Gordon Clark on Science

The book entitled The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God expounds Gordon H. Clark’s view of science. The book proceeds by historical survey, and the three chapter divisions divide the history into the ancients, the Newtonians, and the 20th century. Roughly speaking, this corresponds to views of science that we could call rationalist, empirical-determinist, and empirical-indeterminist. Each of these is shown to come up short of the standard Clark has set for what science needs to accomplish in order to be true; failing that, each is therefore unable to overthrow the biblical view of God.

1. The ancients could not explain how motion is possible. Zeno’s paradoxes have never been answered in a way everyone finds acceptable. Aristotle’s attempt using potential/actual distinction is circular when all the passages are examined carefully.

2. The early-modern period, spanning Galileo to 1900 (with a few precursors and 20th century hangers-on) posited a mechanical and deterministic world that can be known by empirical methods. Clark’s criticism includes the standard ones (e.g. the universal claim is not itself empirically testable), as well as a cluster of objections that may be unique to Clark, centering around the fact that measurements are not precise:

  • The inability to measure precisely and repeatably shows that concepts like length cannot be justified; but science requires these concepts.
  • Procedures to overcome the imprecision of measurement, such as averaging, are arbitrary and unjustified.
  • The so-called laws of Physics indicate a precise relationship between quantities which can, for example, be graphed. But doing so shows that the formula is but one choice of curve-fitting through data points out of an infinite number that could have been selected. Since there is no reason to favor any one of that infinite number of possible curves, there is a probability of one over infinity (i.e. zero) that the selected one is the right one; therefore we can say that every formula of Physics is certainly false (60, 111).

3. In the 20th century, contradictories are asserted, such as the wave and particle model of light. Because they are contradictory, they cannot be true literally. Physicists themselves often recognize this and have proposed operationalism as the solution. This is a view that rejects metaphysical accounts of concepts, replacing them all with cook-book procedures of measurement, which procedures become the definition of the concepts. Thus, the meaning of length is, the procedure used to produce a number that will be called length.

In a surprising comment, easy to miss in a first reading, Clark endorses operationalism as giving the proper description and place of science (92). But since operationalism does not claim truth in a cognitive sense, 20th century science too is incapable of challenging Christian theism.


Zeno’s arguments against the possibility of motion are interesting, and I tend to agree with Clark that differential calculus does not provide a solution to the riddle, and that the problem is still an open one. However, modern scientists are not assuming the rationalist posture, so it is not at all clear why this is an important topic in a book of this kind. One could say, No answer to Zeno, therefore no motion, or one can say, Motion, therefore I’ll think about how to answer Zeno tomorrow.  As a philosopher, Clark would scoff at that attitude. But he has deferred his own answer until tomorrow also: does he believe in motion? does he believe anything physical actually exists? Tell us, Dr. Clark. Don’t just scoff at others.

What is curious about the shape of Clark’s argument in the Newtonian section is that he seems to concede a premise of certain atheist philosophes, if mechanical determinism then no God. For he says,

Therefore, since the Newtonian laws do not describe the actual workings of nature, they cannot be used as a satisfactory demonstration of the impossibility of God and miracles. (58)

But Lorraine Boettner, for example, is comfortable with the idea that radical Newtonian determinism would be consistent with Calvinist theism. It is odd that Clark seems to grant the major premise of the philosophes, and merely limits his argument to denying the minor. That Clark grants the validity of that conditional points, I submit, to a fundamental failure to grasp the presuppositional insight. For Clark, causality and a world are in principle understandable with or without God; an inference from that given to the non-existence of God could in principle be valid; fortunately, Clark discovers that Newtonian science does not actually deliver on its thesis of determinism, so God is safe, for the time being.

As to the impossibility of miracles being refuted, one wonders how miracle would even be defined in Clark’s system; it is not unpacked in this book.

The thesis that imprecision of measurement has great epistemological consequences is repeated in other places of Clark’s opus, such as Introduction to Christian Philosophy, and Christian View of Men and Things, and thus is undoubtedly what Clark regards as his best argument. I want to examine this family of objections from a variety of perspectives:

1. Clark’s exposition that there are an infinite number of curves through any finite set of points still is limited to functional (at most one ordinate per abscissa) curves. I suggest that this is because, if the universe were not of such nature, then there would be no discernible regularity at all. Clark seems to want to admit that there is some function. He should unpack why this is. If we can know that some functional relationship must be there, is Clark absolutely sure we could never discern its form?

2. Clark is agitated by the non-repeatability of measurements, and claims that methods such as averaging are unjustified (59). But this is not true. Overcoming the noise associated with a quantity and its measurement is itself the subject of the discipline of Probability and Statistics. By hypothesizing the noise to be subject to certain statistical properties (such as zero mean), one can derive ways to reduce the noise of the measurement arbitrarily. The success of this project confirms the validity of the hypothesis; and wisdom is justified of her children, Matt 11:18.

