Guest contribution by Aron’s wife.
Last week, I had the unfortunate experience of watching yet another would be apologist rope well- meaning atheists including into attempting to unravel his twisted reasoning. Aron invited this young man, who was very much impressed with Eric Hovind and his ilk, to an online discussion basically hoping he could reason with him. The young man was coached into using a Presuppositional apologetic. I know… the discussion took a frustrating, predictable path for those of us who follow these sort of debates. Yet we still follow them in hopes of spotting that rare occasion when an indoctrinated person realizes they are wrong.
Still, I often wonder during these interventions why rational people often get entangled in this ponderous and tedious argument. It usually starts with a loaded question like asking how a person knows what truth is or how they know what they experience is real. What happens a lot of the times is a rationalist attempts to answer as truthfully as possible, that it is impossible to know for certain what is real. Then the apologist smugly chimes in pointing out they admitted to not knowing anything is real. Ironically, all loaded questions are worded in ways by the questioner that limit their opponents to answers that are presupposed by the questioner. Presuppositionalism is the ultimate loaded question!
The apologist’s answer is that the truth is revealed to them by God. Frustrated by the mental gymnastics of tortured reasoning, a lot of rationalists don’t notice that their opponent has side-stepped the burden of proof with dishonest, fallacious tactics. They have become entangled in the ponderous knot they were trying to unravel. Don’t believe me?
Here’s a quote from an article on the Answers in Genesis website titled “What Is’ Presuppositional’ Apologetics?”
When explaining their beliefs, Christians often feel they must first prove the Bible or prove the existence of God. This approach reveals that they do not yet understand the Bible’s approach, known as presuppositional apologetics.
Presuppositions are simply beliefs that everyone has that affect how they think, view the world, interpret evidence, and read the Bible. Apologetics is a reasoned defense of beliefs. So presuppositional apologetics is a reasoned defense of Christian beliefs based on recognizing our presuppositions.
So basically, they consider this a “reasoned defense” of a belief in God without the need to first prove their God’s existence. The irrationality on their parts is to be expected, but how often they escape the burden of proof in a debate this way is frustrating. This young man was no different.
Briefly after the discussion, I was able to Skype with him . I asked him if he was asserting that humans are incapable of reasoning without a divine revelation. Immediately, his handler piped in to answer for him. Aron pressed him to answer the question himself. I added to the question if it was impossible for me as a nonbeliever to reason that two plus two equals four. The discomfort was plain to see on his face as he haltingly answered that the universe has laws.
“Yes!”, I told him, ” evolution has laws too!” His handler quickly cut me off with, “Evolution is a lie!’
As an educator, I hate to see people turn their critical thinking off, and allow someone else to think for them. It’s not just this one young man, who is being duped. As PZ Myers reported, despite all the knowledge that has been amassed by scientists about evolution, the Louisiana government is giving serious consideration to curricula that claims among other things that evolution has been disproved. It is institutionalized ignorance, and a completely reprehensible neglect of the responsibility that comes with authority.
Anyways, back to the Gordian knot. If you remember your mythology, there was this huge knot that nobody could unravel. Alexander the Great rides into town, and looks at the knot. He then gets off his horse and slices right through the knot, and gives the gawking onlookers both ends of it. In the process he cemented his greatness as an out-of-the-box thinker with what was later called “The Alexandrian Solution”. I would like to see a hero great enough to slice through rather than attempt to laboriously untie the Gordian Knot of the Presuppositionalist Apologetic. Perhaps, I may just sit in on the next discussion with my husband and this young man to see if his Gordian knot is not too ponderous to slice through.
121 thoughts on “Here, untie my Gordian knot…”
I have an almost backwards situation. I’ve been living in Japan for the past five years. My son is now in 7th grade and he absolutely loves science and education! Religion is not a part of our daily life here, but my son knows that I’m atheist and he looks over my shoulder when I’m on the internet. We both laugh at Jesus things.
I don’t want him to be anti christian, just pro science. Whenever we get back to the States I know my mom, my family, and friends will try to suck him into the baptist church. I’ve already told them that he should go, listen, and ask questions. He thinks that the creation myth, Noah’s Ark, the story of Exodus, and the book of Revelation is crazy.
I have to problem as a father with sending him to the dogs without myself in attendance because we have strongly guided him to be a freethinker and scientifically literate.
I meant to say ‘no problem’.
The education level here in Japan is incredible! I’ve been teaching English in a junior high for almost two years now. In our 8th grade English lessons we talk about the history of the Earth, evolution, and currently we are talking about global warming. This is coming from an ENGLISH book sponsored by the government. I don’t teach science, but these facts are so well known and have virtually no opposition like in the States. I love Japanese schools!
Japan has an excellent education system, this is true. But the truly incredible thing is how basic knowledge and critical thinking is lacking, even opposed, in the US system. I no longer live in the US for this reason above all others.
The purpose of presuppositionalism seems to me to circumvent reason in the first place. It is already out of a box big enough to contain rationalism. As described it implicitly assumes a strong foundationalism and revelation as a valid source of knowledge (or a way to have direct access to basic beliefs.)
That’s two instances where I think Alexander unhesitantly would have drawn his sword to do something terribly drastic.
By ‘revelation’ do you mean rolling around on the floor speaking jibberish? lol In the Marines, I used to tell myself ‘You can do this.’ all the time. It takes some skill to lie to yourself, but we all know what we’re capable of when we really believe what we tell our ourselves. I have much confidence in myself now and no confidence in myths.
Rolling on the floor uttering gibberish could be a method I guess, anything undistinguishable from balancing on the brink of a delirium could be perhaps, but I meant it in a much more general way. Like ‘downloading’ knowledge about the world as it really is directly into your brain, more directly even than in the Aristotelian sense that you can distract knowledge about reality, like say the essence of a bunny, or the ideal bunny, by observing many imperfect real bunnies. Revelation in a religious sense usually means adopting some strict dogmatic idea to the point where you can’t distinguish between it being utterly implausible and it being self-evidently true.
Aron is one of the best debaters I’ve seen. If he can’t bring this guy around, it might just be the case that no one will be able to.
If all else fails, give him a list of books, websites, and other media he can look into. He might have to come around on his own.
The thing is that to actually break though to these people you have to cause them major, almost physical distress, before they will start to look for answers elsewhere. And you need to work step by step educating them in each small thing, that we learned over the years from our reading and experiences.
Take evolution, if you take Potholer’s How the Universe was made series and expand that to explain every assumption that it has, that we take as accepted, you would have day long videos for each of them. You would need to explain everything we know, and when you think about it, we as educated atheists, know a damn lot about reality.
That is the real problem, we have no need for magic, while their world demands it for explanation.
I’d very much enjoy seeing Aron smash this guy’s delusions. I’d also like to see the guy learn a little about science. But what if Aron isn’t able to get through to him? In the very least I think it would be wise to send the guy a list of books, maybe a link to talk.origins. Not that I think the guy is going to come around, I just think it’s worth a shot.
So a ‘magic’ combination of books, websites, videos, podcasts and the like will turn someone around?
Would the opposite work on you? If a True Believer™; sent you the right version of the bible, a link to Answers in Genesis, and a set of Ken Hovind’s Bestest Lectures Ever, would you convert? No? Why not?
This reminds me of a parable (heh) I learned about proofs in a math class long ago: if someone hands you his or her 500-page proof that any angle can be trisected, you don’t need to read it. You know that somewhere in those 500 pages is a mistake because no matter how it is argued, 10 ÷ 3 will NEVER be an integer.
Both you and the True Believer™ will most likely react to the other’s proofs the same way, except one of you is deluded and the other is not.
Like I said, I highly doubt this guy is going to come around. I understand that giving him a list of books and websites isn’t likely to do anything. That’s how I became an atheist, though.
As a theist I hated atheism and for the most part I disliked atheists (Well, Asimov and Carlin excluded). I got bored one day and decided to research my adversaries. I pulled up a list of prominent atheists and spent months examining what they had to say. Eventually I came to the realization that I could not defend my beliefs.
I don’t really understand the presuppositional thing, it sort of sounds like Descarte’s proof of God; I can only be sure that I exist, but because that would suck, there has to be a God that reveals everything else to me, therefore God. The way I see it, either the world follows rules that I can possibly fathom, or it does not. If it does, empirism is the best way for me to figure it out. If it doesn’t, then any action I take is just as likely to succeed as I per definition cannot fathom anything about the Universe. But then I might as well act as if empirism works anyway, because it’s just as likely to work as anything else. So yes, I might be lied to, I might be a head in a jar, but it doesn’t matter, it’s still most logical of me to Act as if what I’m experiencing is reality.
