Van Til Tool

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Monday, June 06, 2005

Adumbrations of the Van Til Perspective in the Thought of Descartes

Adumbrations Of The Van Til Perspective

In The Thought Of Descartes

Based Upon The Research Of The Noted Cartesian Scholar

Martial Guerroult Set Forth In The Second Edition Of His Descartes’

Philosophy Interpreted According To The Order of Reasons,

Volume I – The Soul And God (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Press, 1968), Translated By Roger Ariew in 1984


Forrest Wayne Schultz

Grantville, Georgia

October 12, 1994

This Paper Is Dedicated To

Cornelius Van Til

Whom God Mightily Used To Open Our Eyes To The
All-Important Truth That God Is The Only Valid Starting Point For All Predication


To put matters into perspective here, let me begin by saying that I have long regarded the thought of Rene’ Descartes as a very “mixed bag”. On the one hand, he deserves great praise for developing the Cartesian co-ordinate system of Analytic Geometry, an indispensable mathematical tool and visual aid. On the other hand, his body/soul dichotomy has wrought enormous harm from which we have yet to recover. His emphasis on the need for ideas to be clear and distinct needs to be heard loud and clear as a corrective to the current muddleheadedness, but his supposition that clarity and distinctness alone is sufficient to guarantee an idea’s veracity is preposterous in the extreme, though not to be unexpected from a rationalistic idealist. His desire to free gravitational theory from the embarrassment of action at a distance was laudable, but the alternate version he proposed – a continuous omnipresent matter – was a far-fetched purely rationalistic construct in flagrant violation of the facts. Even more far-fetched was his ludicrous, unscriptural notion of a continuous creation of the world complete with an infinitesimal mathematical conceptualization akin to cinematography, for which, I guess, therefore, he should be credited as inventor! But, I suppose, his greatest (albeit unintentional) contribution to humor was to be found in his notion that (I kid you not!) the soul was located in the pineal gland !!

I suppose, however, that the thing for which Descartes is best known and most ridiculed is his proof of his own existence enshrined in his famous formulation: cogito; ergo sum, i.e. “I think; therefore I am”. There probably have been more jokes and “take-offs” pertaining to this than to anything else in philosophy. The one I best remember from my college days was about the physicist who proved his own existence by observing that he displaced water when he got into the bath tub: “I displace water; therefore I am”. My own contribution to the stock of “cogito” humor is this: “Rene’ put de’ cart before de’ horse”.

But, after having read the book by Martial Guerroult noted on the Title Page, I now see the need to take Descartes a bit more seriously concerning this “cogito” matter in light of his epistemological purpose. As Guerroult guides us through Descartes’ epistemology, we learn something very interesting: (1). Descartes had discovered the basic principle of the Van Til Perspective, but (2). His “order of reasons” is inconsistent with it. Guerroult does not put much stress upon this nor does he mention Van Til, but he does supply ample evidence to indicate that the gist of the Van Til Perspective was clearly recognized by Descartes, although he violated it in the logical sequence of his architectonic.


Guerroult’s research is regarded by contemporary French Cartesian scholars as a masterpiece that has profoundly affected their work, chiefly by directing it into an architectonic methodology (the one Descartes insisted was needed to understand his thought) and away from the in vacuo topic-by-topic approach which had previously dominated Cartesian studies. (See the rear jacket of the book and its translator’s introduction.) For this reason the book is an excellent source for the study I am undertaking in this paper. All of my page references will be to this book, which, by the way, I highly recommend to anyone interested in matters Cartesian.

In this paper I shall first set forth the Van Tillian adumbrations in Descartes’ thought which were brought to light by Guerroult. Then I shall note how Descartes’ order of reasons is logically inconsistent with these Van Tillian principles. Finally, I shall demonstrate the futility of any attempted escape from this inconsistency by means of an appeal to the distinction between the “order of being” (ratio essendi) and the “order of knowing” (ratio cognoscendi).

The Van Tillian Adumbrations

According to Guerroult, Descartes recognized that his knowledge of himself as imperfect presupposed the existence of perfection, i.e. God [p. 158], so that, strictly speaking, our knowledge of God is logically prior to our knowledge of our mind [p. 162]. Man is dependent upon God, and God put the certainty of His existence into the human mind. [p. 160] The truth and certainty of all science depends upon the knowledge of God: before I know God I cannot know anything else. [p. 162] God is the first principle of valid science. [p. 165] If my mind were not prejudiced, there would be nothing I would recognize sooner and more easily than Him. [p. 163] “The intrinsic evidence of God, which is the greatest evidence of all, imposes the greatest absolute certainty , and serves as ultimate foundation for the certainty of the cogito.” [p. 168] All truth depends upon God. [p. 241]

It is within this presupposed theistic framework that the significance of the Cartesian “hyperbolic doubt” must be seen. That is, Descartes, in a manner similar to Van Til, says that if God did not exist, then maybe the world was created by an evil genius who is trying to deceive us, and, if so, then we can’t be sure of knowing anything with certainty. However, this hyperbolically doubting cogito – this cogito detached from God – is a hypothetical denatured inauthentic cogito (the real cogito is bound to God) which is introduced to show that universal skepticism would be the result of atheism, and that only on the basis of God’s existence is any certainty possible. [p. 172] {Descates did not originate this idea of a deceiving evil genius creator; it was a notion discussed by certain medieval theologians. [p. 23] Van Til, though, usually sets the creation of the world by God into antithetic contrast to the notion of its origination by chance, because this is the predominant world view in modern Western culture. Chance, of course, like a malevolent deity, provides no basis for certitude.}

