Monday, March 31, 2008

The Knowledge of God, TAG, Part C


Platonism was the philosophy of Plato, an Athenian who was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. His philosophy is complicated in its detail, and like every worldview that I have described above, I will keep it short.

In Platonism, there are two separate and autonomous ‘realms’ of existence: the realm of matter and the realm of forms. Matter is considered to be a shapeless, changing, time-bound, and ‘unintelligible’ or chaotic surd. The ‘forms’ or ‘Ideas’ were impersonal, eternal, unchanging, timeless, abstract archetypes of all things and the source of all knowledge. The forms take matter and give it shape and substance, and matter “participates” in the forms. Thus, all dogs are ‘formed’ by the form or ‘Idea’ of ‘dog-ness’. All red apples are formed by the forms of both ‘apple-ness’ and ‘red-ness’.

As to man, Plato taught that man’s soul, being quasi-‘divine’, “participated” in that realm of forms but that it was imprisoned in the mortal body. Thus, the goal of man is to be rid of his evil material body so that he can return to his ‘heavenly’ home.

Platonism was and probably still is the closest attempt at building a successful, autonomous and non-theistic worldview. However, there are a great number of problems with Platonism, a number of which Plato’s student, Aristotle, pointed out:

  1. Instantiation: The first and most obvious problem with Platonism is the problem of instantiation. If the forms are impersonal, inactive, abstract things, then how could they cause matter to participate in them? At this point, Plato had to resort to admitted myths, namely a ‘divine’ personal being called the demiurge.

  1. Man’s Intellect is Changing: If man’s intellect learns, then it changes. But if it changes, then by Plato’s own standard, it is unintelligible and knowledge is impossible.

  1. Man Reasons in Temporal Categories: Related to (2) is the fact that man’s intellect has to reason in sequential and temporal categories, not unchanging and immutable ones. Thus, by Plato’s own standard, man’s reasoning process is incapable of reaching true conclusions.

  1. Argument from the Reliability of Cognitive Faculties: If the only ordering powers in the universe are impersonal forms2, then man’s cognitive faculties would have had to come about through an impersonal manner, and thus, the chance that they would be reliable is, at best, inscrutable (see Argument 2. from “Materialism” above).

  1. Both Realms Ultimate: If both realms are ultimate, then the forms cannot fully rationalize matter, and so, rationalism would be canceled out by irrationalism. Thus, because there is still some degree of unintelligibility in the sensory world, knowledge of that world is impossible.

  1. A Form of Evil?: In Platonism, the forms are morally good, and matter is morally evil. However, the very concept of ‘evil’ requires its existence as a form in the realm of forms. As Greg Bahnsen noted:

“This is embarrassing for Plato because he conceived of the realm of Ideas (the Ideal realm) as that which is good or of positive value. For evil things to be intelligible, there must be an Idea for them, but that awkwardly suggests that such Ideas are in their nature both evil (as to substance) and good (as to form) simultaneously.”3

  1. As Many Forms as Particulars: If there is a black cat, then that cat participates in the forms of ‘blackness’ and ‘cat-ness’. However, in order for the two forms to ‘form’ the cat together, those forms must both participate in the combined form of ‘black cat-ness’. But the cat isn’t simply black. It also has eyes, ears, teeth, enamel on those teeth, etc., and those things have a certain size, shape, color, etc. Thus, there must be an ultimate form for which all the more general forms participate in such that it describes the cat down to its very detail. So, for every particular in the universe, there must be a specific form just for it. Not only that, but since those particulars change, the particular-specific forms must change as well. However, if there are as many forms as particulars, and the forms must change with the particulars, then the forms are just as transient and thus unknowable as the matter which participates in them. Because of this, knowledge would be impossible.

