Shaeffer and Epistomological Despair
by Bob DeWaay
Autonomy and Despair: A Defense of Francis A. Schaeffer's Thesis
Francis A. Schaeffer asserted that when modern humans adopted rationalism, they thereby gave up rationality.1 At the heart of this claim is the distinction between rationalism and rationality. Schaeffer considers the essence of rationalism to be belief in “the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.”2 The key to this idea, and the resulting despair, is the phrase “closed system.” He sees the assumptions that the universe is all there is and that humankind is autonomous as necessarily leading to despair, not just in epistemology, but in all of life. My thesis is that Schaeffer was right about this and that recent developments in epistemology have confirmed what he said.
Rationality and Rationalism
Schaeffer's distinction between rationalism and rationality is important. The former is a philosophy. It is laden with presuppositions about the nature of humankind and the universe. “I would suggest that a serious question would have to be faced as to whether the reason why modern men reject the Christian answer, or why they often do not even consider it, is because they have already accepted with an implicit faith the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.”3 This means that historical, theistic answers must be categorically rejected. If we live in a closed system universe there is nothing or no One transcendent to the universe to provide answers to our most basic questions. Even the significance of human thought must be called into question. Conversely, the Biblical answer that the personal Trinitarian God created humans in His image gives a basis for rationality. Schaeffer explains, “The Scriptures give the key to two kinds of knowledge — the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of men and nature.”4
That Schaeffer was a presuppositionalist is common knowledge. But he was not one who rejected rationality or thought of faith as a “blind leap.” He wrote extensively against those ideas. One's presuppositions lead to conclusions, either livable ones that make sense of the data of the real world and human aspirations, or unlivable ones that end in despair or nihilism. Thus evidence and rationality are given a high value in Schaeffer's understanding. The following quotation shows this:
I want to suggest that scientific proof, philosophical proof, and religious proof follow the same rules. We may have any problem before us that we wish to solve; it may concern a chemical reaction or the meaning of man. After the question has been defined, in each case proof consists of two steps:
A. The theory must be non-contradictory and must give an answer to the phenomenon in question.
B. We must be able to live consistently with our theory.5
The last statement shows a streak of pragmatism that was certainly part of Schaeffer's thinking. It was not, I think, pragmatism as a conception of truth, but a pragmatism that was based on his fundamental beliefs: God made humans in His image, gave us rationality, placed us in an environment to which our basic faculties are suited, and has spoken to us through special revelation, etc. Therefore it is reasonable to expect that we can know truth and that such truth will be livable.6 God has made us and the universe in this way. Therefore it can be expected that what turns out to be unlivable is untrue, because God's truth is livable.
The following further shows his thinking on the matter of knowing truth over a wide range:
It is an important principle to remember, in the contemporary interest in communication and in language study, that the biblical presentation is that, though we do not have exhaustive truth, we have from the Bible what I term `true truth'. In this way we know true truth about God, true truth about man and something truly about nature. Thus on the basis of the Scriptures, while we do not have exhaustive knowledge, we have true and unified knowledge.7
The rationalistic approach that trapped humans in an autonomous state with no possible valid knowledge of God, leads to epistemological despair.
Schaeffer often spoke of the contemporary despair of having a unified field of knowledge. How did we get into such a situation? Mark Worthing sees the events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as pivotal: “What the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed was the dissolution of a unified world view and epistemological system that had been accepted by philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike for at least two millennia.”8 According to Worthing, “Science and theology split away from each other.”9
Operating epistemologically from these premises, no transcendent God who created the universe, no creation of humankind in God's image, and no possible subsequent verbal and propositional communication from God, means no hope of a unified field of knowledge. Despair is the only reasonable conclusion of rationalism; this is Schaeffer's position. Rationality is a God-given human faculty that enables us to distinguish categories and to reason from premises to conclusions. Rationalism is a humanistic philosophy.
Schaeffer's position on rationalism and despair struck home to me as a young Christian because of an experience I had just weeks after becoming a Christian. In the Fall 1971 I was a junior in chemical engineering at Iowa State University and was enrolled in a class on the philosophy of science. The professor used the first class session to outline his philosophy of science. He said,
There are only two possibilities of obtaining knowledge, divine revelation and the scientific method. Divine revelation is hogwash, it does not happen. The other method is therefore the only way of knowing anything. In the scientific method, we formulate theories. All theories are `true' but many of them only work in some other universe than the one we are living in. Therefore we will only consider those which work on our universe. There is no such thing as “Truth” with a capital T, we only have theories that work for us, or do not.10
I was quite shocked at his philosophy and rather disturbed that he summarily dismissed the possibility of divine revelation without discussion. So I became the only student present to venture a question. I asked, “Professor, do I understand you correctly, are you saying that it is impossible to ever know if anything is true?” He answered “yes,” which evoked gasps of surprise from my fellow students. How disturbing it is to be enrolled in a school of higher learning and to “learn” that one can never know truth. This professor was more honest than many. He willingly admitted that he had crossed Schaeffer's “line of despair.”