3. A theology of probability theory would have been interesting and relevant; but it is absent.

4. Clark may still protest that since we never land on the exact value, we don’t know it. But let him state what he thinks the underlying reality is then. Does it have a determinate nature or is it random fluctuation? If the randomness is radical, then there is, to be sure, no science; but there is also not a world that man could make plans in. That fact should have alerted Clark that something was amiss.

5. Why assume that the statement of a law (the “proposition”) has to be in the form of a bare mathematical equation? Instead of saying that Newton’s First Law implies that a body in free space follows a trajectory given by

x = v t,

(where x is displacement, v is a fixed velocity, and t is time) why not say, the particle follows the rule

x = v t plus or minus epsilon,

where epsilon is specified. Then, to be sure, an infinite number of curves are included in the statement, yet the statement is still true, meaningful, and useful.

6. Clark insists that we don’t know a quantity unless we know it precisely. But that depends on our purpose.

If the football announcer says, the ball is inside the one yard line, he has left open an infinite number of possibilities for where the ball lies; but he has excluded an even greater infinity of impossibilities (with apologies to Cantor). I know a great deal about where the ball is and what the team should do. I am not left with a falsehood.

If I am talking on the phone and I say, “mercy, it’s already midnight,” my conversation partner is not going to shout out “liar! It’s only five minutes until midnight.”

Clark’s whole project was based on an unnecessarily rarified notion of what is meant by assigning lengths and positions.

The meaning of a sentence, even a “law of Physics” sentence, has an intended scope and precision, and its truth-value must be assigned with a view to that scope and intention.

Clark’s point that science does not really explain in a philosophical sense (36) is well taken; and we must be critical about existence claims that might be made for elements of a scientific theory. If gravity can be described alternatively as an all-interpenetrating field or curved geometry, then we must learn to distinguish the thing from the model. Perhaps a good analogy would be the fact that a single proposition can be expressed in a variety of sentences. We need to clarify the grammar and sense of scientific statements, but Clark goes far beyond that without really touching it.

That the universe is so governed by God that there are predictable regularities follows from the fact that God commanded man to subdue and replenish the world (Gen 1:28). From this, it could already be inferred that the thing science aims at is legitimate. Theoretically, God could have created a topsy-turvy universe, in which a plow now digs furrows in the earth against which it is set, but any moment flies off to the moon. But God could not have created such a world and also required his image-bearer to occupy it.

Clark misses this completely. For him, science is either a praxis of pure techne that works, who knows why? or a sinister activity by which men conspire to prove that God does not exist. A Christian philosophy of science for Clark means, merely, a polemic against the atheist’s bad logic; but his strategy lets a virtually self-existent universe sneak in the back door. In trying to establish a radical propositionalism, Clark is not able to close the loop and show that there is a physical universe that it is upheld by the Word of God, and that that Word can be known with progressive accuracy by man, the image of God. In effect, the physical universe becomes a brute fact, dark and unknowable and practically autonomous.

A review of Gordon H. Clark. The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God. (Jefferson, Maryland: Trinity Foundation 1987 [1964]).

34 thoughts on “Gordon Clark on Science

  1. I enjoyed the review, and particularly was glad to see that people are reading Dr. Clark’s works. A had a few quibbles, and rather than post a massive response to your com-box, I have linked it here.

  2. TF (and this comment applies to everyone) I wd appreciate it if you wd provide your readers with a link back to (our) source if and when you interact with it there. Give the readers a chance to double-check for themselves.

  3. I thought I’d share my reply here as well as on the VT list where you posted a link to this blog.

    As I’m sure there is no surprise there are some problems and deficiencies with your review and rather than go into them all, let me just point out one. You write:

    That the universe is so governed by God that there are predictable regularities follows from the fact that God commanded man to subdue and replenish the world (Gen 1:28). From this, it could already be inferred that the thing science aims at is legitimate. Theoretically, God could have created a topsy-turvy universe, in which a plow now digs furrows in the earth against which it is set, but any moment flies off to the moon. But God could not have created such a world and also required his image-bearer to occupy it.

    Clark misses this completely.”

    Actually, Clark not only did not “miss this,” it was basically the point of his entire monograph. Science is useful and is certainly a tool by which man fulfills the “creation mandate,” but because something works it doesn’t follow that it is therefore true. What Clark does, and which your review merely confirms, is to demonstrate that the proverbial emperor has no clothes. Because of logical problems the conclusions of science are always (at best) tentative, never final.

    As another of your critics wrote (linked in the comments above):

    In fact, Clark’s central thesis of the book appears (at least to me) to be that while science may provide useful information, useful information is not the same as absolute truth.

