Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dracula rises from the grave

For some reason, Vincent Cheung has chosen to resurrect an old debate between the T-bloggers and himself.

I don’t know quite how to account for the timing. He said at the time that we had steered so much traffic his way that he didn’t need to take out an ad that month. So maybe he’s revisiting this debate because he’s hard up on cash and needed to drum up extra business on a slow day.

Or perhaps he woke up one morning with a devastating reply to our arguments, like the way you think of a brilliant comeback only after you leave the cocktail party.

Whatever the reason, let’s examine his latest salvo:

“One prominent school of "presuppositional" apologetics protests that this surely goes too far. It admits that induction is fallacious, at least on its own, but then it is somehow redeemed when we operate under biblical presuppositions.”

i) I’m not aware of any Van Tilians who admit that induction is fallacious. Indeed, it’s fallacious to say induction is fallacious. That commits a category mistake.

Technically, a fallacy is a feature of deductive rather than inductive reasoning. No one supposes that inductive reasoning operates according to the principle of strict implication. That’s what distinguishes necessity from probability.

So Cheung’s complaint reduces to the fact that induction isn’t deductive enough. But whether that’s good or bad has nothing to do with the “fallacious” character of induction.

To compare and contrast induction with deduction does not, of itself, show that one mode of reasoning is superior to another. That requires a supporting argument.

All that Cheung has done, therefore, is to beg the question in favor of deduction.

ii) Likewise, the question at issue is not whether induction is fallacious “on its own,” but somehow redeemed by biblical presuppositions.

Induction works perfectly well with or without biblical presuppositions. Biblical presuppositions do nothing to validate induction.

Rather, this is a question of warrant. The issue is not whether induction works, all by itself, but the truth-conditions which make it possible. Is it self-warranting?


“It admits that sensation cannot yield knowledge, at least by itself, but then it can function as a reliable way to acquire knowledge once biblical principles are assumed.”

Again, I don’t know of any Van Tilians who deny that sensation can yield knowledge.

I don’t know of any Van Tilians who treat Biblical principles as a makeweight or stopgap to convert sensation into a knowledge-yielding process.

As before, the question at issue is not whether sensation can function on its own, but whether sensation is self-warranting. Cheung is confounding ontology and epistemology.

Moving along:

“Or, it says that the unbeliever can use induction and sensation with good effect, but only that he cannot "account" for this.”

That’s true. And that’s a perfectly legitimate distinction.

Everyone must live in God’s world. Believers and unbelievers alike inhabit the very same world.

Because an unbeliever resides in God’s world, the world will work for the unbeliever just as well as it will work for the believer.

For example, you can father a child by either consummating your marriage or committing fornication.

Fathering a child by conjugal intercourse is licit, while fathering fornication is illicit.

But you can father a child by either licit or illicit means. The mechanism is in place whenever you use it.

God’s world doesn’t adapt to the unbeliever. It doesn’t bend and conform to the unbeliever.

Rather, everything works the way God designed it to work, even if the unbeliever abuses or misuses the framework of second causes.

God can always suspend ordinary providence, but man cannot. God can always make an exception to “natural law,” but man cannot.


“Because they have stated that one must use his senses to know what the Bible says, now they must show either that our senses are infallible, or if our senses are fallible, that there is an infallible way of telling in which instances they are correct and in which instances they are incorrect. If they cannot do this, then they cannot read the Bible, so that their entire system — their whole Christian faith — collapses, and it does so just as easily as empirical atheism, or any non-Christian religion or philosophy.”

i) Short answer: why?

Why must we either have infallible senses or else an infallible sensory criterion to distinguish true instances from false instances?

Why can’t we be fallible? Indeed, why shouldn’t we be fallible?

Human beings are finite, not omniscient. A degree of uncertainty is inherent in the human condition as finite creatures. We don’t know everything.

Some mistakes are due to sin, but there’s such a thing as an innocent mistake. Even unfallen Adam was not omniscient. Even the saints in glory are not omniscient.

Short of universal inspiration, we are capable of making mistakes.

Notice how Cheung’s occasionalism amounts to universal private revelation, in violation of sola Scriptura.

ii) We are not gods. We lack a godlike knowledge of the world.

We are not responsible for knowing what we cannot know. We are only responsible for what God demands from us.

iii) We don’t need to be infallible to do God’s will. We don’t even need to know God’s will to do God’s will.

