Friday, January 12, 2007

No Good Reason To Be An Atheist: Part I - Relativism

The following multi-part series is taken from a presentation that I gave Summer '06 at the "No Other Gods" Apologetics Conference. It is useful to read this information so as to become acquainted with the various strands of unbelief plaguing the modern secular mind. The topics covered will be Relativism, Foundationalism, Pragmatism/utilitarianism, and finally Christian Transcendentalism. Take your time reading this material, and if you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at Pastor Dusty


In this presentation I am not going to discuss all the individual problems of the various strands of atheism (which will change from atheist to atheist in a “buffet bar” fashion), but I hope to present the various epistemologies (theories of knowledge) that undergird the thinking of atheists, the major flaws of those epistemologies, and the proper, biblical solution.

The 5th century before Jesus saw the rise of a group of teachers in Greece, a group which included men like Protagoras, Anhippius, Thrasimacus, and Gorgeus which came to be called the Sophists. The Gk. Term sophistes was used to denote one who was “wise” or “a skilled one” and came to be originally applied to such men because they were skilled in rhetoric and debate and they made their living teaching grammar, linguistics, and especially wisdom about mankind and political theory. By the 2nd century before Christ the term “sophist” had generally come to denote a teacher of rhetoric, someone who was paid to teach a young man learn to master, and most importantly manipulate argumentation so as to persuade his political order or those within his sphere of influence in a particular direction. In his dialogue titled Sophist, Plato doesn’t treat such teachers as genuine seekers after truth, but rather indicates a great disdain for the Sophists as men who were concerned only with making money and securing success in argumentation by any means necessary. So, given the history, the Sophist in Plato’s day pretty much had the reputation of what a politician has in ours; a man who can get himself ahead and get his own way, and Plato didn’t like that.

Above all, what the Sophist represented was a frontal attack upon traditional ideas and the teaching of relativism, which in turn lead to epistemological and moral skepticism. It was at that point that Plato was stung philosophically and said, “there has to be a reaction.” The common, fundamental sophistic doctrines included the doctrine that we can’t know anything but our sense impressions. We even hear that today from atheists and we’ve even had some Christian apologists who tell us things like that – that all we can know is what our senses bring to us. Well, once you begin with that kind of theory of knowledge and learn something about the way a man’s conceptualization effects what his senses tell him then it’s a very natural step to relativism because the way I perceive the world is going to depend upon my social setting, my upbringing, my conceptual scheme, my personality, and any number of other things that would not seem to have any necessary connection with the truth. So, the Sophist believed that men could only know things by their sense impressions, and of course the famous saying which is at the heart of humanism, the doctrine that man is the measure of all things – the standard by which everything is evaluated is man, and in particular, the individual man.

Another doctrine of theirs was that universal truths do not exist. To the sophist, there was no truth which holds in all societies and at all times, or any truths about universals and as well, that truth is simply a matter of convention. It is important to note that Socrates, and Plato, and Aristotle all in their own ways reacted strongly against the absurdity of Sophistic doctrine and the horrible results it was bringing for man’s knowledge and man’s society. Since the classical days of philosophical polemic, it has just naturally become the case that issues in communication theory, rhetoric, or debate have been closely intertwined with fundamental questions in philosophy, and in particular, intertwined with the fundamental questions of epistemology – the theory of knowledge. The doctrines upon which the modern masters of debate and speech proceed are philosophical doctrines and the doctrines that modern philosophers master are the doctrines which lead naturally out to theories of communication, debate, and rhetoric. The all important question across the centuries in epistemology, and therefore an underlying issue throughout the centuries in philosophy is this question: Is there any knowledge that can count as certain? Can we be certain of anything?

Bertrand Russell, who was perhaps the most prolific 20th century philosopher opened his treatment of the book The Problems of Philosophy in 1912 (1st ed.) with these words,

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man can doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy, for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions. And what is the most ultimate question in philosophy? Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man can doubt it?

In epistemology (the theory of knowledge), this question has been a critical one for philosophers. The philosophical scholar not only discusses what reality is and what moral obligations mankind has but he must also ask “How do we know that these things are so, how do we know that reality is this way, how do we know that we have this moral duty?” You can’t avoid such questions when studying the theory of knowledge in philosophy any more than a marine biologist can avoid the ocean. Studying epistemology is just the context in which we do philosophy. While it is certainly not the whole of philosophy, epistemology has dominated philosophy since the 17th century and its crucial questions still hold their intellectual challenge even today, especially as it relates to the multiplicities of religious worldviews. So, the burning question is, “Is there any knowledge in the world of which we can be certain? Can anything be known for sure? Can skepticism be answered?”

