Notes on Gordon Clark and Probability

1. Clark defined probability as the fraction of favorable cases over total number of cases.

In good Clarkian fashion it is of primary importance to first define the term at hand. As for “probability,” Clark twice provided a definition in his debate with David Hoover. In the first occasion he said “Probability is the fraction of the favorable cases over the total number.” And later he said, “Probability is the fraction of the affirmative cases over the total of affirmative and negative.” (Audio Lecture of Clark-Hoover Debate)

2. Probability is not used in Clark’s philosophy.

As Clark’s epistemology contended for the knowledge of truth itself, he had no positive use for probability. He notes exactly this in unpublished comments on a paper of Greg Bahnsen’s: “Probability plays no part in my views. Probability is a fraction of favorable cases over total cases + is inapplicable to this matter. Can he quote any place where I have grounded faith on high probability?” (Unpublished notes of Gordon H. Clark on paper of Greg Bahnsen, p. 15.)

3. Clark held that many philosophers are unclear on their definition of probability.

“It is impossible by historical methods to prove beyond all doubt that Jesus was crucified. Even if the crucifixion be probable, though what probability means is not easily … these people who talk about probability apparently have no notion of what probability means. You all, of course … did I use this example before? … you all, of course, know how to shoot craps. And you know what the probability of throwing twelve is. Or the probability of throwing seven. And you know what probability is, but if you talk about the probability of some historical event, you just have no … even a vague idea of what probability is. What’s the numerator of it? What’s the denominator of it? And people refuse to face these problems. They prefer to be vague and meaningless.” (Audio Lecture, Irrationalism.)

4. Clark held that “probable truth” depends on truth itself. (and therefore a theory of probable truth that denies actual truth in fact denies itself)

“Augustine zeroes in: A proposition can be probable and known to be probable, only if it resembles or approximates the truth. A person who does not know what is true cannot know what approximates it. A theory of probability must itself be based on the truth.” (Three Types of Religious Philosophy, p. 31.)

Concluding thoughts:

Probable truth ultimately is not good enough. We need actual or “absolute truth,” a phrase I hesitate to use as it provides no more content than “truth.” Fortunately God reveals truth to us in the Scriptures. And the Word of God is not “probably true,” it is true indeed.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Gordon Clark and Probability”

  1. “Now, Bahnsen quotes Ramm as giving more than a dozen definitions of apologetics. I’m not quoting the definitions, but I’m shortening them and mentioning them. For example, first – and some of this has to with the relation between philosophy and apologetics – but here are ten things that are mentioned in Ramm’s book as Bahnsen quotes them.”

    “One: Philosophy is something for which theology has no need. Two: Philosophy is theology’s servant. I suppose theology needs philosophy then. Three: Philosophy is independent of theology. Four: Truth is probability, which I suppose would be – who’s the fellow at Ligonier? – Sproul. I suppose that would be Sproul’s position. Truth is probability. Fifth: Truth is consistency, a view which has sometimes been attributed to me, but although in a sense correct it’s very inadequate. Six: Truth is paradox. That’s Kierkegaard and Van Til. [Audience laughs] Oh, it is, yeah, it is, it is. And particularly, one of Van Til’s defenders, Frame. I’ll talk about Frame later on in the course. Seven: Truth is a common ground based on common grace. Eight: It’s an evidence of the means of certifying Christianity. Nine: Truth is only appreciated after regeneration, never before. And truth in apologetics is irrelevant and useless, which I suppose most students would hope it would be. Etc.”

    – GHC, Audio Transcript #06. What is Apologetics?

  2. “What is probability? The probability of shooting twelve with two dice is one over thirty-six.”- GHC, Faith and Saving Faith, p. 62.

  3. “Lewis believes that ‘Clark requires the empiricist to admit mere probability.’ This statement is untrue. No such requirement can be found anywhere in Clark’s writings. Probability is the fraction whose numerator is the number of favorable cases and whose denominator is the total number. Is has customary acceptance in shooting craps, and lesser usefulness in playing bridge; but how could anyone calculate the probability that Adam is the federal head of the human race? One of Clark’s crude examples was observation of black-birds. On seeing a thousand black black-birds, the empirical ornithologist concludes that all black-birds are black. Then the the next one is an albino. When one has precisely six sides to a cube, the fraction is obtainable; but when deals in black-birds the total number of cases requires us to count all the black-birds General Marion raised from the swamps to signal to his dispersed troops in the Revolutionary War. Maybe the ancient Greeks or Romans used black-birds too. Can the present day apologete count them? Clark never recommended anything so stupid. Lewis not only fails to understand what Clark said, but he and other empirical apologetes fail to understand their own statements, for, though they speak of probability, they never use it because it cannot be used in theology. If the gentlemen reply that they do not use the word in its modern sense, one can only ask them to state their definition and explain how their probability is calculated. This they never do.” – GHC, Clark Speaks from the Grave, p. 42-43.

  4. Very thought provoking!

    Things to think about: What is the difference between faith and knowledge?

    What did Jesus mean when he said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”? (John 20:29)

    What did Paul mean when he said “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”? (1 Cor. 13:12)

    Finally, what did the author of Hebrews (Luke) mean when he wrote “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar…”? (Hebrews 11:13)

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