Sean Gerety did a post a while back entitled “Ink marks on a page.” Normally, when I quote someone, I give the URL. However, an URL would be a sensory object. A string of meaningless numbers and letters. Since Sean denies sense-knowledge, it would be an exercise in futility for me to give the URL.
In his post, Sean attacks the notion that ink marks on a page convey knowledge. To make his case, Sean uses ink marks on a page to prove that ink marks on a page can’t prove anything.
Well, to be more precise, he uses electronically simulated ink marks on a page to prove that ink marks on a page can’t prove anything.
Assuming that Sean’s demonstration is successful, we can safely disregard his entire post, since his entire post consists of ink marks on a page.
Indeed, we can safely disregard his entire blog. Why bother to read his blog when his blog consists of electronically simulated ink marks on a page?
But, for the sake of argument, let’s waive his self-defeating exercise and press ahead.
“Which brings me to what may be the biggest hurdle most people have in coming to grips with Clark’s biblical epistemology and that is his complete rejection of the belief that sensation plays a role in knowledge. Needless to say, the rejection of sensation in the acquisition of knowledge seems counter-intuitive and not at all in accord with so-called ‘common-sense.’ Didn’t God give us sensations and sense organs so that we might come to know Him? Well, not necessarily. After all, and as Clark would say, God gave us stomachs too, but that doesn’t mean that stomachs have an epistemic function…although he was quick to add that it’s hard to study if you don’t eat.”
i) Is that supposed to be an intelligent response? What does that comparison amount to? Is that supposed to be an argument from analogy?
But when the question at issue is sense-knowledge, why think a stomach is analogous to an eye or ear? A stomach is not a sensory organ. It wasn’t designed to perceive the external world.
Gerety might as well say: “Didn’t silversmiths give us steak knives to cut steaks with? Well, not necessarily. After all, and as Clark would say, silversmiths gave us forks and spoons too, but that doesn’t mean you can cut a steak with a spoon.”
Well, suppose you can’t cut a steak with a spoon. Does that also mean you can’t cut a steak with a steak knife? Does that mean a steak knife wasn’t designed to cut steak?
What possesses Gerety to think that Clark’s reply is any sort of counterargument to the issue at hand?
ii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept the comparison. While a stomach isn’t a sensory organ, per se, a stomach does sense certain things. If you drink a nauseating fluid, the stomach will make you feel nauseous. So even a stomach is a source of sense-knowledge.
“But don’t we have to read the Bible with the eyes in our heads? Clark’s critics routinely argue that even if we accept Clark’s position that knowledge is limited to those things set down in Scripture and their necessary inferences, don’t we first have to read the Bible with our eyes? Or, to put it another way, isn’t knowledge necessarily mediated through the senses? Again, not so fast. Clark would reply, and in good lawyerly fashion, by answering this question with the question: How do you know you even have a Bible in your hands?”
Several problems with that response:
i) Is that a Scriptural objection to sense-knowledge? Does the Bible ever pose that question?
ii) According to the Book of Acts, Paul would go into synagogues and reason with his fellow Jews from the Scriptures. Suppose one of his listeners tried to deflect Paul’s appeal by saying: “Paul, how do you know you even have a scroll of Isaiah in your hands?”
Does Gerety think that would be a sound objection to Paul’s practice? Is Paul begging the question by waiving their own copy of Isaiah in their face? Quoting from the scroll which the synagogue kept in its own library?
Gerety isn’t raising a scriptural objection to sense knowledge. Quite the contrary. Gerety is raising an extrascriptural objection to sense knowledge.
iv) What is more, he’s raising an extrascriptural objection to the scriptures. To the written record of God’s word. When a Christian turns to the Bible to quote a passage of Scripture, Gerety’s response is to say, “How do you know you even have a Bible in your hands?”
How in the world does Gerety think that’s a Christian response to the possibility of sense-knowledge?
v) Answering a question with a question is not an answer: rather, it’s a way of ducking the question.
