Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dialogue With a Reformed Baptist Presuppositionalist, Round Three (vs. John Knight)

See Part One and Part Two. John's words will be in blue; his older words in green and my older words in purple.

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At the same time, the presuppositionalist offers the unbeliever the benefits which flow from acknowledging the fear of the Lord as the beginning of knowledge, wisdom, & understanding. He points to the riches of knowledge that are to be found in Jesus Christ. As Augustine put it, “Without belief there is no understanding.”

How does one have a discussion at all with someone, if one requires them to accept one’s own conclusion in the first place? That would mean that there is no rational discussion to be had at all, because in effect one is required to say, “you have to be a Christian [my position] before we can even begin this discussion.” So the situation reduces to blind faith from the outset, since the Christian cannot discuss anything with the atheist until the atheist first becomes a Christian (or, adopts Christian presuppositions, which amounts to the same thing, in terms of the discussion at hand).

When we look at Bahnsen’s debates, or those of some others, we can see from the example of very good presuppositionalist debaters that this interpretation of the Van Tillian approach is misguided. The approach is emphatically not to say, “You must accept my presuppositions before I will even talk to you.”

Rather, the approach is to show the unbeliever two things: (1) Unbelief leads to ignorance & irrationality.

I've been doing that for years, so we agree on that.

(2) The Christian world-view provides a foundation for knowledge. In other words: “Premise A leads to ignorance & logical contradiction. Premise B leads to logical coherence & empirical knowledge.” The actual work of demonstrating the cases is, of course, non-trivial.


*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***

Dave distinguishes between two propositions:

1) Whoever does math, logic, science, language, and makes moral claims is ultimately relying on the inherent knowledge and presuppositions that God gave them [ability to reason, senses, presupposing basic tenets of knowledge and existence of ourselves and the universe, assuming the general “uniformitarianism” and predictability of life and nature, etc.], whether aware of it or not.

2) Whoever does math, logic, science, language, and makes moral claims must deliberately, consciously adopt overtly Christian presuppositions before it is even possible to do these things.

Agreed. That is exactly the distinction that Bahnsen, Frame & others make.

Excellent. Then we do agree on that, too.

The very idea of “presuppositional apologetics” is to force the unbeliever — through reason & example — to acknowledge that he implicitly relies on Christian presuppositions when using math, science, language, moral claims, and so on. This approach depends on showing the unbeliever the implications of his false world-view — logical contradiction & ignorance — in contrast to the implications of the Christian world-view.

If by that you mean something like the above, then I agree. Perhaps this particular dispute, then, turns on clarifying definitions and how terms and concepts are being used and applied. Doesn't mean there are no differences, but it is good to see this commonality. But then again, I myself am not strictly an "evidentialist". I draw from the insights of several different schools of thought in apologetics.

Paul even equates philosophy with “empty deception” when that philosophy is “according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Col 2:8,9) Their speculations “futile” — that is, their theories & philosophies are pointless, useless, ineffectual. (Romans 1:21)

Oftentimes, yes. But not always; else why would Paul bother to cite two pagans in his Sermon on Mars Hill?

I would argue that Paul could quote pagan philosophers because those pagan philosophers had (unknowingly) relied on Christian presuppositions in order to attain those insights. Paul turns it back on them showing how their insights contradict their premises. For example, Paul highlights the altar to “the Unknown God,” with its inherent contradiction between ignorance of this unknown god & sufficient knowledge to properly honor him.

Very interesting . . .

The problem for the pagan is that, whatever insights he may have, he cannot justify them on pagan grounds. In that sense, his speculations are futile, unable to rationally justify his knowledge-claims.


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If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

As the foregoing examples show, evidence does not speak for itself. It must be interpreted within a framework. This framework (or paradigm [Kuhn] or world-view [Kant] or language-game [Wittgenstein] or web of belief [Quine]) evaluates the evidence & gives it weight & meaning. Different frameworks reach different conclusions. How can we know which conclusion is correct? Obviously, we can only know which conclusion is correct if we know which framework is correct, but how can we make that determination?

Obviously, an atheist can criticize Asatru on atheistic grounds & find that it fails the epistemological criteria of his atheistic world-view. An Asatruar can evaluate Christianity & find it wanting on Odinistic grounds. A Christian can examine atheism & reject it as false, contradicting Christian truths. Such are arguments are both circular & pointless.

To say that atheism is true because it can reject theistic religions on the basis of atheistic criteria is not satisfactory in any way. Christianity is coherent on Christian grounds; does that fact in itself prove that Christianity is true? How then do we resolve a conflict of world-views?

First, let's take a closer look at the evaluative frameworks that we use to judge evidence. Such a framework includes -- indeed, it hinges on -- ideas that are granted "revisionary immunity," core beliefs that are held to be true under all circumstances, which will not be revised no matter what the evidence. Such beliefs are necessary, for all judgments depend on them. Judgments turn on these core beliefs -- as it were like hinges on which those turn.

