Van Til, Reformed Epistemology-Chapter 1

Source of Van Til’s work

The Idea and Right of Systematic Epistemology

The Threat of Pragmatism

Van Til begins the chapter by showing how many philosophers of his day had simply dismissed epistemology as an out of date endeavor. Keep in mind he was writing in 1925-during the age of classical pragmatists. Pragmatists do not fret over the fact that we assume a relationship between our minds and nature because they find epistemology to be useless. Van Til notes that John Dewey has attempted to show this to be true by simply looking at the early modern period of philosophy, beginning with René Descartes,  up until the climax of the modern period with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This was the golden age of epistemological thinking, but Dewey emphasizes that it seems that no progress was made during it. The rationalists could not adequately make the leap from their minds to nature, while the empiricists could not find a way to convert immediate sensations into analytic judgments that actually give knowledge of reality (Hume admitted this in  Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). Kant is most famous for attempting to synthesize these two schools of thought, but still left us in the dark, due to the fact we can only know appearances (phenomena) but not things in themselves (noumena). Van Til notes that Dewey’s system is a “negation of idealism.” This is because in his pragmatism thought does not produce universal knowledge concerning reality but rather simply plays a functional role in moving from one fact to another. Assuming anything beyond this creates a deep dualism between nature and mind which is false, according to his view, because when talking about nature, our minds are swallowed up into the term. Also, this nature which we refer to is progressive in the Hegelian sense, so any reconstruction of it will not be fixed. The result is that no universal understanding of it is possible. All is flux, including human consciousness, so that the possibility of using it as a starting point (like Descartes’ Archimedean point) collapses.

Well, it seems that if Dewey (along with his laughing gang of pragmatists) is right then he has officially put the nail in the epistemology coffin, so to speak. But how do pragmatists argue for such a position? They do so by pointing to the laws we find in the sciences. Here, we do not find universal laws that can be applied to all nature. We can only interpret where we are. Newton developed his mechanics which was able to describe anything thrown at him in his time period. People thought that his understanding of space and time was canon, only to be dethroned by Einstein’s general relativity when we were able to make observations Newton never could. The same is happening as we find the incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics. Our viewpoint is one of many in a pluralistic universe. For pragmatists, Aristotle’s claim that the pursuit of certain knowledge is the highest goal of life must be rejected, for the goal can never be attained.

Van Til’s Response to Pragmatism

Now let’s look at Van Til’s response to the pragmatic attitude. In simplest form it is that “man has need for objective reality.” Pragmatists insist that we depersonalize ourselves, but doing this requires an adjustment from our natural inclination toward the understanding of the objective. If pragmatism is really pragmatic would we do this? At the heart of the issue is the fact that pragmatism endorses a psychology which wants to dissolve any relationship between epistemology and metaphysics (this relationship plays an integral role in Van Til’s thought). William James’ conception of a “will to believe” shows this break, because he claims that one is justified in believing what they do by the potential good the belief can bring, disregarding whether or not there is objective evidence for the belief itself.  As Van Til states, “Belief is therefore, for James, purely an act of volition.” For James, belief is founded upon only adequate subjective evidence, while knowledge is theoretic certainty. Van Til then presses this, showing how once we find our beliefs to be objectively invalid, we can no longer simply believe in those things because they are useful for a certain end, as James wishes us to think. But, perhaps more importantly, a belief is much more than something that one simply wishes to be true. Rather, a belief is something that one truly believes to be true. Van Til notes that once evidence for a belief becomes undeniable, there is a certain “binding” between that agent and the object of belief. Thus, one cannot simply strip away a belief from its object, for they are too intimately connected. This truth makes the pragmatic project crumble and Van Til claims that this is seen in James’ own project where he constantly employs epistemic and metaphysical claims.

Is Ultimate Certainty Possible?

Van Til has shown negatively through his discussion of pragmatism that one cannot have a view of life which ignores metaphysics and epistemology. But even so, the question which is still posed is, is ultimate certainty possible? If one answers in the affirmative then Van Til states this must be established. To answer this one must first look at knowledge and see if it actually shows a right picture of the objective. However, immediately when this begins to be pondered we find that we are always prone to error. This naturally leads to the question, how do we determine whether a belief is actually certain or in error? But even this question does not delve deep enough because it presupposes that some beliefs are correct. Van Til claims that only Reformed views have seriously answered this problem and that the views which acknowledged error but not universal error have fallen into “epistemic Pelagianism.”

Similar to his criticism of the classical pragmatists, he notes that philosophers like Locke and Kant have tried to look at epistemology separately from metaphysics, which led them to error. He agrees with Hegel who said that epistemology without metaphysics is like exploring an empty machine. Knowledge does not exist without the relationship it has to the objects it deals with. But Van Til warns us of returning back to the periods before epistemology was explored where metaphysics and epistemology were seen one and the same. This is a mistake, because though epistemology does not exist without metaphysics, or vice versa, they still are distinct. Knowledge of an object is not equivalent to the object itself.

Answering the question of whether certain knowledge is possible is of greatest importance for a Biblical theist. This is because it deals with objects that are of greatest importance if they exist, many of which we cannot perceive with our senses. If our theology is true we can also account for the noetic effects of sin which leads us to error, as discussed above. Therefore, epistemology is of even more pressing importance for a Christian than for one who holds a non-revelational view.


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