In the first part of this series, we covered the foundational worldview fallacy of humanism, or naturalism. We saw its inability to escape its own inner contradictions. In this part, we cover points two and three of covenantal thinking: representation and law. Here we will cover the logical fallout of human autonomy in these terms: subjectivism/relativism and meaningless/nihilism.
Subjectivism and Relativism
Once the secularist has presupposed the worldview of naturalism, he has automatically adopted a subjective position. He has unwittingly destroyed the possibility of objective knowledge and communication by creating his worldview on an autonomous assumption. This sounds like an exaggeration. If, however, no overarching authority exists to definitively communicate truth to separate individuals, then each individual stands autonomously in his own experience.
This self-referential standing has as its basis nothing less than the individual, and can use as its tools of proof nothing more than that which the individual self can produce. Thus, when the naturalist speaks of “reason” and “evidence,” we must understand how his worldview logically limits these terms. While he practically operates as if his reasons and the evidence he experiences stand objectively for anyone to experience in the same way, we have already seen that he cannot prove this. He assumes an objective natural world, but since this assumption originates from the authority of his own mind (his decision), then his touted objectivity actually rests upon his personal assumption, and thus upon subjectivity. By “reason” and “evidence,” then, we can only understand him to mean his own personal reason and claims of evidence, and his own personal experiences cannot stand as authoritative for anyone but him (in fact, not even for him). Only if some overarching authority actually upholds the objectivity of the universe could we have any certainty that reason and evidence apply to people in general. In short, those who stand with autonomy also fall with autonomy.
This remains true no matter what theory of knowledge (including learning and communicating) the naturalist chooses to adopt or emphasize at any given moment.1 If he accepts reason alone as his standard (rationalism), then he still has no guarantee that his thoughts actually correspond to anything outside of him. This causes some problems. First, it denies the autonomous thinker any assurance that his thoughts and reasons—however exact they may be in his mental world of logic and mathematics—actually provide knowledge of the real world of tangible objects. After all, if only abstract truths of reason provide certainty, then how can we trust anything outside of that? As Dr. Frame puts it, “Rationalism seeks the most abstract knowledge possible, but in doing that it finds it can make no specific claims about the world.”2 Honestly, therefore, the rationalist cannot assure himself that anything but his immaterial thoughts actually provide knowledge. Thus, while his theory of rationalism sounds certain and strong, in practice it actually traps him in irrationalism, because he cannot truly know anything besides a small fraction of his own thoughts, if those.
If he cannot assure himself, then he certainly cannot assure anyone else, and therefore the autonomous thinker cannot communicate truth even if he had it. Anything he says can only arrive to another person as sense perceptions (audible voice, observed text, etc.), not deductive reasons. The listener may construct his or her own mental reasons from the perceptions he receives, but then those reasons will not be foundational for that person; these constructed reasons will themselves be derived from something other than pure reason. Each individual can at best manufacture their own pure reasons independent of other people or external stimulation. No one can definitively prove their reasons to another, because communication requires elements of knowledge beyond pure reasoning. It results from this, however, that we can never have a guarantee that the thoughts of any two people actually correspond in any two points. In short, rationalism destroys communication.
Thus, in attempting to guarantee knowledge, reason alone fails to assure the thinker of the simplest facts about the world around him. This standard logically traps the reasoner within the solitary confinement of his own mind: he cannot claim to know anything beyond his purest logical and mathematical thoughts, he cannot know any single fact about the world around him or another person, and he cannot communicate the tiny bit that he does know.
Yet, the classical alternative to “reason alone” knowledge fails just as badly. The standard of “evidence” falls under what philosophers have called “empiricism,” or knowledge gained solely through the human senses. This is the “seeing is believing” school of knowledge. Such a standard gains wide acceptance today due to the much popularized results of “science.” Only that which humans can detect, observe, measure, and manipulate do empiricists consider knowable, and thus attribute as the foundations of knowledge.
But this standard encounters problems as well. Most importantly, philosophers have long exposed the inconsistency of empiricism because it simply fails its own test. The claim, “Only that is true which can be verified empirically,” cannot itself be verified empirically. We have no evidence that proves that only evidence provides truth, or even that it provides any truth. Therefore, to maintain the basic commitment of empiricism requires the autonomous thinker to make a totally unsupported and unsupportable assumption. Thus the adoption of this standard requires the subjective choice of the thinker in which the ultimate authority is the individual.
