Thursday, January 6, 2011

Rain, Mother, and Gordon H. Clark

Philosophers are notoriously difficult to read. Many of them are poor writers and in addition to this they are usually dealing with difficult concepts and arguments. Even if you find a philosopher who is able to write in a clear and readable way you must pay very close attention to how he or she defines the terms that they use. Failure to do this will often cause a great deal of consternation because usually understanding their conclusions depend upon a solid grasp of the concepts (and terms) they use. No exception is the Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark. I pointed out in a previous post that that once you finish reading or listening to him you often have to go back and check to see if he really said what you thought you heard or read, and quite often he did.

One of the most remarkable and difficult of Clark’s positions for most people to accept is his theory of knowledge. Clark taught that the only knowledge that was possible to human beings was that which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures or could be logically deduced from them. Recently someone told me that they heard (in a recording) Dr. Clark claim that a man could not know that it was raining outside unless he was able to deduce that truth from the bible. The person thought that this was absolutely ridiculous and was sure that they must be misunderstanding what he meant. They asked me if Clark was basically insane (perhaps too many hours in the library).

Let me say first that if he said it I believe Dr. Clark was absolutely serious about that statement. Let me also say that I do not think he was insane. A full explanation of Clark’s theory of knowledge or the philosophical and theological factors that went into its development is well beyond what can be handled in a blog post but there are a few basic things that I may be able to share that will make understanding his position a bit easier.

First, as I indicated in the first paragraph it is essential to pay close attention to the way Clark defines his terms. Like most philosophers he often does not use terms in the way that they would be used in common conversation. Because language is ambiguous philosophers (at least the good ones) precisely define their terms. Once you understand what they mean by their words it becomes a bit easier to follow their reasoning.

Clark taught that only propositions could be the objects of knowledge. The reason for this is because he believed that in order for something to be considered to be “knowledge” it must be true. A false belief, in his view, cannot be considered to be knowledge. You cannot properly “know” something if you are mistaken about it. Likewise you cannot “know” something that is neither true nor false. According to Clark since truth is a property of logical propositions only logical propositions with a positive truth value can be objects of knowledge. Most of the things that we claim to “know” are not really known at all but merely opined. This view significantly restricts what it is that humans can actually know.

Clark then further restricts the potential of human knowledge by limiting the set of propositions that can be known to those revealed or resulting from those that are revealed. According to Clark, no propositions derived from sensation or experience can be certain to be true. His criticisms of empirical theory are quite numerous and some are sophisticated but they tend to be similar to those historically given by other rationalists. He points out for example that nobody can know anything about a tree as a result of experience because nobody ever actually experiences a tree. We experience instead disjointed impulses of color, texture, etc. to which our minds assign the category of tree. We cannot therefore ever actually experience anything as it is in itself. He goes on to point out that even if we could, such experience would be insufficient to establish conclusively the truth of any likewise derived propositions because all sensation and experience based conclusions suffer from the logical fallacy of induction. The next sensation may imply a different state of affairs.

He even goes so far as to deny that on this basis a man can know his own mother or even himself. He argued that when we use a term like “mother” we are actually referring to a complex set of propositions. We cannot establish the truth of the entire set of propositions which comprise our concept of “mother” or “self”. He claimed that only God can know the complete truth about any person, even oneself.

Clark believed that philosophers had underestimated the force of the skeptic’s arguments. In some ways Clark has certain things in common with postmodern philosophers whose theories he would undoubtedly detest. Clark, however, was absolutely determined to uphold absolute truths and avoid pure skepticism. In order to do this he makes an appeal that is as much theological as philosophical. Clark, remaining consistent with his orthodox Reformed Protestant heritage asserted the inerrancy of the bible. He argued that since the bible was God’s revealed word it was the only set of propositions that could be said to be reliably true. In everything else humans may be mistaken but the bible was TRUTH. Clark therefore makes the propositions of scripture the axioms for his theory of knowledge (and his philosophy in general) and all knowledge must therefore be taken from there. Those propositions are unquestionably true and therefore other propositions logically and properly deduced from them must also be true. Nothing else could ever rise to that level of certainty.

A man may therefore believe that he is standing in the rain and respond accordingly but he cannot “know” it is raining unless he can find it taught in the scriptures or deduce it from teaching that is found there. It is controversial and perhaps even radical but it is logically consistent (assuming you believe the bible is completely true) and not as crazy as it first sounds.

This is a rather incomplete explanation of his view and there are many criticisms and difficulties that he addresses and attempts to answer that I have neglected to mention. I hope to have shown, however, that such a strange statement as that which so bothered my friend was not just some nonsense to be quickly dismissed. 


  1. I appreciate this post KG. I struggle with guys like Plantinga and others, Clark not so much because I've reading and discussing his work for a number of years. Just the other night I was thinking about his epistemology and lately I've been thinking his right, outside of Scripture what can we "know" with absolute certainty? I have to do some more thinking on this...

  2. I love Gordon Clark!