Certainty, Possibility, and You

I was directed today to a post by C. Michael Patton, posted roughly a month ago, entitled “Why I am not Completely Certain that Christianity is True“.

In the podcast to follow, he describes today as “an age of scientific, enlightenment discovery, and scientific methodology for inquiry, and discovery.” He goes on through the podcast to explicate his view of certainty and possibility. “From a scientific standpoint, many of us look at knowledge, and see it as something very cut and dry, very black and white; it’s either true or not true, and that’s it. 2 + 2 is 4. Easy enough. No problems there, you don’t have to debate it. It’s not maybe it’s 4, not pretty sure… it’s 4. … There’s no problem, there’s no ambiguity there. There’s no subjectivity there, it’s 4 whether you know it’s 4 or not. We want often times our beliefs to mirror such precise and definite conclusions. Whenever I say I believe in God, do I believe in God like I believe that 2+4=4? Well, that’s a hard one folks. You can get yourself stuck, backed into a corner, because you allow for such a method of inquiry to determine whether you believe in God. …

One of the tactics that is used whenever we’re talking about people challenging your faith, is to poke holes in your faith. Somebody come up to you, and say “why do you believe what you believe?” You say, well, I believe it because I believe that the Bible is true. “Well, how do you know that the Bible’s true? Are you sure?” Well yeah I’m sure it’s true, are you kidding? “Well, you know, how do you know it didn’t make any errors, and there’s no mistakes? Well, how do you know?” Well, I just know, and I mean, you might be really good, and go, well, I just look at the Bible, and I see it in it’s historical context, and I see the manuscript evidence that has come down to us, I see how early the dating is of it, I see that Mark, Matthew Mark and Luke, I think, were early first century eyewitnesses to the events, and I don’t think they would make anything up. I see the spread of Christianity through the proliferation of the Gospel through their message, that started the fire early on, so the fire dates back very early, this wave of Christianity dates back exactly where we’d want it. I see within the Gospel, all kinds of elements of historicity, I see this element of embarrassment, which means that they are authentically being historical since they include things that would potentially embarrass them. I see this element of incidentals, which means they are including things that whenever you are telling the truth you would include, but if you’re not telling the truth, you would leave out. Incidental details. You can go through a great presentation, right. … in the end, you give a real solid case, right?

Then they respond, but wait a minute. Isn’t it possible that they could have lied? That they could have made it up? That they could have been delusional? And you stop for a minute, and you say “no”. “How sure are you of that?” I’m absolutely sure. “Are you really absolutely sure? Well, I mean, were you there? Did you see these events?” No, I didn’t. “Do people make stuff up?” Well, yeah, they do make ‘em up. “Is it possible that they could have made this up?” Well no! “Well, why not?” You know, in the end, we’re trying to poke holes, it’s like a courtroom setting, that people are trying to poke holes, and then they want to poke holes in your faith. Now here’s the problem, Tim, and here’s why I bring this up. Is because whenever you hold to a method of knowledge, the method of acquisition of knowledge, to where you say I need to be as sure about this as 2+2=4, you’re going to fall flat on your face. Because there are not many things in this world that you are that sure of, or will ever be that sure of. For example, I could be in a dream right now … (humorous cross talk) … now, how likely is that? Extremely unlikely … ridiculously unlikely. Now, if I was to poke holes in the theory that this was reality, to the point where you say that “maybe it is possible that we’re in a dream, does the possibility of something make it a probability? That’s the question. Does the possibility of something make it a probability? Does the alternative possibility to the reality that we are experiencing right now, recording Theology Unplugged, that we are in a dream, make it rational, justified, in any sense, for us to believe that, or to suspend our belief, and say, wait a minute, since it’s possible, no matter how unlikely, no matter how crazy it is, since there’s a little tiny bit of possibility here, that I’m in a dream, is it justified, then, to suspend our belief in reality? No, absolutely not! There’s no justification, it’s the most irrational thing you could possibly do. just because there are possibilities out there, do not make them probabilities.”