For God, in his providence, can guide us by outward circumstances and subliminal incentives or disincentives to do his will.

I’m not saying that’s how it always works. I’m merely pointing out the gaps in Cheung’s reasoning.

iv) As I and others have pointed out before, Cheung is confounding first-order knowledge with second-order knowledge. You can know something without knowing the truth-conditions which make it possible.

Suppose that occasionalism is true. Does a two-year old not know his own mother unless the two-year old knows about occasionalism?

v) Van Tilian apologetics is not committed to a particular theory of knowledge. It is not concerned with how we know anything in particular, but how we know anything in general. Not, how do I know this or that?—but, how to I know anything at all?

And the “how” in question is not the concrete apparatus of mind and body, percept and percipient, but the metaphysical question of what necessary truth-conditions underwrite this process. Not about psychology or physiology, but the metaphysics of knowledge.

vi) Frame, for one, takes a synthetic position, according to which empiricism and rationalism supplement each other. Both enjoy distinctive advantages. Both can point to disadvantages in the opposing position.

vii) I’d add that the question at issue is not whether the senses are fallible or infallible. That is yet another category mistake.

Rather, the issue is whether inductive reasoning is fallible or infallible. The senses are merely a medium of knowledge. A medium isn’t capable of being either right or wrong. A pair of glasses aren’t fallible or infallible.

Moving along:

“Some of them try to justify sensation as a reliable way to obtain knowledge.”

In some ways, this gets us to the nub of the problem. For, as a rule, sensation or induction needs no justification. And that’s because we all rely on our senses. Even the sensory-impaired rely on the senses of a second-party.

If you’re unable to function without a certain source of knowledge, then you don’t need a separate justification for your source of knowledge. What makes the source of knowledge self-warranting is its universality and indispensability. Truth-conditions are self-warranting.

We don’t need a general justification for sensation and induction. They enjoy prima facie justification.

The need to justify sensation and induction only comes up in a more specialized context.

i) If someone says the senses are the only source and/or standard of knowledge, then he needs to justify that particular claim.

ii) If someone makes a claim about just what kind of knowledge can be acquired by the senses, then he needs to justify that claim.

Both (i)-(ii) bear on the scope of sense knowledge, and not the fact of sense knowledge.

Likewise, someone may need to show, not that sensation is reliable, but that his worldview is sufficiently robust to justify sensation (or induction).

Does his worldview have the metaphysical machinery to support and sustain induction?

For example, W. V. Quine was an atheist, materialist, empiricist, and mathematician.

As a mathematician, he believed in set theory. But the problem this poses for his materialism is that transfinite sets are unexemplified in nature. There are no actual infinities in nature.

There is also the question of mathematical knowledge. How do we come to a knowledge of higher mathematics, or even arithmetic? Can empiricism get the job done?

Someone like Augustine, with his doctrine of divine ideas, has the resources to ground set theory in a way that an atheist does not.

Likewise, Hume has no principled reason to assume that the present will resemble the past, whereas a Christian, with his appeal to divine providence and divinely created natural kinds, is able to ground the regularities of the natural world.

iii) Beyond the general reliance on sense knowledge, there are many different versions of empiricism. If you are going to advance a particular version of empiricism, then you need to justify your own version.

iv) If an empiricist gets into an argument with a rationalist, then the empiricist needs to justify his epistemology in light of rationalist objections to sense knowledge.

v) But this cuts both ways. The rationalist must justify his epistemology in light of empiricist objections innate knowledge.

Rationalism and empiricism both go back to opposing sides of dualism. Rationalism pairs off with idealism, while empiricism pairs off with materialism.

Both positions capture a half-truth, for reality is dualistic: mind and matter. The reason we have two different theories of knowledge is because we have two different objects of knowledge.

As such, both theories of knowledge enjoy a measure of prima facie justification.

vi) Cheung treats sensory processing as something of a global illusion. It appears to be a means of acquiring knowledge, but the process is really circumvented by the direct action of God.

Yet when you claim that a certain phenomenon is really a global illusion, then the burden of proof is upon you to overcome that initial presumption. Even if God does, indeed, short-circuit our sensory processing system, the onus is on Cheung to argue that point, and to successfully argue that point in the face of counterarguments.