The Inconsistency

Now if Descates had constructed his order of reasons in accord with the abovementioned insights, then he would have had the honor of originating what we now call the Van Til Perspective. Unfortunately these Van Tillian insights lie buried within Descartes’ writing rather than being the basis for the construction of his architectonic. What is truly amazing about this is that Descartes clearly recognized that God needs to be presupposed in order to construct proofs for the existence of God, and yet he goes right ahead and constructs them anyway! The principles upon which Descartes, beginning with the cogito, erects his theistic proofs all “emanate directly from the true light of God”; indeed “If beginning with the cogito, we can rise to the level of God, upon which the cogito is in fact founded, that is possible only with the help of the true light”: “The demonstration of the true God must necessarily rest on principles actually established in Him.” [p. 172] “But the demonstration requires us to pretend to deny it…a demonstration that, implying the true light coming from God, claims not to presuppose it.” [p. 173]

This is an astounding admission! For, if God needs to be presupposed to prove God, then the so-called proof is fallacious because it begs the question. Descartes, fully recognizing this, nonetheless proceeds to construct his theistic proofs – an astonishing inconsistency in a thinker who places such stress upon clarity and logical rigor!

It also needs to be said that even Descartes’ supposed proof of his own existence is fallacious, because if the existence of God is doubted, then we have no grounds upon which to be certain that logic itself is cognitively trustworthy, thus rendering doubtful the conclusions of all arguments, including, “I think; therefore I am”. Thus, in his auto-existence proof, as well as in his theo-existence proof, Descartes has to pretend to deny or claim not to presuppose that which he, in his Van Tillian moments, recognized the need to presuppose, namely the existence of God as the only basis for knowledge. In his Van Tillian moments he rightly sees that the cart is behind the horse. But in his auto- & theo- existence proofs he puts the cart before the horse. The horse must pull the cart. The cart cannot pull the horse.

What is perhaps most surprising about Descartes’ question-begging in his theistic proofs is that he emphatically opposes the practice of question-begging when he sets forth the principle purportedly underlying his order of reasons. In a statement directly quoted by Guerroult, Descartes says, “The order consists solely in that the propositions laid down first must be known without the aid of those that follow, and that those that follow must be so arranged that they are shown to be true solely by the propositions that precede.” [p. 6] Now if the truth of the existence of God is necessarily the very first proposition whence all others ultimately emanate, which Descartes in his Van Tillian moments rightly affirms, then his attempt to prove the existence of God constitutes a flagrant violation of the rule for the order of reasons which Descartes rightly says must be followed. And Guerroult clearly sees this and yet fails to reprove Descartes for his egregiously illogical reasoning, a glaring omission in a book specifically devoted to an analysis of Descartes based on the order of reasons! -3-
The Order of Being and The Order of Knowing

The justification given by Descartes and Guerroult for this inconsistency is an appeal to the distinction between the order of being (ratio essendi) and the order of knowing (ratio cognoscendi). In reference to the relationship between God and the human mind, Descartes draws the distinction between these two orders in this way: although God (as His own foundation and as the foundation for all creaturely beings) is first in the order of being, the human mind is first in the order of knowing because it is what I know first and is that from which I derive the knowledge of the existence of God. [pp. 8 – 10] This same ploy is used by contemporary rationalistic apologetes, such as R. C. Sproul, who attempt to justify having an epistemological starting point (something other than God) different from the ontological starting point (God), and on that basis seek to justify the construction of theistic proofs. There are two reasons why this argument will not remove the logical inconcistency in Descartes’ thought.

First, and most obviously, in the references provided above, Descartes recognizes that God is first in the order of knowing as well as in the order of being. {Please go back and re-read them if you are not sure this is the case.}

Secondly, it is fallacious to place the knowledge of God at any other place than first in the order of knowing, because without knowing that God exists, nothing else whatever can be known with certitude. As I already mentioned, without presupposing the existence of God, I cannot be certain of the epistemic utility of logic itself, which means I cannot be sure of framing any argument, including “I think, therefore I am”. If I deny or am uncertain of the existence of God, then doubt becomes not just hyperbolic, but absolutely universal with no exceptions at all! There is no protected island of certainty within the cogito, as Descartes assumes, because maybe the evil genius created it with inbuilt deceptions.

One more thing needs to be said in closing and that is that God is not just No. 1 on the epistemic order list but that He also is the One who arranges the list itself and is the very basis of the ordering of the list. As such, He is in a class by Himself.


Ratio Cognoscendi: Deus est; ergo sum; ergo cogito.

Deo Sola Gloria. Finis.

Forrest W. Schultz holds a B.S in Chemical Engineering degree from Drexel University and a Th.M. in Systematic Theology degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He can be reached by email at or by phone at 770-583-3258.



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