I give you this podcast excerpt because I’d like to address Michael’s conceptions of certainty, possibility, and probability.

In the post that led to the podcast I partially transcribed above, he posted several things that drove me to listen to his further explanations. Here are some excerpts.

Often, a skeptical world will will provoke us with the reality that we cannot be indubitably certain about any of our beliefs because of the infinite amount of alternative possibilities.

Problem #1 – these objections are considered to be “possible”. Congratulations, you just gave up the debate already. You lose. I can’t be serious, you may say. Oh, but I am.

“The finite mind cannot thus, if we are to reason theistically, be made the standard of what is possible and what is impossible. It is the divine mind that is determinative of what is possible.” ~CVT, Defense of the Faith, 62

What did Michael already concede? That there are an infinite number of alternative “possibilities.” Thus, we are left with two options, by Michael’s statement. 1) God does not determine possibility, or 2) God does determine possibility, and determined infinite numbers of alternative possibilities. Both of these options are addressed, at length, in my Attributal argument. They are simply non-options, and in fact impugn the Biblical witness to God’s nature and character. In essence, Michael has punted on Biblical theology, and has taken refuge in the realm of chance – which, unfortunately, seems to have been seated on the throne of God. Chance, you see, has become determinative of possibility in Michael’s view. This is not seen as problematic, or is not seen at it is. Yet, the inexorable conclusion of his argumentation is that the “likelihood” (per chance) is sufficient to establish God’s existence. The problem is, he has set God in the Dock of Chance, with Chance as His judge. God is still in the Dock.

No matter how unlikely these alternative possibilities are we find ourselves spending time defending against positions that are well beyond tipsy in their stability. When people poke “holes” in our beliefs with arguments that are no better than “look, the door is not locked” we find ourselves missing the big picture, backed into a corner seriously discussing the security of the door.

What I find amazing here is the consistently anthropocentric view of certainty being shown here. Certainty, while being redefined to meet anthropocentric definitions, is shown as somehow being undesirable, because, due to their anthropocentric view of possibility, there is always “another” possibility. The dilemma, with all apologies, should be split at this very point, instead of circling around it to another humanistic viewpoint. God determines possibility. God grants faith, which is the antithesis and curative for doubt. God grants His Word, which tells us that which we need to know, that we may “know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” (Luke 1:4)

“Man does not need to know exhaustively in order to know truly and certainly. When on the created level of existence man thinks God’s thoughts after him, that is, when man thinks in self-conscious submission to the voluntary revelation of the self-sufficient God, he has therewith the only possible ground of certainty for knowledge for his knowledge.” (Christian Apologetics, 77)

The Word of God, by virtue of whose Word it is, grants us certainty beyond all possible doubt.

The problem: The Christian faith does not require human indubitably. God does not call on us to infallible certainty before we are required to believe in him. Our trust in the Lord does not come only after we have considered every other possibility, no matter how unlikely. Why? Because indubitability is a black hole leading to perpetual skepticism.

The true problem, contra Michael, is that faith *grants* human indubitability. God does not call us to infallible certainty “before” we are required to believe in Him – he grants us infallible certainty *by* believing in Him. Our trust does not come *after* we consider these so-called possibilities, but *denies* that these are possibilities at all! Indubitability does not lead to perpetual skepticism, but denies the power it claims! Only, however, insofar as we seek to think God’s thoughts after Him, and are empowered by God to do so. I refer you to Augustine, and his famous saying; Grant what You command, and command what You will. Solomon’s desire was for wisdom – and his request was granted. God commands that we seek, in Christ, the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden only in Him. He will give that which he commands.

Contrary to Descartes methodology, there are always going to be alternative possibilities. There will be an infinite number of objections that can be brought up. No matter how unlikely, there will always be doors to check to see if they are locked. Once we suspend belief until all the doors are checked, we have suspended belief forever. No one actually can or does live by such a method in the acquisition of truth in any area of life. We never require ourselves to check all the locks on all the doors since there are an infinite number of locks and an infinite number of doors. Yet, often, we do it anyway. When the door is unlocked, those who are epistemically conditioned to find this substantial, like my children, enter into a state of suspended belief, doubt, or skepticism or opt for a “leap of faith” that demands no evidence, and then sneer at those who do demand evidence as if it is passé.