Hey — don’t slander Descartes! He has entirely different wacky arguments for the existence of God than the one you describe, and they come in at a deeper level than that.
Here’s how it works: If you take the evil demon argument seriously then you need a benevolent God in order to trust your capacity to reason, because a good god more powerful than the demon assures that systematic deception isn’t occurring — that’s your ‘it’d suck if…’ argument. However, to get this running you must *already* have justified belief in God. This is the famous Cartesian Circle: to run the proof of God you must not doubt your ability to reason logically, but in order to have that faith you already need god.
For this reason there are Descartes scholars who say that you shouldn’t take the demon seriously, and that the ‘dream’ level of doubt in which we cannot trust perceptual inputs, but we can trust in our ability to do math and logic is the real baseline level of doubt for Dc. (Their argument works on the “Descartes was smart, and the Circle is a rookie mistake, so he must not intend it seriously” principle.)
As for Presuppositionalism, convincing one of them seems to have more to do with weaning someone away from beliefs that help satisfy emotional and social needs and desires than with rational persuasion.
But you don’t need to convince them, because the best presuppositionalism can do is to justify believing something *for* the person who believes it. It is not capable of justifying the claim that anyone else ought to believe as so-and-so believes. So it’s fine as a justification for the permissibility of one’s own private religious belief, but it does not rise to the level of even a *claim* to knowledge. Thus it cannot prescribe or recommend one’s belief to another. But what the creationists want isn’t just permission to believe as they do, but the standing to prescribe their way of believing to the rest of us. Presuppositionalism simply can’t get them that.
Since I do not have AronRa’s patience, and since I live in Czech Republic, where theists are rare and mostly liberal and well educated, I have very little experience with this kind of apoogetics.
Nevertheless, on thoser rare occasions I was confronted with it, I asked the apologetics how he distinguishes the revealed truth of his religion from revealed truth of other religion without begging the question. They usualy cannot do that, and therefore the debate for me ends.
As I said, I do not have much patience 🙂
Dammmmmn. Sorry for the typos and not-gender-neutral language. It is not intentional, I just cannot get used to english grammatical genders.
I understood you personally. And that is a great argument to use. Too often we forget that we’re often dealing with apologists who believe in one religion over many others.
Hint: If you’re dealing with a person of unknown gender, use “they”. It’s what we native speakers tend to do in speech and it has a long and distinguished history in the written word back to Shakespeare at least.
As a horribly wrong practice, when looking at a faceless person on the internet, I tend to assume male until told otherwise, and then apologize. I don’t tend to have to apologize nearly often enough to discourage this practice, while I’m sure there are a lot of times I simply was never corrected. Also, on a strange side step, there is an archaic use of ‘He’ that is capable of being gender neutral from 14th century Anglo-Saxon.
The masculine is frequently the default neutral gender in some language families. But in English, the singular they/their/them is also used and perfectly legal and precedented. And it removes the potential assumption baggage from the equation.
We’ve been handed a lot of incorrect and arbitrary rules from supposed traditionalist authorities (like Strunk and White) in our English lessons for some time now
A gender neutral language… What a wonderfully brilliant and simple idea. I never did get the hang of the idea that inanimate objects in the romance languages have a gender.
Gender in language can get pretty confusing. For example, consider the French ‘le vagine’.
I think the best thing to do is to acknowledge that you are presupposing reason.
However, if your opponent does not also presuppose reason, then by definition your opponent is not interested in having a reasonable discussion.
If your opponent is not interested in having a reasonable discussion, then there’s no point in talking. Your opponent has tacitly admitted that his or her beliefs are unreasonable, and so you’ve kind of won the argument at that point.
Personally, I prefer to be more explicit about the starting points — Robbins axioms, ZF, and experiential pattern — and indicate what can be derived therefrom (EG: science). This has the advantage of giving on-lookers some education in really cool but weird mathematics. (It has the disadvantage of being very time consuming, and since I’m not an expert of requiring a few reference materials.) One can also note how this “creed” required to derive science appears presupposed by their own “creed”, as more general forms of their starting premises.
The Münchausen Trilemma also makes a helpful mention, for discussing the nature of “faith” involved; mathematics can be portrayed as any of the three, depending on angle of view.
Wow. Can I please use this what you just wrote? I’ll promise to paraphrase and sort of mold it into my own but what you just said is 100% perfect. Brilliant.
Nothing wrong with presupposing reason. 😀
Feel free to use it. Hell, I don’t even remember writing it. 😉
This technique is mostly about mis-characterizing how science works. Science is results oriented, resting on the results of experimental data. Nothing is known absolutely, since all theories must make risky predictions and be subject to falsification through testing and repeatable evidence.
Prepositional apologetics attacks knowledge in the opposite direction, a top down approach like mathematics, and tries to accuse science of being the same. There are no axioms for existence like there are in math, so the axioms are revelation based messages from a god. If you do not get the result you want, you have to change the evidence to fit the revelations.
Naturally, only one of these systems actually produces a reliable picture of reality. The arguments usually end up being about what science is, since the apologist needs science to be something that it is not for their argument to work. Logically speaking this type of argument is just begging the question, or assuming your conclusion in one of your assertions.
Sadly this approach doesn’t work.
Science is not based on pure observation. Observation is meaningless without using logic and reason to interpret the data.
Any justification for the scientific method itself must be made on the grounds of reason and logic.
I really do think the only way to answer the argument is to admit that we are indeed presupposing that we have the ability to reason.
We admit this presupposition, and then we are free to use our reason to illustrate why the presuppositionalist argument is outrageous bullshit. If they’re not interested in reasonable argument, end the discussion.
You are making the same mistake as the presuppositionalist, science is not justified by logic and reason, it is justified by results. No amount of logic and reason can ever inform reality, they are just useful tools for creating models that can then be tested. Mathematics, for example, is rigorously logical and non-contradictory, but can only make extensive and precise models for testing. After a prediction is verified by observation, only then is science happening.
Poor logic can defeat good science at the outset by creating inconsistent or contradictory and thus impossible models, but even flawless logic is no replacement for actual observation. Science is justified because it works, it creates models that reliably predict events. Nothing is justified by the use of logic and reason alone. Logic and reason need not be presupposed, the results of science can be observed without them.
I think you misunderstand.
I didn’t say that science proceeds on logic and reason alone, but I am saying that science depends on reason.
For example, if Newton does an experiment and predicts a certain result according to F=ma, you might say that observations confirming the prediction will lead us to believe that F=ma is accurate.
However, perhaps Newton can’t accurately multiply or take a measurement. He cannot know that he is not an imbecile. It is unthinkable that he would make mistakes in precisely the same way every time, but to make that argument you have to use logic and reason.
In short, you can’t conclude anything at all without using reason of some kind. It doesn’t matter what observations you have available to you.
This is not a problem because we all believe that it is possible for humans to reason correctly in some scenarios.
I think we mostly agree, I just think that reason does not need to be presupposed. Observed successful predictions are enough to illustrate that the reasoning is sound. I think laws of reason and logic are wholly abstract. If someone can come up with their own math and create models that can be tested they can do science just fine, although peer review might become difficult. We have developed very precise and powerful mental tools to start scientific inquiry, but any methodology at all can work so long as it can be verified through repeatable prediction and observation. New math ideas have been used by physicists many, many times.
The prepositional argument relies on all ideas having an abstract starting point, so that god or the Bible are as good as any others. The lack of verification by observation is the critical difference between science and their theology, and the reason I think they fail.
Of course, for a prediction to be verified by observation, one must compare the observation to the prediction; and comparison is a relational operation, thus implicitly mathematical. Ergo, mathematics is not merely a useful tool for creating models, but also a tool implicitly required in the testing of models.
With all due respect to Zombie Feynman, ideas aren’t just tested by experiment, but by the bookkeeping done after an experiment. In practice, scientists try to make experimental design choices that keep the bookkeeping tractable.
I’ve encountered this type of thing once or twice; usually I try to draw their attention to other religions:
they: “I presuppose Christianity to be true/the Holy Spirit told me/the Bible/whatever.”
me: “Okay, so you presuppose this to be true. Well, over here we’ve got some Muslims who presuppose entirely different things to be true. Pretend I’m undecided–pretend I don’t know whose presuppositions to accept. Convince me to accept your presuppositions instead of theirs.”
The result is usually bewildered mental gear-churning. Which isn’t the same as convincing them, but you *can’t* convince people like that: a crack in the foundation, planting a little seed of doubt–these are the best that we can hope for in the situation.
Aron asked him about George Harrison, and whether Krishna revealed anything to him. The answer was God revealed to him the Bible was true. It is proudly circular reasoning.
I prefer a “P OR NOT P” approach, myself; in part, because I can get into how I derive that from more fundamental assumptions.