I agree, pretty much.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most important language philosopher of the 20th Century, called such beliefs "indubitables." There are certain propositions in any language game or system of beliefs in order even to have an intelligible doubt. He made numerous observations of this sort:
One cannot make experiments if there are not some things that one does not doubt.
That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are indeed not doubted.

Doubting and non-doubting behavior. There is the first only if there is the second.
If I wanted to doubt whether this was my hand, how could I avoid doubting whether the word "hand" has any meaning? So that is something I seem to know after all. But more correctly: The fact that I use the word "hand" and all the other words in my sentence without a second thought, indeed that I should stand before the abyss if I wanted so much as to try doubting their meanings -- shows that absence of doubt belongs to the essence of the language-game, that the question "How do I know" drags out the language-game, or else does away with it.

Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement. Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it. Certain propositions seem to underlie all questions and all thinking. Doesn't the whole language-game rest on this kind of certainty? Or: isn't this "certainty" (already) presupposed in the language-game? Namely by virtue of the fact that one is not playing the game, or is playing it wrong, if one does not recognize objects with certainty.

Something must be taught us as a foundation. When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not. Doubt itself rests only on what is beyond doubt. A doubt without an end is not even a doubt. The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief. If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either. If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.
These reflections make it clear that one must begin with a set of core beliefs in order to make judgments possible. If I say, "That is a red barn," the statement presupposes that I know what "red" means & what a "barn" might be, among other things. To evaluate my claim, you must also know what the words mean -- as well as the grammar of the sentence. Even to doubt my claim requires that you take something for granted. "A doubt without an end is not even a doubt."

These insights, like those of Polanyi, Kuhn, Plantinga & others, revealed the failure of the Enlightenment project to establish human knowledge on neutral ground, on a blank slate. The Enlightenment presupposed that objective knowledge required neutral grounds -- and failed as a result.

Reasoning, then, does not begin with a blank slate. "Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement." We cannot begin reasoning, doubting & evaluating without a foundation taken to be true. We cannot argue without presupposing the truth of certain statements.

However, as we have seen, there is no agreement over which propositions should be regarded core beliefs or foundational truths. This turns out to be a problem for at least two reasons:

I think this is all great insight. I would also recommend Cardinal Newman's Grammar of Assent, that takes the same general approach to epistemology.

All knowledge, all reasoning, all judgment takes place within some framework. (LW: "Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it.") And each system depends on certain core propositions. Some of these propositions may not be held explicitly -- they may be what Michael Polanyi called "tacit rules" but they form the basis of all our judgments.

However, there is obviously no agreement over which propositions should be regarded core beliefs or foundational truths. This lack of agreement turns out to be a problem for at least two reasons.

First, differences in identifying these core beliefs can alter the arrow of falsification, even among people who seem to share the same beliefs. Suppose that Burz & Kugash both believe that Sauron is a god & that the gods are immortal. Following the War of the Ring, they encounter convincing evidence that Sauron is dead. (A giant red eyeball on a pike, perhaps.)
"Agggk," says Burz, "Sauron is no god."

"Blasphemer!" replies Kugash, "All this proves is that some gods die."
So, even if we consider just two beliefs, it is unclear which proposition is falsified. (This problem undermines Popperian falsificationism.) In practice, people actually hold innumerable interconnected beliefs, and may reject or revise one of several beliefs in the face disconfirming evidence.

According to W.V.O. Quine, those beliefs that are less central to a "web of belief" are most subject to rejection or revision. Beliefs which are closer to the core in one's web of belief have more connections to other beliefs. Altering or removing those beliefs would have a larger impact on the web of belief, implying a larger shock to one's world-view. This tendency to revise beliefs that are less central to one's world-view Quine summarized as his "maxim of minimum mutilation."

One can see evidence of this tendency at work in areas relevant to our discussion. Over the last 50 or 60 years, theories of terrestrial, undirected abiogenesis have had a nasty habit of failing. (For example, I don't think anyone has offered an adequate answer for the problem of AMP synthesis.) One reaction to these difficulties might to abandon the naturalistic assumptions of such a model & embrace some variety of theism. Another would be to posit aliens who seeded the rest of the universe with life. The latter position was actually adopted by Francis Crick (who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA) though he later recanted.

Second, the lack of agreement in core beliefs means that evidence is subject to evaluation by standards that vary from one world-view to the next. Differences in core beliefs include disagreements in epistemology (the theory of knowledge) as well as disagreements in metaphysics (the theory of reality) & ethics.

One may consider, for example, the differences between G.W.F. Hegel & David Hume. Hegel represents a strain of thought that emphasizes continuity & unity, in which statements are merely provisional. Logical analysis means interacting a thesis with an antithesis, an interaction that is resolved in a synthesis, moving us from one unstable equilibrium to a new & higher level of unstable equilibrium.