Contra Michael’s methodology, God determines possibility. The conceivable is not identical to the possible. Man does not determine possibility, and neither does chance. Van Til calls this the rational/irrational dialectic. This is not something we can succumb to. Unless we submit to God as being the determiner of possibility, we will forever “opt out” of the discussion, and retreat. We have not resorted to fideism, nor have we resorted to rationalism – we have split the horns of the dilemma. We have done so by utilizing the distinction between creature and Creator.

There is a point in our faith where our search for indubitability needs to yield to the sufficiency of probability. This does not mean we are taking a blind leap into the dark. On the contrary, we are responding to the sufficiency of the light that has been given. In fact, to fail to respond is the leap of blind faith. For in our indecisiveness, we have actually made our decision for the least likely of all the options. “I am not going to commit myself to believing my daddy slapped me since there are other possibilities that, while unlikely, are out there.” That is making the least rational decision of all. That is the biggest leap of faith there is available.

Only upon this illegitimate conception of possibility is there any such “need” to yield to probability as “sufficient”. The failure to admit that self-reliance is idolatry, however, is more than problematic. Forgive me for being harsh here, but it must be said. Exchanging the truth of God for probable, or “most likely” is a slap in the face of Almighty God. Instead of submitting ourselves, and chance to His revelation, we submit His revelation to blind chance, and thereby ourselves.

“How would the eternal I Am be pleased with being presented as being a god and as probably existing, as necessary for the explanation of some things but not of all things, as one who will be glad to recognize the ultimacy of his own creatures?” (Defense of the Faith, 340)

Is this unfair? I cannot see how it can be said. Re-read Michael’s statements, and continue on below.

There are many people out there who are on the never ending quest for indubitability. You might be one of them. Forever on the verge of making a decision, but always getting tripped up by the least likely of alternatives. “The door is unlocked.” “A demon is making me think this.” And a million other things. There are many people out there who will make you think that your search is valid. My encouragement to you is to make a decision based on the light given. When you look at the Bible, yes, there are going to be an infinite amount of alternative explanations for many of the events described. But there comes a point where you must commit yourself to the Scriptures, opting for the most likely. If Christ rose from the grave, there are implications that the Bible is trustworthy. Infallible implications? No. Sufficient implications? Yes.

Note, once again, the constant assumption that indubitability means that you *must* accept these other “alternatives” as “possible” in order to achieve certainty. This is not Biblical thinking. It cannot be Biblical thinking. Christ’s “truly, truly” is not, and cannot be a “maybe, maybe”, or a “probably, probably.” He is the way, the truth, and life. Not probably so. We don’t “opt for the most likely.” God forbid that we do something so utterly selfish and self-centered. We choose the water of life, that we may never thirst again; we choose that water of life because we have a new heart, a new life, a new birth, that drives us to the fount – and we can do no other, for we are drawn by the Father to the incarnate Son, by the Spirit of God! Theology Matters. It drives us to the depths of our insufficiency, and to the certain, unplumbed depths of His all-sufficiency and aseity. Only in the personal-infinite Triune God is there certainty. Not the certainty of probability, or potentiality – but of absolute, bedrock, foundational omnipotent surety – the Rock of Ages that cannot be broken, and cannot shift.

What my kids should say is this, “Daddy, I don’t care if the door is unlocked. It does not play a sufficient part in your proposition to warrant a disregard of the greater areas of viability with regard to our belief that you are the one who slapped us.” And if I respond, “But you don’t know with perfect, absolute, and infallible certainty,” they should say, “No daddy, probability is sufficient to warrant, yea, demand a belief such as ours and, as a consequence, to reject your alternative.” Well, if they said it like that, I would be quite scared, but you know what I am saying.