Clark is trying to shift the burden of proof. But even if his opponent ought to be able to answer Clark’s question, that doesn’t absolve Clark of the corresponding requirement to answer the opponent’s question. And even if his opponent were unable to answer Clark’s question, that doesn’t absolve Clark (or Gerety) of shouldering his own burden of proof.
“To which Clark replied: The substantial question is how do we know the contents of the Bible. If Louis XIV or my wife could be replaced with an imposter twin, then maybe the Bible in my hand is a cunningly devised substitute. Mavrodes lays this on rather heavily, and I am glad that he does. So few people are willing to give the point any serious attention. He also mentions, and I wish he had discussed, solipsism; there are also the skeptical arguments of Carneades and Aenesidemus; and as well Descartes’ omnipotent deceptive demon. In fact, until these arguments are successfully circumvented, no one has a firm basis on which to object to my general position… I must point out that he has not met the issue when he says, ‘Sense experience is required for the derivation of such [Biblical] belief’ and ‘every consistent epistemology which assigns a role to the Bible…must assign a role of equal scope and in precisely the same area to sense perception.’ To make such assertions presupposes satisfactory answers to Aenesidemus and Descartes’ demon. Can it be shown that an imposter twin is impossible? Can we be sure that we have not overlooked a ‘not’ in the sentence? There are even greater empirical scandals than these. How can one prove the reliability of memory? Any test designed to show which memory is true and which is mistaken presupposes that a previous memory is true – and this is the point in question. In large measure the psychological force of my position derives from the impossibility of empiricism.”
Several more problems:
i) Once again, how does citing the objections of Carneades, Aenesidemus, and Descartes to sense-knowledge constitute a Scriptural objection to sense-knowledge? These are secular objections. Extrascriptural objections. Pagan objections!
But, according to Scripturalism, extrascriptural objections wouldn’t be knowledgeable objections. At best they’d be merely opinionated objections, and, at worst, ignorant objections. Moreover, you can’t tell which is which.
So why is a Christian “empiricist” obliged to answer objections to sense-knowledge which, according to Scripturalism, are nothing more than philosophers opining against sense-knowledge? These are merely the opinions of Carneades, Aenesidemus, and Descartes. But unless their arguments are demonstrably true, why is a Christian “empiricist” obligated to refute them?
ii) Suppose a Christian layman can’t circumvent the objections of Carneades and Aenesidemus? So what? Does Scripture require a Christian to be able to refute philosophical objections to sense-knowledge?
iii) Suppose a Christian layman, or even a Christian philosopher, can’t disprove a skeptical thought-experiment? So what? Does Scripture require us to refute skeptical thought-experiments?
For that matter, is it the case that we can’t know anything or justifiably believe anything unless we can refute a skeptical thought-experiment?
Why should we make that artificial demand a precondition of knowledge or warranted belief?
iv) What about solipsism? What about Cartesian demons? These aren’t objections to empiricism, per se. These could just as well be deployed against Scripturalism.
If Scripturalism affirms the existence of the external world while solipsism denies the existence of the external world, then even on Scripturalist assumptions no Christian has a justified true belief in the external world unless he can circumvent solipsism. And a Scripturalist can’t very well invoke the Bible to refute solipsism, for the Bible presupposes the existence of the external world–which is the very thing solipsism denies!
Likewise, Cartesian demons aren’t limited to sensory perception. Cartesian demons can be unleashed to bedevil absolute idealism.
The Scripturalist thinks that Jn 3:16 is a divine promise, but that idea was implanted in his mind by a Cartesian demon. How can Clark or Gerety disprove that hypothetical?
Hypothetically speaking, maybe Jesus had an imposter twin. Maybe his imposter twin was crucified. Maybe his imposter twin rose from the dead. Maybe the apostolic eyewitnesses to the crucifixion and Resurrection were (unbeknownst to them) actually witnessing his imposter twin.