“To argue for empiricism apart from Scripture is impossible, and they acknowledge this.”

This is wrong on several counts:

i) Van Tilian apologetics is not committed to empiricism. We simply affirm sense knowledge.

This doesn’t mean that we necessarily limit all knowledge to sensory input.

It doesn’t mean that we treat the mind of the percipient as a blank slate.

It certainly doesn’t mean that we elevate the senses to the ultimate criterion of what can be known. We subscribe to the Protestant rule of faith, after all.

As I said before, Van Tilian apologetics doesn’t offer a fine-structured theory of knowledge. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about epistemology, but meta-epistemology.

For all I know, David Byron and James Anderson may have two very different theories of knowledge. One Van Tilian might be closer to the rationalist end of the spectrum, while another Van Tilian might be closer to the empiricist end of the spectrum.

ii) To say that it’s impossible to argue for sense knowledge apart from Scripture is ambiguous.

a) It is possible to argue for sense knowledge from natural revelation as well as special revelation.

b) It is impossible to argue for sense knowledge apart from the God of Scripture, apart from the existence of God. That’s where the question of warrant returns.

“And so, seemingly consistent with their own position, they argue for the basic reliability of sensation from Scripture.”

Among other things, special revelation confirms the basic reliability of the senses. It supplies inspired corroborative evidence. That grounding wire is essential to our confidence in the senses.

At the same time, remember, and I’ve said this in the past, the reason we know that our senses sometimes deceive us is because our senses are generally trustworthy. That’s how we are able to correct for a “bent” oar in water.

It’s the senses that detect sensory anomalies, and make compensatory adjustments.

“But what would it take to establish their position from Scripture? They acknowledge that our senses are fallible, and so they are not interested in supporting empiricism by arguing that the senses are infallible. However, if the senses are fallible, then they must establish from Scripture an infallible method by which to distinguish instances in which the sense are correct and instances in which they are wrong. But if they have a method at all, and if their method is fallible, then we still need to infallibly know how fallible it is and when it is fallible; otherwise, the whole thing collapses into skepticism again. They have not even come close to establishing any of this. At best, they have only shown that the sensation of a given biblical character was accurate in a particular instance, because the Bible reveals that it was accurate in that particular instance.”

Wrong again:

i) In what respect may the senses deceive us? Optical illusions furnish the classic illustrations.

But the fact that our senses may mislead us in that respect is hardly relevant to reading the Bible. Even if we misread the occasional word, that’s not analogous to an optical illusion.

Again, reading the Bible is not like counting white sheep. It’s not like trying to prove a universal negative: “There are no black sheep.”

What Cheung is doing here is to tacitly and illicitly transfer certain paradigm-cases of sensory deception or limiting-cases of induction to an activity which is disanalogous.

And the very least he needs to mount a supporting argument to show that reading the Bible falls afoul of the same limitations.

ii) No, we don’t need an infallible criterion to distinguish misimpressions from veridical impressions.

Sometimes we are wrong. That’s a fact of life. That comes of being a finite creature. There’s no escaping the fact that we are going to make mistakes from time to time—irrespective of sin.

There’s just no way around this. Because we are not God, we make mistakes.

But because God is God, he builds a certain redundancy into his world so that every mistake is not a fatal mistake.

And God, in his providence, sees to it that the elect know whatever they need to know to the saving of their souls.

iii) Even if Cheung had an infallible criterion, a criterion is not self-applicatory. You still have a fallible agent (Cheung, for instance), who must apply the criterion by himself and to himself. So Cheung has not eliminated all possibility of error by a long shot.

iv) The Bible does much more than to warrant a particular percept here and there. For example, Gen 1 is a creation account. And, as you’d expect from an account of ultimate origins, Gen 1 presents us with a classification-system of natural kinds.

Gen 1 assumes that the reader is able to identify the natural kinds in the text and correlate them with their extra-textual referents.

On the prior basis of our extra-biblical knowledge of natural kinds, we know what Gen 1 is referring to. That act of recognition presupposes sense knowledge. So Gen 1 presupposes categorical knowledge of the sensible world rather than a merely particular knowledge of this or that.

v) Likewise, take the Decalogue. This consists in general norms.

It forbids the making of idols. An idol is a sensible object.

It forbids Sabbath-breaking. This assumes an empirical knowledge of when one day ends and another begins.