This is the “certainty” we offer our children, brethren? The “certainty” of man’s reason, on the “most likely” explanation, which can “justifiably” reject other “possible” alternatives which are merely “probably” less likely? No, this is not the certainty that Scripture offers. The Scripture cannot be broken, and it tells us that I AM has declared the end from the beginning, that His Word shall stand, and that His Word shall not pass away, though heaven and earth pass away. He offers Himself as surety. The God who is there, is known, and has made Himself known to us. The covenant is our promise, and our hope – and His Word is inviolable. He has sworn by Himself. We need no greater surety.

In other words, our belief in the Bible’s truthfulness should not be sidetracked simply because someone presents an alternative possibility. Yes, we engage these alternatives, but we don’t give them more credit than they deserve. The old illustration of the “leaky bucket” only finds relevance in an imaginary world where indubitability is required for every rational decision. All buckets are leaky, but this does not mean they don’t hold water. Those who say that the Christian story borrowed from other religions or that Christ’s body was stolen have simply presented other possibilities that are often no more sufficient to warrant credibility than my “look, the door is unlocked.” Possibility, yes. Probability, no.

I’ll leave you with this last from Van Til:

“How could one ever argue that there is a greater probability for the truth of Christianity than for the truth of its opposite if the very meaning of the word “probability” rests upon the idea of chance? On this basis nature and history would be no more than a series of pointer readings pointing into the blank.”

“To talk about what can or cannot exist according to logic is but to swing a sword in the sky unless it is first determined at what point logic meets reality. According to the Christian story, logic, and reality meet first of all in the mind and being of God.”(Defense of the Faith, pgs 328, 303)

By granting that chance reigns over God, along with the unbeliever, you lost the argument without even making your case. God determines what is possible. By affirming this Biblical truth, you split the horns of the skeptic’s dilemma, while retaining the indubitable nature of God-granted faith.

27 thoughts on “Certainty, Possibility, and You

  1. Hey RK, hope you had a good Christmas and New Year’s. Quick question: would you give a full definition of the term “possible” as you are using it above (e.g.

  2. Right, you gave examples of things you believe to be “definitionally impossible,” but never gave a definition for either. Things which you view as definitionally impossible would be anything other than the results of God’s decree, i.e. whatever is actual. It would seem, on your formulation, that all conceivable events would fall into the category of (1)impossible or (2)actual, making the term “possible” meaningless. (Possibly?) :)

    Assuming the truth of your argument I can’t conceive of what you mean when you say “God determines possibility,” unless you are using “possibility” as synonymous with “actuality.” But that would be significantly problematic, right?

    Which is why I asked for a definition of the term.

  3. Well, I was going to “sneak” farther to the back of the “Mr. Black” dialogue, and see if that helped, but i realized it would be in the next post, so I may as well just post that soon.

    Since I’m not going to “cheat”, by letting VT make my definition for me, let me give you my best shot. Dr. White is fond of using this illustration for the canon – and hopefully this makes sense to you, as an analogy. The canon is an “artifact” of revelation. It is a function of what revelation is. By virtue of their being revelation, there is, of the nature of the case, a canon of that revelation. He further delineates this by the usage of Canon(1) that is God’s perfect knowledge of the canon – and Canon(2), which is our imperfect knowledge (recognition, or to use Van Til’s terms, “receptive reconstruction”) of the canon.

    In a similar way, possibility is the “artifact” of reality. By virtue of there being a created reality, there is a “canon” to reality – that is, possibility. We may not recognize this perfectly – call that “possibility(2)” if you’d like – but it remains the case that God knows, and has determined exhaustively, what is possible – (whatsoever comes to pass) in actuality.

    In Van Til’s usage, and in mine, this is what we’re talking about. We can conceive of “alternate” outcomes, but that, as I’m prone to say in channel, is a function of our ignorance, not of true possibility; that is determined by God in His decree of whatsoever comes to pass. By the way, you really should come visit us there, we’d enjoy having you :)

  4. So I am new to this site and the presuppositional approach. On the matters of certainty I am trying to understand this better. So TAG seems to state if we are able to know anything God exists with certainty.

