"A priori": a little philosophy of big things

These days, while delving in the world of logic and apologetics with the inimitable Ronald Nash, I’ve suddenly become aware of a principle that we’d all do well to pay attention to.

Actually, it’s been sitting at the back of my mind for a while, but a recent series of unconnected experiences have yanked it out of there and dangled it before my eyes:

A priori.


It’s Latin. Some might have come across it, some might have come across it by some other name (think Marcus Aurelius), and some others are already yawning and about to click back to Facebook. But the reality is that we all use “a priori” – virtually every day of our waking lives.

A priori literally means “before the fact”. In terms of thinking (aka “philosophy”) it is defined along the lines of “knowledge apart from sense experience” or “a presupposition”. In human words, “something we know without needing to prove or justify”.

But I won’t bore you with philosophical structures and terms, even though they have a tremendous impact in how we see the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. What I want to point out, briefly, is how often we embark upon a journey of thinking, debating and even outright fanaticism on the basis of something we have assumed, without asking first whether or not that assumption is logical, true, correct, right or even helpful.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t become a postmodern suddenly. I’m not saying that there is no a priori knowledge; 1+1 equals 2 and that’s the end of that. But even for us common mortals who don’t get paid to spend our working life theorizing under a tree (but respect those who do), there is a huge implication.

Example: Here is a nice fella who today is celebrating C.R. Darwin’s 200th birthday (and you thought I wasn’t going to say anything about it). He accepts the Theory without quibbles and is dutifully suspicious of all those religious nuts who dare to cast Dark-Ages skepticism on it. To him, evolution makes sense; it nicely fits those weird things we dig up every now and again; it explains the variety of life forms that abound on the planet today, how species adapt, why there is apparent imperfection and even uselessness in many organisms and finally, the time-scale matches star distances, geological formations and development and the data from dating studies.

So, on his way to the Evolution Dinner, someone stops our friend and asks him: “Do you believe that there is a God?” And even though his stomach’s grumbling, he takes time to think about it. “Well”, he says finally, “no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” asks the other guy.

“Because we don’t need God.”

“Come again?”

“Well”, says our friend, warming up to the subject, “natural laws are enough to explain everything in the world. There’s no need for miracles, for divine intervention – even for a Creator sustaining the world. The universe is all that there is, has been, and ever will be.”

“Are you – are you trying to do a Carl Sagan impression?”

“Heh. But the point is this: Since everything in the world can be explained by natural processes, why do we need to pile on the logically unnecessary burden of a Divine Creator? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just have to try that protozoa dish.”

What do we have here? A fictional, albeit surprisingly common conversation that reflects a popular line of reasoning, which in turn is based on a priori naturalism. Translation: our hungry friend begins with the assumption (aka ‘presupposition’) that the world is confined within the natural box, that nothing super-natural exists outside that box, and therefore everything must be explained only by naturalistic processes; and evolution is the best fitting model.

Question: How does he prove that first assumption? Through a scientific experiment? No, because that would be limited to the natural world. How then?

Answer: He can’t. Seriously. But that doesn’t stop him from effortlessly making the leap from “evolution” to “atheism”, even though his reasons are not philosophically adequate.

Now, I know I have oversimplified this particular issue and I’ll get lots of the usual hate mail from angry readers who will accuse me of making straw-men arguments. That’s not my intention. My intention is to encourage us to examine our beliefs on ANYTHING and ask whether or not they are based on assumptions and presuppositions that we might personally like but that do not necessarily qualify as a priori. We might find that while we accuse others of close-mindedness and fanaticism, we are unintentionally guilty of the same.

And yes, I am still a Christian:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds – Heb. 1:1-2

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