  1. Infinite Regression of Participation: Again, Greg Bahnsen explains:

“If relationships are intelligible on Plato’s terms, they must be an instance of a general Idea. The relationship between particular things and their Idea is that of “participation,” said Plato. Similarly, each participation must itself participate in an Idea of participation, and that participation must in turn participate in its own Idea of participation, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, as Van Til indicates, on Plato’s own terms a man cannot know any one particular thing without having infinite knowledge.”4

  1. Unity or Diversity in the Realm of Forms?: Do all forms ultimately participate in each other making the realm of forms one giant form, or are all forms separate from each other with their own realms of existence? If they are separate from one another, then there is no way for them to interact with one another. This would mean that all particulars that participate in different forms5 would have their own separate realms of existence with their own ‘truths’. If they are, on the other hand, all ultimately one, then they would simply be, as Van Til put it, a completely colorless mass. It would be a bland Idea that said nothing, an ultimately irrational unity.

Ultimately, Plato had eternal, immutable, abstract thoughts without the necessary eternal, immutable Thinker from which those thoughts can be instantiated perfectly in the contingent universe without confusion. These problems can only be solved by placing the forms as ideas in the mind of the immutable God.6


Aristotle was the student of Plato and an instructor in the Academy at Athens until Plato’s death. Afterwards, he tutored Alexander the Great and later started his own school in Athens, the Lyceum. Aristotle tried to improve upon Plato’s philosophy by locating the universals in the particulars themselves instead of in a mysterious realm of Ideas. Thus, every object is composed of both an intelligible form as well as individual, transient matter. Knowledge of this object comes through the senses which “draw out” its intelligible form through mental abstraction. While this solves many of the problems with instantiation and the transient nature of man’s intellect in Plato’s philosophy, it fails to solve all the other problems and even creates some.

  1. Both Realms Ultimate: Aristotle kept Plato’s idea that universals and matter were both equally ultimate, and as with Platonism, the universals could not make matter fully intelligible. Because of this, all knowledge of contingent things would be impossible (see Argument 5. from “Platonism” above).

  1. As Many Universals as Particulars: Aristotle still had the same problem as Platonism of requiring as many universals as particulars (see Argument 7. from “Platonism” above). As Greg Bahnsen notes:

“If one devised a “complex” universal (e.g., the form or Idea of man weighing two hundred pounds, having a snub nose, etc.) for every particular met in one’s experience, there would be as many universals as particulars and no point to distinguishing between universals and particulars. Moreover, the problem would then arise of how the universal of snub-nosedness relates to the complex universal of Socratesness (and to every other universal that incorporates snubnosedness).”8

  1. Person-Specific Truth: “On Aristotle’s own assumptions, what an individual man knows (i.e., the abstraction, the intelligible species) is a result of the internal activity of his own mind and thus private to himself.”9

  1. Argument from the Reliability of Cognitive Faculties: Aristotle still has the same problem as Platonism when it comes to the creation of man’s cognitive faculties (see Argument 4. from “Platonism” above). Although, in Aristotelianism, there is a ‘god’ called the Prime Mover, this ‘god’ simply puts everything in motion10 and is only aware of his own existence (making him functionally impersonal).

  1. Evolution of Truth: Because man must come into existence through an impersonal process (as noted in 4.) and is still subject to that process, it follows that the way that he apprehends and forms beliefs about ‘truth’ will change as the process changes his mind (see Argument 3. from “Materialism” above).

  1. Knowledge of Events Impossible: According to Aristotle, knowledge of things is only of their universals through abstraction, and thus, knowledge of individual particulars as they change through time is impossible. Again, Greg Bahnsen:

“Since eternal and unchangeable things are entirely unlike – indeed, contrary to the character of – brute and contingent facts, they would be destructive of the non-Christian’s conception of history as well. This is the dialectical tension inherent in Aristotle’s version of empirical knowledge. If the historical facts are knowable, they are eternal and unchangeable – and thus not historical at all. But if the facts are brute, contingent, and always changing, they are “historical” (in the sense given to that term in unbelieving worldviews), but unknowable.”11