    But what if we really don’t know anything. So what if someone responded that maybe we don’t know anything. The world is an illusion. It doesn’t make sense.

    Now I understand that then you wouldn’t know it doesn’t make sense because logic has been forfeited. But isn’t it still possible that we don’t know and don’t know anything and the world just doesn’t make sense we know nothing not even that we don’t know.

  5. “But what if we really don’t know anything.”

    We do.

    “So what if someone responded that maybe we don’t know anything.”

    “Maybe we don’t know anything” is a claim to knowledge. The statement is self-refuting.

    “The world is an illusion.”

    This is also a knowledge claim.

    “It doesn’t make sense.”

    This is also a knowledge claim.

    “But isn’t it still possible”

    Knowledge claim.

    “…we know nothing not even that we don’t know.”

    Knowledge claim or else we need to discuss what you mean by “knowledge” at this point.

    In any event the presuppositionalist should begin with something that the unbeliever takes for granted and does not doubt, even if it is something like, “I doubt everything” or “God does not exist.” Objections like this are hence precluded.

  6. Great post. This is crucial for the apologetics debate on method. Christianity is not ‘made true’ by an abstracted, airtight formal structure. You can apply the ‘presuppositional’ method to any worldview. The self-authenticating content consisting of God’s revelation should drive whatever consistent formal structure we use to articulate and defend that content.

    I love CVT’s analogy of taste. Taste sugar; it’s sweet isn’t it? How do you know? Sweetness is inseparably and essentially a part of sugar and communicates its sweetness immediately to anyone whose taste buds are working properly. Sin gets in the way and confuses what is clear, making our epistemological taste buds work improperly without the Holy Spirit. Could someone formally claim that sand was sweet? Yeah, but they’d be wrong, wouldn’t they?

  7. “It is possible that…”

    Who sets the standard which determines whether or not we know anything, or even know whether or not we do?

    The only Biblical answer is: God does.

    So, by God’s standard, as revealed in His Word, we have knowledge. Further, by that same Word, He is the only proper source of knowledge. Col 2:3 tells us that all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. Since we must believe what Scripture tells us, we not only know that we have knowledge, but in whom it is hidden – whom we also know.

    Basically, your theology should drive what you ask and how you ask it here. Think, and search the Scriptures diligently, before you go delving into these things, for the answer to the question, first, “what does God’s Word say about it?” Then, and only then, do you evaluate the question. We think God’s thoughts after Him, and this, I believe, is what is meant by that statement.

    • So if someone argued for a worldview where we don’t know that we don’t know anything. How could that worldview be refuted by TAG

  8. That worldview is self-refuting. There is an argument made for a “world” where: we don’t know that we don’t know anything.

    They have argued for a contradiction – they claim we can know about a world where no one knows that we don’t know anything. How do they know about this “world”? Where did they get this information from?

    Further, it seems to me that they are saying that no one knows that they are ignorant of anything. While I could succumb to the joke; “How is that different from this one…” Isn’t that saying that none of them know anything they are ignorant of?

    However, since this is a fragmentary worldview, it fails to provide the preconditions of intelligibility. Ignorance concerning ignorance is hardly a compelling worldview. In fact, it seems to be the equivalent of saying “lalalala I can’t hear you” – as a worldview. Such a worldview lacks any cohesion, explanatory power, or any conceivable sensicality. So, by the impossibility of the contrary, Christianity is true.

    Positive case:
    Scripture, as the foundation for our worldview, tells us the following – Per Scripture, it’s not possible to forget that you aren’t omniscient. We all know we are creatures, and fallible sinners. Therefore, it’s impossible to know nothing about such matters.

  9. If they were not making an argument but merely saying it is possible to think of a world with no basis for logic or science or the human experience.

    I guess that world wouldn’t have any true knowledge but that couldn’t be a possibility no matter how remote?

  10. There is a big difference between “conceiving” of an impossible world, and saying there *is* such a world possible.

    One says you have a good imagination about impossible things; the other is a truth claim about possibility – an incoherent one.

