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Just A Tad Bit of Philosophy
by Samuel Frost
This article will contain no references to Matthew 24, Josephus or the visions of the Apocalypse (whew!). Instead, a much deeper problem appears on the Preterist horizon, and it ain’t Calvinism versus Arminianism. It’s Empiricism versus Presuppositionalism. Before you get your “isms” in a wad, let me define them for you. As Gordon Clark always stated, if you cannot define your terms, then you do not know what you are talking about. The problem of “definition” goes back to Plato’s Dialogues, which I wished every Christian read.This article will contain no references to Matthew 24, Josephus or the visions of the Apocalypse (whew!). Instead, a much deeper problem appears on the Preterist horizon, and it ain’t Calvinism versus Arminianism. It’s Empiricism versus Presuppositionalism. Before you get your “isms” in a wad, let me define them for you. As Gordon Clark always stated, if you cannot define your terms, then you do not know what you are talking about. The problem of “definition” goes back to Plato’s Dialogues, which I wished every Christian read.Having said that, and having studied far more than just Preterism, which is but one subject among a myriad of subjects, science has always intrigued me. At first, I believed (faith) that science could actually explain the universe and how it works. But, through college and seminary, I found that the more I read scientific literature, they were just as divided on issues as Christianity. Why? I thought. If someone could look at a rock, run a carbon-14 test on it and tell the date, origins and composite material, then isn’t that a definition of a rock? Well, no. It’s just what we call this thing that appears to have these particular properties and acts this particular way. But every individual rock is different. The same with zoology and botony. No two cats are the same. They have shared properties, but they each have distinct properties that make them different. This is the problem of individuation. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
No one would deny that Michael Polanyi was not a “scientist.” He was the professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. He wrote Science, Faith and Society (University of Chicago Press, 1946). In his opening chapter, “Science and Reality”, he stated, “Never yet has a definite rule been laid down by which any particular mathematical function can be recognized, among an infinite number of those offering themselves for choice, as the one which expresses a natural law. It is true that each of the infinite number of available functions will, in general, lead to a different prediction when applied to new observations…” (21). He goes on to state that science cannot, from a choice of infinite choices of measurements, grant absolute explanations called “natural laws.” Natural laws are defined as fixed laws of the observable universe, like dropping an apple on Newton’s head.
Now, before going further, we must define Empiricism. “In all its forms, empiricism stresses the fundamental role of experience. As a doctrine in epistemology it holds that all knowledge is ultimately based on experience” (Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, 2000), “Empiricism”, William P. Alston). Now, remember what Clark said above. We must define our terms. What, then, is the definition of “experience”? Alston immediately is aware of the problem and, thus, attempts to define “experience”: “It is difficult to give an illuminating analysis of ‘experience’. Let us say that it includes any mode of consciousness in something that seems to be presented to the subject, as contrasted with the mental activity of thinking about things” (ibid.). Wow. Instead of saying , “let us say,” he really means “let us assume.” But, I have not defined Presuppositionalism, yet. “Any” mode of “consciousness” begs to be defined as well, but, alas, Mr. Alston does not do so. What the heck is “conscious”? Has anyone ever “seen” being “conscious” under a microscope? The Apostle Paul talks a great deal about the conscience, but Paul receives this information from the revelation of God. It is strange, indeed, that “experience” is based on “something presented to the conscious” and, in turn, “conscience” is not based on anything presented or seen at all! verblüffend! Secondly, he used the phrase “seems to be presented.” It “seems” to some that aliens gave them a probing in the night. If “experience” is based on what “seems” (may or not) be presented to the subject, then we hardly have a definition of experience.
Nonetheless, Alston goes on to say, “but empiricists usually concentrate on sense experience, the modes of consciousness that result from the stimulation of the fives senses” (ibid.). This is loaded. Note that the fives sense stimulate the consciousness of a person. But do they tell him or her anything? The definition above already stated that “all knowledge” is derived from “experience” and, thus, all knowledge is derived from the five senses stimulating the conscious person. Theology is impossible, but, so is science.
Take a breath. I have not even begun. Before, we quoted Polanyi, who is what is called a “critical realist.” Ben Meyer defined critical realism as “intensely empirical” (Critical Realism and the New Testament, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 1989). John Polkinghorne is a critical realist, too. Yet, based on this methodology (which is basically Kantian, but that’s another dead German philosopher’s story), Polkinghorne cuts to the chase with what it means for idiots who believe that the Bible is without error: “For me, the Bible is neither an inerrant account of propositional truth nor a compendium of timeless symbols” (Faith, Science & Understanding, Yale Nota Bene, 2000). Yet, Polkinghorne, noted scientist, believes in the Christian faith. He just does not start with the Bible, but with Empiricism. If one starts with “experience” and “senses,” then one can never arrive to the conclusion that the Bible is the word of God.
Now we can define Presuppositionalism. It is the philosophy that insists that one must start on unprovable propositions. A proposition is simply a declarative statement, like, “All knowledge is derived from sensation.” If one must prove every statement, then one could never start anywhere. The conversation would go on ad infinitum. The Bible has an answer for this: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That is, one starts with God. But which God? There are a lot of gods floating around. However, the God of the Bible is defined by His own self-disclosure (revelation), and revelation knowledge is hardly empirical. It comes to the mind ab extra (from outside). One does not pick up a rock, see a cloud, hear a sound and conclude: Jesus died for my sins! How did you become convinced? The Bible answers: the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of my heart. Hardly empirical.
