Epistemology Rests on Ontology part I
By Mike Robinson
Epistemology … [and] Ontology … cannot be sharply separated. One’s view of reality will determine, to a great extent, his view of knowledge and vice versa (John Frame: DKG).
The ontological trinity will be our interpretative concept everywhere. God is our concrete universal; in Him thought and being are co-terminous. In Him the problem of knowledge is solved. If we begin thus with the ontological trinity… (Van Til; emphasis mine).
Many non-scholars (oft times even scholars) often confuse matters of ontology1 (what there is) with matters of epistemology2 (what is knowledge and how knowledge is justified) in everyday discussions and within academia. In sundry philosophical schools ontology is often overlooked as epistemic issues are overemphasized. Even non-specialists, who have never heard of epistemology or ontology, can make this mistake.
Ontology is the study of what the material world (and the study of immaterial entities or lack thereof) is made of as it studies the facts of physics, biology, anthropology, logic, language, and cosmology. The reality and composition of natural facts is an ontological issue and what can be known concerning natural facts is related to epistemic issues. Nonetheless, many comingle epistemology and ontology without even discerning the difference. If one asks a question regarding the material world (ontological matter), but then offers a response about knowledge of the material world (epistemological), he is dealing with two distinct features relating to the same subject. This merely leaves him stuck in an erroneous locus.
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14).
Now when God ascribes this aseity to himself in Scripture, he makes himself known as absolute being, as the one who is in an absolute sense. By this perfection he is at once essentially and absolutely distinct from all creatures. Creatures, after all, do not derive their existence from themselves but from others and so have nothing from themselves; both in their origins and hence in their further development and life, they are absolutely dependent. But as is evident from the word “aseity,” God is exclusively from himself, not in the sense of being self-caused but being from eternity to eternity who he is, being not becoming. God is absolute being, the fullness of being, and therefore also eternally and absolutely independent in his existence, in his perfections in all his works, the first and the last, the sole cause and final goal of all things. In this aseity of God, conceived not only as having being from himself but also as the fullness of being, all the other perfections are included. They are given with the aseity itself and are the rich and multifaceted development of it (Herman Bavinck).
Issues relating to ontology are not reducible to issues of epistemology; they overlap and presuppose one another, they have a symbiotic relationship but are clearly distinct. An issue over whether something exists or not and what it is falls into the realm of ontology. The issue of how we can know about the natural world in contrast to whether that knowledge is justified is a different matter. Additionally, Frame argues that epistemology “is a subdivision of ethics.” Ought one affirm epistemic truth? That question drives one’s epistemic position into the realm of ethics (this also applies to ontology).
To sensibly hold an epistemological position (what is knowledge) one must hold (implicitly or explicitly) a presupposition about what reality is (ontological matter). Is the world composed of only matter in motion or is there an immaterial aspect of the world? Accordingly, one must presuppose that material and immaterial reality exists (ontology) in a way that knowledge is possible (epistemology). That which undergirds the possibility of knowledge is an ontic reality. One cannot avoid ontology whether one recognizes it or not. One’s epistemic stance rests upon one’s ontic theory.
The question is not what you look at, but what you see (Will Durant).
Those who claim that there is no actual reality or that one cannot know anything about reality may think that they explicitly reject epistemology and ontology, but they are in fact entombed in a self-collapsing ontic stance that leads to a self-stultifying epistemic view. Truth exists (ontic issue) and men can know it (epistemic issue; see Romans chapter one).
A strict materialistic ontological scheme is more than improbable; it’s impossible. A mutable material-only ontology lacks the resources to account for immaterial realities that do not change (principles in mathematics, moral absolutes, laws of reason, etc.) . As we go through this series we will discover that Materialism is ontically underequipped and leaves numerous realities unaccounted for. The atheistic materialist attempts to meld together matters of ontology and epistemology. So the materialist argues that issues of logic and epistemology are, in principle, merely issues of ontology; they only correspond to matter and motion. He does such all the while employing immutable universals that cannot be reduced to matter and motion; thus he stultifies himself.
The Biblical doctrine of God is unique; no religion other than those developed out of the Biblical tradition contains anything like it. In the Biblical doctrine, God is in an ontological sense completely discontinuous with the world. The world, on the other hand, is completely dependent upon God; it continues to exist by his continuing will for it to exist. Its unity is in his will or purpose and not an intrinsic property (Stephen Parrish; italics mine).
Part II (later this week) will cover some Apologetics applications.
1. Ontology: The study of the nature of being; from the Greek word ontos. Ontology is the study and analysis of “existence,” or reality in general, in fundamental categories as well as relations thereof.
General ontology is the most basic aspect of metaphysics, and there are three main tasks that make up this branch of metaphysical study. First, general ontology focuses on the nature of existence itself. What is it to be or exist? Is existence a property that something has? Does nothingness itself exist in some sense? It there a sense of being such that fictional objects like the unicorn Pegasus have being even though they do not exist? The nature of existence will be part of the focus of the chapter nine (J.P. Moreland and William L. Craig: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview).
Ontic actuality is predicated of a thing; one thing that is always predicated and essential is that the thing exists forasmuch as all things that may be intelligible are in the class of things that exist as material, abstract, mental, or spiritual kinds.
2. Epistemology: The study of how we know what we know; the nature and basis of knowledge; the accounting and justifying of knowledge claims; and the sources and scope of knowledge.
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