Friday, April 4, 2008

The Knowledge of God, The Necessity of Special Revelation, Part B

Logical Positivism

Logical Positivism was an extremely empirical philosophy and probably the most anti-religious knowledge theory that ever was. It was started by a group of philosophers that became known as the “Vienna Circle” and was propounded greatly by the Oxford philosopher, Alfred J. Ayer. Greg Bahnsen explains:

“Ayer maintained that any genuinely meaningful and factual statement must pass the “verifiability criterion” (which he could never successfully formulate) – to the effect that any meaningful statement is in theory verifiable by observation, either directly or indirectly (by observation of what can be deduced from it along with other “legitimate” statements). The philosopher does not have available to him any truths that are not accessible by the other sciences, and so the job of the philosopher becomes that of clarifying the language of science, developing logical sophistication, and purifying the field of the nonsense of metaphysics and ethics.”1

Thus, something should be believed in only if it could be empirically “verified”, and so, all metaphysics went out the window. Nowadays, very few philosophers would hold to such a self-debunking theory, and the only ones who do are very na├»ve, philosophically ignorant, and logically untrained scientists and militant atheists. Here’s why:

  1. Arbitrary: They simply defined metaphysics out of existence instead of actually attempting to prove it to be impossible. How could they have possibly have come to the knowledge that the *only* means of knowledge is empirical verifiability. Wouldn’t that first require infinite knowledge of the universe? Thus, they were arbitrary.

  1. Secondary Hypothesis: Given human nature’s propensity to be dogmatic (whether people will admit it or not), scientists always invent secondary hypothesis to protect their theory from being disproven by newly discovered evidence. This would make theories unfalsifiable, and thus, unverifiable.

  1. No Morals, No “Ought”s: Because Logical Positivism denied moral realism, it had to, of logical necessity, deny any “ought”s or “should”s. But on this basis, how could they say that one *ought* to believe something if it is verifiable? If there are no real ethics, then there is no necessary reason why someone should believe in something, verifiable or not!

  1. No Connection Between Facts and Statements: “If “facts” are the actual states of affairs as they are directly experienced (say, the sensation of redness and roundness at this place and at this time), but “statements” are verbal utterances (consisting of written or voiced words like “red” or “round”), in what sense can we “compare” facts and statements? They are completely different kinds of things. (For instance, the word “round” does not look – is not physically sensed as – round.)”2

  1. Communication Impossible: “At this point Ayer asserts that the Vienna Circle had not solved the basic epistemological problem. What is really meant when we say that a statement is verifiable? Does it mean merely that statements about facts are internally coherent with one another? Does it not also mean that statements must be verifiable in relation to facts? Then, if I make statements about my experience of facts, how can I convey the meaning of my experience to you? For my experience is private to me, and your experience is private to you; how then, if we each have to interpret every statement of fact as referring to our own experience, do we ever succeed in communicating with each other?”3

  1. Self-Defeating: The verifiability criterion was itself unverifiable. That is, the belief – that for any statement to be true it had to be empirically verified – was itself not empirically verifiable. Thus, by its own standard, the verifiability criterion should not be regarded as true.

  1. A Metaphysic Itself: Apropos (6), because the verifiability criterion was a presupposed axiom, it fell under the category of metaphysics, and so, by the Vienna Circle’s own standard, it was nonsense.

  1. Other Arguments Against Anti-Metaphysics Apply: (See my lesson, “Overcoming the Anti-Metaphysical Bias”.)

  1. Most Arguments Against Scientific Realism Apply: (See my lesson, “A Refutation of Scientific Realism”.)

Scientific Realism

I dealt with Scientific Realism in a previous lesson. (See my lesson, “A Refutation of Scientific Realism”.)

Probability Theory4

Having given up on finding a path to full assurance, some epistemologists have tried making a new path with statistical or “probable” knowledge. Instead, they say, a belief should be held in degrees of assurance in proportion to the probability that it is true. This probability is derived from something such as the frequency of occurrence or from the number of people (usually specialists) who hold to that belief.

