Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture, Seminary Apologetics: Epistemological Issues: Foundationalist & Certainty.
-”Is there any knowledge in the world so certain that no reasonable man can doubt it?” (Bertrand Russell)
Rationalism, Empiricism and Idealism are all known as foundationalist approaches to knowledge. They are looking for a final foundation on which everything else can be built. The search for a foundation for knowledge is interchangeable for the search for certainty in our knowing. Every philosopher faces the question of what we can be certain of.
The Foundationalist effort to find infallible truths to serve the basis for certainty have been super-ceded by two schools of thought: Pragmatism and Linguistic Analysis.
According to him, knowledge should no longer be understood in terms of theoretical justification. Knowledge should no longer be understood as the final foundation of what I can be certain of. It should be understood actively in terms of man struggling to adapt to his environment. Someone can be said to know something if they solve their problems and adjust to his environment.
1. It is not accurate to describe what we mean by an expression only in terms of its cash value. There are many propositions whose meaning have nothing to do with my behavioral response at all.
2. The notion of verification of pragmatism presupposes the traditional notion of truth and certainty in order to be workable. The pragmatist says the meaning of sentence is its practical outworking. Sentences are true if they are confirmed. We can only know that the predictive elements are confirmed if we know what it is for something to be true. Something is confirmed when it matches with the truth.
3. John Dewey’s approach has involved in the very heart of it a contradiction/tension between his view of metaphysics and our epistemology. On the one hand, he says that everything is changing. One the other hand, in order to know that something is true, you must follow scientific universal procedures that apply to everything. If everything is changing, then what is scientific must be changing too.
Pragmatism in General
It says we should not be looking for certainty and a foundation for all other knowledge claims. We should rather ask what approaches are beneficial for accomplishing our ends. It is a consequentialist approach to epistemology. Things are known if we gain the consequences that we should.
1. What consequences should we be looking for? What should our aims be? There are so many different conflicting answers to these.
The best we can do is an analysis of the way we use language and work out the problems that have entered into our thinking because we have misused our language. When I ask you what time it is, you have no problem with the expression “time.” Philosophers take “time” and ask philosophical questions about what “time” is. All of a sudden it is difficult to give an answer. The difficulty arises when we take language out of ordinary discourse and place it into unfamiliar usages.
We take our traditional philosophical problems and place them back in their ordinary discourse. Then we analyze the ordinary discourse. He made some observations about the ordinary usage of the word “certainty.” He said everyone gets to the place beyond where we can go. He showed that people have a worldview that governs their use of language properly and improperly. He believed in the subjectivity of truth; it is not objective and universal.
Christians and Certainty
We must ask what would be the self-attesting transcendental groundwork for a Christian epistemology. What is it that would not have internal contradictions, answer skepticism, provide objectivity and the preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience? Van Til said it is the Christian worldview that does it. It is in God’s Word that we find the indubitable and infallible truths of that philosophy has been seeking.
“The claim that a basis for doubt is inconceivable is justified whenever a denial of that claim would violate the conditions of rational inquiry.”
How do we gain certainty? We must ask what are the preconditions of rational inquiry, so we can find what is indubitable.