Can Clark or Gerety disprove that hypothetical?
v) What about the possibility of overlooking a negation (“not”) in a sentence? To begin with, Clark expressed his opposition to sense knowledge in the form of sentences.
How can a Scripturalist make a case for Scripturalism without expressing himself in sentences? If you can’t articulate your case for Scripturalism without resorting to linguistic tokens, then the possibility of overlooking a negation vitiates the verbal case for Scripturalism.
vi) What about the reliability of memory? If a Clarkian questions the reliability of memory, that isn’t limited to empiricism. The same skepticism will infect Scripturalism.
Scripturalism equates knowledge with deducing propositions from Scripture. But that involves an act of memory. If you misremember the premise, you don’t know if the conclusion was validly inferred from the premise.
vii) The upshot is that if we take Clark’s skepticism seriously, not only would that prove the impossibility of empiricism, it would also and equally disprove the impossibility of Scripturalism.
Continuing with Gerety:
“For Clark, the acquisition of knowledge is not a sensory process and those who insist on a role for sensation are just begging the question. He argued that it is the Divine Logos ‘which lighteth every man’ and that Christ alone is the sin qua non of knowledge, not sensation.”
i) Clark’s appeal to Jn 1:9 is begging the question unless Clark can account for how he acquired his knowledge of Jn 1:9.
ii) Jn 1:9 was written in Greek. You can’t know Jn 1:9 in the original unless you know Greek. Knowledge of Greek involves a knowledge of comparative Greek usage. That’s inductive.
iii) Clark also misinterprets his prooftext. In context, Jn 1:9 has reference, not to general revelation, but special revelation.
“Clark writes: 'With less literary flourish than Malebranche’s peroration one may summarize by saying that truth concerns Ideas, Ideas are in God, and the mind can perceive them only there. These Ideas are alone the objects of thought. Nor can sensory images in any way be transformed into truth. In the language of antiquity and of modernity, abstract concepts can never be derived from sensory images. Though different human beings may and must have different sensations — for your pain is not mine — there is only one set or world of Ideas. It is the system of God’s mind, and we can see them only there'.”
i) How does Clark access divine ideas? Is Clark divine? If divine ideas inhere in God’s mind, how are they available to Gordon Clark?
He can’t appeal to the scriptures, for these are empirical objects.
ii) How does Clark know that different humans have different sensations? Does he mean that each normal human being has its own set of sense organs? I have a pair of eyes. You have a pair of eyes. Your eyes are different from mine?
If, so, how would Clark know, apart from using his own sensory receptors, that each human has his own set of sensory receptors? And doesn’t that also involve an inductive generalization?
iii) Clark fails to distinguish between raw stimuli and the use of sensory media to encode ideas in the form of sentences. Even if, for the sake of argument, you deny that raw stimuli can’t convey abstract concepts, it doesn’t follow that encoded stimuli can’t convey abstract concepts either.
Indeed, Clark is using encoded stimuli (written words) to transfer abstract concepts from his mind to the mind of the reader.
iv) Furthermore, it isn’t obvious why raw stimuli can’t be a source of abstract concepts. If I count 999 black ravens, then I form an abstract concept on the basis of my observation.
I observe 999 instances. I attach a number to my observations. That’s an abstract concept.
This doesn’t tell me that every raven is black. And I don’t derive my concept of enumeration from seeing a series of black ravens. But as a result of observing 999 ravens, I did form an abstract concept.
Likewise, if I play a game of pool, I observe a correlation between a given action and a given reaction. I don’t observe cause-and-effect. But I do observe a correlation. That’s an abstract concept.
Continuing with Gerety:
“Another way to think of Clark’s view, and one I think most Christians can easily grasp, is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith which states that belief in the truth of Scripture rests ultimately on ‘the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts’.”
This is a bait-and-switch tactic. There’s a fundamental difference between what makes something true or knowable, and what makes something believable. Belief is a relation between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. That’s distinct from whether the object of knowledge is true. Or whether a given truth is an object of knowledge (i.e. knowable).