It enjoins us to honor our parents. This assumes that I can pick out my parents from your parents.

It forbids adultery. This assumes that I can tell the difference between my wife and your wife.

It forbids theft. This assumes that I know the difference between my stuff and your stuff.

It forbids perjury. This assumes a correspondence theory of truth.

It isn’t restricted to a correspondence theory of truth, but perjury often involves a statement at variance with the facts.

To keep the Ten Commandments necessitates a general knowledge of the sensible world.

Moving along:

“Then, there is another objection that has to do with my view on divine sovereignty, and how it relates to metaphysics and epistemology. I affirm that God must be active in facilitating and controlling all human thoughts, whether true or false, biblical or heretical. The adherents of this other school of presuppositional apologetics once again tries to perform a fatal maneuver against me. They suggest that according to my view, I could be deceived in affirming my view. First, this is just outright stupid, since the Bible says that God can send evil spirits to convince people of error. So no matter how it happens, God is the one who decrees that someone would be deceived.”

Far from being “downright stupid,” the objection to Cheung’s occasionalism is, in fact, predicated on divine deception. So this is consistent with the objection, rather than opposed to it.

“ Second, they demonstrate that they really have no idea how to perform this fatal maneuver, since it again backfires against them. If I am deceived in the way that the objection suggests (that is, by my own explanation of how one comes to believe falsehood), then it actually proves my position. If I am deceived in the way that I say one is deceived, then I am in fact not deceived. To illustrate, if God sends a demon to "deceive" someone into thinking that God does not send demons to deceive, then God does send demons to deceive. Likewise, if God causes me to believe the ‘falsehood"’that it is God who causes one to believe falsehood, then God does cause one to believe falsehood, and I am in fact not deceived. In other words, my position cannot be demonstrated as self-refuting in the manner attempted by the objection.

i)Unfortunately for Cheung, his reply is “downright stupid.” Remember, Cheung faults induction because induction is “fallacious.” He faults sensation because sensation is “fallible.”

He substitutes deduction (from Scripture) and occasionalism (in place of sensation) as a solution to what he finds wanting in sensation and induction.

But even if occasionalism were true, it would not generate infallible results.

Cheung tries to counter this by coming up with a couple of illustrations in which the proposition is true.

But that’s not the point. The point is not that occasionalism can sometimes yield a true belief. Rather, the point is whether occasionalism improves on induction and sensation by yielding true belief all the time.

And even if occasionalism were true, it falls far short of that objective.

Unbelievers continue to believe many falsehoods, and, what is more, believers continue to believe many falsehoods.

So even on its own grounds, occasionalism, as deployed by Vincent Cheung, fails to solve the problem it proposes for itself. Its error-rate is identical to sensation.

ii)And since he’s so fond of introducing this blocking-maneuver, what is Cheung’s “infallible” criterion for distinguishing a true belief generated by occasionalism from a false belief generated by occasionalism?

Appeal to Scripture won’t do the trick, for that merely repositions the original conundrum by raising the follow-up question of how we distinguish a valid deduction from Scripture generated by occasionalism from a fallacious deduction generated by the very same process.


  1. "So even on its own grounds, occasionalism, as deployed by Vincent Cheung, fails to solve the problem it proposes for itself. Its error-rate is identical to sensation."

    I'd go further. Cheung's occasionalism has a *greater* error rate than does sensation. It is much more fallible.

  2. "Indeed, it’s fallacious to say induction is fallacious. That commits a category mistake. [...] All that Cheung has done, therefore, is to beg the question in favor of deduction."

    Exactly. I am shocked at how often I hear or read the mantra "induction is always a formal fallacy" from Clarkians. To which I always respond, "Of course it is! Formal fallacies are fallacies of deduction!" So ultimately the argument here is that not induction, but only deduction (from revelation) yields knowledge. How do they know that? Because induction isn't deduction, of course!

    The fact that so many of the Clarkians, including Cheung, make this claim is evidence that they really have no philosophical training at all. That not necessarily wrong, of course, but it's quite a problem if you take your job to be an apologist for the Christian church, and one who will teach others how to cast down the reasoning of intelligent unbelievers.

    W.G. Crampton says it:

    J. Robbins says it:

    And of course Cheung says it. (I also find it interesting that it's impossible to find out any information on Cheung's academic credentials.)

