as man knows anything he is in contact with God’s mind. 

Alvin Plantinga once argued something quite similar. He observed the following:

The problem with classical realism is that it argued that there were truths independent of the mind; there was no necessity of noetic activity in order for the existence of a truth. The problem with the anti-realist tradition is that it led to subjectivism— truth was determined by noetic activity: but the problem is that our noetic activities were all different. So then, we have a thesis and antithesis and we are in dire need of synthesis. The synthesis, for Plantinga was to be found in Augustine: A transcendent mind.

Plantinga:

“The thesis, then, is that truth cannot be independent of noetic activity on the part of persons. The antithesis is that it must be independent of our noetic activity. And the synthesis is that truth is independent of our intellectual activity but not of God’s.”

This is an outline of what might be called theistic apriorism, though there are perhaps better phrases for it. In any case, since I spend most my intellectual life reading the thoughts of apriorist economists and interacting with their followers throughout the internet, it seems prudent that I sketch out an overview as to why I believe in God— it is a great support for my apriorism. Many of these internet apriorists laugh at the irrationality of people who believe in a “sky fairy.” But perhaps the above, even if not yet ready to be embraced by the hardline and reasonable atheist, at least offers something reasonable— motivation to agree that belief in God, an eternal mind, is not simply an absurdity.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com