Ra, what with that hat? You never change it…the lining must be smelling like a aborted babies coffin by now!
The best take-down of this sort of apologetic, that without theism you cannot have logic and reason, came from the podcast Reasonable Doubts, which also blogs here are Freethought Blogs. It is a logical proof:
P1 God is contingent (could or could not exist).
P2 The laws of logical are not contingent (no possible universe were the laws of logic are false), therefore necessary.
P3 A necessary things cannot depend on something contingent (otherwise it is not necessary). This is a definitional premise.
C1 Logic cannot be contingent and not depend on something contingent.
C2 Logic cannot depend on God.
The only way to avoid this proof is to prove God exists in all possible universes. In other words, to use prepositional apologetics, you have to prove God necessarily exists!
I may have the exact wording off, so check out the blog and podcasts I mentioned on this sort of tactic. I think that does well to untie the knot.
Thanks Gilgamesh. I am looking for a concise, unambiguous take down that slices through the knot.
This syllogism may be the best. It is logically valid, and the only way to make it unsound is to prove God exists, the very thing they avoid trying to do. And since it is logic itself that is forcing them to do this, they feel a big hurt.
However, many of the folks using presuppositionalism probably aren’t great on logic in general, so that is the down-side to using this argument. Nonetheless, it does do well to defend the more rational position: put up a reason to believe or fail to persuade.
I think that if they were any good at logic, they wouldn’t be a presuppositionalist, now would they?
What is a catastrophic failure about folks who are not strong in logic or critical thinking is that arguments like these disrupt logical thinking further. They think they know something they don’t.
The argument based on contingency of God won’t work, at least for a sophisticated theist, because their view of God is of a necessary being. The concept of God is of a perfect being, and a being that might exist or might not exist is less perfect than a being that necessarily exists. So the concept of God must be of a necessarily existent being. Note that this concept of God cannot legitimately be used to prove that God exists (that’s the error of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument), but only that if God exists, God must have this characteristic.
However, your more rational theist will assume that logic is independent of God. The argument for this comes from Leibniz, mostly in response to divine command theories of ethics, when he says that if morality (or in this case logic) depended on God (or God’s will), then God would have no reason to act (command, etc.) as God does. Thus, in order for God not to be arbitrary or a bully who gives commands and demands obedience for no reason at all, one must think that there are reasons (moral reasons, but also logical connections among reasons) independently of God’s will. Sometimes these theists will accept that at least God must be consistent in his willing, and that too depends on logic being independent of God for if logic depended on God then logical consistency would be whatever God willed it to be, and it would then be logically possible for God (say) both to punish one eternally and not to punish that same person eternally, or demand that we kill others and at the same time that we not kill others. In short, for the concept of God as a perfect being to make any sense (to be anything other than circularity) there must be logic independent of God’s will.
I am mostly unfamiliar with this presuppositional reasoning, but I looked at the AIG quote from your link. Here’s the part you quoted:
“When explaining their beliefs, Christians often feel they must first prove the Bible or prove the existence of God. This approach reveals that they do not yet understand the Bible’s approach, known as presuppositional apologetics.
Presuppositions are simply beliefs that everyone has that affect how they think, view the world, interpret evidence, and read the Bible. Apologetics is a reasoned defense of beliefs. So presuppositional apologetics is a reasoned defense of Christian beliefs based on recognizing our presuppositions.”
There’s a sleight of hand here. Recognizing one’s presuppositions is not the same as defending or supporting them. I think what they mean by “presupposition” is what philosophers call “foundations” or “basic beliefs”. These are supposed to be beliefs that are justified in the absence of any other evidence. It’s very hard to (legitimately) come up with a belief that meets this definition. Self-evident beliefs, such as Descartes’ cogito argument is often thought to meet the requirement, but if you start with only self-evident beliefs and draw inferences from them using self-evident steps of reasoning, you won’t get very far.
Alternatively, you could try to use perceptual beliefs as the basic beliefs. Perceptual beliefs could legitimately be a starting point for justifying our beliefs without being absolutely certain and unrevisable. Still, if one sees an important role for reason in not interpretation of perception (i.e. turning a perception into a perceptual belief), then one won’t be happy with taking perceptual belief as basic since they seem to depend on other beliefs as well. For example, if a scientist looks at a piece of litmus paper changing color, he/she could think, “The litmus paper is turning blue.” Here you have other beliefs about litmus paper playing a role in the ‘perceptual’ belief that the litmus paper is turning blue. (If you think instead that your perceptual belief is only something like, “I am perceiving a red patch followed by a blue patch in a subjectively quadrilateral shape in such and such part of my visual field,” then it’s hard to see how you can ever get knowledge of external reality with experiential claims as your basic beliefs.
Anyway, sorry for so much basic epistemology. The main point is that the AIGists must mean that their belief in the literal accuracy of the Bible is foundational and unrevisable, and that everything else must be justified in terms of it. Here’s the next bit from the AIG page:
“For instance, my presupposition is that God exists and He has given us His Word (the Bible) that is absolute truth. So I use the Bible as the basis for how to think, interpret evidence, explain the world around me, and read the Bible. An atheist’s presupposition will most likely be that there is no God and that truth is relative. An atheist believes that man decides truth, and so he thinks, interprets evidence, and views the world and Bible accordingly.”
The claim about the atheist is obviously false. Atheists do not start by assuming that God exists and then arguing from that assumption. Instead they start with observations and reason and proceed from there. Now it may be true that the AIG people start by assuming that God exists and the Bible is his literal, and perfectly accurate, word, but I doubt it. For example, if I look out the window and see a bird, nothing in the Bible is useful for interpreting or grounding that belief. More importantly, people have reasons to think the Bible is true, and they have reasons for how they interpret the Bible, so it’s not really taken as basic even by the believers. This presuppositional stuff is really just a dodge they use to make it seem as though they do not need a justification for their beliefs. The fact that we all have to start somewhere in our reasoning does not imply that any starting place is equally acceptable.
What I often do with believers is to ask about passages in the Bible that no one today would accept as correct (scientifically or morally), or a verse that contradicts another verse. Believers will interpret the story in a way that fits the moral (or scientific) beliefs that they have. But if the Bible really were the foundation, then it would make no sense to interpret in light of the other beliefs we have. In fact, we should be perfectly happy to believe even contradictory things (and give up that pesky logic) if that’s what the Bible said. No one ever does this; they interpret the Bible in light of other beliefs they have, and those other beliefs, of necessity, do not depend on the Bible.
Here’s the rest of the AIG quote:
“If we start off believing the Bible is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16; Psalm 18:30; Proverbs 30:5), then we use it as our axiom. An axiom (often used in logic) is a proposition that is not susceptible to proof or disproof; its truth is assumed. The Bible takes this stance, assuming God’s existence to be true and not something to be proven (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 3:14; Revelation 1:8).
The battle is not over evidence but over philosophical starting points: presuppositions. As Christians, we should never put away our axiom—the Bible—when discussing truth with others. This would be like a soldier going into battle without any armor or weapons. Asking a Christian to abandon the Bible for the sake of discussion is like asking an atheist to prove there is no God by using only the Bible. You would be asking the atheist to give up his axiom.
The prophets and the apostles never tried to prove God’s existence. They started by assuming God’s existence, and they always reasoned from Scripture (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19). By using the Word of God, we are actually pitting the unbeliever against God and not our own fallible thinking.”
It’s true that the authors of the Bible never tried to prove that God exists any more than the authors of the epic of Gilgamesh tried to prove that Gilgamesh existed. But that doesn’t make it rational simply to assume God exists. The fact that you cannot argue effectively without begging the question in your own favor is not a reason to think you are right.
Sorry for the long comment. I hope this helped in some way.
No logical argument is irrefutable if the premises can be doubted.
Let me put myself in the shoes of a rabid Christian nutcase for a minute.
P1: God is not contingent. God must exist by the essence of his nature (cf. the ontological argument)
P2: How do you know that logic is not contingent? You don’t know that. You are presupposing it. Your argument is therefore circular.
Also, even the act of trying to use logic to prove the validity of logic itself presupposes that logic works.
Only an unlogical, batshit-insane irrational argument can be made to support logic, hence logic works because God told me so.
If the Christian doubts premise 2, they undermine their own position. If logic is contingent, then it does not need some great, cosmic force for it; it could be contingent on humans. And if humans make logic, then the presuppositionalist is without a paddle.
The only premise they can doubt is the first, but to show that premise 1 is false requires an ontological proof, and Kant said that can’t be done. It at least means they have to try, but to prove that God is logically necessary in all possible universes is a tall order, and can be doubted by thinking of a universe without a god in it. Since I can do that, to claim the impossibility requires a lot of leg work.
