September 19, 2020

The Council

Proclaiming the truth to the world.

I was asked about universals and I asked Jimmy to comment upon the issue. Here were his thoughts:

Scott the Classical Apologist:

Reflecting on our conversation last week, in terms of the form and matter conception, do you hold that there is a common nature between, let’s say, a German shepherd and a Great Dane (in the example of Dogness)?

If yes, how would you describe that?
If no, how would you describe that?

Jimmy Stephens:

This is where Van Til can be so readily yet so mistakenly taken for an idealist. Because formally Van Til agrees with them- the idealists. Van Til understood, as in their own confused but common graced arguments the idealists understood, that whatever a thing is it must be resolved in terms of the absolute. It must participate in a system that unifies and differentiates positively every fact, universal and particular

What is a dog? That question cannot be answered without saying something about what an animal is. But to say something about animals we would have to talk about organisms, living entities. But to say what an organism is, we need to know the difference between living and non-living things, and so must know more about the universe in which they inhere. But then we must know ultimate reality itself.

But of course, the other black hole presents itself. How do we know what universals are empty of particulars? What is “logic” without the laws? What are laws or rules about thought without minds capable of behavior? How are these minds without the concrete, first-person experience of persons?

The idealists recognized a problem among their peers. You cannot have the many without the one, and the one must install the many just as the many exhaust the one. The “concrete universal” Bradley called it. What the idealists lacked was a counter. Like their peers, they fell into impersonalism (e.g., the Universal Judgment), reductionism (e.g., projecting metaphors of mentality), and subjectivism.

The nature of a dog is what God thinks of a dog, the way God creatively conceives a dog. The genius of Van Til was to see that in God’s perfect self-consciousness He is enabled to have exhaustive knowledge of His creation. And in virtue of that omniscience, that all-encompassing plan of God whereby all universals and particulars are held together in unity and diversity, God grounds the nature of a dog.

This is why human knowledge presupposes God’s knowledge. Because only by having access to God in His revelation can we have access to the cosmic definitions of other concepts. If I do not know a chair in a way that image God’s image of a chair, then I could have no inkling of a chair. Dogness, too, is grasped when it is located in terms of the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, with Christ as protagonist, and Trinitarian revelation as thesis.

There’s a line I vaguely remember from Defense of the Faith that completely reopened my eyes to the holiness of God. Van Til remarks that often Christians are duped into thinking the crux of deism and pantheism is that they only get half the orange. Deism emphasizes too much transcendence. Pantheism emphasizes too much immanence. Van Til points out that in abstracting transcendence or immanence from God, the unbeliever loses both in the process, and ends up with no deity whatsoever.

Relevance: in idealism, there is thought to be a basic univocity to all things. The absolute is thought to be a concrete universal precisely because all things participate in it even as it contains everything ready to manifest in itself. It is the cousin of pantheism. The one-many thus becomes a reduced one-many: a concrete universal in the image of man’s mind, not God’s.

Contrarily, Van Til agrees with Bavinck and takes the latter’s biblical zealotry for God’s holiness to its maximum extent. God alone is self-contained. He is not merely the whole, not merely the system of creation, not merely the most important puzzle piece. The original universals and particulars are found in the unity and Trinity of God and are only after the voluntary creation and condescension of God are they made available to His creation.

Contrarily again, the idealists do not have a gracious Lord moving down to us. We move up, from the generative act of thought we gradually come to fuller unity with the one that encompasses all thought. The god of this system is the “free” mind, which really means those mystical enough to agree with Hegel or Bradley or Bosanquet or McTaggart- mere men.

For Van Til- obviously more importantly, in Scripture, God comes down to man in the work of Christ. The Gospel is the return of God to man, man in the presence of His creator, to find satisfaction in Jesus. That’s why Van Til’s apologetic is uniquely suited to argue that nothing less than the Gospel is necessary.

Chris Matthew:

How exactly would you articulate the problem with supernatural cosmogonies that purport to hybridise monism and reductionism (a la Plato)? I suspect that part of the problem is that it’s bereft of a self-contained God, where universals exists with every particular and every particular exemplifies every universal. But perhaps you can cash that out further.

I suppose you could also advance a leaky bucket objection, but I’m not sure what that would like in this context ─ certainly not without shooting oneself in the foot.

Jimmy Stephens:

I think there are multiple problems, but two seem to be lurking in every dualist view. One is the classic interaction problem, stated more starkly. We can run a transcendental critique that employs such a problem toward wider skepticism about metaphysics than its normal use by monists and mysterians.

The second problem is epistemic. We might call it the problem of individuation or abstraction, but neither sides need to be emphasized. This has to do with our meta-epistemology preserving our access both to univerals (and things like induction) and particulars (so things like deduction).

The interaction problem is Aristotle’s third man. Plato needs something to ground the relation of Form and Becoming. In doing so, he abandons and trivializes the Forms and their explanatory power. If he avoids a metaphysical tertium quid, then Form and Becoming relate in an impersonal void: it’s a brute fact they relate.

Aristotle, contra people set on duping our friend @Boe Jiden, fails not in similar fashion, but in exactly the same way. Form and matter, property and substance, essence and accident meet in the metaphor of a comingling or mixture, but are otherwise conceptually divided. Otherwise, all we have is a propertarian atomism. What then unites these two metaphysical categories, form and matter? Aristotle can employ formless matter or pure form, but then he has abandoned his own framework- to paraphrase Rupert Sheldrake, “Give me one miracle, and I’ll explain the whole universe” (very convenient). But if Aristotle takes the route of brute fact, we are back in the global skepticism of anything-goes.

The problem this suggests present in dualisms of this sort lurks in the incommensurability of two impersonal categories. Even oil and water mix because of overarching chemical law, undergirding atomic interactions. No such universals and particulars relate the two principles of any dualism.

The second problem is easier to understand for some. Plato solved it almost as poorly as Parmenides’ Procrustean method. He left experience for “memory” of the Forms. Aristotle pretends to be the affable proto-scientist many unbelievers paint him to be. Except for that one time he decided human minds can magically “poof” universals from particular experience.

On the one hand, with Bahnsen, we can point out that insofar as the particular has all universality abstracted, it is reduced to a brute fact. This suffers the same skepticism nominalism breeds. For if particulars can obtain utterly extracted of universality, then all particulars are just brute facts.

On the other hand, with Oliphint, we can point out that insofar as the universal retains no particularity from its supposed referent, it can no longer refer at all. A class is only as good as its ability to group referents. By removing the referents, the class is empty, and cannot then be conceptually connected to individuals we might otherwise declare part of the class.

So much for Aristotle solving the problem of the one and the many- cough, @Boe Jiden, cough