Philosophy against Misosophy



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Philosophy against Misosophy

Update 2013


Last year I referred to a shift in my thinking and its  implications for this site.  I also suggested that the way I'd been going about things was intellectually bankrupt.  (Unless one has already been convinced of that bankruptcy and predicts its continuance in another form, one may wish to read this site’s eighth anniversary update, archived here.) 

The position I've come to has been percolating in my mind for years.  It intruded upon my thinking intermittently, but until recently I was unable to remove certain obstacles to my assent.  The protracted delay may also be due to a personal defect, perhaps an inordinately weak ability to decide, to commit.  I am “ever learning,” it seems, “and never able to come to knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).  I recall that in a letter Murray Rothbard once called me an inveterate “Seeker,” as opposed to a “Finder.”

The strife of dialectic continues to manifest itself in my life, irenically with fellow Christians and apologetically (i.e., defensively) with unbelievers.  By “fellow Christians” I do not mean only fellow Catholics, Eastern and Western, including those who cannot imagine that there is anything in Reformed thought worth putting at the service of the whole Church.  I also mean Reformed Christians, even those who cannot fathom why I remain in the Roman Catholic communion.

To be clear: I am not theologically Reformed.  (At least, I don't think I am.)  There is much more to being Reformed than adhering to an approach to philosophy championed by some Reformed Christians.  Much more study, reflection, and adjustment lie ahead of me.  More importantly, there’s more to being a Christian than getting one’s theology right, as important as that may be (which is, after all, a theological claim).

The critique of philosophy worked out by the Gregory L. Bahnsen (1948-1995), however, has at last won my allegiance, and he was Reformed.  But in my (corrigible) opinion, Reformed ecclesiology leaves much to be desired.  I have been, despite my best efforts to stay put, a philosophical vagabound.  I will do my best not to be an ecclesial one as well.

The gist of Bahnsen’s critique is that philosophy as it has been practiced is virtually at enmity with Christ, who is the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24).  To the degree that it is opposed to Christ, to that degree it is misosophy, the hatred rather than the love of wisdom.  For the Christian, wisdom is not an abstract virtue, but a divine person.  To pretend indifference to Christ is pretend indifference to the only Wisdom worth having; to hate Christ is to hate wisdom, that is, to hate him in whom all the treasures of wisdom are hid (Col 2:3); and to hate wisdom is to love death (Prov 8:36). Christians may continue to use “philosophy” and its cognates, but they reserve the right to qualify that usage.  Between the philosopher and the misosopher, covenant keeper and covenant breaker, there is antithesis.

(To my knowledge, Bahnsen never used the term “misosophy.”  Following the Apostle Paul, Bahnsen labelled what I call “misosophy”  simply philosophy after the elements of this world, and not after Christ Col 2:8.  I think misosophy, which I did not coin, captures a Van Tilian insight of Bahnsen's, and so I would like to give it more currency. “Antithesis”, however, is stone-cold Bahnsen.)

From 1969, when I first began to read philosophy (as it is commonly called), I had very rarely questioned the presumption of autonomy exhibited by my models in that field, whereby the human mind posits itself as the final judge of what is real, true, and good.  I did not question that presumptive stance even when the provisional conclusions I arrived at were professedly Christian-theistic and therefore incompatible with it.  The way I approached “God” did not ethically comport with wanting God.  I played it safe, hedged my bets, looking for nothing more than a piece of metaphysical furniture to complete the interior design of my latest philosophical mansion. The irony of this discrepancy was lost on me, at least until recently.

As I now see it, that loss was not innocent and my present insight is wholly of grace. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10), however, not something tacked on at the end of one’s system.  (Part V of Whitehead’s Process and Reality comes to mind.  So does Chapter XIX of Lonergan’s Insight.)

Human beings, Christian and non-Christian alike, do know things.  They do reason.  They do calculate, induct, deduce, plan, accuse, exonerate, interpret.  They do write histories, novels, and plays. They do compose symphonies and conduct experiments.  They do creatively improvise on canvas, in the sculpture studio, and on the band stand.  But their attempts to account for these facts apart from their dependence upon God have been marvelous failures, for they cannot secure the experience-transcending universal claims on which they rely when they engage in any of those activities.  They ought to acknowledge the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, moral absolutes as gifts of God.  Unless God grants them the spirit of repentance, however, this they will not do, for it is offensive to their posture of autonomy.  But they pay a price for this posture in the coin of rank foolishness.

Ironically, such a critique of philosophy is what one would predict professing Christian philosophers to produce, informed as they are by their awareness of the covenantal relationship they bear to God. Historically, however, what comes under the label “Christian philosophy” is compromised.  Christian philosophers have generally given their blessing to pretenses of neutrality and autonomy, content to conjecture how far the human mind can go under its own steam before grabbing the supernatural rope to take them the rest of the way.  

They can give that blessing, however, only by suppressing awareness (that they otherwise happily acknowledge) that the human being is a created, covenant-bound bearer of the image of God.  That is, Christian philosophers join their enemies in “testing” the hypothesis that Christian theism is at least as “reasonable” as anything else on offer in the marketplace of ideas.  As though any inference at all could be reasonable if Christian theism were not antecedently true.  As though an impersonal matrix of possibility were Lord of all.  I understand why Christianity’s opponents “load” the argument against Christian theism.  But why do Christians follow them?

Bahnsen, following Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), articulated and promoted the transcendental approach to apologetics, theology, and philosophy. (See the technical Note appended below) He interpreted this trio of disciplines as three perspectives on the same content.  My wrestling with Bahnsen’s thought for over twenty-five years has finally resulted in my decision to identify personally with it.  There is no Bahnsenian critique of unbelieving philosophy without Van Til, but it is Bahnsen who applied to it the tools of American academic philosophical analysis and, to use an idiom I picked up from him, scratched where my mind was itching. 

Unlike the transplanted Dutchman Van Til, Bahnsen, who was raised in Pico Rivera, California in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was just five years my senior.  My generation.  Many of his references to texts in academic philosophy were familiar to me.  (I have the impression that he and I read not only many of the same books, but also even the same editions.)  In short, he spoke my language, but used it to progressively undermine my convictions about how I’m supposed to love God with my whole mind (Luke 10:27).

Apart from a hostile review in 1981 of a book favorable to Van Til, my first serious engagement with Bahnsen’s thought spans the period 1987-1996 or so.  I once had the privilege of speaking with him in person about Bernard Lonergan at a New York apologetics conference (he later mailed me this paper); chatting with him over the phone about George Smith (whom he had recently debated) ; and corresponding with him about the Calvinist philosopher and apologist Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) and his protégé, John W. Robbins (1949-2008), in the letters page of a Reformed periodical. (For the latter, see this and this; they refer to this, all now on Covenant Media Foundation’s site. I plan to reformat them soon, and put them in chronological order, for this site.)  I had been in Clark's philosophical camp for about a year, although my lengthy correspondence with Robbins shows I was not happy with its rationalism.  (I plan to scan and post all of that one day as well.) 

Over the years I asked friends to help me overcome doubts I continued to harbor about Bahnsen’s argument.  I did managed to harness its negative power to scrutinize the worldview underlying George Smith’s Atheism in a 1989 essayI was not then, however, up to the task of prosecuting the positive case for the Christian worldview as the transcendental presupposition of intelligible predication (as Bahnsen did two years later in a radio debate with Smith).  One of those friends compiled sources from Van Til and Bahnsen, including transcriptions of passages from the latter’s recorded lectures.  (I hope to post that material soon.) 

Intellectual disappointment, bordering on ennui, set in over the next few years, followed by a nearly decade-long sojourn through the literary vineyards of one fascinating thinker after another.  (See the Gallery, now “under quarantine.”)  I continued to choose philosophies the way I always had, the way Van Til said we shouldn’t, that is, the way we choose hats.  (See his A Survey of Christian Epistemology, chapter XIV.) I chose them like they were going out of style,  which many of them already had.  “God” was always a topic of speculation, to be sure but, to borrow C. S. Lewis’s metaphor, I remained on the bench and God in the dock. 

If my predicament was not exactly ego-centric, it was that posture’s first cousin: ratiocentric.  My ratio.  If that’s philosophy, then I am no longer a philosopher.  Even by one of its criteria, rigorous self-criticism, “philosophy” has failed.  Or rather, misosophy has failed, as it must.  No matter how many dead-ends may litter its history, the misosopher never questions its superficially humble but deeply proud stance of autonomy.  While claiming that they are only “following the argument where it leads,” misosophers never put at risk their anti-theistic starting point. They will insist upon it no matter what folly they consequently embrace, no matter what antinomy they find themselves reluctantly settling for.  This is neither noble nor heroic.  It is quixotic and, if pursued to the bitter end, self-destructive.

The history of “philosophy” is the story of the attempt to make the anti-theonomic gambit pay off intellectually.  It has been marked by seductively penetrating analyses and fierce dialectical combat and drama, often starring outsized dramatis personae. It has been occasionally graced by literary elegance, but always sentenced to utter failure (1 Cor 1:20).

Van Til spent five decades itemizing that failure.  Bahnsen spent two summarizing, extending, and sharpening the indictment, vindicating the Christian worldview along the way.  My “philosophical workshop,” whose signage you are now reading, will be displaying some of their tools.  An eagle-eyed visitor will notice is that some postings, especially those from Bahnsen, predate this anniversary.  An excerpt from a 1907 book by Augustus Strong, which one might fairly describe as “proto-presuppo-sitional,” has been up since 2009. 

As I said, this has been brewing for some time.

Anthony Flood

January 17, 2013

(The site’s ninth anniversary)

(Cleaned up January 26, 2013)


Notes on the Transcendental Argument

One’s worldview is one’s network of nonnegotiable beliefs.  On the Christian worldview there is a sovereign, self-contained, self-revealing, and covenant-making triune creator God, who is the ground of man’s being, knowing, and doing. 

One proves God’s existence by showing that it is the precondition of our proving anything. That, in an abbreviated form, is the transcendental argument for the existence of God.

The context of apologetics—the attack upon and defense of a worldview—is a reason-giving (or argument-offering) game. Whoever challenges the transcendental argument is automatically playing itIf he does not want to play that game, he should get off the court.  While on the court, he is not free to refuse to receive or pass the ball and then taunt players to the effect that he hasn’t been beaten. Outside the reason-giving game, the antics of the skeptic have no forensic import.

Once an opponent of the Christian worldview makes an existential or epistemological claim—on the basis of which he claims to infer the falsity of Christianity—he must justify that claim in terms of his worldview or show (as the Christian will be happy to show) that he cannot do so without borrowing from the Christian worldview—a self-contradictory state of affairs.  If he is not willing to offer justification, then his claim is arbitrary.  He is no longer playing the reason-giving game.

The Christian worldview presupposes the existence of a God who connects all particular factspast, present, and futureinto a foreordained and exhaustively known system without destroying their particularity.

The human mind, by contrast, lacks and cannot construct an all-comprehending system of universals, a system of absolute truth, because it cannot grasp all the particular facts that the all-comprehending system must accommodate. 

Left to itself, the human mind cannot relate any two facts to each other.  Lacking that system of universals, however, the human mind is unable to identify one fact with certainty: how the completed system affects that fact could never be known unless and until that system is attained.  Whenever a non-Christian predicatesidentifies two facts and relates them intelligiblyhe appeals to the metaphysical and epistemological necessity of there being a system of absolute knowledge that logically relates all concrete particulars, he is relying on the very thing he professes to reject, i.e., the Christian worldview.

In his defense of the Christian worldview, which he learned from Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen did not only refute individual examples of non-Christian worldviews seriatim by showing that they make nonsense of human experience and are riven by contradictions. He also elaborated a general theory underlying his ability to do that.  His forensic successes were not a case of “so far, so good.”  A bit of that theory has been presented above.