If you say it’s contingent on humans, they will ask how you can justify this.
In fact, I think most of us would agree it’s not contingent on humans. It very much appears not to be contingent on anything in the universe. Therefore it must be contingent on something outside the universe or greater than the universe, i.e. God.
Also, the fact that Kant said God is contingent is unlikely to impress them. They may, for example, argue that only a universe in which God exists is possible, therefore God exists in all possible universes.
Again, the presuppositionalist believes that logic is not contingent, but necessary. So they cannot doubt premise 2, less they give up being presuppositionalists. They obviously doubt premise 1, but to refute the argument they have to prove that God exists, but that is the very thing they were trying to get away from. That is the beauty of the argument: they have to prove that which they avoided needing to prove.
And if they claim a universe can exist only if God makes it so (which isn’t the concept I mean, but possible universes in modal logic), then they have to argue that. Again, it gets away from presuppositionalism but another argument altogether. I don’t claim the syllogism ends all theistic debate, but it does show that a theist cannot by their fiat claim logic depends on God. They actually have a lot of work cut out for them (even if it is possible to prove God exists in all possible universes).
Hmm, even if I allow all that, then you still know it’s not actually going to work.
Presuppositionalism is the most juvenile “I know you are but what am I?” kind of argument in favour of God. There is (literally) no reasoning with it. In fact a stupid non sequitur response like “I know you are but what am I?” may well be the most apropos.
With regard to your specific points, I don’t think they have to prove much. They just have to cast doubt and then remind you that your argument is circular because you’re using logic to defend your use of logic.
I’m not familiar enough with presuppositionalism to understand their argument perfectly, so maybe you can explain something to me.
If they claim that logic is not contingent, then surely their argument must be that we can only know that we are using it correctly because God tells us we have the capacity to reason. Without this revelation, we must doubt any conclusion we come to through the use of logic. If so, then, there’s no point in refuting the contention that logic itself comes from God.
If they claim that logic actually comes from God himself, then they are clearly not claiming that logic is not contingent. They are therefore totally justified in disputing P2.
Finally, I know what you mean by possible world. I’m suggesting that they may attempt to make an argument that any universe without God is logically incoherent, and so it is not a possible world. They don’t have to prove this. They only have to justify doubt, and then your argument is questionable.
They can then go back to insisting that you can’t claim to trust your logic anyway because you have no basis for knowing that you are reasoning correctly.
The presuppositionalist wants to argue that it is by the power of God that we can trust logic/induction/reason/science/etc. And they mean that there is not possible way that logic can be false. If logic cannot ever be false, then it cannot be a continent thing but a necessary thing.
However, to make logic always true yet depend on God, then God has to be a necessary being.
Now, the argument that we only know about logic/science/etc. because of a revelation from God is a different argument than these things depend upon God, but that isn’t usually the argument I see.
I am also not using logic to justify using logic; I am using logic to show that it is not dependent on deity. Perhaps there is no justification ultimately, but that does not undermine the validity of the argument form, and that it requires the theist to either say logic is contingent, hence not divine or always true, or god is logically always a necessary being, which needs to be proven. And if it is not proven, then the belief in a necessary got is not a necessary conclusion but contingent. The first premise can only be undermined by an absolute proof; otherwise there is a probability that god is not necessary, then the premise is contingent. And since all such ontological proofs have failed to date, the theist at least has work to do.
Again, the form of the argument above can only be refuted by the apologist if they can show that God is a necessary being, and without an ontological proof then God can only be contingent; only with 100% proof can this be undone; doubt is not sufficient to go from contingent to necessary. That is why this argument is so clever (at least to me).
But ultimately you are correct; presuppositionalists just play word games, but at least we can use proper logic and reasoning to see the holes in their argument. It is one thing to find an argument to be wrong or just sophistry; it is far better to know what is wrong with it and get on to better things.
Presupposition does not really make an argument, it just makes a bold assertion. It is a “proof” of one statement:
1. God exists
The rest is mostly attempting to batter down any other means of attaining knowledge to the same level as revelation based knowledge, which is of course outrageous.
I think the apologist would in this case simply refute your first premise, “God is not contingent, god definitely exists by my first premise.”
The proof is sound enough, but the apologist will simply retrench against arguing gods existence. It is a noble attempt, but it tries to use logic against a case that has no logic.
If the apologist does not back up their claim that God is necessary, then they have failed to make their point. If they wish to be irrational, then there is little to help them. However, if they take their position as that of rationality, then they should see the weakness. Obviously it is not helpful to use rational argument with the irrational, but it is better to have these reasoned arguments that what often is seen when atheists encounter these sorts of arguments: disgust. While a respectable emotion considering the smile that is the type of argument, the reaction gives the apologist too much pride, and a simple syllogism as I provided shows the opposite–that it is very reasonable to say their argument is wrong, even the opposite of true!
At least that is the best we can do as rational agents. After that, the apologist can only deserve insults.
I have to agree. Prepositional apologetics is ironically a denial of all logic and reason. Everything has an abstract starting point, so all ideas are equally valid, including the ideas about god and the Bible. Contempt is the only reasonable reaction to this that I can think of as well.
I may be a little lost with the language here (I’m not a native english speaker), but I think when you say “The laws of logical are not contingent” you are refering to “Logical Absolutes” (the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle), am I right? I’ve seen this sort of argument used the other way around, to “prove” God’s existence in TAG, as postulated by Matt Slick:
1. Logical absolutes are non-contingent (no possible world can exist in wich, for example, something is not what it is, and is what it is not).
2. Therefore, they are independent of contingent human minds (in any posible universe, even if there are no minds in it, these absoluts are still true).
3. Logic/Logical Absolutes* are conceptual (independent of physical reality; they still hold true in a non-physical world)
4. Every concept is the product of a mind.
5. As Logical Absolutes are independent of human minds (2), then a transcendent mind (of a transcendent being, i.e.: God) must have created them.
So… I’m kinda parafrasing it the way I remember it. But I think the problem with presuppositionalist is that there is no logical argument (or purely logic-based argument) that can ever change their minds cause they refuse to accept evidence as solid ground to validate or disproof any presupposition.
* watch Matt Dillahunty tear this argument apart here:
I think Qualia Soup did a nice take-out of the presuppositionalist argument on YouTube.
Basically using the “dragon in the garage” analogy.
Gilgamesh-What we have been specifically seeing lately is how do you know what is real without God’ revelation? Then, they tack on God’s revelation has revealed to me the Bible is true. Then, Checkmate!
Ah, this is even more crass that what I was discussing. Must apologists have no shame?!?
However, this is this point to make: even if God does reveal truths to you, how do you know it was God and not something that seemed like God? How do you know you are not tricked? It’s a bit like Descartes’ Demon. And what it means is that the only way out is your own reasoning! You and only you can reason if such-and-such revelation is from God, make you the arbiter of truth even if theism of any stripe is true.
And if I can make an argument from where logic comes from, I think a good starting point with Aristotle. He established the law of non-contradiction by noting a contradictory statement is meaningless. As such, we want logical consistency else we say nothing with meaning.
Richard Carrier in a previous bit of writing said some very useful things on this subject here. I think it says a lot about how Christianity is supposed to be the foundation of logic which Aristotle was establishing logic before Christ’s birth!
This is a good point. However, the answer from Hovind or Sye will be God has revealed it to them in such a way that they know it is the revealed truth.
Back to the ‘other religions’ angle, maybe. Adherents of other religions make similar claims of revealed truth; ergo, it is possible for such ‘revelations’ to be in error. So what mechanism do you have for distinguishing ‘true’ revelations from false ones? Alternately, rephrase the question from the outside: how should I, who have had no such experience, decide whom to believe among the many people who make such claims?
I agree. Give them the outsider test of faith as devised by Loftus.
Andrew-How do I know if I haven’t had a divine revelation who to believe is a logically sound approach. However, they may come back with the fool says in his heart there is no God. God may have revealed it to you, but you hardened your heart to it.
Then that proves Christianity is unnecessary to learn logic. And Aristotle defended it without Jesus so we don’t need JC either; if logic without Jesus was good enough for God as “revealed” to Aristotle, then it’s good enough for me!
Now I have the song “Give me that old time religion” in my head. Time to adjust thos lyrics.
But you could just point out that a truly effective deception would include the deception that you hadn’t been deceived.
Yeah, I understand we’re dealing with people spinning in a mental cul-de-sac here. But what seems clear is that presups are really doing nothing more sophisticated, despite all their philosophical verbiage, than saying “Nuh-uh!” over and over.
I think the perfect example of this is Ray Confort’s “nobody can know if God has truly revealed to them but I know God has truly revealed to me” sort of thing… Basically shuting down every possiblity of trying to have a rational conversation without getting massive brain damage.
