“5. HOW ARE THINGS LIKE ONE ANOTHER? (The problem of universals)
Seeing is believing is a saying that we run across from time to time. People will say that unless they can see, feel, smell, hear, or touch something, they do not believe that it exists or is real. Some would even say, Show me God and I will believe in Him. If you are looking for an answer to that question, check out the Skeptic’s Challenge question Does God Exist?
However, there are things that we believe that we do not see. Here we come to the problem of universals. What do we mean by that? Here is a little illustration that Dr. Greg Bahnsen would utilize. Duck is a universal. Ducks are not. When you see Huey, Dewey, and Louey out on the pond, they are ducks. But when we speak of them as being ducks we are referring to something that is not a duck. The word duck, d-u-c-k, is not a duck. When you put those letters together on a piece of paper, the word duck is not a duck. In other words, duckness as an idea is not out there on the pond.
To put it another way, there are likenesses in the world. Without them we would not be able to reason. Reason is a matter of finding out that a particular is a member of a class. We must have these universals.
It is impossible to reason only about particulars. For instance, we say That barn is red. What is the particular in that statement? Barn. But we are talking about something universal – the idea of red, or red-ness. If we burn that barn down, the idea of barn (barn-ness) still exists and so does red-ness. Even if we burned every barn in the world down, so that there is no particular instance of a barn, we would still have barn-ness.
Or, think of your name. If we were able to eliminate every single instance of your name in the world, removed from every document, every old homework assignment, mortgage, loan, every single one, would you still have a name?
What is the point? It is simply this: you cannot touch any of those likenesses. You cannot taste them. You cannot smell them. You cannot hear them. You cannot see them. They are not in the physical world anywhere!! So if you do not believe in anything other than what you can experience, then you must stop talking. For when you speak, you refer to things which on your view of the world cannot exist!!
So why do we call them likenesses?
The barn is red. Thus I can find a particular incidence of red, but I cannot find red-ness. If there is nothing but physical objects, they are particular physical objects. If they are only particular, then I cannot refer to them in the way that I do when is say this book, this table, this chair, this coffee because there is no such thing as book- ness, or coffee-ness if there are only physical things.
If you insist that only those things we can touch, see, hear, smell, taste, i.e. the physical world, exist, then we have to say that all reasoning must end. We cannot even be using words to express ourselves.
So why do you call them likenesses? You might be thinking, I can see there is a likeness between Huey, Dewey, and Louey. I see this and that and I say they are like one another. What I see I call a duck. I see a likeness between all things which are breathing in my house, and I call them human beings. So I see there are only particulars, and I see there is a likeness and I give a name to those.
You say there are only particulars in this world, but then you see a likeness between them. Show me the likeness. Do not show me Huey, Dewey or Louey, show me the likeness. I would like to smell duck-ness. Since it is something, it must have a smell. When you say that you see a likeness, you are seeing something that does not exist in your view of the world where nothing exists that is not physical. The likeness is not physical. The likeness is not physical.
In order to reason, you must use concepts, universals, likenesses, but your view of the world cannot account for them.
The truth is that you are using the Christian view of the world is order to claim that the Christian view of the world is wrong. Instead, you show that you do, in your heart of hearts, know that there is a God, but you do deny Him, as the Bible says, in unrighteousness.”
(Open Bible Christian Ministries)