[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 p 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.