Such questions as these have been a key motivation in the development of epistemology. In 1934, the guiding spirit of the Vienna Circle (which is from whence the modern analytic movement came), the founder of that movement wrote in the article the Foundation of Knowledge,

All important attempts at establishing a theory of knowledge grow out of the problem concerning the certainty of human knowledge. And this problem in turn originates in the wish for absolute certainty. The insight that the statements of daily life in science can at best be only probable has again and again stimulated philosophers since ancient times to search for an unshakeable, indubitable foundation, a firm basis on which the uncertain structure of our knowledge could rest.[1]

And so the problem of epistemic certainty looms large in the theory of knowledge and thereby has determinative significance for all of philosophy. In Hamlin’s text on epistemology, he writes, “The search for indubitable and infallible truths is therefore a common feature of traditional epistemology.” So epistemology involves the search for certainty.

It is on that note that I’d like to foreshadow what we’re going to end up looking at in some detail by the end of the hour. The search for certainty has lead philosophers into various ways of answering the questions, “How do we find certainty? Do we need certainty?” things like that. Now Christians apologists have done two things (the vast majority have done the one and I’m in the small minority that does the other). The vast majority say (1) we let the secular world determine the standards for obtaining epistemic certainty and then we as Christians come along and say ‘we can meet those standards.’ So, we pass the test of those standards, therefore, you can say Christianity is certain. Now, it doesn’t take any sophisticated work in epistemology or logic to see that if that is your general approach, even if you can get to the conclusion that Christianity is certain (and I don’t believe anybody has done that, I mean there’s a whole lot more in-house talking amongst Christians about the certainty of our faith than there is conviction outside), but even if you get to that, you get to it at a very high price because Christianity becomes certain at the cost of what? Something being more certain that it; namely, those standards set by the secular world!

So whenever you have an apologetic system that argues, “You tell me what the standards of truth and certainty are and I’ll meet those standards and then you’ll see Christianity is true” - even if you get to that conclusion, you have to grant to your opponent that there is something of higher epistemic authority; namely, those very standards that have been delivered to you and by which you measured the truthfulness of Christianity.

Now there’s another fatal defect that goes beyond this; which is if you use this approach for defending the Christianity, you will also end up saying, “. . . and you don’t need Christianity for your standards.” Christianity at best becomes the conclusion of the system, not the heart of the system. You not only say that Christianity is less certain that those secular standards, you’ll end up indirectly saying that those secular standards make sense on their own. This is what Reformed theologians have called autonomy. Something is autonomous when it’s independent, when it’s self-sufficient, when it’s a law unto itself.[2] So, if we prove Christianity is certain by this method, we do so as the cost of granting that secular standards are more certain and that secular standards are autonomous. And, if I were an unbeliever that had some knowledge of philosophy and I realized that these were the implications of the approach I’d say “Even though you’ve proven the resurrection to me, I don’t need Christianity because my standards are sufficient as far as they go. And consequently, Christianity is at best an appendix to my system and not the heart of it. That’s one approach that is taken.

Another approach from a Christian standpoint, is to say, “There can be no certainty regarding anything without Christianity.” Now, on that approach, instead of taking one standard that somebody else gives you, showing that you pass that standard, then concluding that Christianity is true, instead you say, “We can take anything in the world that anybody claims to know (i.e., “I know that that’s my car.” “I know that gasoline is combustible at 70 degrees” “I know that rape is wrong.”), anything that a person knows and challenge them to show how they could possibly know it if the Christian worldview were not true. This is really a turning of the tables – we’re saying that there can be no standards without Christianity. There can be no absolute standards, nothing can be known with certainty without the Christian worldview. Of course, that’s a much bolder claim and you can understand why people would shy away from it because it would seem to lead to the conclusion that unbelievers don’t know anything. But that isn’t what it leads to at all, it leads to the conclusion that unbelievers can know a lot of things, they just can’t account for what they know. Again, they can still know many things, but they can’t give an account of what they know. As Cornelius Van Til used to say, “Unbelievers can count, but they can’t account for their accounting.” So, unbelievers know plenty. My unbelieving physical therapy co-workers know a lot about anatomy, exercise physiology and so forth. But, if the Christian worldview were not true, my unbelieving co-workers couldn’t know anything about bones and muscles and couldn’t do their job. So, my unbelieving co-workers have a job in physical therapy not because their worldview is right, but because my worldview is right. Even though they are taking the measurements of joint angles, strength, and cardiac output, it’s only on the basis of a Christian outlook on life that anything makes sense. Science, math, morals, human dignity, or whatever else you can think of has its epistemological root in Christian theism. So, that should give you a heads up as to where I’m going.


