So I was just popping in the code to the security door to my work, and a thought struck me as to an analogy of the problem universals and particulars!
What is the nature of particular facts of our experience, and what is their relationship to one another and the universal laws that bind them together?
Van Til was fond of speaking of beads and string, and for the longest time I couldn’t understand what he was speaking about, but I eventually worked it out, hopefully this analogy will help too!
Think of each number on a keypad, like the one shown to the right, as each individual fact of our experience. The point of a keypad is to have a particular code entered into it, so that you canopen whatever it is you are wanting to use. The code here represents the interpretation of a particular fact of experience. Let’s say the particular code that I have in mind has a 6, a 2, a 3 and a 5 in it (making it simple). If i tell you, ok, so what is the code to get into the door, you will note that there is a problem… What is the relationship of the numbers between each other? Is the code 6235? Is it 2356? What about 6352? etc! What about 223355566? What about 552663?
That is similar to the way our experience of facts of life would be, without a notion of the relationship of the facts one to another, except imagine a near infinite keypad, with a near infinite code! Trying to put each individual fact in right relation to one another is simply impossible, unless of course, you were a person who was omniscient and knew what the correct code was all along!
This would be like having particularity over universals. You could only know a particular fact in isolation, apart from any other fact!
Consider the inverse, what if I gave you a blank keypad, and said that the relationship of the numbers together was in the shape of an L. What would the code be? 1478 you might think – but remember this is a blank keypad! The numbers could run in any order they wanted! In fact, who said anything about numbers? This keypad can have anything in all of reality on each button. So what is the code?
This would be like having universals over particulars. You could only know the universal laws that bind the particular facts together, but you wouldn’t know the content of the particular facts was!
In this way, God is the one who has the ‘code’ of reality, He has the original interpretation of the relationship of the facts to each other, and knows the particular facts themselves, so that everything hangs together in unity!
Numbers without relation = facts without relationship between them. eg: Random jumble of numbers without laws of maths or logic to give them any significance together.
Relationship of the keys without the content of what the keys are = universals without particular facts. eg: All X are not Y – but never knowing what the content of X or Y ever was. Were X Cats? Was Y dogs?
Now for some of us, we may not clearly have an idea of what a universal is and what a particular is, or may need something more general, so another example may help, with a bit more explaination:
When I say, “I want you to think of the concept of a red fire truck”, you will no doubt be able to picture that in your mind. Now, does that mean that there is an actual fire truck in your mind? No, clearly not, you simply have had the experience of fire trucks in the real world that you have then conceptualised. Red fire trucks have the concepts of ‘redness’, ‘loudness’, ‘heaviness’ ‘rectangular’ ‘three dimensional’ ‘has wheels’ etc. All of these concepts put together is what helps you ultimately understand the main concept of ‘red fire truck’. But that concept itself is not an actual fire truck in the real world – its simple a concept in your mind. The question then becomes how that concept relates to particular individual fire trucks in your daily experience walking down the street.
Some types of universals to consider :
Such as the laws of logic (law of non-contradiction, law of identity, law of excluded middle).
Relationships between facts:
Think of the red fire truck! How would you describe it? It has a ladder, a number of wheels, contains water, has a hose etc – in order to describe that fire truck, you have to pull in other facts of experience. A fire truck cannot be known in isolation, it can only be known relating to its particular constituent parts, which you will need to know what those constituent parts are, and how they relate to the fire truck itself, and the other parts of the fire truck.
Attributes of those facts:
So, the fire truck contains water. What is water? What are its attributes? “Wetness” “clarity” “tasteless” “odourless” – these are all immaterial concepts that we apply to particular facts of our experience.
Pulling all those things together, what makes a fire truck a fire truck? Who says so? Who determined it to be so? If it is man, we could never really know that what a particular fact was in and of itself, because we are not omniscient, we would need to know how it relates to everything else in reality, because you cannot know one particular fact in isolation from everything else, as everything else is in the web of facts. Is water always wet? Do we have all knowledge to say that in all of reality it is always the case that it is wet? However, there is one who has determined what a fact is, how it relates to other facts, how it relates to immaterial universal concepts and laws. Why is water always wet? Why can’t a dog be a cat? Because God has determined that a those things have particular attributes, relationships to other facts, and has a particular identity. It is then our job to find out this original interpretation given by God, to understand the relationship of a fact to another fact as God says it is, to understand the relationship of a fact to a universal concept as God says it is, and how that particular fact relates to universal laws as God says it is – our knowledge itself is true only as much as it relates to what God says reality is. If we stray from that, we can’t know anything at all.
To quote Van Til on this point:
“If the creation doctrine is thus taken seriously, it follows that the various aspects of created reality must sustain such relations to one another as have been ordained between them by the Creator, as superiors, inferiors or equals. All aspects being equally created, no one aspect of reality may be regarded as more ultimate than another. Thus the created one and many may in this respect be said to be equal to one another; they are equally derived and equally dependent upon God who sustains them both. The particulars or facts of the universe do and must act in accord with universals or laws. Thus there is order in the created universe. On the other hand, the laws may not and can never reduce the particulars to abstract particulars or reduce their individuality in any manner. The laws are but generalizations of God’s method of working with the particulars. God may at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law. That is, there is no inherent reason in the facts or laws themselves why this should not be done. It is this sort of conception of the relation of facts and laws, of the temporal one and many, imbedded as it is in that idea of God in which we profess to believe, that we need in order to make room for miracles. And miracles are at the heart of the Christian position.”