    The application, of course, is that we need the propositional truth of Scripture, and it is accepting the presupposition of Scripture’s divine authority and reliability that gives us truth.

    The fallibility of non-presuppositional science is variously demonstrated by Clark using the example of the paradox of motion, the problem of optical illusions, and the like. This, Clark teaches, should demonstrate the fraility of science to the reasonable person for the purpose of obtaining certain truth, as opposed to merely useful knowledge.”

    I would change the word “frailty” with “futility” and “useful knowledge” in this context is nothing more than useful opinion. As Popper argued, “. . .we have no proofs in science (excepting, of course, pure mathematics and logic). In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory.”

    I appreciate you interacting with Clark, but I’m sorry to say your criticisms rather than being pointed were wide of the mark.


  4. Mr. Harris,
    Do you have something against scientific instrumentalism/operationalism?

  5. Mr Godwin (#5): As I understand it, operationalism has a range of usages that overlap but are not identical: (1) a way to clarify the sense or meaning of a physical concept; (2) a way to extend macroscopic concepts to regions where they cannot apply directly; (3) a regulative insistence on rejecting all non-measurables in a theory; (4) a wholesale replacement of all concepts by procedures.

    Thus, when Einstein insisted that the notion of simultaneity must be cashed out in a method of verifying it (even if only im Gedanken), he was only going as far as (1). When people speak of “metaphysical simultaneity” as a way to escape from the implications of Relativity theory, I agree with operationalists that that is special pleading, vacuous.

    The operational definition of, say, an atomic radius is going to be couched in terms of scattering cross-section; there is no “measuring stick” that can be held up to the atom; hence (2). Yet, scattering cross-section has a direct analogue to a macroscopic area that can be measured; the scattering concept appropriates that.

    The stock in trade of Physics is a thing that can be measured; so (3) is in one sense trivial. The debate about hidden variables is telling. The consensus of Physicists is that hidden variable are nonsense because not measurable.

    But if, say, a theory with hidden variables could be presented that, while not changing the measurable outcome, was able to show that what seems like apparent randomness could actually be rooted in deterministic causality, it seems to me that that would be philosophically interesting. In that sense, (3) is ambiguous.

    Moreover, it is clear that what is happening when one specifies the procedure must be strongly correlated to a clear and distinct concept that is abstract. It wouldn’t make sense to say, “I define simultaneity as the color you get when you shellac a lemon.” There must be a strong intuitive or analogous relation, or a category mistake is made. By what operation could we know that a category mistake is being made?

    Einstein’s project leading to STR was as intuitively conceptual as it gets!

    What is happening in science is an intellectual effort to apply concepts by analogy or intuition to an extended field that goes beyond the capability of the analogue. Thus, (4) is actually impossible. A modest operationalism must be rooted in an intellectual project, including both abstraction and intuition. But when “modest,” it is no longer an “ism.”

    If Clark thinks that he has explained “Physics is false” by means of operationalism, this makes no sense to me. Let it be, that we define the radius of the atom to be that number, which, when squared and multiplied by pi, gives the scattering cross section (say, when bombarded by electrons) as if it were a macroscopic hard sphere; I fail to see why the proposition, “Helium has a radius of — according to that definition” must needs be false, or cannot be said to be true, because of operationalism.

    This seems so obvious to me that I can’t help but hope that I am misunderstanding Clark.

  6. …It should be clear from your critique that you continually confuse and conflate “usefulness” with “truthfulness” and they’re not the same thing. You talk about a world where men can “make plans in” and a statement which while can “never land on the exact value” yet is still “true, meaningful, and useful.” This begs the question and in the process you confuse apples with oranges and tangerines […] Consequently, most of your objections are simply wide of the mark.

    Again, this conflation of usefulness with truthfulness is evident by your begging the question in your conclusion where you assert; ” . . . there is a physical universe that it is upheld by the Word of God, and that that Word can be known with progressive accuracy by man.”

    As I mentioned on the VT list, Clark anticipated your review when he said; “sometimes there is an adverse reaction if it is claimed that verification never proves the truth of a scientific law.” That’s your review in a nutshell. He also asked; “Is it worse to attack science, or to murder logic?” It should be now clear to all your readers on this blog how you answer this question.

  7. You say I “confuse and conflate” usefulness with truthfulness; but I don’t. When I said something was true, meaningful, and useful (numbered point 5), I was not confusing these notions, but intentionally conjoining them: x is P and x is Q and x is R.

    Let me unpack the point of that offending paragraph a little more slowly.

    1. It is possible to express an equation of Physics with tolerance built in.

    2. Such a proposition is meaningful: we know what is referenced and what is predicated, and there is no inherent contradiction.

    3. It is possible that such a proposition is true. For the sake of argument, suppose God reveals that the proposition is true.

