snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Van Tilian Non Sequitur

There was a time when I would have considered myself to be a full-blooded Van Tilian presuppositionalist. I was introduced to Van Til's writings in my sophomore year of college and found myself dazzled by what I perceived to be a the most consistent and penetrating apologetical system I had ever encountered. I was convinced by the end of my junior year that Van Til's apologetic was the only legitimate apologetical option and that all there was left to do was to translate his insights into more contemporary Anglo-American philosophical idiom and perhaps clarify some of his more recondite arguments.
But as I went along and tried to formulate Van Til's apologetic more rigorously I found that at crucial junctures the conclusions Van Til drew simply did not follow from his premises. I can't tell you how frustrating and disappointing this was for me.
Allow me to give an example. Van Til argues that it is improper to offer probabilistic arguments for Christianity thus, "How could one ever argue that there is greater probability for the truth of Christianity than for the truth of its opposite if the very meaning of the word probability rests upon the idea of Chance? On this basis nature and history would be no more than a series of pointer readings pointing into the blank….He is obviously thinking of such a God as could comfortably live in the realm of Chance. But the God of Scripture cannot live in the realm of Chance."[1]
Now, this criticism of probabilistic arguments for Christianity seems to me to be a simply mistaken. It is perfectly sensible to use the language of "probability" to describe the epistemic status a proposition has for you without implying that the truth of that proposition is contingent upon sheer "Chance." Take Goldbach's conjecture that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. So 4 is 3 and 1, 6 is 3 and 3 or 5 and 1, 8 is 7 and 1 and so on. Goldbach's conjecture has not been proven, but it must be either true or false. What's more, because it's a proposition about mathematical realities, it must be either necessarily true or necessarily false. The truth or falsehood of Goldbach's conjecture is not contingent and therefore cannot be determined by or contingent upon "Chance." But, like I said, it hasn't been proven (and Gödel has given us reason to suspect that it may not be provable at all).
Now, let's say someone gives me a particularly impressive argument for Goldbach's conjecture. It's not a "proof" according to the most rigorous definitions of "proof," but it's a good argument. Upon considering the argument in light of all else that I know, it seems more probable than not that Goldbach's conjecture is true. 'Given the premises of the argument, it is probable that Goldbach's conjecture is true.' To say this sort of thing does not commit me to any particular view of the ontic or modal status of Goldbach's conjecture because, like I said, Goldbach's conjecture is either necessarily true or necessarily false. It's just a description of how I perceive the strength of the arguments available to me for the proposition or, put another way, a description of how strongly I am inclined to believe the proposition given what I know.[3]
If this be the case, it doesn't follow that if you argue that it is more probable than not that Christianity is true, that therefore you have conceded that God's existence is contingent upon "Chance" or that God "lives in a realm of Chance" or anything like that. Arguing thus doesn't really commit you to any particular stance on the modal status of God's existence any more than arguing thus commits you to a particular stance on the modal status of Goldbach's conjecture. One can believe that if God exists, He must exist necessarily and coherently speak of God's existence in terms of greater and lesser epistemic probabilities with respect to the evidence one has been given. This point is important because the line of argument that I'm criticizing is mainly used by Van Tilians to bash other Christian apologists for their usage of apologetical argument forms that deliver epistemic probability rather than absolute certainty.[2] In my estimation, Van Til's criticism of probabilistic arguments is a non sequitur and Van Tilians would do well to abandon it.
[3] This Goldbach’s conjecture example was inspired by the first lecture or two of Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity.
[2] I don’t really think Van Til’s so-called “transcendental argument” really gets you absolute (Cartesian) certainty either. At the end of the day it would seem Van Til's argument is not formally distinct from other apologetical arguments and gives only epistemic probability.
[1] Van Til, as quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, p. 584


Blogger jkirklin said...

This is unrelated, because a non sequitur is a non sequitur, but a friend of mine used to read Van Til and be frustrated at the steps missing in his arguments. So, he started diagramming all of VT's arguments, and discovered that often he would find the missing steps in other books, sometimes missing the steps that had made up the original argument he was looking to fill in. Weird, huh? There's probably a Van Til Code in there somewhere that would unlock the apocalypse if we could figure it out.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Foolish Tar Heel said...

Jason, I think I met that friend of yours. I cannot remember his name, but if he is the one I am thinking of, he is one of the people who helped Roth and Gabriella move two summers ago? I remember him talking about what you mentioned and found it interesting.

I hope that all continues to go well with you and your family.

7:47 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

ooooh...I bet the two witnesses of the Apocalypse are actually the two circles representing the Creator/creature distinction, and the dragon/beast/false prophet is classical apologetics and the three frog spirits coming out of his mouth are Gerstner, Lindsley and Sproul, and the great harlot is Barth....

As for the premises of CVT's arguments being scattered throughout his written corpus, I've definitely run into that sort of thing in discussions with hard core Van Tilians. I'll raise an objection to an argument in The Defense of the Faith (3rd edition) and they respond by telling me that CVT answers that an obscure work like Psychology of Religion. It can very tiresome. I just don't have the patience to wade through all of CVT's writings in order to follow one of his arguments.

I think for a lot of CVT's arguments he was thinking faster than his pen could write and arguments that hung together perfectly well in his head ended up being gapped on paper. The non sequitur I cite in my post, however, is actually a pretty standard logical fallacy committed until Kripke gave his lectures. Most philosophers seem to have just assumed that 'necessary' and 'a priori' and 'certain' were interchangeable terms until Kripke gave his counter-examples in 1970. So we really shouldn't be surprised to find CVT doing it too any more than we should be surprised to find Augustine thinking of knowledge as JTB before Gettier.

8:54 PM  
Blogger ritly said...

after living with a die-hard van tilian for a year, i feel your pain. i hate to say it, but i think the reason a lot of van til's stuff looks wrong at a first is because, well it is.

4:54 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Ouch, BW showing no mercy to ol' CVT. I wish that I could rush to his rescue but in my estimation most everything helpful he had to say was already said by Kuyper. However, we do owe CVT a tribute for being a pioneer in recognizing the role of worldview and the need to be epistemologically self-conscious in apologetical engagement. But, yeah, a lot of what he said, as far as I can see, was the result of fallacious reasoning.

5:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home