    So do a lot of their parrots on various message boards who have apparently become enamored with the "in-your-face" style and exceedingly bold, striking claims that the representatives of this apologetic make. Unfortunately, it's completely unable to live up to any of them, which is why I'm thankful for you, Steve, and Paul, Aquascum, and others for taking the time to refute it, so hopefully we can help the Reformed community get rid of this nonsense.

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  5. Nice blog. Now I see that along with an incoherent and analogous view of truth and a contradictory view of Scripture, Van Tilians do not think asserting the consequent is a fallacy. Quite amazing. Thanks Tavis.

  6. 1. If one cannot distinguish between objects and images, then one would be left to distinguish between images that appear to correspond with objects and images that do not appear to correspond with objects. Images have truth values that correspond with physical objects, whether those truth values are true or false. (A false truth value for a physical object would obtain when the physical object is illusory). If we cannot know the truth value of the physicality of the object, then we cannot know whether one stole an object, yet sin presupposes we can know such things. Moreover, the Bible distinguishes between sins such as actual steeling and sins of conscience. With respect the former, the Bible speaks of actual restitution, which presupposes an actual knowledge of steeling, which presupposes knowledge of objects. For one “to steel” an illusory red car would not be an actual sin of steeling. Nonetheless, guilt would abound even though the sin would not be one against one’s fellow man.

    2. Finally, induction always operates under the formal fallacy of asserting the consequent. HOWEVER, it would be misleading to say that inductive reasoning is always fallacious. Rather, through asserting the consequent a rational *belief* can be inferred. “If A, then B; B therefore, A is *true*” is of course fallacious. However: “If A, then B; B therefore, A is more *plausible* than if ~B were true” is of course rational. To say that science is always false because it asserts the consequent has great shock value but all it really reduces to is that induction is not deduction, which is no great discovery.

    3. Can induction bring forth epistemic certainty?

    A. Justification: Inductive inference that the clock is working based upon history
    B. Belief: Believe as true the time the clock indicates, which is 12:00
    C. Truth: It is 12:00

    Someone might say that since all the criteria have been met, one can “know” it is 12:00 given inductive-knowledge. However, the 3 criteria allow one to say that he knows it is 12:00 even when relying upon a broken clock! Shouldn't this intuitively bother us? Can we "know" things based upon false information? The problem with induction is that inferences that are rational to maintain can still be false.

    Let me try to make this even more glaring. Let’s say there is another man in the room who has strong reason to believe that the clock is broken. Accordingly, this man will not rely upon the clock. In fact, this man believes that any justification of the time based upon the clock will be unwarranted. The point should be obvious. The man who is most informed about the clock is not able to know the time, whereas the man with less information about the clock can “know” the time if inductive inference allows for such knowledge! Given and inductive-knowledge, having less information can be a necessary condition for more knowledge, and having more information can cause one to rationally lose the knowledge he once had! Ignorance truly can be bliss. It’s one thing to have a rational inference about what should be believed and quite another thing to have knowledge of what is actually true.

    Now let me sum this up. The first man’s inference about the clock was rational because based upon history the clock had an extremely high probability of working; say 99.9%. The second man had an entirely different rational inference based upon his history with broken clocks. He believed that there was less than 1% chance of the clock working the day after he observed it not working. Both men were making rational inferences based upon their finite perspectives and information. At the very least, given inductive-knowledge, deductive or revelatory knowledge becomes something of a different order and not merely a difference in degree. We need to distinguish the two. I *prefer* reserving the term knowledge to more than inductive inferences, though there can be what JF calls “psychological certainty” through inference, but this is not epistemic certainty.

    Van Tillians and Clarkians agree that induction cannot bring forth deductive or revelational certainty. Accordingly, their difference on this matter should be that of semantics, not actual philosophy!

    Ron Di Giacomo

  7. It occurs to me that some might think that knowing objects are not illusory requires inductive inference, which is why some say that we cannot *know* with *certainty* that a red car is parked in the driveway. I agree that induction cannot bring forth certainty; however, I'm also persuaded that we do not come to know that a red car is parked in the driveway by way of inductive inference or discursive reasoning.

    In sum, one may affirm without contradiction that we can rightly distinguish the physical from the non-physical while also limiting knowledge to deduction and revelation.