    4. Yet, an infinite number of curves can fulfil such an equation.

    5. Therefore, Clark’s argument that an infinite number of curves automatically implies falsehood is refuted.

    6. Such a proposition is still useful. It excludes far more than it includes.

    I also gave other examples of propositions that are imprecise in measure, yet meaningful, true, and useful.

    Perhaps what threw you off was the word “meaningful,” which is technically redundant since a non-meaningful sentence does not express a proposition. But the concept may be helpful heuristically.

  8. What kind of argument is this? First, per (3) if the proposition is revealed then we of course we can know it’s true, but the problem is, and what is under discussion, is not an object of divine revelation, it is a purported “discovered truth” arrived at APART from any divine revelation whatsoever. Consequently, per (4), by what method out of an infinite number of possible alternatives can you know which choice is the correct one? Which one is true? If God tells us, of course we’ll know, but that can’t help you here.Clark’s argument in this case is not that one may or may not be true, but rather how can we know if any is true? Clark wrote (following Popper):

    Since [the scientist] chooses his law from among an infinite number of equally possible laws, the probability that he has chosen the “true” law is one over infinity, i.e. zero; or, in plain English, the scientist has no chance of hitting upon the “real” laws of nature. No one doubts that scientific laws are useful: By them the atomic bomb was invented. The point of all this argument is that scientific laws are not discovered but are chosen.

    Similarly, Popper argued; “All theories, including the best, have the same probability, namely zero.”

    The reasons why science is always false has to do with primarily with the problem of induction and other logical fallacies such as asserting the consequent. The conclusions of a fallacious argument are normally called false. I don’t know what you call them?

    While the example you provide above may not be fallacious, it is problematic nonetheless any usefulness aside.

    I also gave other examples of propositions that are imprecise in measure, yet meaningful, true, and useful.

    Perhaps what threw you off was the word “meaningful,” which is technically redundant since a non-meaningful sentence does not express a proposition. But the concept may be helpful heuristically.

    My objection had to do with the word “true.”

  9. In his 1984 book, “In Defense of Theology,” page 81, Clark says,

    “[Leland Ryken] says that truth, presumably all truth, and therefore religious truth as well, but also the laws of physics, is not solely intellectual. I doubt that many physicists would agree; and it would be interesting to see how he would answer their disclaimer.”

    This seems to grant truth-status to the laws of Physics; I wonder if Clark modified his position late in life?

  10. T-Fan — I haven’t said much about your reaction to my review of Clark’s book (either here or there), because you say very little about that. Instead, you (and Sean) used it as a pivot to the broader discussion of vantillism. But no where in my review do I rest my case on vantillism, and only a little, in the last paragraph, do I introduce a vantillian framework as an alternative, mostly by way of preview. Most of the points could have been made by a non-vantillist.

    I can broaden my criticism of your and Sean’s approach, since it has actually appeared on the comments of this blog repeatedly. Someone says in effect, “Your argument is {P1, P2, … PN}; but I happen to know that you also believe Q, and Q is false.” And the answer of course is, “Maybe Q is false; but what does that have to do with this discussion?”

  11. In #3, Sean suggests that so far from neglecting to present a biblical foundation for the usefulness of science, this is “basically the point of his entire monograph.” I’m pretty sure he will be unable to deliver a single page number where Clark does that. I have read and re-read over a dozen of Clark’s books, and I have not found it anywhere.

    It is wishful thinking and special pleading to claim that that is the point of Clark’s book. In reality, he gives no reason whatsoever for why science is possible let alone useful.

  12. Near the end of #9, Sean says I beg the question in my conclusion “where you assert; ‘ . . . there is a physical universe that it is upheld by the Word of God, and that that Word can be known with progressive accuracy by man.'”

    You could say I begged the question; but it was intended more as a thetic summary of what I think a biblical foundation for science would look like. I will be developing that theme much more in the coming months. (It is more Poythressian than, stricly speaking vantillian.)

    In the review, the statement was intended to give a brief outline of what a biblical view might look like (does look like for me). The point was to contrast something, anything, with the deafening silence of Clark on that matter. And I think that silence is telling.

  13. Dear TJH,

    Do you agree that, without revelation, we could have no confidence that “The Matrix” is not a reasonably accurate portrayal of reality?

    Or do you think that we can somehow discard the “Matrix” hypothesis on the basis of scientific investigation or some other method that does not involve resort to revelation?

    I would guess that your answers would be yes, no – which is (I think most Clarkians would say) one of the main points of Clark’s book.


  14. T-fan– There are two layers I would try to unpack.

    At a deeper level, even the “illusory” world of Matrix, to the extent that it is coherent, to the extent that “objects” even though illusory are stable and can be predicated, point to the triune God as the ground of this possibility. We can’t even really imagine what a godless world would look like, since such is impossible. God cannot be avoided even in an imaginary world like Matrix.

