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Monday, September 26, 2005

What is lacking in Presuppositionalism

Philosophaster, a sincerely inquiring non-Christian, asked me (the Gnu) why I didn't accept the Protestant form of apologetics known as Van Tillianism or presuppositionalism. Since I amaze myself so easily I thought that others might be interested in this response. One can find the full context and a presuppositonalists reply at the link in the title.

Here are some things I find lacking in presuppositional apologetics. I have some historical objections such as that I don't think presuppositionalist expositions of either the Bible or the history of theology in general of of the Reformation era in particular avoids special pleading. But setting those sorts of objections aside, I think that I can defer to your post for some of the main ones.

Presuppositionalism is meant to be understood as a substantive ideology of how to argue, rather than just an introduction of perhaps new or underconsidered types of arguments. You are not merely logically or evidentially mistaken if you neglect the presuppositionalist argument (also known as the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God, or TAG for short), you are morally wrong (you are starting a tleast tacitly with an affirmation of your self-sufficiency without God) and it is not clear why this is so. Presuppostionalists claim that previous approaches to theistic proofs (such as Aquinas, Descartes, or Paley) reflect this moral error and the TAG does not, but is seems clear that TAG is not really different from arguments like the cosmological argument. (E.g A frequent illustration that Van Til uses to illustrate the difference between TAGs and traditonal arguments is this: The presuppositonalist does not argue for the existence of floorboards under the floor by compiling facts about furniture in the room. The presupposionalist notes that the very existence of furniture in the room presupposes the existence of floorboards in the floor. But this exactly illustrates a causal argument as one finds in traditional proofs.) If it were just about identifying another type of argument such as TAG, there would be no in principle debate between presuppositonalists and evidentialists. Any good argument is a good argument.

Another set of problems are the claims that there is no nuetrality between the believer and the unbeliever and that all reasoning is circular reasoning. This thesis is typically understood in terms of a strong holism about the meanings of concepts in propositions, a kind of uber-Quineanism. Another example from Van Til's writing is his claim that the non-believer takes the evidences offered by the theist and throws them on top of his own presupposition of the ultimacy of chance and concludes that evidence for the ressurection only shows that wierd things happen from time to time. If this claim is to be sufficiently weighty and merely trivially obvious, there must be some strong basis for asserting that itr leads to the claim that there is no nuetrality. Since claims are thrown back upon different presupposed worldviews, their interpretation in one worldview is incomensurable with the interpretation of the same clain in another worldview and so the appearance of identical claims being made is false. This incomensuarbility extends even to claims about the canons of logic and evidence so that what counts as logical and evident to one does not count as such to another. Consequently, there is no common ground whatsoever between the believer and the unbeliever.

This creates a problem for presentations of TAG which assume a common agreement about the premises and the validity of the conclusion that comes from them. The sincere offering of TAG as an argument is just as problematic as offering a deductive cosmological or Baysean argument. So it seems that the approach itself contradicts its supposed foundations.

It turns out then that the real approach of presuppostionalism is to push each divergent system of thought to its fullest logical implication, and then ask each reasoner to adopt all of them as holistic webs of belief for the sake of argument, and argue that only the Christian web of belief does not run into self-defeat. Now this proposal seems to assume that there is a higher order neutrality; we cannot be neutral about beliefs within webs but we can be neutral about the webs. But this seems arbirary to me, why is there not a higher order web about webs of belief and if so does not that mean that the nuetrality problem reiterate itself? Secondly, the approach is not in principle unavailable to traditional ways of understanding Christian argument. The impossibility of the contrary argument, if sound, is yet another available candidate to the traditional theist, so the approach does not add to the case for presuppositionalism as an argumentative ideology. This is bolstered by the many instances of non-presuppositonalists employing this kind of reasoning, like CS Lewis in his book on miracles. Thirdly, the task seems infinite, since besides looking at the the concretely available worldviews, we need also to look at all the logically possible worldviews and that seems to be an unfinishable task for people who need to argue today for the Christian worldview claim. Christians will have to be happy for a "Christianity is true as far as we can tell but the inquiry remains open" result, which may not be such a bad thing (e.g. Nuerath's ship). But finally, I think we already know enough to realize that the argument is not sound. The main rival that this argument attacks is philosophical naturalism but as Elizibeth Anscombe demonstrated in her debate with CS Lewis about the afore mentioned book, the claim that naturalism is self-defeating is false, and therefore the impossibility of the contrary argument is unsound (in spite of whatever existential difficulties naturalists might run into in ordinary life, such us worries that they might be making love to a zombie).

Finally, the final metaphysical view of presuppositonalism is a version of objective Idealism, which in itself I am not too uncomfortable with. But it seems to me that the presuppositionalist position is logically unstable between the metaphysical objective idealism that Van Til really wants and a kind of ontological relativism that some of his followers have drifted into. My theory is that the development of presuppositonalism from Van Til on parallels the development of 19th century German Idealism from Hegel into both right wing uber-reichtists and left wing relativists in history, which may point to a concrete expression of that instability. This also raises the question of whether or not Van Til qua ontological relativist who insists on his own version of ontology isn't just a fideist after all.

Perhaps a more charitiable way of thinking of the claim that all reasoning is circular reasoning is to say that this is drawing attention to commonly observed philosophical problem, namely it seems that in questioning about the issues that seem most important to us, the best we have been able to do is come up with deductive arguments that are valid and may be sound but which remain unconvincing since eventhough they are not explicitly circular they still beg the question by posing a premise which is just as controverted by the opponant as the conclusion is, or with inductive arguments where one of the canons of "best explanation" or "relevant analogy" or "prior probability" is just as controverted by the opponant as the conclusion is. In fact, this seems to be the actual reason qua philosophy that some people give for being attracted to Van Til as offering a way to negotiate this deadlock. Unfortunately, Van Til explains this deadlock as being due to sin, but none of the features described seem to have much to do with morality and seem to have more to do with the common features of thought whether of the believer or of the unbeliever. One possible way of relating the two is to say that it is precisely our morally qualified dispositions that make us reject the premises or canons because we refuse to accept the conclusion and reasoning permits this. For example, Thomas Nagel suggests in his book "The Last Word" that one reason philosophers generally reason as the do is that they succumb to much to a fear of religion and he admits that he too is afraid and even troubled by his brilliant colleagues who remian faithful to some religious tradition or another. He says its not just that he thinks that theistic proofs are unconvincing, the thought that there exists an absolute being that may legitimately dictate to him what he must and must not do is postively abhorent to him. So moral dispositions may explain utlimately why some people embrace some pictures or the world and not others and why it remains true that some are wrong and some are right. So rather than being a gateway to metaphysical relativism it might be the only alternative to it. But this suggestion works for unbeliever as well as the believer since it could well be the willful ignorance and self-imposed blindness of the beliver or his fear that life is ultimately meaningless without God that makes him resist the truth. As a Christian, I may accept such a radical view as consistent with my account of depravity and to preserve the metaphysical realism my view needs, but I admit that it is not philosophically satisfying. So I keep looking for more.

So my conclusion is that presuppostionalism claims way too much for itself and may in fact prove too much for itself. I tend to think of it in the same way as the comment a professor might make on a student's paper; "What you have written is both good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good."

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