Before we wrap this up, let’s go back to science and talk about measurements, mentioned by Polanyi above. Measurement is the stuff of science. Lines, spheres, triangles, weight, mass and the like are all measured, and the ratios of these measurements are relentlessly tested over and over again. If they continue to perform the predicted task, then a “law” has been “discovered.” However, as Polanyi noted, measurements require a “choice” from an infinite selection of where to begin. Gordon Clark, stated this years ago: “If mathematical equations could describe nature, the chance of choosing the correct description is one over infinity, or zero. Therefore, all the laws of physics are false” (Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, Trinity Foundation, 1996 ). This is not to say that what we call “laws” and the like are not useful constructions, they most certainly are useful. I would not be able to type on a computer screen were it not for the usefulness of Boolean symbolic logic! Scientist P.W. Bridgman wrote, “The attitude of the physicist must…be one of pure empiricism. He recognizes no a priori principles which determine or limit possibilities of new experience” (The Logic of Modern Physics, Macmillan Paperbacks, 1960). A priori simply means where one starts their system. A physicist cannot have any starting points, because possible new, unknown factors may alter the hypotheses, and if the physicist is committed to his system in spite of these unexpected factors, then he is no longer a scientist, but a propagandist. In short, to quote Polkinghorne again, “Science never is absolutely certain, nor is its method absolutely clear cut” (op. cit.). The only way it can be absolutely certain is to have all possible knowledge available in all possible worlds. In order to know anything, empiricism must know everything (omniscience), but empiricism cannot know everything, therefore, it cannot know anything.
How about a few quotes from atheistic scientists? Popper, legendary in his field, wrote, “..in science we do our best to find the truth, [but] we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure we have got it…” (Popper Selections, “Two Kinds of Definitions”, Princeton University Press, 1985). Or, “All scientific statements are hypotheses, or guesses, or conjectures which have turned out to be false” (Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Harper and Row, 1968). Or, take this quote from celebrated atheist and scientist-mathematician, Bertrand Russell: “All inductive arguments in the last resort reduce themselves to the following form: “if this is true, that is true; now that is true: therefore, this is true.” This argument is, of course, formally fallacious. Suppose I were to say “if bread is a stone, and stones are nourishing, then this bread will nourish me; now this bread does nourish me; therefore, it is a stone, and stones are nourishing.” If I were to advance such an argument, I should certainly be thought foolish, yet it would not be fundamentally different from the argument upon which all scientific laws are based.” It appears, then, that Russell, Clark, Polanyi, Popper, Bridgman, Polkinghorne and many, many other scientists are in agreement: scientism can never grant absolute, propositional knowledge. It is thoroughly empirical, and as such, must remain empirical through and through. If it starts with the senses, it must demonstrate by sensation how sensation becomes conceptual in the mind, and, it must demonstrate that a mind exists at all (naturalists and behaviorists psychologists like Skinner, Rogers, and the like deny “mind” but only what they “see”: the brain. There is no “mind”). The problems with empiricism are so varied that these three pages here are hardly even the tip of the tip of the tip of the tiniest fraction of the tip of an iceberg.
So, when a person in here tells me that he can measure the sun and then state that is has “roughly 4 or 5 billion years left on it” I must laugh. When the Bible says, “This is what the LORD says: 'If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, 26 then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Jer. 33.25-26). This is repeated in 33.19-22. The logic is clear: If you can break my covenant with the day and the night (sun and moon) and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I reject the seed of Jacob and David my servant. Yet, we know that “David my servant” is promised a seed “forever” and that that answers to Jesus, who is the messianic David. Therefore, God will not break his covenant with the day or the night. Therefore, his covenant with the day and the night is forever as Jesus is forever. For those who argue that the term “forever” has no notion of “time without end” may want to spend a few years in Hebrew lexicography. The term is applied to God. Is He “everlasting to everlasting” or will he, too, “burn out” one day?
Psalm 104.5 states, “He set the land on its foundations, it can never be moved.” Here, the word “forever” is not used, but a more explicit syntactical phrase means the same thing. Psalm 89.34-36 is explicit in terms of what we read in Jeremiah: “I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered…I will not lie to David…his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun.” Hmmm. Let’s apply logic: if David’s line lasts forever by the unalterable covenant of God swearing by himself, then the sun must last just as long, therefore, the sun lasts forever. I can quote at least ten more references like this, but I think you get the picture. The figurative-metaphorical passages that speak of the sun being no more, or the heavens rolling up and vanishing are the non-literal passages, but the passages that speak of the eternal endurance of the good creation of God are the literal. Now, for some pseudo-scientist to come along and say with absolute certainly that the sun will “burn out” one day, in light of this paper, is, in my mind, not a Christian thinker.
In conclusion, Preterism must reject empiricism, common sense philosophies, critical-realist epistemologies, Kantian experientially derived analytical propositions and the like. It must begin with the revelation of God. It must end with the revelation of God. When any other view, such as historical “evidence” or scientific “veridicalism”, is used as the place to start, the Bible becomes, automatically, regulated to that view. In short, the Bible comes to be judged by man, rather than the man judged by the Bible. We decide what is, and is not “God’s word” by our own mental capacities and philosophies rather than regulate our minds to the word of God, written. Scientism is the original lie: did God say? “Hey, Eve, look at the tree, discover it, taste it, touch it, feel it. It will make you feel good.” And then Eve thought, “it does look pleasing to the eyes, and it appears desirous for food.” Had she just stood on the revealed word of God, Satan would not have had a chance.