    At the next layer, yes, the way to escape the hypothesis of Matrix is by the content of the system of truth that is revealed.

    However, receiving that system and applying it here is not quite so simple as to say, “See, the Bible says, God created the world.” The critic will say, “the thing you say is a Bible is actually a projection of the Matrix.”

    On the other hand, once the system of truth revealed by God (both Special and General) is received and understood, and the Matrix is ruled out, conversely, the stability and word-like character of the physical universe is established (as I will unpack more clearly anon). So that propositions dealing with that world can be known; not because empiricism is foundational; quite the contrary.

    Clark admitted that he didn’t “know” that the woman he was sleeping with was his wife; but he had a strong opinion about it.

    That admission is itself the reductio of Clarkism. The law of God assumes that you know whether or not the woman you are sleeping with is your wife.

    (Granted, Clark said that some opinions “function” as knowledge; but (1) that is special pleading, it creates a new category out of thin air; and (2) that is a pragmatic view! How can act and proposition meet on Clark’s epistemology?)

    God has so created the world that you can know things like that, even though not revealed; unless you want to say that the wide expanse of knowledge of our world is personally revealed — and I am open to that.

    “But you could be in a delirious fever.”

    Yes; and you could be when you say, “the Bible alone is the word of God” also.

    Overcoming illusion and deception is part of the task; but it doesn’t discriminate between types of proposition.

    Numerous other examples could be given.

    “Does the city of Philippi exist?” a member of the church of Philippi asks.

    “Yes,” his clarkian friend answers. “We know this because in Phil 1:1 Scripture addresses people that live in Philippi; from this it follows that a congregation in Philippi exists; and from this we infer that Philippi exists. That is, we already thought so; but now we know it.”

  15. Dear Tim,

    Thanks for your response.

    I. I’ll leave the “deeper level” alone for now.

    II. You appear to acknowledge that revelation is the starting point, but then you state:

    However, receiving that system and applying it here is not quite so simple as to say, “See, the Bible says, God created the world.” The critic will say, “the thing you say is a Bible is actually a projection of the Matrix.”

    I do not know why such a delusional objection poses any problem, for two reasons:
    1) it is simply a refusal to accept the truth, and
    2) the revelation in the Bible is propositional: it does not matter whether those propositions are conveyed orally, through ordinary perception, by a divine vision, or by a brain plugin — no matter the media, the propositions are revelation from God.

    If there is going to be a response to such a person, other than to point them toward a supply of anti-psychotics, it is: “God has revealed to me that His Word is Truth.”

    Perhaps my puzzlement as to why you consider such an objection problematic will be cleared up in your future post.

    III. As for the remainder of your post, your objection seems to be focused on Clark’s rigorous use of the word “know” to express absolute certainty, as opposed to merely justified belief. The objection that the word does not conform to conventional use is a trivial objection (after all, who would expect that the most rigorous, philosophical end of the semantic range of the word would be the entire semantic range of the word?), not a reductio.

    Incidentally, the law of God does not assume that one “knows” (with absolute certainty) that the woman one is sleeping with is one’s wife. The law of God encompasses sins of ignorance, which could include sleeping with a woman other than one’s wife without awareness of that fact.

    It’s not even that hard to imagine a scenario in which it could occur: on your wedding day, after the vows (or after your honeymoon, if you prefer), your bride switches places with her identical twin sister.

    The true reductio is the reverse: is one’s knowledge of God only as certain as one’s knowledge that the person one sleeps with is one’s spouse? If that is the case, then one’s knowledge of God may pass a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, but not a “beyond any doubt” standard.

    Clark and his followers assert absolute certainty regarding the Triume God. Do you agree with them in that much, if not in their methodology and terminology?

    Or do you take a “balance of the probabilities” approach, as I believe W. L. Craig does? (that is, that God’s existance is only “more likely than not”)


  16. If the propositions come from the Bible, then you will have to answer Descartes’ demon that says, what you call the Bible is also a projection of the Matrix. It seemed like you were answering that the mere propositional form was sufficient to vouchsafe them; or perhaps their inherent a priori certainty. If so, I suggested that then it is like the person that already knows 7+5=12. The “argument” is then irrelevant, as in that previous discussion.

    There is an ambiguity in saying, “that is the apologetic of the prophets.” Yes, their answer to the question, “why are you saying this?” is “thus sayeth the Lord.” But on the other hand, the reason you are to believe this or that man making such a claim must be more than, “he said, ‘thus sayeth the Lord.'” Moses gives several criteria, for example, for how you are to “test the spirits.”

  17. TFan — (to your statement, “the revelation in the Bible is propositional: it does not matter whether those propositions are conveyed orally, through ordinary perception, by a divine vision, or by a brain plugin — no matter the media, the propositions are revelation from God”)

    but then, isn’t it like the analogy I made above, about someone that does not buy your proof that 7+5=12, yet “knows” it, say, by an immediate intuition?