Hume, of course, is a more familiar figure, representing a strain of thought with a discreteness orientation that emphasizes contrast. Logical progress involves a once-for-all sorting of propositions in which claims are determined to be "consistent" or else "contradictory."

But now imagine that we resurrect Hume & Hegel so that they can sort out their differences. How will they go about it? The problem, of course, is that they can't even agree on how to resolve their dispute. Hume complains that Hegel doesn't make clear distinctions ("I don't even know what you're saying") while Hegel complains that Hume "falsifies the whole" by focusing on just a little piece of the truth.

The poor guys can't even agree on which metaphors to use. Hegel is constantly comparing things to a bud which becomes a blossom which becomes a flower. Hume, on the other hand, pictures the universe as a billiards table, with discrete object interacting with another discrete object.

Other divisions are just as deep. A conversation between, for example, Immanuel Kant & Soren Kierkegaard would quickly bog down. Kant would complain that Kierkegaard was to involved & couldn't be detached enough to answer the question. Kierkegaard would reply that Kant was a mere spectator & could not really understand the question because he didn't experience it. Conceptually, neither would speak in a language the other could understand.

The conflicts between these different world-views cannot be settled in the same way that we settle questions about the price of eggs at the grocery store. The parties to the debate cannot even agree on the standards to use in answering simple questions. The debate between the Christian & the atheist threatens to devolve into that kind of stalemate.

Is there another way to answer the question?

I can't find anything where we would disagree significantly enough to make a comment!

“We know more than we can tell.”

~Michael Polanyi

“Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it.”

~Ludwig Wittgenstein

In Part One, I observed that, despite claims to the contrary, there is an abundance of evidence for the existence of God. However, theists & atheists disagree on how to evaluate the evidence. As an example, I argued that the Big Bang is evidence for the existence of God — but only within a more or less theistic world-view. The presuppositions of the committed atheist cause him to insist that non-theistic explanations should be preferred.

I disagree here. I think that both theist and atheist can utilize science as we know it to determine that the Big Bang makes it just as rational and plausible to believe in God as to not do so. It can't absolutely prove there is a God, but it can bring one to a place to see that this belief is a better explanation for the universe than any other: and that based on science alone before one even gets to philosophy per se.

I further developed this theme with the examples of Intelligent Design. Life on Earth displays evidence of design or not based on one’s presuppositions. Atheists presuppose a world without design & interpret individual cases in light of that governing presupposition. Christians & believing Jews presuppose a world guided according to a larger purpose, and interpret individual cases accordingly.

I would say (because I love both these arguments and consider them powerful theistic evidences) that the atheist explanation of design is thoroughly incoherent and makes no sense. It is implausible in the extreme, and normally if we feel that way about an argument then we should be very cautious in our claims about it. Thus, the atheist, lacking any plausible alternative explanation of Design, ought to be honest with himself (from his own presuppositions of naturalistic science, etc.) and admit that the theistic explanation is at the very least no less rational or plausible than what he believes. This is how I apply these arguments in my own apologetic. And I have debated both scientists and professional philosophers in these areas.

Likewise, atheists reject historical accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus as inaccurate or unreliable or fanciful because they believe that no reliable account could record a clear evidence of a man rising from the dead. Given their presuppositions, men do not rise from the dead.

Exactly. Their premise is anti-supernaturalism (that being the case; obviously they would reject the Resurrection out of hand). They rule out the miraculous before they begin. And so one must attack their premise and show that it is untenable.

On Christian presuppositions, there is no reason that God should not raise men from the dead when it suits his purpose. The historical evidence thus confirms the divine role & power of Jesus of Nazareth — on Christian presuppositions.


In Part Two, I tried to explain these differences of interpretation in terms of conflicting set of presuppositions. In particular, I highlighted the necessary nature of presuppositions. All reasoning, even all doubting, begins with presuppositions. The idea that we shouldn’t presuppose anything turns out to be a misguided presupposition.

I couldn't agree more. Like I said, as a Socratic in method, I very much resonate with this emphasis, because the Socratic is constantly critiquing premises in opponents.

In Part Three, I argued that all world-views, atheist or not, are insulated against empirical falsification, since beliefs on the outer fringes of the web of belief can be sacrificed to preserve core presuppositions. Moreover, disagreements between world-views face the challenge arising from radically different standards of proof & knowledge.


So, where exactly does that leave us? Presuppositions are necessary to thought, reason, doubt, & argumentation, manifesting themselves at the outset of our inquiries. They shape our interpretation of empirical data, & guide our choice of questions, analogies, & modes of proof. Conversation across radically different world-views is akin to two people speaking completely different languages.

Is there no possibility of discourse? I want to suggest that there is a rational way to resolve these differences…

As seen, I agree with most of this. I think our differences would come down to mostly disagreement on the place of natural theology and the traditional theistic arguments.

Thanks for the input. What you have presented is great food for thought for my readers.

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