Life's Ultimate Questions by Ronald Nash

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Nash, Ronald. Life’s Ultimate Questions.

I think I have figured out the problem with “worldview.” It was originally meant to be used as a tool. We have turned it into an end-goal. No, the situation is even worse. We have turned it into a commodity. That is why worldview talk today is basically useless. We hear a lot about how “this is in conflict with a Christian worldview.” Rarely do we hear anything of how belief-forming mechanisms work or exactly why socialism always leads to shortages and gluts. It did not always have to be this way. There was once a better way to talk about worldview analysis. Ronald H. Nash offers one such model.

For the moment–maybe forever–let us put aside the term “worldview.” We will use “system” instead. Nash argues that the case for or against Christian theism should be made and evaluated in terms of total systems. A system must meet several tests: the law of noncontradiction, outer experience, internal cohesion, and practice. Could there be more criteria? Possibly, but the above are a good start.

Naturalism

A naturalist believes “the physical universe is the sum total of all there is.”

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The most intuitive problem with naturalism is the process of reasoning itself. C.S. Lewis and most recently Alvin Plantinga point out that reasoning exceeds the bounds of nature, or at least it is not clear how biological reactions can create the law of non-contradiction.

Moreover, it seems naturalism reduces to physicalism, and this is a problem. “If truth, a proposition, or a thought were some physical motion in the brain, no two persons could have the same thought.”


Plato

Nash updates Platonic language by speaking more of sets than forms. This is a clear gain. We can now rephrase Plato to say “that every class of objects in the physical world has an archetype or a perfect pattern existing in the immutable, eternal, and immaterial world.” We do not need to accept Plato’s conclusions–indeed, until we get to St. Augustine we are better off not accepting him–but he does provide the reader with a number of conceptual tools. For example, “An essence is the set of essential properties without which a particular thing like this squirrel or that tree would not exist as a squirrel or tree.”

Plato’s realm of forms is too neat. It works in some areas but not in others. For example, “One could not know that a and b are equal unless he already knew the standard, Equal itself.” We know universals prior to the particular. Unfortunately, finding out how this knowledge arrives leads to some problems, namely reincarnation.

Aristotle

Our discussion of Aristotle will turn mainly on his definitions of terms, since much of Aristotle will be repeated in Aquinas. Nash summarizes Aristotle’s view of substance as “any given thing that exists or has being.” A substance is composed of matter and form, the latter being the “set of essential properties that makes it the kind of thing it is.”

An essential property is a property of x, which if it lost, x would cease to be x. A common property “is any property that human beings [for example] typically possess without also being essential.” For example, the property of having ten toes is common, but not essential.

Plotinus

Of all the ancient philosophers, Plotinus is easily the most interesting and most powerful.

Main idea: the One necessarily expands downward. The next level is the Nous, or the One’s thinking. Then there is soul, and finally bodies or matter.

The One is so “one-ish” that attributing any property to it compromises its unity. As Nash notes, “If we say ‘The One is x,’ we introduce dualism into the One via the distinction between subject and predicate.” Even saying the One is unknowable does not help, for already we seem to know quite a few things about the One.

If this One is “God,” then how do we relate to it? As best one (sorry!) can tell, you can only relate to it by some mystical catching up into it.

Plotinus’s universe
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Is Matter evil for Plotinus? No. It would be a mistake to call him a Gnostic. Matter does represent some sort of fall in being, but that means it is less good rather than evil.

Augustine

Although much of this is familiar material, Nash has some helpful charts for explaining Augustine’s thought. Nash does a fine job explaining, for example, Augustine’s epistemology. It is more than simply “faith seeking understanding.” It is illumination. It is a correlation of being and knowing.
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Illumination: God, Soul, and Sun

In a familiar metaphor, Augustine believes “God is to the soul what the sun is to the eye. God is not only the truth in, by, and through whom all truths are true….He is also the light in, by, and through whom all intelligible things are illumined.”

Aquinas

I am going to skip much of this thought. Although presuppositionalists have done a uniformly terrible job at explaining Aquinas, Nash seems to get it right.

The Law of Non-contradiction

Simply put, A cannot be B and ~B at the same time and in the same relationship.
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So far, so good. B represents the class of all dogs (or humans). Non-B is its complement, everything else in the universe that is not a dog. Nash explains by way of a lengthy quote from Gordon Clark:

“If contradictory statements are true of the same subject at the same time, evidently all things will be the same thing. Socrates will be a ship, a house, as well as a man. But if precisely the same attributes attach to Crito that attach to Socrates it follows that Socrates is Crito. Not only so, but the ship in the harbor, since it has the same list of attributes too, will be identified with this Socrates-Crito person. In fact, everything will be the same thing. All differences among things will vanish and all will be one.”

But does this apply to God? Would not this reduce God to human logic? Nash responds:

“If God does operate according to a different logic, a higher logic in which B and non-B are indistinguishable, nothing would prevent God at the final judgment from announcing that there
is no difference between believers and nonbelievers and between God’s keeping and breaking his promises. But there is no need to get upset, because on such grounds there can also be no difference between heaven and hell.”

But one may still object that God may be internally contradictory, having his own sort of logic where the law of non-contradiction need not apply. If that is true, then they could not know it, for communication presupposes this very law.

Possible Worlds

This is where it gets fun. Before proceeding, one should define a number of terms.
Proposition: that which is expressed in a sentence’s meaning.
State of affairs: an inadequate definition would be that which obtains if a proposition is true. It is better illustrated in the following diagram:

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The above is fairly common sense. Some pious Christians might balk at what follows: true propositions are eternal entities. This seems to follow from one’s definition of truth. If truth is unchanging, then it seems to be eternal. Such truths would be in the mind of God.

Possible world: a possible world is a way the world could have been. All that one needs is for a state of affairs a) to be different and b) logically consistent.
Book: for every possible world, the book is the sum total of all true propositions.

Lest we get too excited, not every counterfactual state of affairs is a possible world. More likely, it is only a slice of a possible world.
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Lest this get too abstract, there is a very real pay-off: possible worlds allow us to define essential and non-essential properties, so necessary for Christology (to name but one example). An essential property is one that I possess in every possible world. Let’s apply this to discussions of God.

According to Nash, “A divine attribute then is a property that God could not lose and continue to be God; it is an essential property of God, existing in every possible world.

Epistemology

Nash, although a Clarkian of sorts, seems to hold to the correspondence theory of truth: “Truth is a property of propositions that correspond to the way things are.”

How, then, do we arrive at true beliefs? It is to Nash’s great credit that he draws upon the Reformed Epistemology school’s use of Thomas Reid. He quotes Wolterstorff on Reid: “At the very foundation of Reid’s approach is his claim that at any point in our lives we have a variety of dispositions, inclinations, propensities, to believe things–belief dispositions we may call them. What accounts for our beliefs, in the vast majority of cases anyway, is the triggering of one and another such disposition.”

On open theism: “When I think about this view of God, I often find myself in a situation wanting to pray for this God. I would probably do that, except under the circumstances, I’m not sure who I should pray to.”

Ethics and Emotivism

Problems with emotivism:
  1. Every ethical judgment is correct, for how can my feelings be wrong?
  2. All moral actions are good and bad at the same time
  3. No one actually disagrees over moral issues
  4. It implies a contradiction: if someone says, “I like to get drunk, but I know it is wrong,” he actually means “I like to get drunk, but I don’t like to get drunk.”

Conclusion

This is probably my favorite text on worldview. It is somewhat technical in parts, so it might not be the first text to start with.
 
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