Why Autonomy Leads to Despair
The ironic tragedy of fallen humankind is that we know enough to realize that we do not know everything, but we have a lust to know everything. The Biblical account of humans created in God's image followed by a fall adequately accounts for this. Humans were created in God's image with the rational capacities to know cognitively and relationally. This is shown by the mandate to care for the rest of creation and by their relationship to God and one another (Genesis chapters 1 & 2). Adam named the animals, but was given a wife to whom he was to cleave. This shows both the cognitive and relational aspects of knowing.
That the original humans were finite is shown by the fact of having been created, and by the first law that effectively limited their access to knowledge. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” offered the one forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:16,17). It has been suggested that “good and evil” is a figure of speech in which two extremities are used to signify “everything.” Examples from the scriptures are “heaven and earth,” and “alpha and omega.” If this is the significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then the first humans were tempted to seek to know everything. The temptation was to reject their contingent, creaturely status and to seek knowledge that was only the domain of the all knowing Creator. That this was involved is confirmed by the tempter's statement in Genesis 3:5 that by partaking, the first humans could “be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The issue of autonomy is clear. Finite humans can know “true truth” by using their God-given faculties in relationship to Him and dependence on Him. But what and how much they know is limited by their own finitude and by God's decrees. The temptation was that by transgressing the decree and challenging God's sovereignty, they could obtain God's knowledge and become autonomous like Him. The cruel truth of the matter is that their noetic capacities were severely diminished, not expanded like they foolishly hoped. Their relational knowledge was ruined (they hid from God and were ashamed before one another) and their cognitive abilities to interact with the rest of the creation were damaged. What knowledge fallen humans do hold about nature, when held autonomously in relationship to God, is always in question: How much if any of it is true? Deception is a constant and real danger. There is no eternal, omniscient third party to confirm or deny the validity of one's cognitive experience. Human finitude becomes a huge problem once the relationship with the infinite Creator is gone.11 This has important implications for epistemology.
Blaise Pascal discussed humankind’s ability to doubt everything, but yet was forced back into reality by nature: “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe.”12 Pascal thought the cause of this situation is best explained by humankind’s dual nature that results from having been created by God followed by a fall.13 The phrase he used to explain this is, “Man infinitely transcends man.”14 His advice to the skeptics and all others who despair at knowing truth about nature, God and humankind: “[H]ear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.”15 We either listen to God or live in paradoxical despair of knowing even ourselves.
Naturalism cannot explain human longings for truth and knowledge, nor can it give hope for obtaining them. If we are merely the products of the impersonal plus time plus chance, why do we have such longings for meaning and truth? These are personal longings. They are desires that, we are told, have no possible satisfaction. That is why my fellow students gasped when the professor told us that truth could not be known (perhaps also because some wondered how he could know that). Humans long to know the truth but are sinfully in rebellion against the only relationship that offers any hope for truth, a relationship with God. When this relational knowledge is dismissed as “hogwash” truth goes with it. Schaeffer describes this:
The basic position of man in rebellion against God is that man is at the centre of the universe, that he is autonomous — here lies his rebellion. Man will keep his rationalism and his rebellion, his insistence on total autonomy or partially autonomous areas, even if it means he must give up his rationality.16
Better to live in despair than to hope in God is the motto of humankind in autonomy.
It is only logical that if we are autonomous, we should be in despair. After all, we are finite and contingent beings. We are able to contemplate matters of huge complexity and formulate theories that are quite impressive. But then other humans seem always to be able to interact with any theory (particularly epistemological ones) and poke holes in it. We seem to know so much at a time when epistemology gives little hope of knowing anything.
Thomas S. Kuhn created a “revolution” in the contemporary view of the history and philosophy of science. His book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,17 caused the terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” to come into common usage. Kuhn sees science as a series of “revolutions” in which a reigning paradigm enters a crisis and is overthrown by another, rather than a gradual, incremental process of progress and discovery. Our interest here is Kuhn’s view of “progress” and science’s relationship to truth. He writes, “We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.”18 Kuhn views “knowledge” to be, through the process of evolution, a matter that is governed by social and neurological processes.19 He offers this definition of knowledge:
What is built into the neural process that transforms stimuli to sensations has the following characteristics: it has been transmitted through education; it has, by trial, been found more effective than its historical competitors in a group’s current environment; and, finally, it is subject to change both through further education and through discovery of misfits with the environment. Those are the characteristics of knowledge.20
Knowledge is judged an uncertain and impermanent matter. It has only helped a group sharing it survive in a particular context. What about knowing the truth? — “There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle.”21 Having read Kuhn’s book several times, I cannot find therein any hope of knowing the truth. Kuhn does hope to avoid solipsism by having “knowledge” a thing shared by a group.22
Belief in “the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system,” does lead to a rather bleak view of the condition of human existence and knowledge. Famous humanist, Paul Kurtz, explains his view:
The humanist, on the contrary, asks that we as human beings face up to the human condition as it is. Humanists accept the fact that God is dead; that we have no way of knowing that he exists; or even of knowing that this is a meaningful question. They accept the fact that human existence is probably a random occurrence existing between two oblivions, that death is inevitable, that there is a tragic aspect to our lives, and that all moral values are our own creations.23
This sounds like it fits Schaeffer’s definition of epistemological despair.
