Gary North (www.garynorth.com), November 03, 2021
Humanists in academia avoid the question of epistemology like a plague. In every academic discipline, scholars avoid discussing the philosophical foundations of their discipline. They do not ask this question: “What do we know, and how can we know it?” This is true even in the department of philosophy. The department may offer a course that surveys various approaches to epistemology, but the course will not raise the question of the epistemology governing how academic philosophy should be taught. It will come to no conclusions about the proper way to defend the legitimacy or even the possibility of the academic discipline of philosophy.
There have never been university courses on epistemology. Students have never been introduced to the issue of epistemology. Why not? Because this topic raises the question of presuppositions. These presuppositions must be taken on faith. The professors do not want to discuss the nature of this faith. Students do not ask them to do this. The university’s administration does not ask them to do it. So, they do not do it.
Occasionally, a department will offer a course on methodology. This will deal with the techniques associated with the discipline. These techniques are what might be called bread-and-butter issues. They ask questions such as these. What are the appropriate methods of research in this field? What is the appropriate format for publishing the results? Which footnoting system is required? What should the bibliography look like? Each department has its own rules. Sometimes, a professor will enforce different rules.
Students concern themselves with a kind of academic etiquette. They do not concern themselves with the philosophical foundations of the discipline. In the case of graduate students in the humanities, they do not concern themselves with the legitimacy of the field to which they will devote the rest of their careers. They do not care. They assume that the required methodologies are based on a reliable theory of knowledge. They assume that someone in authority in their field has done the intellectual work of grounding these methodologies on a philosophy of knowledge. This is an incorrect assumption.
Consider the academic discipline of history. Every year, there are annual conventions of historical societies. Historians write papers that they read to a partially filled room of historians. When the person organizing the convention is deciding on topics of potential interest, he will not schedule a session on epistemology. He will not call for papers on the presuppositions of historical research. If he did, he would have trouble finding historians to deliver such a paper. If he did, and there were three presenters, the three papers would not list the same presuppositions. This is because there is no agreement within the field of history regarding the fundamental presuppositions that make possible the study of history. Also, hardly anyone would attend this session.
So, when I discuss the presuppositions of humanistic historical study, I am doing so on this basis: I use the five points of biblical history as guides. Humanists have to deal with the same issues. But they are not self-conscious about this. They do not have the five points in the back of their minds. If you were to ask some historian about any of them except the fifth—entropy—he would assure you that he agrees with it. He might not want to talk about the implications for historical research of the doctrine of evolution, but he would deny that the biblical doctrine of creation has anything to do with the study of history, except as a peculiar hypothesis of Judaism and Christianity. He might discuss the sociology of the doctrine of creation, but he would not examine that doctrine as a guide for understanding history
If you ask him about historical relativism, he may have heard of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). He probably has not read it, but he will be aware of the phrase that Kuhn made popular: “paradigm shift.” He may be vaguely aware of Kuhn’s thesis, namely, that the history of science did not develop as a series of step-by-step discoveries. He will know that there have been major scientific breakthroughs that were not predictable, and were not part of a familiar program of research. He may be aware of the fact that similar breakthroughs have taken place in the field of historiography. He will deny there is such a thing as scientific history. He will affirm that there are lots of opinions about the same historical event. In other words, he will affirm some form of relativism. He may not call it that, but he will affirm it. But if he is a postmodernist, he will enthusiastically affirm it.
In Part 2, I survey five presuppositions: evolution, autonomy, relativism, nominalism, and entropy. In each of the first four, I analyse a major defender of the position. I survey his arguments. I show why these arguments contradict each other. I show that his presentation is unclear. (This is the easy part.) I show that each of them had not thought through the issue of epistemology: what historians know about the past, and how they can know it.
What is amazing is this: none of them discussed how the field of history rests on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant was the key modern philosopher. He reshaped philosophy. All philosophy since 1800 has been a commentary on his writings. He offered an irreconcilable dualism between the unbreakable causation of science versus non-determined free will. This argument raised a series of questions. How can men have free will in a world that is governed by impersonal cause and effect? How do we know that the world of science even exist? Kant concluded that the unchanging categories of man’s mind—Parmenides lives!—creates the world of science.
Man has no way to understand how the impersonal universe operates as an autonomous realm—a thing in itself. Kant argued that the categories of human thought structure the world we perceive. But he could not explain how or why the non-scientific realm of freedom exists. He also could not explain how this realm interacts with the realm of science. Van Til called this dualism the nature-freedom dualism. He also called it the science-personality dualism. There is no reconciliation. It is at the core of modern man’s inability to develop an epistemology that preserves scientific cause-and-effect and also preserves freedom. Scientists prefer to avoid the question. So do historians.
As you read my analysis of the historians, you may conclude this: these people were not clear about the issues they were dealing with. Their presentations do not make sense. You will begin to understand the extent to which the best and brightest in the field of history have been incapable of explaining what they do for a living, how they can do it, and why it is meaningful. They are confident that Christianity does not have answers to the problems they face. Rather than consider the providence of an omniscient, omnipotent Creator God as the solution to their philosophical dilemmas, they prefer to avoid thinking about the issues that are inescapably fundamental to their life’s work. They would rather consider their life’s work as meaningless if the only alternative is faith that God imputes meaning to their work, and finds that their work fails to meet His standards because it fails to honour Him.