    If you are appealing to the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti, then that’s fine, but I wonder if that is a valid argument or apologetic. As if the apologetic were limited to saying, “I have shown that you don’t have a basis for knowledge; and if you had the Holy Spirit, then you would realize that therein is the basis for knowledge.”

    Or am I still missing something?

  18. Dear Tim,

    As to your first question, I don’t see its relation to my comment. I agree that people are sometimes recognize truth without being persuaded by logical proofs. Is that what you are conveying? I think I’ve missed some connection that you intended me to make.

    As for the second part, you wrote:

    If you are appealing to the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti, then that’s fine, but I wonder if that is a valid argument or apologetic.

    I’m surprised you would question its validity. Isn’t that the apologetic of the prophets, the apostles, and Christ himself?


  19. Ah, quite the lively debate going on here.

    Anyway, Clark’s problem is ultimately with induction, no? But his charges against induction must also apply to language and empirical sense experience, therefore by his own criterion everything received through the senses and everything learned through language is false—as well as science. How does he even communicate? Does he walk into a busy street because he sees that it is busy? After all, the empirically perceived traffic traffic is “false” therefore the street is not busy. Or is there even a street? Proverbs says, “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made them all.” What purpose do our senses serve if they do not yield us with something that corresponds to God’s world?

    And why exactly are these things false? How would Clark know they are false? Rather, he can only say that we don’t know whether they are true. To say they are certainly false is stupid. From scientific experimentation I know that when I release a large metal ball attached to a pendulum from the location next to my forehead it will not swing back and crush my skull unless some external force acted on it. But according to Clark, my scientific experimentation is false and therefore it will crush my skull.

    The other problem I saw related to God’s law—how can we ever actually know we are sinning?

    Those are some thoughts. Correct me if I’m lost. :)

    Oh, and this is my favorite justification for the uniformity of nature:

    While the earth remains,

    Seedtime and harvest,

    Cold and heat,

    Winter and summer,

    And day and night

    Shall not cease.

    Gen 8:22

  20. Dear Keith,

    You’re lost, brother! :) (meant in good spirits)

    You’re right about induction (Clark thinks that it provides no epistemological assurance) and sense experience.

    But after that, your analysis seems take a wrong turn. The major mistaken view that you seem to have made is to assume that if Science says X, the truth must be notX in Clark’s view.

    Clark’s view says that it may be X or not – the pendulum in your example may not crush your skull, but science cannot guarantee you that it won’t.

    See the difference? (I actually think Clark’s explanation as to the necessity of propositional revelation loses most people.)


  21. Turretinfan, the point you “corrected” me on was the very point I was making: that science cannot give certainty, as opposed to simply giving us lies. If you have studied John Robbins (Clark’s most famous disciple, I suppose) it becomes clear that Clarkians think that science actually furnishes us with lies—hence their extremely low view of science.

  22. Keith,

    I am perfectly willing to agree with you that “lies” is not the best term to use to describe science in most cases, and in ordinary speech.

    That’s really not the issue that Clark is defending.

    Let me put it another way, and see if this helps you see what Clark is saying:

    Gnostiphile: Science is great. We learn truth by the use of science.
    Clarkian: That’s what Aristotle thought, but his laws of physics were wrong.
    Gnostiphile: Yes, but Newton provided better laws.
    Clarkian: Haven’t you heard, Einstein showed that Newton’s laws aren’t good enough to be universal laws.
    Gnostiphile: But that just proves my point, Science keeps on improving and getting closer to the truth.
    Clarkian: How do you know that it’s getting closer to the truth, if you don’t already know where the truth is?

    The bottom line is that almost every area of scienitific study includes faulty claims regarding the natural world. Each passing generation of scientists makes a name for itself, in part by tearing away at the work of previous generations.

    If you pick up a college curriculuum on molecular biology, the one easy prediction to make is that in 50 years, or 100 years, or 500 years there will be claims that are made in the curriculuum that have been subsequently recognized to be wrong.

    If you are relying on science to provide you absolute certainty of knowledge/truth, you are foolish.

    Is that an “extremely low view of science”? I don’t think so. I think it’s an extremely high view of knowledge/truth.

    Am I so far off?


  23. T-fan, what you wrote I have agreed with for quite some time and have actually promoted it quite ardently.

    My initial point was that science does not furnish us with falsehoods. The Clarkian cannot know that our descriptions of natural phenomena are false, hence it is idiotic for John Robbins to treat science and carnal, worldly, and Satanic. (as he does if you’ve listened to his lectures—perhaps Clark himself never did this)

    Anyway, you seem to agree with me on this point.

  24. T-fan, (at the risk of confusing matters by having more than one conceptual thread going at once) in #20 you say to Keith, “The major mistaken view that you seem to have made is to assume that if Science says X, the truth must be notX in Clark’s view. Clark’s view says that it may be X or not.”

