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In the last few days, some good engagement has come from users in the comment sections here, I would like to highlight those and encourage more of you to participate. If I’m wrong, tell me! If you’re confused by something I’ve read, tell me! We would all benefit.

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Van Til’s argument for Trinitarian Theism

We recently began looking at some presuppositional arguments from Van Til, as examined by James Anderson. One of Van Til’s more interesting arguments is one for the existence of a God that is not unitarian. Theoretically the same argument could be made for a God that exists in multiple persons of any number, not just 3. But for now, we will treat Christianity as the only worldview that has the requisite ontological commitments.

The argument is basically this: at the base level, reality is either fundamentally unity, diversity, or both. Reality being fundamentally unity or fundamentally diversity would undermine our knowledge of reality. Therefore if we are to know anything about reality, we must hold that reality is fundamentally both. Only Christianity presents a worldview under which this is true, so Christianity is true.

Here is Van Til:

As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 23)

This is relatively easy to phrase in a more formal premise-conclusion form, so I won’t bother here. I am sure you can all reconstruct it.

What we must do now is justify the claim that under fundamental unity or under fundamental diversity, reality is not knowable.


Knowledge is impossible under diversity
Suppose that diversity is fundamental, and that every thing is distinct from every other thing. Knowledge therefore can only be had of individual things, and not categories. We can’t know things like “cats don’t like water” without all (or just most) cats having that property. But if there are no shared properties between objects, knowledge seems to be very difficult. We certainly want to affirm we have this kind of knowledge of classes and categories and groups, so we must deny that reality is fundamentally diverse.
Knowledge is impossible under unity
Under fundamental unity, where everything is at the base level the same kind of thing, knowledge seems impossible because there is nothing to differentiate one thing from another. We can only know that an object has a property A if there are some objects that do not have the property A. And perhaps more interestingly, if one knows something about an object, that it has a property A, it must be that we know it has a property A instead of property B. But under unity, there are no A and B, they are unified and identical. So between objects and within one object, knowledge depends on distinctions.
Isn’t it possible that fundamentally there are some things that are distinct and some that are similar?
Maybe. Suppose that this were the case, that fundamentally there are things of category A that are all the same and things of category B that are all the same (two kinds of monads) and they are entirely distinct from each other. We have distinction: Bs are not As. And we have unity. All As are As. This seems like it solves the problem of the unity/distinction tradeoff in the same way the Trinity does.
A possible monadology
Suppose that reality is fundamentally composed of monads, think of them like really small atoms for now. We cannot know one monad from another, other than by incidental properties like location or momentum (inasmuch as small objects have these). But these monads compose larger objects like chairs and cats. We can have knowledge about chairs and cats, they are real objects which share properties. They are unified and distinct in the right way. But they are composed of entirely unified monads. Where is the problem here? How would Van Til respond? I am not sure.
We are again seemingly left not totally convinced by Van Til. Maybe he is right that knowledge is impossible under fundamental unity and under fundamental diversity. But we don’t just know fundamentals, we know composites, and even if fundamentals are indistinguishable the composites aren’t.
Vern Poythress has done some interesting work expanding and explaining Van Til here, which I think is more promising than the work Van Til has done himself. But I am still not convinced that it is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of God.

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?

Honeymoon Reading

I have just returned from my honeymoon, and so of course the first question anyone has for me is: what did you read while you were away?

So here is a list:


I am sure my wife had a great time.

Saturday Links 25/8/18


Sorry posts have been a bit sparse lately, I have just started a full time (secular) job. I still need to work out how I am going to manage my time between all of my projects.

Presuppositional Apologetics: One Helpful Approach Among Many

This is the title of a good post from the blog Reflections. Being Reformed, many people expect me to engage exclusively in presuppositional apologetics. Unfortunately for them, I am primarily interested in and gifted in more classical arguments such as cosmological arguments. And so I often get criticised on the basis of having an unbiblical anthropology, appealing to reason which the atheist has no ground or basis for.

I am however strongly convinced that scripture allows us to use other apologetic methodologies. Soon I intend to write a post explaining the biblical basis for using cosmological arguments. But until then, let this post from Reflections be the start of my explanation.

I respectfully think the standard presuppositionalist apologetics presentation is usually high on proclamation and rhetoric but sometimes low in terms of actual apologetic argument. Kelly James Clark notes this criticism in Five Views on Apologetics and I think there is merit to it. Thoughtful nonbelievers are not going to roll over and just admit that without God there is no possibility of having a coherent, morally viable, and existentially livable worldview. Don’t get me wrong: I think most of our worldview competitors do indeed have severe problems in explaining life’s most meaningful realities, but to say that all non-Christian worldviews are logically deficient needs to be demonstrated, not just proclaimed. In terms of philosophy, enduring aspects of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Kantianism don’t strike me as absurd, and they do have unique elements that don’t appear to be merely borrowed from Christianity.

For example, is it possible that Jews and Muslims could presume the truth of their faith based upon their claimed revelation from God? And could Judaism and Islam attempt to justify a transcendental argument from their revelatory perspective? I know Cornelius Van Til appeals to the concept of the one and the many to support the unique unity and diversity with the Trinity. I appreciate his intuition, but again, I would like to see this kind of discussion furthered—especially when it comes to these two important revelatory-based world religions.

I have heard presuppositional apologists say that there is an appropriate time to use evidences for the Christian faith, such as support for the resurrection of Jesus. But in practice, I think this is seldom done. So could arguments from classical and evidential apologetics provide helpful elements to presuppositionalism? And, if so, when?