Van Til on the Unity of Knowledge

In James Anderson’s 2005 paper, we are given an example of an argument that Van Til makes for the existence of God. Specifically, this is an argument that God is a necessary precondition for human beings to have any knowledge about anything. Van Til is hailed in Reformed circles as an excellent apologist, and his brand of presuppositionalist apologetics is very popular and is practised often at the exclusion of other schools of thought. However, I have noticed that very rarely does anyone ever actually present any of Van Til’s arguments. Perhaps today we shall see why. It seems to me that no-one actually reads Van Til, or at least tries to pull any arguments out of him.

Here are two relevant quotes from Van Til that Anderson gives us, which give us the argument we will examine now:

This modern view is based on the assumption that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication. When, therefore, man cannot know everything, it follows that nothing can be known. All things being related, all things must be exhaustively known or nothing can be known. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 163)

Here too every non-Christian epistemology may be distinguished from Christian epistemology in that it is only Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere but this comprehensive knowledge need  not and cannot be in us; it must be in God (The Defense of the Faith, 41)

We, modern analytical thinkers, prefer to have arguments in a formal premise-conclusion style, so Anderson helpfully creates one:

  1. If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe.
  2. Only God could have comprehensive knowledge of the universe.
  3. We have some knowledge of the universe.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is valid, and I think for the moment the atheist can grant premise 2. Any being which has comprehensive knowledge of the universe is probably worth being called God. The difficulty is of course with premise 1.

Van Til seems to have a justification like this in mind: we cannot know if there exists out there some fact which would demonstrate all of our previously held beliefs false. But knowing that, we cannot be justified in holding any of our beliefs. If we aren’t justified in holding our beliefs, we have no knowledge. So there must be some way of us being justified in believing that there is no such problematic unknown fact. And the only way for that to be the case is if God designed us with mental faculties which aim at truth in the right way, and intends for us to believe truth. Without God “holding our hand”, we can’t have any knowledge.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is any good. The mere possibility that we might be wrong is not sufficient to remove justification. We “know” many things about which it is conceivably possible, however unlikely, that we might be wrong. Knowledge is not certain or proven true belief, but only a warranted true belief, and warrant doesn’t need to be certain.

One might attempt to justify the premise further, by using a kind of pessimistic meta-induction. For almost everything that almost all humans have ever believed, it turned out there was some fact out there which proved it wrong. So chances are, there is also some fact out there that proves us wrong. So it’s not only possible that we are wrong about everything we believe, it is now quite likely. And if that is the case, we probably don’t have knowledge.

But this goes too far. Because if that is the case, if theists attempt to make that rhetorical move, then it seems like God isn’t there holding our hand. In this case, God has not designed our mental faculties in the right way, because we are so often wrong. By attempting to prove that knowledge is impossible without God, we’ve also proven that it’s impossible with God.

Van Til has some more arguments that we will examine, but this was the simplest one. Have I missed something? Is the argument stronger than I make it out to be?

5 Replies to “Van Til on the Unity of Knowledge”

  1. It could be that I missed the point of your article…but I had trouble understanding what exactly you were trying to say.

    Van Till does not argue that a person cannot know things, or that we can never know if things exist that prove our conclusions false regarding the universe, therefore we don’t consider them. What he argues for is that the ability for somebody to know certain things requires the ability to justify intelligibility, which requires the Biblical worldview. You can know how string theory, mathematics, biology, etc., but without the Christian God, you cannot justify why those things work. The natural man needs to justify why his memories are reliable, why the future will be like the past, why logic is a universal property across all cultures, and why there are moral absolutes. So even the ability to comprehend a proof against God would necessitate God Himself. The Biblical worldview tells us that there does not exist a reality that can prove the contrary of God’s existence, and being acquainted with Van Til, I don’t imagine he would say anything like, ” we cannot know if there exists out there some fact which would demonstrate all of our previously held beliefs false.” If he has said that, please provide a quote and I will redact my comment.

    So you could make an argument that is completely rational, logical, and correct as an atheist – but you cannot account for why that argument makes sense outside of the Christian worldview. You would have to offer an ultimate standard that can explain why the argument is rational, logical, and correct. Van Til argues that even a logical proof to disprove God uses the logic that requires God to even exist. And therefore, Van Til’s conclusion was that since the unbeliever cannot provide the three conditions for intelligibility, if they utilize those conditions, they are borrowing from the Christian worldview, and their argument is self defeating.

    1. Van Til’s overall project is to prove that the atheist is inconsistent in his usage of reason, since he has no ground for reason. I agree there. But the point here is not to examine and evaluate that overall project, I am interested in Van Til’s arguments justifying that conclusion. Why is it the case that the atheist can’t ground reason? How can we prove that to an atheist?

      Here I am examining one specific argument for this conclusion, which contributes to his overall project. See the quotes I present in the post, and the argument I’ve extracted from them. Have I misinterpreted the sections of his works? Is that not what he is saying? If it isn’t, what is he saying? What is the argument?

      In all the presuppositionalist works I’ve read and listened to, there’s a lot of grandstanding and rhetoric about how the atheists can’t justify reason and how only theism can. You do some of this yourself. But I can’t seem to find any actual arguments for that conclusion.

      Does Van Til present better ones? Where are they?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *