On Epistemology

Epistemology hinges on one’s cosmology. And, cosmology is born of one’s theol­ogy.

Contrary to many secularist philosophies, only those who have a Christian worldview are in a position to accurately ascertain the world around them. This is not to contend that only the regenerate can grasp truth. As St. Augustine is often quoted as saying, “It is better to be governed by a competent Turk, than an incompetent Christian.”

It is self-evident that the lost person can comprehend truth. For, 2 + 2 = 4 is the same for the lost as the saved. However, all persons must assume certain pre­suppositions that are distinctly Theist and Christian to give meaning and relation­ship to such facts. They must believe in a certain orderliness to the cosmos (teleologi­cal argument). They must acknowledge cause and effect relationship (cosmological argument). At very least, they must hold to the fact that an a priori state of being ex­ists (ontological argument). It is not merely ironic, that the classic arguments for the existence of God provide the same framework for a meaningful universe and appre­hension of truth. It is as Van Til contends,

“… there is nothing in this universe on which human beings can have full and true information unless they take the Bible into account. We do not mean, of course, that one must go to the Bible rather than the laboratory if one wishes to study the anatomy of the snake. But if one goes only to the laboratory and not also to the Bible one will not have a full or even true interpretation of the snake.”[1]

The dichotomy between the physical and metaphysical, has inflamed an epistemological dualism that is as old as Plato himself. For modern man once again be­lieves there is a separation between the knower and the known that cannot be tra­versed. Modern humanity can know nothing outside of their selves for sure. For reli­able knowledge must come through the senses. And, anything beyond the senses cannot be known with certainty. For the postmodern man, even man as knower is placed into question.

As the twentieth century closes, Western civilization finds itself without a moor­ing. Having adopted a philosophy of the uniformity of nature in a closed system, mankind is left with only an ability to grasp particulars. They lack all wherewithal to correlate them to universals (i.e. the noumenal).

As a result, the particulars lose all meaning to the rest of the cosmos. Without universals, contemporary man is left with a fragmented hodgepodge of disconnected data. As Francis Schaeffer so aptly observed,

“…if nature or the particulars are autonomous from God, then nature begins to eat up grace. Or we could put it in this way: all we are left with are particulars, and universals are lost, not only in the area of morals, which would be bad enough, but in the area of knowing. Here you can see the drift toward modern man and his cyni­cism. It was born back there. We are left with masses of particulars but no way to get them together. So we find that by this time nature is eating up grace in the area of morals, and even more basically, in the are of epistemology as well.”[2]

The hope that a secular-materialistic universal would be discovered has long left a bitter cynicism in the minds of the hopeful. The latest contenders, the logical positivists, have finally all but disappeared from the halls of academia. Logical positivists tried to arrive at truth through the clear and precise definition of terms, with an additional component of acquiescing the indicia (evidence/data).

Several eminent philosophers stepped forward to leave it all but destroyed. One obvious weakness of this, as an epistemology, was that it did not consider the “know­er.” It did not take into account the knower’s presuppositions. All presuppositions serve as a grid to process the data, thus skewing the outcome. To contend that the observer was absolutely neutral was an obvious naivete. The positivists would have been well served to recognize the wisdom of Van Til, who taught,

“All is yellow to the jaundiced eye. As the Christian speaks of the facts the sin­ner reports of them yellow every one. There are no exceptions to this. And it is the facts as reported to himself, that is distorted by his own subjective condition, which he assumes the facts to be same as they really are.”[3]

The positivists made the same fallacy as Descartes, who said, “I think therefore, I am.’ However, Descartes was still assuming two things. First, that he was think­ing. And, secondly that he existed. He stopped midway in his doubting. This resulted in the development of a fundamental belief that man could reason from his existence to truth. The positivists doubted that truth could be known without the embrace of data. However, they failed to doubt that the one who embraced the data could under­stand what it means.

Wittgenstein, one who also believed in the uniformity of nature in a closed system, realized that in order to have universals, there must be an absolute that transcends matter. And, this transcendent absolute must communicate in a way that is meaningful, in order for man to understand a universal truth that can be known. But, to his dismay, such a transcendent absolute is silent. However, says Wittgenstein, there is only silence in the area of the things, like; values, ethics and meanings. No matter how much man needs these things, he need not talk about them. For all that can be understood is the physical, material world.

Heidegger, a contemporary of Wittgenstein, believed that the only evidence to be believed that there is in fact a real universe that can be known, was what he called angst. To him, it was this feeling of dread that would awaken man to the knowledge of the outside world. However, later he was to despair that angst would provide any con­tent so as to provide man with a universal reference point.

Later, both of these men would move in the direction of language to try to resolve their philosophical impasse. Heidegger was to view, that because there was language in the universe, a non-rational hope of ultimate meaning to it all might be found. For him, the answer to it all now rested on the poet. Wittgenstein, however, was more honest. He contended that all we can do is define words that will never deal fi­nally with meanings, values, or ethics. Again, both men, with their hordes of follow­ers, ended in despair.

It would be ludicrous to contend that the modern teacher is dealing with students who have had direct exposure to the philosophies mentioned before. If a Christian ed­ucator asked the average high school student who was Wittgenstein. They would probably say, “The maker of a famous brand of piano.” However, what cannot be doubted is that all students under our tutelage have been systematically discipled in the dominant philosophies of this age. It can be reliably deduced because of the domi­nant ethos that is evident in the arts, sciences, universities, education departments which train school teachers, law schools, and communication outlets.

What Christian educators are now left with, are students who have been saturat­ed with a plethora of fragmented viewpoints. They continue to be discipled by televi­sion, movies, music, the arts, parents, and sometimes other Christian educators who themselves have been saturated with secularism. These students have not often been afforded the opportunity to tie up, or strain out, these fragmented viewpoints through intelligent faith in a Universal Absolute, Who is the One True God of the Bible.

[1] Cornelius Van Til, Ph.D., Apologetics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Press, 1980), pg. 2-3.

[2] Francis Schaeffer. Ph.D., He Is There And He Is Not Silent (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1972), pp. 41-42.

[3] Cornelius Van Til, Ph.D., The Case for Calvinism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1963), 118-119.


About rhbryant89

Educator and Administrator for over 25 years.
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