    I’m looking to clarify what you mean by this. Clark says repeatedly, “science is false.” I take this to mean that for any law of Physics (for example) expressable as a proposition P, P is false, or
    He argues for this from considerations of probability as I summarized in the review.

    But ~P seems equivalent to saying, “the truth must be notP” yet you deny that Clark is saying that.

    I wonder if your statement is supposed to be interpreted, “~P does not imply that some other P’ is true,” that is

    ~(~P -> P’)

    rather than that ~P is not actually asserted by Clark.

  25. Scripture tells us that the sun is hot (Isaiah 49:10 and James 1:11). Science says the same thing. Therefore, Science is right.

    I’m confident that Clark would agree with the syllogism above. The fact that Science is unreliable, does not mean that for all propositions P, the truth is P’ (something other than P).

    Nevertheless, for an indeterminate number of propositions N (less than the total number of all propositions P) Science says R, when the truth is R’.

    Thus, where the total number of all propositions in Science is X (and obviously that number is increasing exponentially these days), and the total number of false proposition is N, Science is unreliable according to the relationship between N and X.

    Science, however, is unable to tell us what the value of N is.

    History has shown that N was a large number in previous generations, and there is no reason at all to suppose that N has been reduced to zero in the present generation. In fact, Science does not claim such a feat has been accomplished.

    Consequently, aside from claims like the one above, where revelation authenticates Science, we can only ascribe utility, not truth (absolutely certain knowledge of reality) to science, and (by implication) science is “false” (meaning not “truth” within that extremely high standard of truth), although individual claims of Science certainly do, at some undetermined ratio, correspond exactly to reality.

    I’m not sure if I’m explaining this in a cogent way. Does what I said make any sense?

  26. Nevertheless, for an indeterminate number of propositions N (less than the total number of all propositions P) Science says R, when the truth is R’.

    This would make more science of Clark’s claim that science is false, yet its trivial.

  27. T-fan — it may be that you have worked out a new form of anti-empiricism that can hold up better than Clarkism; let’s save that for another day. Right now, I would like you to focus on Clark’s view. On p. 60 of the book under review, he concludes,

    “Therefore, all the laws of Physics are false.”

    Not N out of Q; not, any one might prove to be false. No. “All… are false.”

    You can find a nearly identical assertion in Christian View of Men and Things, (1990 [1952]) p. 139 in regard to the law of gravitation, and Introduction to Christian Philosophy (1993 [1968]) p. 41 “Since the choice is made from an infinite number of equally possible laws, there is zero probability that the laws chosen describe anything that occurs in nature.”

    Before continuing with your version, will you concede that

    1. Clark says that all (not some, but all) laws of Science are false; moreover, that we know they are false (otherwise Clark, being an honest man, would not have asserted it).

    2. I have proposed a way of formulating a law of science that escapes from this specific objection (though perhaps not from all other objections); namely, the objection that there are an infinite number of curves through the points.

  28. T-fan,

    You say that science collectively says R. In reality, the truth is R’. This is trivial. Who wouldn’t agree with that? Are there people out there who think that science has always given us the truth? The whole idea behind science is that we keep modifying our “knowledge”.

    Nevertheless, this makes more sense of Clark’s claim that science is “false.” Collectively, yes it probably is, but once again, if he’s concerned about epistemic certainty then he still can’t say its truly false, only probably false.

    You wrote in response to JC: Are you unwilling to accept that proposition as a presupposition for the conversation?

    Now you’re just making up stuff up.

    By the way, how does Clark know that the Bible says what he thinks it says given the uncertainty of language?


  29. Also, that applies to theology as well. I’m sure that Clark’s theology underwent tweaks over the course of his life, and there was probably at least one false proposition left in there. Say it is certainly so. Then, by the same reasoning, can we not say that Clark’s theology was false?

  30. Tim (#28),

    I still haven’t found my copy of the main work under discussion. I did locate my copy of Christian View of Men and Things (though a different edition than the one you cited). It contains what appears to be much the same arguments that you describe at Section V, “Science,” in the subsection entitled “Facts, Laws, and Verification.”

    (As an initial matter, I don’t think I’ve departed in any significant way from Clark’s views on epistemology, but I suppose I could be wrong.)

    He does state, “[scientific laws] cannot be true.” (italics in original) However, he immediately follows that up with: “Or, at the very least, the point of all this argument is that scientific laws are not discovered, but chosen.”

    I think your number 1 really attempts to quibble over whether the laws are objectively false, whereas Clark’s point was somewhere entirely else. I don’t think Clark would particularly mind the objection from a naturalist that the laws might actually be true in some respects.