But it is great. If god revealed ‘it’ in such a way that they know it’s true then they just need to repeat the whole method onto an atheist. If they had the capacity to process in their brains god’s magic message then sure they are able to share it now and let atheists have the message themselves. The atheists lost the lottery and never were messaged, we know that. But thats not a problem. Theists got the magic message! And they are willing to share it verbatim, aren’t they?! They have the perfect tool to proselytize. If message is understood by a theist (as they claim) then it sure can be copied and transferred to other humans/atheists (by speech, text, I don’t know, sign language?)
But we know that’s not the case, we all see the real problem. The nuts and bolts of the whole argument. The essence of those apologetics is the implied ‘superiority’ of a theist as a human being. Not only they have privilage, as superhuman magic heroes, to get the exclusive message from the Boss, but also only their superhuman, elite brains have the power to process it. They have the message, but they just can’t convey it to a stupid atheist. ROFL. This is like kindergarden level boasting -‘I have a dragon in my garage, for reals! I can’t show it to you, sorry’. Wow, it looks very familiar. Apologists substituted a god that doesn’t have to be proved with a ‘magic message in their brains’ that doesn’t have to be proved. Pathetic.
Evolution has designed my brain to perceive reality and reason accordingly. It has also provided in me a confidence in this ability. You are quite correct that I cannot prove that I am reasoning correctly without using my reason.
However, since we both respect the ability of humans to reason and perceive what is real, you should accept my reasonable arguments though we disagree about where the ability to reason stems from.
The trick, then, is to get enough starting premises such that additional premises such as “God’s revelation” can be tested, and you can respond “except if you don’t rely on that premise P, but instead use the more general premise of (P OR NOT P), it can be shown that the premise P is probably wrong”.
The difficulty is this requires a lot of math; and mostly they get lost in the merely tedious parts before you even get to the hard parts, if they’re willing to even try following. It’s thus not very effective at persuading an average intelligence audience.
As far as the Gordian knot analogy goes, I think a logical argument against
pesuppositionalism is the equivalent of unravelling the knot. The Alexandrian solution is probably something that has nothing to do directly with their ‘case’ for presuppositions. It has to be something that slaps them upside the head in a way that shakes their whole world. I would say that is a different thing for different people. It might be the existence of the same arguments for other religions; it might be the problem of evil, put as baldly as possible; it might be a contradiction in the Bible, or the incoherence and injustice of a certain doctrine, e.g. original sin.
I still hold out hope that the ‘unravelling’ solution can also work. My approach would have two steps:
1) If there is any such thing as correct ethics or morality, which anyone in an Abrahamic religion pretty much has to believe already, then you are ethically required to seek the truth. That is, if there is such a thing as a correct decision then, to do good by anything other than blind luck, you must make every effort to understand the truth of the situation and the truth about ethics. Otherwise you will make morally bad decisions through ignorance or mistake and you could have avoided it. (You could still make mistakes but they wouldn’t be willful.) So allegiance to truth has to trump anything else for someone who wants to be moral.
2)In order to avoid moral mistakes as much as possible, you shouldn’t commit yourself to any beliefs you don’t have to. You should favor the beliefs that are most likely to be true, to the best of your judgment, but every belief which you can even conceive of not holding should be provisional and subject to revision. That cuts the heart out of presuppositionalism.
Now the apologist will say that science or atheism or whatnot makes unprovable presumptions. This isn’t true. The issue is the difference between a presumption, and a working assumption. Science uses many working assumptions (the future may be predictable, experiments can test hypotheses, math and logic can describe the universe, whatever) but IF it can be shown that these aren’t reliable we would reject them and we don’t have to hold them to be absolutely true, they are just the best we can do and the minimum we can ‘assume’. I don’t have to presume logic, I just don’t have any way to think without it, (indeed, if I assume logic doesn’t hold, then I have no reason not to presume logic anyhow). We treat the future as predictable not because it can be proven, but because that is the only practical thing to do, it is our best guess. We don’t presume an external, material world, that is just the minimal working assumption that jibes with our experiences.
At this point the apologist may want to argue that God is then a good working assumption. Well, then they’ve given up presuppositional arguments and are now trying to argue in terms of evidence and coherence. That’s good. Any half-way competent atheist can argue why God is an unnecessary and poorly performing working assumption in need of revision.
Err… you seem to be neglecting Münchausen’s Trilemma. In effect there’s always unprovable presumptions, because you can’t prove a conclusion from premises without prior premises. You have to have either a cycle of premises, or an infinite sequence of priors, or some starting point that’s just taken as an axiom rather than proven.
I don’t see much point to doing so, but I suspect this could be formalized into a fairly basic lemma about directed hypergraphs. (Map propositions as points, and inferences of premise sets to conclusion sets as directed hyperedges.)
Someone posted this solution on another forum I frequent…
IOW-You don’t have to accept a faulty premise from the likes of the professional weasals like Hovind and Sye.
I would take a different approach with someone who could be reasoned with, or if you are showing other people in a blog or video why Sye and Hovind are wrong.
One idea that comes to my mind: “How do you know you’re infallible in accurately receiving this revelation?”
There’s an infuriating enthymeme in there I’ve detected in both religion and anecdote-based quackery. It’s an arrogant denial of the human condition to ignore your own imperfections and your actual uncertainties. We’ve got a lot of reason to believe humans, as a rule, are capable of misunderstanding, being fooled by illusions and deceivers, and, of course, we’re quite capable of fooling ourselves.
The only way to be certain a revelation is absolutely true is to be a god-like, infallible being instead of a human.
We need science because we’re aware of how we can be fooled. Science is what we do to reduce the chances of that happening.
I sometimes attempt to mess with their heads by asking them how they are sure, given all the inconsistencies and errors and moral outrages in the Bible, that they are not revering a scripture that is false or at very least corrupted? Has (perhaps) one of the other religions has actually got the uncorrupted message? Wouldn’t all false religions claim to be the One True Way? And wouldn’t they all tell their followers not to question their teachings, authorities and scriptures?
It’s usually interesting to quote something like Matthew 24:24-25 at this point:
Do you consider yourself one of “the elect”? If so, how do you know you haven’t been deceived?
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, at best in the short term this tends to make them go away or bluster a bit. I’m not sure I can recall a case where this made someone immediately take stock of their own fallibility or there mechanisms of belief formation.
Presuppositionalism is just pyrrhonian skepticism, with the “god of the gaps” thrown in. The extreme skeptics successfully destroyed the basis for all truth-claims, and the presuppositionalist takes their tropes and tacks on “… therefore: god” at the end. The problem is that the presuppositionalists don’t realize that skeptical tropes similarly demolish all of their claims to knowledge about god. From whence comes this knowledge? It must all be from the senses, which are fallible. This doesn’t argue for god it argues for epistemological nihilism.
“So how do you come by your knowledge of god, if god is your basis for knowledge?
If it comes in via the senses, how then is it infallible?
If it comes in via some other means, how then can you distinguish it from the simple experience of being mistaken?”
The place where secular humanists fall on their swords when arguing with presuppositionalists (or phyrronians, though they appear now to me to be few and far between) is when secular humanists try to make claims of knowledge. The humanist says “I can have morality without god!” or whatever, and thereby leaves themselves open for a skeptical smack-down. The only way to deal with a phyrronian is to agree with them and be more and better phyrronians than they are. Make no claims to knowledge at all. “It appears to me now, that…” is the beginning of every phyrronian sentence except for the ones that begin, “I must reserve judgement about …” (truth claim) Once you play a few rounds of that then you can say, “but you appear now to be making claims of knowledge about god. Unless your argument is circular, how did you come by this knowledge?”
Every skeptic who engages in debates and might encounter presuppositionalism should read Popkin’s “History of Skepticism from Savanorola to Bayle” http://tinyurl.com/7mo2gtq for the broader context in which skeptical tropes have been used in the war between various christian sects. Christians such as presuppositionalists have adopted extreme skepticism since the schism, as a weapon against eachothers’ knowledge-claims about god. Popkin shows how that appears to have been somewhat like using nuclear weapons in trench-warfare (my analogy) because it doesn’t leave any knowledge-claims standing. It’s a fascinating book.
Contextualize the presuppositionalist as someone who embraces epistemological nihilism and then declares “… but that doesn’t apply to me, because god!”
That sets them up for Sextus Empiricus’ ‘regression’ trope (which Hume famously translated into English):
Arguments that throw one into an infinite regress. That which is brought forward to make a given matter credible needs yet something else to make it credible, and so on ad infinitum. Since we thus have no starting point for our argument, suspension of judgment follows.
