Apologetics: Facts and Presuppositions
Adapted from Word of Flux: Modern Man and the Problem of Knowledge
The problem which confronts all non-Christian philosophies, and all ostensibly Christian philosophies which presuppose to any degree the autonomy of man and a world of brute factuality, is very simply this: How can brute facts ever be anything more than brute facts?
For a consistent and biblically governed faith, all the facts of nature and history are the creation of the triune God. The facts of nature and history are totally governed by the God who ordained them and created them and who, by His eternal decree and comprehensive counsel, absolutely undergirds their every detail. All facts are thus God-given facts. As Van Til stated it, “All that may be known by man is already known by God. And it is already known by God because it is controlled by God”1 All knowledge therefore is of God-created and God-interpreted facts.
The history of modern philosophy witnesses to the fact that, on the premise of the autonomy of man in a world of brute factuality, knowledge becomes a critical problem and, indeed, impossible. Philosophy is not a game nor an undergraduate exercise; when philosophy, in developing the implications of its premises, is unable to account for the reality of our everyday experience and common knowledge, we have every right to question the validity of those premises.
When we reject the God of Scripture and posit a universe of brute factuality, we do create for ourselves some very serious problems. The idea of brute factuality does eliminate the Creator God of Scripture, but it leaves us with a perhaps infinite number of brute facts, totally irrational and impervious to reason, having no pre-established pattern or meaning and being thus essentially isolated and autonomous facts. As an existentialist, autonomous man can deny that he has any essence, any God-given nature and determination; he may insist that he has being and must make or define his own essence. Then, however, all other men and all other facts in the universe are in the same status: they have no essence, no pre-established pattern, no meaning, and hence no definition. In such a situation, nothing can be known if a man is faithful to his presuppositions.
The consistent Christian position must be a demand that men must be consistent to their basic starting-point, to their presupposition. Their implicit metaphysical and epistemological principles will, if systematically carried out, require the unbeliever to admit his impasse. The point of Van Til’s negative apologetics is to push the unbeliever to a recognition of his premises and of their inability to furnish him with any valid knowledge. The Christian must especially challenge the idea of neutrality. “In spite of this claim to neutrality on the part of the non-Christian, the Reformed apologist must point out that every method, the supposedly neutral one no less than any other, presupposes either the truth or the falsity of Christian theism.”2
Facts are what our presuppositions assume them to be. If our presupposition is consistently Christian, the facts we confront are God-created and are governed, like ourselves, by His predestinating counsel. If our presuppositions are grounded on autonomous man in a world of brute factuality, then the reference point in all thinking is that omnipresent brute factuality. It is our presupposition that makes facts intelligible and determines what a fact is. Before we approach a “fact,” our presupposition has determined what constitutes a “fact,” so that when we ask, what is a “fact”?, we can answer the question only by looking at our presupposition.
The unbeliever does have valid knowledge because he does not think consistently in terms of his premises. He assumes a uniformity and order in nature; he proceeds on the presupposition that reality is not total irrationality but does in fact have a pattern which is rational and comprehensible. As a result, he does gain knowledge by assuming that the world is what God made it to be, while at the same time denying God and creation.
Thus, when man makes his reason an autonomous judge over all things, he also withdraws rationality from the universe in that it is no longer the handiwork of God and therefore open to reason because the absolute rationality of God created and governs it. Man then sees himself as pure reason and the universe as pure brute factuality, irrational factuality.
For the consistent Christian thinker, because God is the maker of all things and their governor in terms of His eternal decree, there are no brute facts for God. With respect to His own person, God is totally self-conscious, and potentiality and actuality are one in Him; there is no unconsciousness in God nor any hidden and undeveloped possibilities. With regard to creation, “God’s interpretation logically precedes the denotation and the connotation of all facts of which it consists.”3 Instead of beginning with brute facts, we begin with the God who created all facts, and all facts are meaningful and open to reason. The Christian position makes science possible, because it establishes the validity of a total pattern in all factuality. The only true explanation of every fact is in God, and therefore to operate on borrowed premises, to assume a pattern while failing to acknowledge either the pattern or its source, is to be inconsistent. The necessary self-existence of God must be our starting-point. “Accordingly, the various hypotheses that are to be relevant to the explanation of phenomena must be consistent with this fundamental presupposition. God is the presupposition of the relevancy of any hypothesis.”4
1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 116. 2. Ibid. 117. 3. Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences, 56. 4. Ibid. 63.