In addition, “evidence only” thinking ignores many other things: that our senses often deceive us; that science involves a great deal of untestable theory and theory-laden instrumentation in its application; that science includes interpretation, evaluation, and other fallible human input (even downright lying in some cases); that human experience is affected and limited by cultural, personal, and societal expectations and other factors; and, therefore, that scientists often miss facts that contradict their theories. Likewise, “evidence” can never prove a universal claim (such as “All men are mortal”), justify a universal law (such as E=mc2), or provide any knowledge about the future—all because sense experience limits knowledge to the here and now, and cannot pontificate about anything beyond that.3
Finally, like “reason alone,” “evidence alone” also destroys communication. If knowledge is limited to what the senses tell the mind, then no one can ever be sure that what exists in someone else’s mind even approximates what occurs in his own. In reality, sensory knowledge amounts to little more than what our minds tell us we have processed. A million deceptions could have crept in between any real world out there, or any other person, and what the brain tells the individual. The only certainty comes in the fact that the individual experiences something. Once again, this theory of knowledge traps its sensor within his own mind, and denies any certainty or specificity to the alleged facts of his knowledge.
If the autonomous thinker grows clever and attempts—as many have—to combine these two classical theories of knowledge, he must still essentially work with two leaky buckets. No matter how you try to carry the two together—which one you place inside the other—the combination will still not hold water. No arrangement of the two will, and no theory based on the two will. As the former atheist Antony Flew admitted, when arguing the failure of piling up multiple “evidences” as a cumulative proof for God’s existence, “If one leaky bucket will not hold water that is no reason to think that ten can.”4 What Flew unwittingly illustrated, however, was not only the failure of “evidence only” thinking to prove the existence of God, but the failure of any human-centered theory of knowledge to prove anything. Without the existence of a Creator of an objective world, a self-authenticating revealing God, and an ultimate Judge of truth and falsity, we have no guarantee that human reason and experience actually correspond to reality or that the experiences of individual human beings actually occur within an intelligible, social, and mutually accountable environment. Otherwise, the human mind can only arbitrarily assume that objectivity and knowledge exist, thus contradicting the very ideas of objectivity and knowledge.
Thus we see that the first fallout of naturalism is subjectivity, which ultimately manifests itself in society as “relativism.” The teaching of relativism says that what is true for one person may not be true for another, and truth in one day and age changes as time progresses. This denial of absolute truths (like, for example, You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) logically leads to the denial of absolute laws and meaning. The second fallout results: nihilism.
Nihilism and Meaninglessness
If man cannot know anything for certain, it takes only the setting of the sun of personal illusions to darken all hope. Cynicism, apathy, and selfishness emerge as the virtues of a generation. If we can know nothing for certain, and all truth grows relative to the individual in any given time and situation, then, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Let us get a few kicks before we go.
Why does this make so much sense? Because if we can know nothing with certainty, then even if any moral laws exist, we cannot know them with certainty either. Even if a god exists, if we cannot definitively know him or be certain of his revelation (so the autonomous reasoner must reason) then he becomes meaningless. In fact, if we can know nothing for certain, then everything becomes ultimately meaningless to us. Some philosophers have gone so far as to state that relativism means not only that nothing has meaning, but that nothing exists, but this extreme position does little more damage than its sister-philosophy nihilism—the belief that no values, truth, or morals actually exist, but mankind has manufactured all of them. As products of man, they have no genuine authority and carry no obligation for anyone. Therefore, every individual stands free to create his own rules. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes.
The more people give in to this philosophy of personal godhood, the more civilization will devolve into self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, self-gratification. Once they have denied the Personal Creator God, they must logically believe that knowledge and communication are impossible, and therefore all law and responsibility disappear as well. The universe becomes a giant pit of subatomic particles blindly mauling one another for preeminence, the alleged apex of which chaotic brawl we term “consciousness.” Then consciousness creates metaphors to understand its journey from nothingness: the universe is a series of small cranes erecting larger cranes which eventually create complex superstructures like sponges and jellyfish, human beings, giraffes, horned frogs, howler monkeys, and vampire fish. Yet despite whatever poetry we create to describe them, these have all arisen from the same chaos: meaninglessness acting upon nothingness producing a cosmic jungle in which even our pretended illusion “arisen from” is a meaningless personal judgment.
What began as a sea of colliding atoms emerges as a struggle for survival between trillions of living things, including (incidentally) about six billion human beings. Logically—aside from all purported atheistic theories of society—life after the philosophy of meaninglessness and nihilism can only become some type of interpersonal struggle.
In the final installment, we will see how the concept of “struggle” fills the humanistic version of points four and leads into five: sanctions/change and inheritance/succession. We will see the devastating logical progress of denying the biblical God result in evolution, jihad, war, and the idea of the self-authored superman.
This series is taken from the author’s Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice.
- The following points I have distilled in general from Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and others, but specifically from John Frame’s helpful analysis in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 111–122. [↩]
- Frame, Knowledge of God, 114. [↩]
- Frame, Knowledge of God, 116–118. [↩]
- Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1966), 63. [↩]