“So, if it appears to you that god is your source of truth, what is god’s truth based upon? If it is simply that ‘that is true which god says is true’ then it is arbitrary and contradicts our definition of ‘truth’ because for something to be ‘true’ it would have to be true even if god did not want it to be true. Or, if it is not arbitrary, then to what higher truth does god hold and from whence does it come?”*
(*With apologies to Plato and Sextus Empiricus)
I’m a Pyrrhonian skeptic. So there’s still a few of us. 🙂
Basically I think justificationist theories of knowledge are Not Even Wrong and that the vast majority of learning is done non-rationally — Thomas Kuhn argued (I think convincingly) that even the training of a scientist is largely non-rational and based more on integrating a community’s values and habits than with rationally deducing the correct answers to scientific puzzles.
Makes it easy to argue with presuppositionalists: “Only God can explain why people can reason!” “I don’t actually believe that people are capable of reasoning. Mostly they just imitate each other. I don’t need God to explain that.”
I think it comes down to pointing out that the one thing that they cannot reason about is the nature of god (lowercase). Even if one accepts that god (lowercase) has revealed herself to them, we have absolutely no way of knowing that god (lowercase) has provided a faithful representation of her nature. If god (lowercase) has the capacity to reveal herself in such a way that her nature can be known without error, she also has the capacity to lie about her nature in such a way that it will be completely convincing.
What this means is that the universe is actually a less certain place if one asserts that god (lowercase) is revealing herself, because you now have the added uncertainty that god (lowercase) may be deceitful.
A reasonable analogy would be a roadmap. If you want to know where you’re going, you check the map and chart a course. Under these circumstances, it’s certainly possible that the device you’re using (the map) could be inaccurate, or that you’re not reading it correctly, in which case, you’ll find yourself wandering aimlessly in the wrong direction.
Suppose, now, instead, you hand the map to a stranger whose honesty you are in no position to assess, and rather than checking the map yourself, you have them tell you which way to go. Now, rather than one source of uncertainty, you now have two. First, you have to assume that the map is accurate, and second, you have to assume that the person is faithfully representing the directions derived from it. So, even if your map is perfectly accurate, and the person knows how to read it, you may still end up wandering aimlessly in the wrong direction because you have no way of knowing whether the person is giving you an honest representation of the directions.
In other words, the only way for presuppositional apologetics to work is if they assume certain things about God’s (uppercase) nature, things that they cannot possibly know, even if they were revealed to them. So they actually add a second level of uncertainty, disguised as certainty.
So what’s the counter-apologetic? Simple: “how do you know that God isn’t lying to you?”
“How do you know you’re infallible in accurately receiving this revelation?”
My favorite way of dropping that bomb is to ask the target,
“Have you ever experienced being mistaken? I.e.: you thought something was the case and later found out that it was not?”
Anyone honest will have to agree.
“Then how do you distinguish your sense of knowledge that comes to you without any supporting evidence or observation to justify it from being mistaken?”
“how do you know that God isn’t lying to you?”
Yes. And we see in the myths of the flight from Egypt and Job that the jewish god is a tricky bastard who doesn’t hesistate to ‘harden pharoah’s heart’ or mess around with Job’s notion of reality.
Suppose there were a god-like thing that was nearly all-powerful and not quite all-loving. Let’s call it “Loki” for short. So when god’s away Loki realizes that poor finite, limited, stupid, silly, humans can’t tell the difference between an all-powerful all-loving god and a nearly all-powerful not quite all-loving trickster god with a sophomoric sense of humor. And he decides to amuse himself by inventing presuppositionalism.
I like the point he makes in this video about science and phenomenal epistemology. The point of science is not to describe an objective interdependently existing reality. Rather it is to make observations and predictions from those observations. What observations and predictions can we make positing God?
Sorry meant independently not interdependently. Curse you spell check!
If I may add one more method of considering this sort of apologetic: the presuppositionalist argues that all reason, science, and the like comes from God. The Bible is true revelation from the Most High, and God created the world. This means that because God is the source of all this, along with logic, then all must be consistent. There can be not a single contradiction between anything in the universe and what we discover and the dogma. That is an amazingly hard standard because, as we all know, the Bible is full of self-contradictions, not to mention contradictions to what we know about the real world, at least if read as these apologists do.
So if God is the source of it all, there ought to be no contradictions. But there are many, MANY such contradictions, at least apparently. Now, we know this is denied by the apologist, but they again fail to persuade because they have to explain every alleged contradiction away, or else their presuppositionalism fails. Which a liberal Christian, for example, can handle a fallible or misinterpreted Bible, the presuppositionalist cannot handle any contradictions.
So again, it means for the apologist, they must prove that every contradiction is not real. And if science actually indicates otherwise, then either God does not reveal science correctly to humans (in which case God is not the source of science and logic), or the Bible is full of errors (true even if a god does exist). And with an infinite number of other possible religions that could claim the same thing, only a religion with no contradictions will win, of which there are none.
So, before you even engage a presuppositionalist, you can tell them that their position is refuted unless that can fix every single contradiction they have in their beliefs. After all, contradictory beliefs cannot be the foundations of all logic.
Sorry if I went on long there, but simply this: unless their beliefs are perfectly non-contradictory with themselves and all background knowledge, then they cannot be the foundations of reasoning itself.
Isn’t the simplest answer simply to point out that presuming your conclusion is a fallacy?
I can understand why this would be insufficient to persuade a committed apologist. After all, they’ve got a script and they’re sticking to it. So perhaps it’s inadequate from a rhetorical standpoint.
But from a logical standpoint, surely that’s enough?
What about persuading people that are fooled by this why it is wrong though?
At that point you’re not so much arguing as providing a remedial education in LOGIC101: Introduction to Logic and Critical Reasoning.
I’m no educator, but I have enormous respect for people who are. So my personal experience on this subject may not be the best option.
That said: I was quite pleased with this. Although unfortunately I didn’t get a response (of course).
That’s my ‘this is how I think and why, and how you can change my mind’ line of argument.
The other line of argument I fall back on in times of desperation is to point out that, if we are to permit assumed conclusions, then there is nothing that the apologist can say against Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion of choice.
That typically gives them pause, into which I point out that it’s not just religion, but any nutty proposition: I assume that the moon is made of cheese, therefore it is.
Assumed conclusions eventually boil down to proof by assertion – at which point they’re neither arguing nor reasoning. Rather they’re rehearsing their position. Which is exactly what they set out not to do.
But then again, none of this ever makes a lasting impression. I’ll argue with apologist Bob to a standstill – perhaps even wringing out the occasional concession along the way… Only to see Bob turn around and repeat the exact same arguments to someone else a moment later.
Wish I had a less frustrating answer.
I recently posed a sketch of the presuppositionalist position and the various responses persons can make at Pharyngula here.
Basically, the presuppostionalist argument comes down to 3 arguments:
(1) an argument from abstract objects
(2) a moral argument
(3) an argument from induction
Each of these can be somewhat decisively dealt with if you sufficiently draw out the issues. The only thing the presuppositionalist has over typical apologetics is more impressive sounding rhetoric. It is noteworthy that presuppositionalism enjoys just about zero support in philosophy of religion. William Lane Craig even was involved in a book where he dismissed presuppositionalism as an apologetic method. Part of this has to do with that presuppositionalism is strongly Calvinistic, and that theology is largely rejected in philosophy of religion.
The problem is that he has zero connection with reality. When someone tells me that god exists because god exists I haven’t even learned if I disagree with him yet. This leaves only 2 options.
Option 1: Let him talk, get him to describe this god character and try and get him to see how this god of his makes a giant splat every time it runs into reality.
Option 2: You mentioned he has a minder, and this group he’s with seems awfully cultish to me. If you can convince him, and probably his parents too, to tithe anonymously to charity instead of directly to the church. They’ll probably toss him out like a homeless man in a scientology clinic. Once that has happened you should be able to reason with him.
My answer is as follows:
I Skyped my mother last week, then yesterday I visited her and discussed the conversation we had. Now this means that either the technology that created Skype (and my car) works or I hallucinated both experiences.
Thus the presupper must allow that either the scientific method has been shown to work, or he must deny that any of us can make any claims about reality at all – reducing us to complete solipsism.
Now, if the presup is saying that there are only two possibilities, that either God exists or we’re reduced to a solipsistic state where we cannot interpret any evidence at all, then the presupper is the situation where he has to argue that we’re in the first situation and not the second. Unfortunately for him, he can present any evidence he wants that we’re in the first reality, it’s still consistent with the possibility that we’re actually in the second, making that evidence worthless.
See also the claim that God has given him the knowledge that he is correct, which is indistinguishable from some simply falsely believing the same.