For example, the degree to which a scientific theory is thought to be true is in proportion to the number of scientists who believe in it and the extent of time to which it has been believed. Thus, a scientific theory should be held with a great degree of assurance if it is believed in by the vast majority of scientists and has been for a great length of time.

Another example would be in determining whether something in history happened or not. The degree to which a historical event should be believed to have happened is proportional to the frequency to which other similar historical events have happened. Atheists usually apply this to miracles (following David Hume5). Therefore, they say, miracles are unlikely since they have not happened6 and do not happen now.

Of course, using probability theory as an epistemological base is pure folly for the following reasons:

  1. Requires Complete Knowledge of the System: How can one even start thinking about what the probabilities are until one has complete knowledge of the entire system? Probabilities will change as new information about the system becomes known. Critics of probability theory have also pointed out the problem of “priors”:

The mathematical theory of probability allows us to derive more probabilities once we have some probabilities. To give a simple example, given a probability of x for proposition P, the theory tells us that the probability of ~P equals 1 – x; but it does not provide the probability of P, or ~P, or any other proposition ex nihilo. These probabilities we have to start with, and that are not provided by probability theory itself, are usually called the prior probabilities or just priors. How do we come to our priors? This question is differently answered by subjectivists and those hoping for some kind of logical interpretation of probability. According to the former, our priors are just our subjective degrees of confidence. These, of course, may be vastly different for different individuals, but so be it. Those in favour of logical probability hold that there is some objective, or at least more objective, way of determining prior probabilities. It has been suggested, for instance, that the prior probability of a given proposition can be determined on the basis of the syntactical structure of the sentence expressing that proposition, a suggestion that, however, led already to insurmountable difficulties for very simple artificial languages. Other suggestions have proven equally problematic.”7

This general problem was shown most profoundly in my lesson, “A Refutation of Scientific Realism” (see Argument l.). Obviously no one but God has this knowledge.

  1. Historical One-Time Events: Many events in history are unrepeatable. Thus, this use of probability theory fails to take into account the ingenuity of man. Man is not an automaton. As for miracles, it presents a straw-man view of God by assuming that God is some giant clock who should regularly put out a miracle every hundred years or so just to let man know that He does indeed exist. On the contrary, God’s purpose in miracles is usually to make a very dramatic point, but He has ordained that most events in history take place through the means of ordinary providence. Lastly, but not of least importance, with the New Testament recording the Christological revelation of Jesus the Messiah and its exposition through the Apostles, there is no more need for miracles to confirm an oracle since propositional revelation has ceased and the Holy Spirit provides the assurance to the believer instead.

  1. Subjective: The theory ignores the role psychology plays in one’s determining the boundaries of what event or persons (to use the two examples mentioned in the description) should count as an instance of something which will contribute to that set’s frequency. This is a classification problem and is highly subjective. For example, when analyzing the probabilities of miracles, should one classify the event in question first as a miracle and then look for other examples of miracles to determine the probability based on its historical or current frequency? Or should one classify the event as another kind of historical occurrence (based on another aspect of the event), look for other similar examples where people reacted in a similar fashion to a particular event (claimed to be miraculous or not), and consider the disputed event’s status as a miracle irrelevant to the question of whether it happened or not? Also, there is the problem that one will dismiss all other instances of miracles and then use that frequency of zero to determine the probability of miracles occurring (resulting in a zero probability). This is the circular problem which C.S. Lewis pointed out against Hume.8

  1. It Destroys Science: Experience (especially in the form of science) is predicated on the belief that genuinely new facts can be discovered, but if we are only to believe in something based solely on the past, then on what basis could we believe in something new? This would utterly destroy science. Of course, this brings us back to the more general problem of Induction.

