The Infinite Regress for Revelational Epistemology

[This idea is inspired by a very similar regress problem as set out in a draft version of ‘On Knowledge Without God: Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and Divine Deception by Daniel Linford and Jennifer Benjamin.]

Traditionally, it is held that there are two ways of gaining knowledge; either through the senses, or through the use of pure reason. These carry the names of ‘a posteriori’ and ‘a priori’ knowledge respectively. While a priori knowledge can be known with certainty, it is also devoid of any content about the world; one can deduce that the interior angles of a triangle sum to 180º, but not whether any actual triangles exist. In contrast, a posteriori knowledge provides genuine content about the world, but can always be doubted; my senses are telling me that it is daytime, but perhaps I am dreaming. So one has a sort of certainty but no content, one has content but no certainty.

Some presuppositional apologists try to have the best of both worlds, with a third type of epistemological category; revelation. This has the content of a posteriori knowledge, but with the certainty of a priori knowledge; one can know that God exists ‘in such a way that they can be certain’. It is an impressive claim, but one which I think is susceptible to an infinite regress.

There is a simple apologetic mantra, often used by presuppositionalists, about the impossibility of having this type of knowledge unless you are on the right side of the creator of the universe. It says that ‘unless you knew everything, or were told by someone who did, it would be impossible to be certain about any matter of fact’. The obvious implication is that only by being directly revealed something by God can we come to know it for certain. Let’s try to put this clearly:

Revelation)    x can know p for certain if and only if God has revealed to x that p.

I claim that there is a problem for this idea; that it faces an infinite regress. The problem has to do with the possibility of mistaken claims of revelation.

So imagine a person, let’s call him Sye, who thinks that they have had a revelation from God that p is true. In addition, let’s also imagine that some other person, let’s call him Ahmed, thinks that he has had a revelation from God that ~p is true (i.e. that p is false). Now, if we asked him about this, Sye is clearly going to say that only he is correct in this matter. Sye would say that poor old Ahmed mistakenly thinks he has had a revelation when he has not.

But the question would become ‘how can Sye know this?’ Imagine that Sye offers up something about his revelation that he claimed made the difference, and according to which he could tell that his revelation was genuine, and not a mistake. This could only be something relating to the way in which Sye experienced the revelation. But no extra experience could make this difference. If Sye said that in his revelation God told him with a really loud booming voice, or with a golden shimmer around the page, etc, and this is how he knew the message was genuine, we could always postulate that Ahmed’s revelation was delivered in a similar manner. The internal experiences of both agents could be exactly similar in all relevant respects, and it is still conceptually possible for at least one of them to be suffering from a false impression. There cannot be a foolproof experience that confers certainty, or else the empiricists would have had this in the first place, and we would have had no need for revelation at all. Thus, nothing about the experience of the revelation would mark it out as being reliable rather than mistaken.

There could be no a priori explanation for this either, as they are devoid of content, and can never tell us about what is true in the world. They only relate ideas to one another, and so could never say whether, in this actual case, Sye was mistaken or not.

The revelationalist has a natural go-to answer here though, which he will find very tempting, but which I urge is going to lead to the regress. He has a third epistemological route, and he may well be tempted to bring it into action on this question. So Sye may well say that the reason he knows that God’s revelation that p was correct, was that God revealed to him that he had revealed to him that p. Call this a ‘second-order’ revelation; a revelation about a revelation. This would sure-up the worry over whether had been revealed or not. God has not only told Sye that p, but he also tells Sye that he has told Sye that p.

But then we could run the argument all over again. Imagine now that Ahmed also thinks he has received a similar second-order revelation from God; not only that he has revealed that ~p, but also that he has revealed to him that he has revealed to him that ~p. How can Sye know that he is the correct one, and that Ahmed is incorrect? Again, the only thing he can do is refer once more to the notion of revelation, so that God reveals to him that he had revealed to him that he had revealed to him that p! Thus, Sye would need to appeal to a third-order revelation to sure up the second-order revelation.

But we can run the argument all over again, where Ahmed gets the same third-order revelation, etc, etc. This process clearly goes on forever. At no point in the iterative process can Sye ever lay claim to the type of certain knowledge he is looking for, because at every point there is a possible Ahmed who could have exactly the same experience. The possibility of error over the revelation is a sort of un-holy ghost which can never be banished.

My conclusion from this is that revelational epistemology, as conceived here, is vulnerable to an infinite regress problem, from which it can never escape. It provides no new route to knowledge at all.