Post-Modernism is basically unbelieving man’s recognition that true knowledge through autonomous means is indeed impossible. It accepts naturalism, and as a result, it states that all truth is relative because man is the product of his environment. Thus, any view of reality, or “meta-narrative”, which claims to be objective is simply a belief that is culturally conditioned, and so, there is no reason to believe in it. Post-Modernism is commendable in that it recognizes that truth cannot be apprehended through autonomous means. However, instead of surrendering through repentance to the God of Special Revelation who is Himself the Truth, it denies everyone knowledge by jumping into the abyss of epistemic nihilism. Of course, this too, has its problems:

  1. Post-Modernism is Itself a Meta-Narrative: By the post-modernists’ own standard, if all beliefs are socially conditioned, then the belief that all beliefs are socially conditioned is itself socially conditioned, and thus, there is no reason to believe in it! If the post-modernist makes a less sweeping claim that there is no way to know that a meta-narrative is true, then they are still refuting themselves since it amounts to the objective claim that objective knowledge is impossible. This would require them to possess complete, total knowledge of the universe in order to claim that they can’t have any knowledge of the universe! Reductio ad absurdum.

  1. Naturalism as Absolute Truth!: Most Post-Modernists are naturalists, and in order to believe in naturalism, Post-Modernists must accept evolutionary theory (in neo-Darwinian or some other naturalistic form) as objective truth. In fact, they must go beyond evolutionary theory and assume metaphysical naturalism as absolute truth! (See the lesson, “Overcoming the Anti-Metaphysical Bias” which goes into more detail.)

And of course, because most Post-Modernists accept naturalism, usually in the form of materialism, the four arguments against materialism mentioned above follow. These, along with (1) would question how the post-modernist came to ‘know’ naturalism is true in the first place:

  1. Argument from the Illusion of Thoughts and Self: (see Argument 1. from “Materialism” above.)

  1. Argument from the Reliability of Cognitive Faculties: (see Argument 2. from “Materialism” above.)

  1. Argument from ‘Evolving’ Truth: (see Argument 3. from “Materialism” above.)

  1. Argument from ‘Person-Specific’ Truth: (see Argument 4. from “Materialism” above.)

A Possible Objection: Is TAG a Skeptical-Threat Argument?

The main objection to the Transcendental Argument for God’s existence has been to accuse it of being a “skeptical-threat” argument. A skeptical-threat argument is basically an argument that throws out the possibility of a hypothetical situation in which human knowledge of the actual world (and the self!) would be impossible. An example of this would Rene Descartes’ Cartesian Demon scenario made popular by the movie, “The Matrix”.

However, this objection, or counter-argument, represents a fundamental misunderstanding of TAG. TAG is a transcendental argument which is, in fact, an *anti*-skeptic argument. In other words, the transcendental argument seeks to root out those pre-conditions for which knowledge would be possible and skepticism would not be warranted.

Not only do they have TAG wrong, they have the accusation facing the wrong direction. It is the unbeliever’s worldview that is a skeptical scenario which leads to epistemic nihilism. As shown above, TAG simply points this out.

Basically, this objection seeks to bar anyone from pointing out to the materialist (or any adherent of any worldview with an impersonal beginning to the universe for that matter) that he is committing the self-excepting fallacy. It seeks to allow him to get away with making the naïve assumption that he is a third-person, objective viewer of the universe. So, not only is this not a real objection to TAG, it is an argument against believing in non-theistic worldviews.


Ultimately, to allow for the possibility of man possessing knowledge12, the following conditions must be met:

  1. There must exist one13 personal Being who exists in Himself and created the universe out of nothing.14

  1. This Being must possess complete or analytical knowledge of both Himself as well as the universe.

  1. This Being must have created the universe and continue to uphold it in such a way that it is intelligible.

  1. This Being must have personally created man in such a way that man’s cognitive faculties are attuned to his surrounding environment and geared toward truth.