Many contemporary thinkers are adopting positions that they feel “give the best hope.” It may be less than claiming that some epistemological approach is valid, and that “Truth” with a capital “T” can be known, but it is a baby step away from despair. For example, Dirk-Marin Grube, who rejects foundationalism, sees coherentism as the best hope: “Such a coherentist view of belief-legitimation as balancing a mobile is not foreign to current epistemologists . . . It is the best we can hope for at this late age in philosophy.”24 In this approach, “The guiding criterion is whatever serves to overall balance best. There are no (principled) privileges to be attributed to any belief.”25 Grube interacts with objections that coherentism is merely linguistic and not grounded in experience or objective reality, but, in my opinion, does not solve the problem. There is merely a vague hope that the whole balanced “mobile” can holistically be accommodated to reality in some undetermined fashion.26 Evidently such vagaries are the best we can hope for at this stage.
Susan Haack’s “foundherentist” approach chooses to leave out religious experiences.27 She offers the following as she hopes to rebuild something from the rubble of epistemological despair: “I don’t claim that the considerations I have offered in ratification of the foundherentist criteria are even close to being conclusive, comprehensive, or COMPLETELY independently secure. If I am justified in believing that, if any truth-indication is possible for us, it is only to a relatively modest degree. But isn’t that a good deal better than nothing?” To her credit she does suggest that “[W]e need not give up the quest or hope of truth itself.”29
Richard Rorty does not believe that failed epistemology needs a successor. He writes,
“[H]ermeneutics [his proposal] is an expression of hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled — that our culture should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt.”30 To say that Rorty’s approach gives up on Schaeffer’s hope for a unified field of knowledge would be a gross understatement. To him, such quests themselves are at the root of the problem. Rorty states, “But Dewey, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Kuhn, and the other heroes of this book all have their own ways of debunking ‘truthfulness to reality in the sense postulated by philosophical realism . . .”31 A transcendent discourse or universally applicable meta-physic is nothing more than, “[T]he philosopher’s special form of bad faith.”32
Schaeffer’s claim was that taking up a position of autonomy in relationship to God inevitably leads to epistemological despair. The despair originally was thought only to concern the knowledge of God. However, it turns out that more was at stake. Soon humankind, seeking to use autonomous rationality in what Schaeffer considered an ultimately irrational way, lost hope of truly knowing anything about the human mind and soul. This has been shown in recent developments. Despair finally came to include even nature as the relationship of scientific knowledge to “truth” was questioned. As Haack comments, “The old foundationalism aspired to a certitude impossible for fallible human enquirers; but the new conventionalism and the new tribalism surrender to a ‘factitious despair.’”33
In my opinion, we have the tools and evidence we need to truly know as humans, but we are both fallen and finite. Grasping for comprehensive and absolute knowledge, as typified by the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, has led to a disastrous autonomy in relationship to God. This in turn has damaged our noetic faculties. Now all of our knowledge is in question and subject to possible deception. Schaeffer is right that if we are to have “true truth” and substantial knowledge about God, humankind and nature, we must reject the autonomous, closed system approach. We need to seek the God of the Bible who has chosen to graciously reveal Himself to us. With a relational knowledge of God, our approach to cognitive knowledge about the important matters of life will be filled with much hope. There will again be the possibility of a valid, integrated approach to knowledge.
Emphases are the original author’s in all quotations.
- Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (Downer's Grove: IVP, 1968), 41.
- Ibid., 36-37.
- Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968), 111.
- Schaeffer, Escape, 21.
- Schaeffer, God, 109.
- One could say that Schaeffer did not believe in epistemic pragmatism, but existential pragmatism.
- Schaeffer, Escape, 21.
- Mark William Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 9.
- Ibid., 8.
- Recounted, accurately I think, from my memory.
- Some think the account of Genesis 1 - 3 to be primitive mythology. If so, it is incredible how it offers such an amazingly accurate description of the epistemic status of the human race. It is more plausible to consider it inspired by God. Having read other material that was contemporary to Genesis, such as the Babylonian creation accounts, I must say that Genesis is extraordinarily profound.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées no. 131, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966) 1984 ed., 64.
- Ibid., 65.
- Schaeffer, Escape, 42.
- Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970)
- Ibid., 170.
- Ibid., 193 - 195.
- Ibid., 196.
- Ibid., 206.
- Ibid., 193, 210.
- Paul Kurtz, “What is Humanism?” in Moral Problems in Contemporary Society; Essays in Humanistic Ethics ed. Paul Kurtz (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 4.
- Dirk-Martin Grube, “Religious Experience After the Demise of Foundationalism,” in Religious Studies Vol. 331 #1, March 1995 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 51.
- Ibid., 49 - 50.
- Susan Haack, “Founderentism” in Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993), 214.
- Ibid., 222.
- Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 315.
- Ibid., 382.
- Ibid., 383.
- Haack, Founderentism, 222 (the “factitious despair” phrase is credited to Bacon).
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Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
All italics in quoted material are in the original.