  1. All Other Arguments Against Scientific Realism Apply: (See my lesson, “A Refutation of Scientific Realism”.)


I dealt with Post-Modernism in the previous lesson. (See my lesson, “The Transcendental Argument for God, Part I: God’s Existence”.)


Saint Paul once wrote to the saints at Colossae:

“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument… See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form… [Philosophy and the tradition of men] are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Colossians 2:1-4, 8-9, 23)

According to Paul, the reason why the heretics at Colossae failed to reach true knowledge and why their beliefs were arbitrary and ignorant was because they started with human-made categories instead of the special, propositional revelation of Christ who was, is, and ever shall be the all-knowing, sovereign Creator of the universe. It is this same error which plagues all autonomous forms of knowledge:

“If philosophy begins with man and his own authority, then the conclusion of philosophy cannot transcend this source – all of man’s thinking reflects his own subjective ordering and interpretation, but nothing of the objective world of reality. If you start with man’s thoughts as your point of reference, you cannot escape phenomenalism and thus skepticism – the egocentric predicament.”9

There is simply no way for finite man, by himself, to gain a coherent theory of the universe, God, and man unless he transcends the space-time continuum that constantly impinges upon him. This he cannot do. Thus, the only way for him to have knowledge of “the big questions” is for the answers to these questions to be revealed to him by a Being that does, in fact, transcend contingent reality and who possesses complete knowledge of the universe. The only worldview that can meet this requirement is Revelatory Theism.

Appendix: Which Revelatory Theism?

Now that the necessity of Revelatory Theism has been established, the question still remains: which Revelatory Theism? There is still the choice between Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, and Islam. In short, one can show that the Old Testament truly does point to Christ and that Christianity is the true religion of the Hebrews.10 As to Islam, its own Qur’an attests to the authenticity of the Bible even though it contradicts the Bible all over the place!11 Thus, Islam is self-defeating. So, Christianity is indeed the only actual12 existing worldview that meets the two requirements of being both theistic and revelatory in the propositional sense.

[All Scripture quotes are from the NASB, emphasis mine.]


1 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.367, ftnt.203.

2 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.371, ftnt.208.

3 Cornelius Van Til as quoted in Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.370.

4 Here, I am speaking of the use of statistical “probabilities” as an epistemic base. I am not speaking of its use as a tool in more science-related matters.

5 It should be pointed out that Hume has been roundly refuted by many critics who have used some of the counter-arguments I listed below. See these books here, here, and here, for example.

6 I point out the circularity of this below under the “Subjective” argument.

8 Some proponents of Hume’s argument have tried to improve on it by including a probability which would necessitate that no testimony which attests to a miracle should count. However, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

[A] Bayesian analysis sheds no light whatsoever on the structure or substance of the argument, and can do nothing by way of either supporting or refuting the argument. Indeed, any Bayesian analysis of the question of justified belief in miracles must be otiose until the difficult and essential questions concerning “evidence” in relation to an allegedly miraculous occurrence are resolved — at which point any Bayesian analysis will add little except the technical complexity of a formal apparatus that may or may not “clarify” the structure of Hume's argument.

The balancing of probabilities is of no use until it is decided what goes into the balance — that is, what constitutes the evidence that is to be subject to the balancing of probabilities. The point is this; apart from independent philosophical arguments — arguments that would in effect undermine the relevance of a Bayesian analysis to the question of the credibility of reports of the miraculous — no such analysis can, in principle, prove that no testimony can (or cannot) establish the credibility of a miracle.”

9 Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), p.350, ftnt.176.

10 This shall be the subject of a later series.

12 As opposed to hypothetical


Carrie said...

Hi S&S,

I haven't been able to keep up with this series. I think I am going to print out everything and read through it slowly.

I wish I had you teaching at my church!

Saint and Sinner said...

"I haven't been able to keep up with this series. I think I am going to print out everything and read through it slowly.

I wish I had you teaching at my church!"

That may take awhile. :P

Thank you.