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7 thoughts on “The Infinite Regress for Revelational Epistemology”

  1. I think this is exactly right and highlights a problem that Jennifer and I discuss in our paper. Presuppositionalism suffers from the same problem as foundationalist epistemologies: either there is some sort of first principles or foundations, which themselves are self-evident, or the view collapses into an infinite regress. There is some evidence that Bahnsen was a coherentist, and not a foundationalist, but no bother — the same problem is going to turn up either way so long as he attributes to revelation this foundational role.

    Of course, the presuppositionalist can respond that God’s revelations are self-evident. But so can Ahmed, and the empiricist and the rationalist can each respond that various propositions are self-evident on their views. Furthermore, as you note, whatever degree of self-evidence the presuppositionalist points to in their own experience is equally available on empiricist epistemologies (why wouldn’t it be?).

    In response to my paper, a reviewer noted that Christians outside of presuppositionalist circles generally believe the Bible not because the Bible has some sort of central role as the precondition of the possibility of knowledge, but because there is evidence that the Bible’s claims are true. Regardless of whether they are right to think that there is such evidence, I think this is a far more defensible position for the Christian to maintain. In several respects, it’s actually quite bizarre to say that not only God — but belief in a very theologically specific God — is the precondition for the possibility of human knowledge.

    Here’s a neat “trick” from medieval epistemology. In the medieval period, it was thought that God’s divine illumination allowed us to avoid the kind of skeptical doubts the ancient Greeks had introduced. This view was finally put aside when John Duns Scotus demonstrated that an infallible source of knowledge cannot remedy skeptical worries, since no matter how infallible the source, we are still fallible. A fallible thing, plus an infallible thing, is a fallible thing. The SEP article on divine illumination is instructive: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/illumination/#JohDunSco

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  2. One of the major issues with dealing with presup apologetics is the lack of scholarly attention it gets in the relevant fields like Philosophy of Religion. Very important concepts relating to PA are discussed in a myriad of fields but because it’s not taken seriously no explicit link between these concepts and presup arguments are assessed.

    So posts like these and papers like the one Linford & Benjamin authored are really awesome and need a wider audience.

    tl;dr: Awesome post; thanks Malpass and Linford & Benjamin.

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  3. One way in which I have heard this line of reasoning presenting in arguments with Presuppositionalists is to ask whether one of the things that God had revealed to them in such a way that they can be certain is the list of things that God has revealed to them in such a way that they can be certain. Without such a list it is always possible that any particular claim they make that they claim was revealed to them in such a way that they can be certain about it, is in fact simply a belief they hold that they believe was revealed to them in such a way that they can be certain about it, but actually wasn’t. As such it is impossible for them to assert that any claimed piece of knowledge that they state they can know for certain is in fact such a piece of knowledge.

    And at the end of the day presuppositionalism is all about asserting a foundation for knowledge without ever demonstrating that the claims being made are in fact foundational. There favourite argument is to ask people “how do you know that”, when the exact same retort can be used to point out the regressive nature of their own claims.

    Great post by the way

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  4. Could someone point out where I can read the On Knowledge Without God paper by Daniel Linford and Jennifer Benjamin? I’d be interested to read their thoughts, and a quick Google search didn’t bring up anything.
    Thanks!

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  5. I can’t help but see this as falling into a dilemma of fallaciousness. On the one hand, this could just be a mistake. It could be this whole article just misrepresents Revelational Epistemology, forgetting it is the Christian God and the essence of Christian doctrine being communicated by him on this system of knowledge. And so, since the essential doctrines of Christian Theism are not the essential doctrines of non-Christian Theism, any formal common ground of this or that epistemic psychological status (e.g., self-evidence) is just that: formal. The essence/content differs. How was this forgotten?

    Or maybe this is just an atrocious fallacy: the appeal to controversy. It goes something like this, “Well, you use deduction for your conclusion, but I use deduction to get to its negation, therefore deduction is stupid.” Yes, many people can SAY they have self-evident grounds for knowledge; throughout the history of philosophy, countless philosophers have disagreed about the matter. Does controversy imply there is no fact of the matter? Does controversy insinuate the matter can’t be settled? What a silly idea.

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    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t think that the target of my post is the type of revelational epistemology you gesture towards. I’ve read a bit more Oliphint since I wrote this, and appreciate how the term ‘revelational epistemology’ is used in that world, and it is not the way I was using the term here (I think). Also, I don’t even understand your second horn. That doesn’t represent my argument at all.

      In reality, I am targeting the gutter-style Sye Ten presup, who naively claims that ‘in such a way that I can be certain’ counts as an epistemological position. That type of tactic is shallow and suffers from the sort of problem I’ve outlined here. This type of presup is probably way less sophisticated than the version you are talking about, and so perhaps the term ‘revelational epistemology’ is misleading as used by me here. It seemed perfectly adequate when I wrote this though.

      Hope that helps.

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