In short, this is Theism.15 In order to be justified in believing in anything, you must first believe in God. As one scholar put it:

“[I]n an order created by a perfect, omnipotent, and totally self-conscious Being, God, truth is both final, specific, and authoritative. God’s word can then be, and is inevitably, infallible, because there is nothing tentative about God himself. Moreover, truth is ultimately personal, because the source, God, is personal, and truth becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and is communicated to those who believe in Him. Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as the way, the truth, and the life, is also the Christian principle of continuity. The Christian doctrine, therefore, involved a radical break with the pagan doctrine of the continuity of being and with the doctrine of chaos. It also involved a break with the other aspect of the dialectic, the pagan, rationalistic concept of order. Order is not the work of autonomous and developing gods and men but rather the sovereign decree of the omnipotent God. This faith freed man from the sterile autonomy which made him the helpless prisoner of Fate, of the relentless workings of a blind order.”16

Appendix: The Problem of Universals

The basic problem which gives rise to the arguments from the ‘Evolution of Truth’ and ‘Person-Specific Truth’ against the worldviews mentioned above is the problem of universal truth. If truth is not universal, that is, constant throughout space and time, then it ‘evolves’ with time or is relative to each person. The problem boils down to the fact that if a worldview does not locate absolute, eternal, changeless truths in the mind of the eternal, personal God, then the apprehension of truth becomes impossible. Here are some quotes from well-known atheists and non-theists who acknowledge this17:

“Thus the question “Why science?” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world”—look, must they not by that same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world?—But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”18

“Whereas the quarrel about universals and ontogeny had its meaning and significance within the context of medieval Christian culture, it is an intellectual scandal that some philosophers of mathematics can still discuss whether whole numbers exist or not…No, there are no preordained, predetermined mathematical ‘truths’ that just lie out or up there. Evolutionary thinking teaches us otherwise.”19

“Recent troubles in the philosophy of mathematics are ultimately a consequence of the banishment of religion from science…Platonism…was tenable with belief in a Divine Mind…The trouble with today’s Platonism is that it gives up God, but wants to keep mathematics a thought in the mind of God…Once mysticism is left behind…Platonism is hard to maintain.”20

“The very idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature – one which the physicist or the poet may have glimpsed – is a remnant of the idea that the world is a divine creation, the work of someone who had something in mind, who Himself spoke some language in which He described His own project. Only if we have some such picture in mind, some picture of the universe as either itself a person or as created by a person can we make sense of the idea that the world has an “intrinsic nature.” ”21

For Further Reading/Listening:


1 This worldview is critiqued here not only because it is a worldview in itself but also because some non-Christians, especially atheists, modify their worldviews by adopting Platonism. So, for example, the resulting worldview would be Platonic atheism.

2 Unless, of course, we want to include Plato’s admittedly mythical demiurge.

3 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.325, ftnt. 129.

4 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), pp.326-327, ftnt. 133.

5 Which would be, as per (7), all particulars.

6 And of course, in Christianity, matter is not evil.

7 Like Platonism, some non-Christians, especially atheists, modify their worldviews by adopting Aristotelianism. So, for example, the resulting worldview would be Aristotelian atheism.

8 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.330, ftnt. 143.

9 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.331, ftnt. 145.

10 Thus, he is not involved in the creation of man.

11 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.333, ftnt. 155.

12 i.e., warranted true belief

13 Contra Dualism (see “Dualism” above).

14 That is, the material or spiritual universe cannot be equally eternal and thus ultimate as this Being. There cannot be an equal ultimacy like there is in the worldviews of polytheism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, etc.

15 This, of course, would not eliminate Deism which will be the subject of the next and last lesson, “The Necessity of Special Revelation”.

16 Rushdoony, op. cit., p.143.

17 This is in addition to those cited above in the main lesson.

18 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

19 Yehuda Rav, ‘Philosophical Problems in the Light of Evolutionary Epistemology’ in Math Worlds, ed. Sal Restivo (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp. 81, 100.

20 Reuben Hersch, What is Mathematics, Really? (Oxford, U.K.: The University Press, 1997), pp.42, 122, 135.

21 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 21.

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