I did not have time to read all the posts here, so this may have been put forth, but couldn’t you just start by agreeing with them about the presuppositions until they make mention of Jesus at some point and then say, “Whoa, whoa, I thought we were talking about Allah?!?! If you think Jesus is real your a dip shit, I presuppose Allah’s existence.” That would shut them up and prove the point that even if their arguments weren’t in the end illogical because of the circular reasoning or because of the fallacious unstated major premise, it doesn’t get them any farther than having to admit that any religious person on the planet could make that argument and there would be no way to prove any single religion’s truth over another without descending off of the pedestal?
I Skyped my mother last week, then yesterday I visited her and discussed the conversation we had. Now this means that either the technology that created Skype (and my car) works or I hallucinated both experiences.
It’s amazing how well computers appear to work, even for atheists. And how persistent and consistent what we interpret as “reality” is. It makes you wonder how tough it must be for presuppositionalists, who really have no confidence that reality is going to appear the same from what appears to be minute to minute.
There was a silly joke I heard once about a guy who winds up on a battlefield with just a stick, and is told to yell “BANG! BANG!” and – it works! – the enemy start dropping like flies because they are presuppositionalists, too. Until one enemy soldier just keeps coming right at him and doesn’t drop. And as the enemy soldier walks over the presuppositionalist, crushing and killing him, the presuppositionalist hears him muttering “tank. tank. tank.”
Elgalo, it’s a nice idea, but I fear you’d then get into a discussion of Allah vs Jesus, possibly forcing you to defend the concept of the former. Christians can start coming up with all kinds of claims about what Islam does or does not say, claims that any Muslim would probably be able to shoot down, but which would go over the head of all but the most well-read Western atheists.
I can’t say that I’m terribly satisfied with many of the responses here. Most of them don’t adequately address the issue at all. To tell you the truth, I really like presuppositional apologetics.
And to answer your question: No, I’m not a Christian. I’m an atheist.
The problem with presupposition, and why so many atheists are confounded by it, is that it’s not meant to provide an evidentiary basis to Christianity in the same way that you would provide an evidentiary basis to pretty much anything else. To me, this is a good sign. The way I see it, this shows that the Christians are at the point where they are conceding that, when it comes to providing evidence, they are fighting a battle that they cannot win, so they decide to fight another one, instead. This is where it gets a little tricky.
First, you have to realize that the argument of the presuppositional apologist (henceforth referred to as “the fundamental argument”) is not entirely wrong. It takes a little kernel of truth and stretches it out to an absurdity. But first, let’s toss out the strawman.
The atheist does not presuppose the non-existence of God. The atheist might infer that this is so, or even leave it as an open question, but it is quite disingenuous to state that this is an integral principle to anyone’s investigative process. For example, when early naturalists tried to figure out why the planets in our solar system circled around the sun, they did not sit down and say, “Well, since it’s obviously not God causing them to move, what is it?” In fact, by and large, they believed in God. The truth is, the existence of a god was quite irrelevant to those questions. The scientists of today span a wide range of religious beliefs, and the vast majority of them are capable of reaching the exact same specific conclusions despite these fundamental differences.
But back on topic, I think it would be in our best interest if we would all just admit that, yes, we do have presuppositional beliefs that are not based on rational inference. For example, we all believe that our senses are at least somewhat accurate, and we can’t really prove this is true without making reference to our senses once again, which is obviously circular. Sure, we can provide plenty of practical reasons for why we should trust our senses, but that doesn’t mean that our senses actually correspond with some outside world. We also believe that our minds have the ability to make accurate inferences based on certain priors (beliefs, senses, etc.). You can’t rationally prove that this is true, because this is a reference to rationality itself. Again, it would be circular.
These are things that even the apologist would not disagree with. After all, how does he know what the Bible states? He read it, of course, by using his senses.
This is fine. It’s nothing to fret over. You can relax. But as comfortable as you may like to feel about all of this, you can’t escape the fact that it’s only a matter of time before the apologist holds up his god belief, then points at your presuppositions and says, “See, I’m just doing the same thing you’re doing!” Yes, this is frustrating. However, the fundamental argument is flawed because it misses one really important point:
Our presuppositions should be minimal in both quantity and scope.
This isn’t terribly difficult to prove, but it takes a little time.
The apologist presupposes that the Bible is the absolute authority of truth. In other words, if the Bible says that a snake can talk, and all of the evidence in the world says otherwise, then all of the evidence in the world is simply wrong. Yes, this is ridiculous, but let’s just twist it around and see how the Christian likes it.
Let us imagine that there is a hypothetical atheist that presupposes that the Bible is the absolute authority of falsehood. This is not a defensible position to any rational person. After all, the Bible makes reference to the existence of the sun and the moon. This hypothetical atheist would have to say, then, that the sun and moon do not exist, despite all of the evidence in the world.
But here’s where it gets funny: Would the Christian have a problem with it? Would he find it absurd that one would reject the existence of the sun and the moon, never mind the rejection of God? If the fundamental argument holds, then no, he should not object. Sure, he could say that it’s plainly obvious that the sun and the moon are there, because we can see them, but then he’d be contradicting the fundamental argument itself (in that the evidence against the presupposition must be wrong). It’s rather peculiar. This integral principle that the apologist is clinging to so tightly can be used to support one proposition or its exact opposite! Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
But why should we stop here? We can just make up ridiculous presuppositional beliefs all day long. What if it was my presuppositional belief that smoking is an incredibly healthy activity? What if it was my presuppositional belief that seatbelts are the devil’s restraints? Or that Jesus was a pedophile? Or that raping Christians is the ultimate moral good? The possibilities are endless. At this point, it becomes obvious that when literally anything can be merely declared a “presuppositional belief,” and thus become immune to criticism, that there is no such thing as a distinction between a rational and irrational conclusion. It’s all equally valid.
This is why I say that the quantity and scope of presuppositions should be minimized. Everything I have said here is an analysis of the consequences of rejecting this principle, and nobody, not even an irrational person, would find that these consequences are acceptable.
Now, I’m not expecting any die-hard apologist to actually concede any of these points. I don’t know if any of you guys are aware of this, but creationists aren’t exactly known for being rational people (it’s true, look it up). Creationists have wild imaginations, and they will make up absurd excuses as to why their presuppositions are better than yours – “God gave them to us,” for example. Remember, the apologist is not your target, and you’re probably not going to make him realize that he’s wrong. As a wise man once put it: The point of debating the close-minded is not to convince them, but to prevent them from closing more minds.
So, no, I don’t have a swift stroke of the sword with which to solve this problem, but I think I’ve done a fine job sawing through it methodically.
When I first watched this type of presupposition argument being used I had this nagging feeling that it reminded me of something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
After reading this blog entry I finally remember what it reminds me of… Sudoku.
Now for the easy, moderate, and even some difficult Sudoku puzzles, you generally go through a logical algorithm to solve it that includes a process of elimination and careful book keeping. I found puzzles that I could solve this way to be fun and relaxing. It provided some mental stimulation and when you got good at them didn’t take an enormous amount of time per puzzle.
My enjoyment of Sudoku however diminished when I started working on the very advanced puzzles. While the appear to be the same at first glance, the problem you would run into is that eventually you would hit a point where the traditional algorithm didn’t yield a single unambiguous result in one of the remaining squares.
This was of course a frustrating discovery because all of the skills you had spent all that time building up were now essentially useless and you were left having to make a guess, the type of logic that had worked so flawlessly on the easier puzzles was now insufficient to solve the most difficult ones.
That didn’t mean however that logic was out the window. Instead you had to engage in the use of a different algorithm. In these cases the algorithm went something like this… Presuppose that one of the remaining numbers in one of the squares is actually the correct number for the solved puzzle. Once you do this you proceed as normal, while remembering at which point you had to make the presupposition.
Now here is where the new logic comes in. You continue to follow through the rest of the puzzle until one of three things happens. You solve it without any further complications, which indicates that your presupposition was correct. You find yourself in another situation where another presupposition becomes necessary in which case you now need to keep track of more “guesses”. You run into a situation where your original presupposition results in a contradiction which causes the puzzle to be impossible to solve. At this point you would then go back, erase any conclusions you drew based upon the incorrect presupposition and now presume a different number for that box and follow it through looking to see if it implies any contradictions.
Based upon this type of thinking, the best way to approach someone making any form of presuppositional argument would be to encourage them to follow the implications branching forth from what they presuppose to be true. If there presupposition is weak they should eventually reach a logical impasse where something that is implied contradicts something they know to be true. At this point you suggest that they might have to reconsider their original presupposition for one that doesn’t result in a contradiction.
Again, Occam’s Razor. You are referring to multiplying assumptions, necessary in any hypothesis resulting from magical thinking.
Here’s my response:
Presuppositions are not created equally. Mine created the car, the road, the traffic lights and everything else that got you here to make this inane argument. What did yours do?
