(one of the ways in which) Van Til was wrong

Every now and then I tip my hat in the direction of Cornelius Van Til – But he was wrong in a few ways, and I’d hate for anyone to think that I’m one of those dyed-in-the-wool Van Til fans who think he could do no wrong. He did much wrong (and much good), philosophically speaking. So here’s one way in which he was wrong: Van Til’s position committed to epistemic internalism, which is an indefensible view of epistemology.
Anyone familiar with Van Til’s apologetic, whether expressed by Van Til or his followers, like Greg L. Bahnsen, will recognise the Van Tillian quality of the argument:

  1. Laws of logic, science and morality require the existence of God.
  2. So called Atheists employ laws of logic, science and morality.
  3. Therefore so called atheists show that they really do know that God exists.

Just now I’m not denying either premise, and I’m not denying the conclusion either. But the above argument can only appear valid if one is an epistemic internalist.

I’m an epistemic externalist. This means that I consider knowledge to be warranted true belief. In other words, if I hold a belief, and if that belief really is true, and if the belief is warranted, that is, caused in the right sort of truth-aimed way, then what I have is a piece of knowledge. An example: I believe that there is a book on the table over there. This belief is true, and it is caused because my senses tell me the book is there, and my senses are working properly. So I actually do know that there is a book over there.

Internalism does not see knowledge this way. In internalism, not only must a belief actually be warranted, but you must know that it is warranted. If having correctly functioning senses is what warrants your belief that there is a book over there, then in order to know that there is a book over there, you must also know that you have properly functioning senses. And in order to know that you have properly functioning senses, you must know what warrants the belief that you have properly functioning senses – even though the only way to get such a warrant, presumably, is via the senses. And round and round it goes.

Notice that Van Til does not merely conclude that atheists should believe in God, due to their recognition of things like laws of science and morality. He concludes that they do believe in God, as though one could not reach that conclusion without already knowing that God exists. But this is just to assume that a person can only hold a warranted belief if one also knows what beliefs warrant that belief, and they believe those other beliefs too – and round and round it goes.

This is just another reason to join in chorus with William Lane Craig when he notes that a much stronger, clearer and more plausible transcendental argument is available than that found in Van Til, namely in the work of Alvin Plantinga.

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12 thoughts on “(one of the ways in which) Van Til was wrong

  1. “This is just another reason to join in chorus with William Lane Craig when he notes that a much stronger, clearer and more plausible transcendental argument is available than that found in Van Til, namely in the work of Alvin Plantinga.”

    That argument would be what ?

  2. Well, Plantinga’s argument from warrant, as well as his evolutionary argument against naturalism. Both of these, while Plantinga does not use this term, are essentially transcendental arguments.

  3. Nice one Glenn, great post.
    I’ve been doing epistemology in philosophy tutorials recently and I was wondering about this.
    In Craig and Moreland’s ‘Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview’, they mention that internalism implies a dualistic account of the mind, whilst this doesn’t necessarily follow from externalism. Would you agree with that analysis?

  4. Glenn
    You are super cool.
    I think you may have misrepresented Van Till/ Bahnsen in a small but important way.

    You Said:
    Notice that Van Til does not merely conclude that atheists should believe in God, due to their recognition of things like laws of science and morality. He concludes that they do believe in God,

    I think it would be more accurate to say that Van Till / Bahnsen would say that the person may not believe in God but they must accept Christianitys worldview simply by using reason. Bahnsen has often said unaided reason can’t prove anything, so it seems to me that plantingas basic beliefs are very close to Van Tills TAG understood that both need warrant. If TAG is true indeed then the circular criticism falls away. So in this case if Van Tills ideas are true then they acheve warrant because they are basic, thus the internalist / externalist distinction also fades away.

    Sorry if this is unclear.

  5. Donavan, check out Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein. There he makes explicit the claim that I attribute to Van Tillians. He says:

    But, atheists, of course, use science and morality. In this argument atheists give continual evidence to the fact that in their heart of hearts they are not atheists. In their heart of hearts they know the God I’m talking about.

    The transcipt of that debate is here.

    I don’t think he misspoke. This really was his position, that he concludes that atheists do in fact believe in God. He explains this at some length in his paper: “The Crucial Concept of Self Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics.” It is a lengthy explanation of his position that atheists have a first order belief that God exists, but that they deceive themselves about this with a second order belief, namely the belief that they do not believe that God exists.

    If you’d like a copy of this paper, it’s available online here.

    So his position was definitely that “non-believers” really do have first order belief that God is real.

  6. Glen
    Thank you for the link.

    Rom 1 -All men know God they are without excuse.
    The existence of God is true
    Proof of God, the impossibility of the contrary (warrant)
    God is a basic belief in a Plantinga sort of sense.
    Therefor being an epistemic externalist is impossible.

    What do you think?

  7. Donovan, to be honest I’m not sure what connection is supposed to exist between that list of propositions. For example, Plantinga’s position is one of very strong externalism.

    What’s more, all men knowing that God exists and the impossibility of God’s existence are also perfectly compatible with externalism. The internalist mistake is where one says:

    1) (most) People know X, Y and Z
    2) X, Y and Z are only warranted because God exists.
    3) Therefore people know that God is real as per Romans 1.

    And this is an invalid argument, unless we are internalists (which I am not).

  8. Glenn
    It seems to me that Van Til feels that all knowledge is only possible because of God, he used the analogy of people breathing air while they are trying to disprove its existence. It also seems that in a very general way one could say that externalism and internalism are related to presuppositional and evidential apologetics. Of course the comparison is not exact but if you understand that Van Til thought that the only way to surety was through a presuppositional view (externalism). A key to his entire philosophy was that internalism (evidencalism) will always have the possibility of a counterexample making surety impossible, 1Cor 1:20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? I have always thought that Van Til / Bahnsen have made it clear that everyone who fancies himself an epistemic internalist by using some proposition (evidence) to validate his belief in God is fooling himself, he is actually an externalist because even by using any proposition true or false he is using logic so he is actually an externalist (presuppositionalist). This of course dose not deal with the accuracy of the persons proposition, but Bahnsen did talk about how all of our senses may be functioning properly and we get simple ideas wrong, for instance the illusion that train tracks seem to merge together and touch if you look at them far of in the distance.

    I hope this is more clear and I hope I am understanding internalism as you intended as there are several definitions.

  9. “It seems to me that Van Til feels that all knowledge is only possible because of God, he used the analogy of people breathing air while they are trying to disprove its existence.”

    Yes, quite right. Van Til did say that knowledge is possible only because of God. Now, if we were to just leave it there, and say that God ultimately bestows warrant upon knowledge, whether we believe in God or not, then that’s fine. That’s externalism.

    But Van Til didn’t leave it there. As Bahnsen rightly explains (in the two sources I gave earlier – at great length in the second source), the conclusion goes one step further: Therefore all people must actually believe in God after all. This is “crucial” to presuppositional apologetics, he says. He assumes that a belief (e.g. in logic, science, morality, the coherence of having knowledge) can only really warranted if people believe in the thing that warrants it.

    And that is internalism. (For the internalism / externalism distinction, see here)

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