The project of vindicating the transcendental argument consists of showing that the price of human autonomy in thinking is not just a little less coherence or empirical adequacy than one would prefer, but rather utter unintelligibility, irrationality, skepticism, solipsism

The showing can only be indirect, for it is neither a deduction from premises known more certainly than the argument’s conclusion nor an induction from a series (however impressively long) of refutations of the non-Christian worldview (in whatever guise). 

The showing consists of communicating an insight into both one’s dependence on God’s internally coherent foreordination and foreknowledge of whatsoever existence and comes to pass and the futility of attempting to think independently of God.  There is, therefore, no parity or “stand-off” between God’s claim of authority and man’s that would permit an arbitrary choice between them, no more than there is parity between nutritious food and garbage if one is playing the life-sustaining game.

Our ability to predicate intelligibly is the precondition of our intelligible affirmation and denial.  If neither affirmation nor denial has occurred, then the reason-giving game has not begun.  If I do not understand a predication made in Sanskrit, for example, I cannot affirm or deny a proposition in that language, for that predication would be unintelligible to me. 

But even predications made in English are intelligible to me only because I presuppose or take for granted that the world (with me and my actions in it) is a certain way.  There must be an ultimate ground of the proximate intelligibilities of logic, nature, and ethics that we rely on whenever we infer (deductively or inductively) and whenever we “ought.” 

Psychologically, inferring and oughting are usually unproblem-atic for us, but that does not solve the epistemological problem of justifying our doing so.

The transcendental argument for the existence of God shows that God uniquely makes possible the deduction, induction, and obligation we take for granted as well as their mutual coherence; that is, all other worldviews, denying God as defined above, cannot account for those features of human being and experience. 

At the risk of suggesting that the transcendental argument is a deduction, one might view it as a syllogism.  It must be stressed that the project of vindicating the argument is not a syllogism.  With that proviso in mind, let P stand for the complex of propositions that expresses the Christian worldview.

  • P or not-P.  (Disjunction of contradictories)

  • Not (not-P).  (Negation of one of the disjuncts)

  • Therefore, P.   (Deduction of the other disjunct)

For any proposition P, if not-P is impossible, then P follows necessarily. The demonstration of the impossibility of some (whether one or many) of P’s contraries, however, will not allow one to deduce P.  In Bahnsen’s argument, however, P is the complex proposition that we may label “the Christian worldview,” whereas not-P is the negation or contradiction of P at one or more points.  Any number of contrary worldviews—e.g., materialism, idealism, monism, dualism, etc.; or: Marxism, Objectivism, Existentialism, Pragmatism, Process Philosophy, etc.—can represent that contradiction. 

If every contrary of the Christian worldview must fail to account for intelligible predication, then it is necessarily true.  It could not be false in any world in which “true” and “false” have meaning.  Superficially, P’s contraries may be legion, but at bottom they are one, united in their presumption the would-be autonomous man's own authority, the issue of which can only be self-stultifying subjectivism. When that is shown, P has been proven.

This perspective on the transcendental argument also risks misunderstanding in that it takes for granted the force of a syllogism.  Outside the Christian worldview, one has no ground for even affirming abstract identity (e.g., A = A).

Anthony Flood

January 17, 2013 

(revised heavily March 7, 2013)

(corrected July 6, 2013)

* Bahnsen took over from Van Til uncritically (and, in my opinion, unfortunately) the phrase “argument from the impossibility of the contrary,” when what he must have meant was “argument from the impossibility of the contradictory. The impossibility of either member of a pair of contradictories does necessitate the other member; the impossibility of a contrary, however, does not: it may be that both contraries are false. As a trained philosopher, Bahnsen was familiar with Aristotle’s square of opposition, so why he bought into Van Til’s departure from the traditional usage of the technical terms employed in that diagram is a mystery to me.  Not (not-P) refers to the impossibility, not of “the” contrary of P (as if P has only one contrary), but of any contrary whatsoever.  (Not as merely contrary, but as the member of the set characterized by not-P.)