“As Clark would repeat over and over, the Scriptures are not black ink marks on white pages in a black book. They are the eternal thoughts of God. Ink marks may provide an occasion by which we might come to know some of God’s thoughts, even to the saving of our souls, but the ink marks themselves reveal nothing.”
Is that what Scripture says about itself?
“Dr. W. Gary Crampton in his book, The Scripturalism of Gordon Clark, defends Clark’s position this way: God’s Word is eternal; the printed pages of the Bible are not. The letters or words on the printed page are signs or symbols which signify the eternal truth which is the mind of God, and which is communicated by God directly and immediately to the minds of men…Since all knowledge is propositional, and since the senses interacting with creation yield no propositions, knowledge cannot originate, be conveyed by, or be derived from sensation.”
i) Where does Scripture ever tell us that “the senses interacting with creation yield no propositions, knowledge cannot originate, be conveyed by, or be derived from sensation”?
That is not a Scriptural claim. That’s an extrascriptural claim.
ii) If the word of God is “communicated by God directly and immediately to the minds of men,” then the scriptures are superfluous. Clarkian epistemology represents a full-frontal assault on the Bible.
It’s far more radical than Fosdick or Bultmann or Spong. It’s an attack on the credibility of every single clause in the scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation.
iii) Does God upload the content of Scripture directly into the mind of every Christian? When does this occur, actly? Is this given in regeneration? Is every Christian a walking Bible, with every single verse at his cognitive fingertips?
iv) Or is this some form of occasionalism? If so, that has it’s own problems. To name a few:
a) Where does Scripture teach occasionalism?
b) Which version of the Bible does God upload?
c) Suppose a Christian is reading a unisex version of the Bible, like the TNIV. Does my idea of God’s word correspond to that occasional prop?
d) What if one Christian is reading an edition with the short ending of Mark while another Christian is reading an edition with the long ending of Mark. Does occasionalism upload rival editions?
“Ink marks, various pitched sounds, Braille, Morse code, sinographs, and whatever else that might be used to communicate are arbitrary conventions, and, in and of themselves, are meaningless signs signifying nothing. Black marks are neither true or false and cannot be properly the objects of knowledge for the simple reason that only propositions can be either true or false. Ink marks have meaning only insofar as rational minds assign them meaning.”
So what? There’s a reason why language is called symbolic discourse. The relation between word and object is a social convention.
To say these linguistic tokens are meaningless in and of themselves is irrelevant to the issue at hand.
It’s like a game of cards. By common consent, certain values are assigned to certain cards–from the deuce of clubs to the ace of spades. Same thing with chess.
Clark was reputed to be a fine chess-player. That involves the assignment of a distinctive “power” or set of “powers” to each chess piece. That’s a truth: an analytical truth. Truth by definition.
Analytical truths have their limitations. It’s not a good way to do history or science.
But it’s perfectly appropriate for games and sports and linguistic activities.
As a result, you can make truth-valued statements about a game of cards or a game of chess. Unless that’s possible, Gordon Clark could never win a game of chess. To win at chess, he had to form “justified true beliefs” about the various powers of the various chess pieces.
“Clark argued that if someone thinks there are truths embedded in ink scratches or which can somehow be derived by sensing them should provide some sort of argument to show how, starting with any number of black marks, they can arrive at any universal truth such as, ‘all men are sinners.’ Yet, not one of Clark’s critics even tried to overcome his challenge and to this day Clark’s critics merely beg the question when insisting on a role for sensation in the acquisition of knowledge.”
Is this paragraph true or false? Gerety’s statement is a series of linguistic tokens. Do these linguistic tokens embed truth-valued propositions?
He accuses us of “begging the question.” But “begging the question” is a verbal phrase. So Gerety is begging the question when he uses that verbal phrase to deny the truth-value of linguistic propositions.
Poor little Gerety keeps banging his birdbrain against the same window. He never tires of smashing his avian skull into that window.