    Where is one standing when they say “a world without knowledge is possible”? Whoever they are, they are standing on ~CT, and are thus advancing the impossible, because CT denies that. Further, the one saying such a thing has confused “probability” with “possibility”.

  11. The reason this came to mind is because of the Bahnsen v Sproul debate. Sproul was saying there was a lack of positive argument I think. Bahnsen was saying everything else is leaky buckets and Sproul said how do you know it is not all just leaky buckets. Bahnsen never responded.

    Not sure if you heard that debate but that did get me thinking. Perhaps it is all just leaky buckets. I am sure I am missing something. Help me understand, was Sproul just conceiving of this world with no real basis for a possibility?

  12. As I recall they agreed that rationalism and empiricism were refuted as routes to knowledge. Putting the two refuted systems together will not suddenly result in a system that does allow for knowledge. If I remember correctly that was the point and Sproul was just taking advantage of the illustration.

  13. Well, what you consider to be likely to happen, or probable, is predicated on what you consider to be determinative of possibility.

    If you believe possibility is determined by chance, you have essentially equated the two. If you believe that God determines possibility, chance is a meaningless term. In other words, the problem in this regard is that people try to hold to both conceptions simultaneously, when you can only hold to one. What is “likely” under our view is our best guess, according with our experience – but is *not* that which is possible, just that which we conceive of as likely.

  14. So I want to be clear on the possibility you are talking about in regards to our earlier topic.

    The imaginary world drawn up earlier that ultimately doesn’t know it doesn’t have true knowledge. My understanding is that God determines what is possible and what isn’t and that is because I believe in the bible.

    But it seems so unconventional from the normal TAG since the imaginary world has given up all rationality and coherence.

    Is the imaginary world just that, if it stays in the imagination that is fine but as soon as it tries to argue for itself it refutes itself? Does that mean there is 0% it is reality.

  15. It is *because* it has no rationality and. Coherence that it shows itself to be impossible. Though we can conceive of it, it is self-refuting, and *cannot* exist.

    It’s not different from “normal” TAG at all – that is just ~CT. Because it is ~CT, it is impossible, because CT is the sole worldview to provide the preconditions of intelligibility. Since ~CT fails, by the impossibility of the contrary, CT is true.

    That is precisely correct – if you want to think of impossible worlds as thought experiments, and you’re bored enough, have fun :) As soon as it tries to argue for itself, it refutes itself. And yes, since God determines possibility, and that “world” is preluded by CT, there is no chance whatsoever that it can be true. It’s ~CT, hence impossible.

  16. RK,
    Sorry for the massive delay. I’d love to join you in chat channel, but I can’t even find the time to properly respond in comment threads which I initiate. Maybe someday…

    Anyway, I think I understand your analogy, but (as I said before) I still don’t see any area of semantic differentiation between your use of the terms “possible” and “actual.”

    Is there any distinction between possibility and actuality in your formulation?

  17. RazorsKiss, I really enjoyed this post. It helped me understand a whole lot regarding how and why we know what we know as Christians, especially regarding our faith. And your second response to Zaothanatoo was equally as enlightening. However, I do have a couple questions:

    Is it then completely gratuitous to speak of “possibility” at all, except within the parameters of Biblical revelation (stated like that, I can’t deny it)? How does one clearly distinguish between “possibility” as it refers to a person’s ability (for example, his strength in picking up a large rock) and “possibility” with regard to counter-factuals? If I’m understanding correctly, it seems as if even the question of a person’s ability is bound by the same idea of “possibility” regarding such consideration of counterfactuals. If this man’s strength is such or has the potential to become such that it can facilitate the picking up of a large rock, can we or should we say it’s “possible” for him to pick it up (or can things, in that sense, “become possible”)? Let’s say we chronicle this man’s entire life, and we take note of his physical strength, and also of the fact that he “never did” pick up a large rock, which we previously determined was well within his capability. In what sense was it “possible” for him to have picked it up? And then do points in time affect the manner in which we can speak of “possibility”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*