Now, there are many kinds of relativism. All of them however are best understood as reactions stimulated by advances in anthropology and the sociology of knowledge; advances which point to the diverse ways in which people see the truth. Now you have to catch that, these advances in anthropology point out the diverse ways in which people see the world or see the truth. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes, “Fire burns both in Hellus and in Persia, but men’s ideas of right and wrong vary from place to place.” Now that is a very pithy illustration of relativism. Fire burns everywhere you look, and yet, when you talk about morals, ideas of morals vary from place to place. There’s clearly a difference between what happens when I learn about fire burning and when I talk about whether murder or adultery is wrong. The relativist has this going for him (and I think we must grant this – I would do so), he recognizes the importance of social environment, conceptual scheme, and other sorts of things in determining the content of a person’s beliefs. Secondly, the relativist notes the possibility of a great diversity in such environment, conceptual, scheme, so forth. So, there are things which affect a man’s beliefs: his social upbringing, his conceptual scheme, his expectations. . . and there’s a great diversity in people’s social upbringing, their conceptual scheme, their expectations, and all the rest. So the relativist is certainly correct in noting all these things.

The question of course, is whether these accurate observations should lead us to infer that there are no universal or absolute truths? You see, its one thing to say that there’s all these things working on a person’s belief system, and there’s all this diversity of belief systems, but it’s another thing to say, therefore nothing is absolutely true. In fact there is a tremendous philosophical gap between the true observation of subjective factors in knowledge to the conclusion that everything is subjective, everything’s relative. I think I can illustrate the problem in relativism by beginning with an easy example . . . let me deal with ethical relativism for a moment because we run into this all the time. Think of the maxim (this is a pretty good expression of relativism) “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The inference is “When in America, do as the Americans do” . . it may be a different country, but the basic message is that you need to get along with your society. So, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Now, is that a specific and categorical universal standard of conduct? When a person says “When in Rome do as the Romans do” is he saying this is universally true? (i.e., Is this is a specific, categorical obligation we are under?) Well it’s hard to see how it could be interpreted otherwise. It certainly does seem like advice you’d follow in all cases: “Get along with the society in which you find yourself.” But you see then a very great difficulty arises because the relativist has come around to stating “the universal standard is that there are no universal standards!” Or to put it another way (just as much tongue in cheek) “the relativist is absolutely sure about his relativism.” But you see if I were a consistent relativist I shouldn’t be relative about my relativism either (i.e., not absolute about it). So when you say “everything is relative” you must at least exclude the remark that “everything is relative.” So, you can see that in morals and that’s just as much true in epistemological or conceptual relativism. To be a relativist about fact is to maintain that there is no such thing as objective knowledge of reality as being independent of the knower. And so the parallel difficulty here is to avoid (if you hold that position), to avoid the inconsistent claim that the relativistic thesis is itself an item of objective knowledge. O.k. so, we have the learned professors of epistemology but you still have these people who say, “There is no absolute truth.” And you notice I put that in quotes because that’s also an item to be considered. Here’s some other relativistic claims that people often make: “Water is wet. Murder is wrong. This discussion is long.” O.k. Now, is water wet? Somebody would say, “Well that’s relative of course depending upon you know, where you come from. Some people that live in watery environments might not observe the wetness of water as much as people who live in dry climates and so uh, the wetness of water is going to be relative to certain factors. Is murder wrong? Well, that’s a real big one, and forgetting of course that murder is defined as that killing which is wrong . . we might say “killing is wrong” here. Now that’s going to be debatable isn’t it? Not everybody agrees with that one and as to the length of this discussion, some of you might have thought that it should’ve been over five minutes ago, others are saying “Oh this is really getting good, let’s keep going” you know, so everything’s relative right? Whether the wetness of water or the wrongness of murder or the longness of this lecture. So the relativist says “There’s my point, there’s my point, there’s my point” and then I turn around and say “Here’s another one we can relativize: “There is no absolute truth.” Since there is no absolute truth, then this is not absolutely true, that is not absolutely true, on and on and on it goes like an infinite regress. And lo and behold, of all the English sentences we can consider here’s another English sentence “That one can’t be absolutely true either!” So, the statement: “There is no absolute truth” cannot be absolutely true if there is no absolute truth! So, you see the difficulty in epistemological relativism, it’s like the person who gets so hungry he starts eating his toes and just can’t stop until he just finally devours himself. Now, what are we going to do to escape epistemological relativism? Let me give you a few quotes. Gordon Coffin in his book Relativism, Knowledge, and Faith writes,

That is, relativistic theories presuppose the very concept of objective validity which they allegedly destroy. And without such presupposition they lose all meaning. For if they do not themselves claim to be objectively valid and true, we have no reason for taking any of the statements and the theories seriously. But if they do make such claims, then it is evident that certain kinds of statements and theories, at least those of the relativist, must be exempt from determination by non-rational, non-logical situational factors. And thus, it is not true that all of man’s knowledge and truth is relative.

So, the second thing we’ve noted here is that there’s a search for certainty in philosophy but epistemological relativism is self-refuting and so now we’re back on the road to finding certainty. How are we going to do that? We’ll in part two of this series, we'll turn our attention to the common varieties of foundationalism.

[1] Moritz Schlick, Foundation of Knowledge, 1934.

[2] Autonomy comes from the Greek autonomia, which literally means “self-law.”