    I think Clark’s reason for calling all of the laws of physics “false” was (and here I’m going based on his actual argument in CVMT) that they describe imaginary scenarios, not the physical realities – by the admission of the physicists who write the laws. In other words, Clark is stating that on their face, the laws do not correspond to the reality of nature, regardless of whether they would be accurate in an “ideal” world.

    With that understanding, it’s not any big deal for Clark to say that he knows they are false (using “know” in the ordinary sense of the term).

    As to 2, formulations of the laws with tolerances would address the immediate objection that the laws of physics do not relate to the real world, but to an imaginary ideal world.

    Your formulation might seem to overcome the infinite of lines problem, but I don’t think it fully does … there will still be an infinite number of epsilons, higher order curves, etc. that could have been selected, and so on …

    Just adding though that this law is an approximation, however, removes much of the sting of the reductio, while (again) bolstering Clark’s underlying point that the law is chosen, not discovered.


  31. T-fan (#31) — I delayed responding until I had a few minutes to read the CVMT section you cite. It is on p. 139 of my edition. After your quote, he continues: “perhaps both points should be maintained. Not only are scientific laws non-empirical, they must indeed be false.”

    (I’m not sure what the force of “perhaps” is; it seems to be in tension with “must indeed be false.” But let chalk that up as a stylistic infelicity.)

    Clark’s discussion of the “law of the pendulum” leads you to say that the laws of Physics “describe imaginary scenarios, not the physical realities – by the admission of the physicists who write the laws”; but your statement is false at several levels.

    I have not found in these pages anywhere that Clark claims “the admission of the physicists who write the laws.” So why do you say that?

    The “law” that Clark discusses — for which “the pendulum so described must have its weight concentrated at a point, its string must be tensionless, and there must be no friction on its axis” (p. 140) –, namely, “the period of the swing is proportional to the square root of the pendulum’s length” is not a law, but a limiting case of the law which is set up most generally with an integral equation. It happens that the limiting case can be solved analytically (to first order) when you also add the limit of very small displacement (which Clark neglects to mention). (Moreover, that the “string must be tensionless” is not only not a necessary assumption, it is false, and indeed, according to the theory, the pendulum would not move at all without tension, either in the ideal or real world!)

    Limiting cases are useful pedagogically and practically, but it is very misleading to say either that the limiting case is the law, or that therefore “the law” only applies to some “imaginary scenario.”

    It is claimed by Phyicists (I say) that the law applies to the real world.

    To think that this claim is rebutted by pulling out a limiting case and suggesting that the limiting case could not be realized perfectly simply misunderstands what is going on with such limiting cases. It is, frankly, schoolboyish.

    Then, T-fan, you start to quibble that Clark might grant that “the laws might actually be true in some respects.”

    Frankly, such an admission would be as far from something the real Clark would make as possible, if I understand his project at all. Truth is not something to be qualified by “in some respects.” A proposition might be true when properly qualified, and false when not so qualified. But the notion of “truth” is not. And I find no place that Clark give the slightest hint that the propositions of science could be qualified in such a way as to take on the truth value TRUE.

    It is really not very helpful to pull qualifications out of thin air and say, “Clark could have meant this.” We have the texts he wrote. Deal with those.

    As to my “point 2,” you say my “formulation might seem to overcome the infinite of lines problem, but I don’t think it fully does … there will still be an infinite number of epsilons, higher order curves, etc. that could have been selected, and so on …”

    That’s not the point. I’m not worried about infinities. My whole point is that Clark has allowed an uncontrolled use of infinities to confuse him.

    The question is, can the proposition (i.e. a scientific law as proposition) be formulated in such a way, that it takes on the truth value TRUE?

    As I said, perhaps there are other reasons to deny that such a proposition can be true, or known to be true; but I submit, that the specific argument of “an infinity of lines,” as to Clark’s argument that this eo ipso implies falsehood, has thereby been rebutted.

  32. Hermeneutics of Clarkism

    John Robbins understands it. Science is the enemy of Clarkists. In his historical context, Clark was primarily an apologian and he was defending Christianity against modernist arguments.

    Clark must be read in light of his context and his purpose. Clark used the arguments of relativists like Feyerabend against modernism and science. Basically, Clark is asserting that science in non-Newtonian — that we don’t get precisely the same results every time. There’s uncertainty in all measurements, therefore we cannot really know anything about the world.

    Clark says that science can be useful, but he doesn’t show why this is, especially if science is always false. Of course, understanding the historical context, we can assume that Clark is merely trying to undercut modernism’s reliance upon science’s credibility. In order to accomplish this, Clark doesn’t have to construct anything; he only has to raise epistemological questions about science.

  33. MS — a merely negative critique makes him vulnerable to the tu quoque. Especially, given his concession that science is, after all, useful. I’m going to maintain that the absence of a positive vision is a serious defect, above all when coming from a would-be Christian apologist.

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