In the strict scope of demonstrable reality, presuming demonstrable reality is completely reasonable. No honest scientist would assert that nothing exists outside of the observable Universe so claiming that science is undone by our presuppositions is just dishonest.
Now that we’re past that, how does that thing you’re presupposing manifest in demonstrable reality again?
Like arguing with a solipsist, if they really deeply believed it they would be essentially unreachable because that view puts one in a logic-tight bubble. The fact is, though, that no one really truly believes that crap, either solipsism or presuppositionalism. So the key is probably going to be to find something, possibly different with different people, that makes it evident to them that their claim to embrace this view is a lie. In the end, this may be more about psychology, finding the crack in an individuals delusion, than about rational argument.
Anyone wading into the fray with believers should always be prepared for frustrating tedium. This arises in part from the fact that you are talking to someone under the influence of a delusion, partly because they are disingenuous in their motives (that is, they are not interested in the arguments, they are just defending a flag), and frequently from the huge asymmetry between the effort it takes to refute an error and the effort it takes to speak an error. Given this asymmetry they can put on quite a show, responding to each argument with four new falsehoods until a reasonable person throws up their hands in despair.
My Alexander slice of the knot tied by the ilk of Sye Ten (I’m sorry, I can’t not think satan) Bruggencate and others that share that same view is this. Their logical stand point is that their god gave them logic, and any logic proves their point, and any attempt to not use logic is an automatic failure, similar to heads I win, tails you lose. James Randi’s response “This is very juvenile and I don’t get involved in juvenile arguments,” is probably more accurate than he realized at that time. The very logic the apologist makes is the same logic a three year old makes to say it’s mine if I see it, it’s mine if I have ever seen it, and it’s mine if I want it.
God revealed itself to me in a dream and said the bible was written by satan to enslave the souls of men.
The whole point is, apologist’s head is super magically special compared to everyone else’s and his ‘revelation’ overrides any supposed ‘revelation’ of anyone else. I. e. Because their revelation said so (in actuality, because saying so gives him a free get out of jail card). Yes, that’s all the argumentation they need.
to sum up: solipsism in a nutshell
The Bible contains two irreconcilable versions of creation. They can’t both be true. Linked version contains additional links of interest. Text reproduced here:
Is it possible to convert creationists? Not likely. However, it is possible to surprise them, stop them in their tracks, and leave them mulling over the previously unconsidered defects of their position. I have witnessed this personally….
The way NOT to do this is by arguing over the evidence. Creationists are already aware of contrary scientific evidence and have rejected it. They (of the young earth variety) believe that the Bible is the
“fully inerrant Word of God, completely true in science and history”
This conviction is unshakeable … until you explain that the Bible contains two contradictory accounts of creation.
If we examine Genesis, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 tell different stories. The first contradiction is the order of creation. In chapter 1, living things are created in approximately their proper sequence: the plants, the animals, and then humans, “male and female created he them”. In chapter 2, Adam is created before any other living thing, and Eve, at the very last, as a “help meet”. So not only is the order of creation different, but the attitude towards women is different.
There is a cottage industry of apologists attempting to explain away these differences, yielding 1.5 million hits on Google. Their argument typically asks us to heed the supposed intent, and ignore the words, of the writer:
“To know whether a contradiction has occurred, we have to know what the writer intended. If he intended to give a sequence of events in the second chapter, then it would be a contradiction. But, if he suspended his interest in the sequence of events in chapter 2, then he could not be accused of a contradiction. ”
Other apologists attempt to skew the sequence of creation set forth in chapter 2 by inserting a pluperfect tense which is not there in the original Hebrew. If these apologists were to admit these two chapters betray different attitudes, the game would be over. So they must pretend the sequence is the only discrepancy that matters.
This is a poor excuse for a text that is supposed to be “inerrant” and “completely true”. It falls apart further in face of an additional fact: the agent of creation is different from chapter 1 to chapter 2. In the original Hebrew, the agent of creation in Chapter I of Genesis is “Elohim”, whereas in chapter 2 is its “YHWH Elohim”. This is usually translated into English as “God” in chapter 1 and “Lord God” in chapter 2, a seemingly insignificant difference. Most people in the U.S. are only looking a the English versions of the Bible, so the apologists can afford to ignore it. Not so in the original.
Elohim is a Hebrew word derived from Eloah, which denotes a female deity, singular, and im, a male plural suffix. So Elohim is literally “male&female Deities” (note: there are proponents of a singular Elohim theory who claim that Elohim is a proper name like “Jones”). In chapter 2, the creator is identified as “YHWH Elohim”. YHWH Elohim gets translated into English as “Lord God” but more literally is “Lord of Gods”. So it would appear that the author of chapter 2 is attempting to one-up the author of chapter 1, replacing gender-balanced Deities with a single dominant one, further betraying a different attitude.
We conclude that scripture contains two different and incompatible creation stories, so it cannot be inerrant. The Creation Theory that posits the Bible as literal history is a complete nonstarter; a failure on its own terms.
There is this great tool for cutting though this nonsense. It is called “Occam’s Razor”.
Ha, FalsePostulate beat me to it. Only noticed the post after I posted mine, so I guess I had started writing mine earlier, just posted a lot more stuff (or gibberish) in mine.
You can try to cut this Gordian knot with Occam’s razor.
Basically, when making presuppositions we have to take into account their complexity. (I think Secular Strategy was making a similar argument. I didn’t read it in full, as I didn’t read all of the discussion either. I’m a bad person, yes 🙂 ). Assuming an all-powerful God is the most complex assumption one can make, since God would have to be by far the most complex being in existence. At least, I don’t think you’d hear a religious person argue that a more complex (and more powerful) being than God exists.
Therefore any theory that has to presuppose God is more complex than any competing theory that doesn’t. So if two theories are somehow both equally powerful in explaining reality and predicting the future, but one assumes God and the other doesn’t, the one without God is the one to use in science, according to Occam’s razor. This would hold even if we had to make some seemingly out-of-the-ordinary and complex assumptions* in our non-God-assuming theories to make them work equally well.
(*I’m thinking of things like solving abiogenesis on Earth through extra-terrestrial organic molecules, if it was somehow conclusively proven that early Earth couldn’t produce them on its own. Even if it was highly complex like assuming it was two-headed aliens in Betelgeuze that did it, that’s still a less complex assumption than an all-powerful God that can do and undo absolutely anything at any time. This is probably mentally problematic to religious people since God as a word is so simple and familiar to them, simpler than two-headed aliens in Betelgeuze; but the being supposedly referenced by the word God cannot possibly be simpler than any other being in existence, or indeed, it cannot even be simpler than the rest of existence, since it has the power to influence any aspect of it in any way at any time.)
Whether this application of Occam’s razor would work in practice is left as an exercise to readers. I try to avoid face-to-face confrontations (yes, confrontations is a good word) in issues like these, give me a headache they do. I don’t actually expect this or any other logical or scientific methods to work very well: religious logic is highly illogical, the leaps-of-faith that are perfectly logical to them are dumbfoundingly illogical to me at least. Even the sharpest razor would have trouble cutting throught that jungle. So, no true sword of Alexander that I can offer.
The “Which God?” method suggested by many before me is a decent argument in many cases, as most logical arguments for the existence of God (or even a presupposition of God) fail at specifying why exactly one particular God of one particular interpretation of the Bible** is the one that existed when the world was created; in some cases it can even be argued whether such God necessarily exists NOW (as opposed to existing purely in the past, when it was supposedly needed for creating the world).
(** Remember, they’re always trying to convert you not just to Christianity, but their specific brand of Christianity.)
Does your god hold you responsible for your sins?
How would that be fair if he did not also grant you the ability to independently reason and be aware of the real a priority?
What would your faith in god mean if you were incapable of independently judging the real?
Postulate, as Bertrand Russell suggested (he didn’t literally believe it), that there is a Celestial Teapot. Then challenge them prove that your presupposition is false. Faeries or sprites will also do. I would not dignify their presupposition (a tautology, really) by challenging them with the presupposition of an alternate deity. Better to use something trivial and somewhat silly.
The burden of proof is on them.
The beliefs of The Church of Last Thursday could be used here I guess, as they also act as counter-point against the “well, it can’t hurt to believe in God” argument.
Not going to happen, Ilkka; I created you.
Why would I follow your advice?
Er, wait a minute…
I have dealt with more than one presuppositionalist on my blog, and have actually handled them relatively well.
There are a few things I have learned:
1. If you want to get anywhere with them, make sure you know what to expect. I have several good conversations bookmarked in my browser that have prepped me to engage them.
2. Once you have engaged them, you can’t go back- so be particularly careful to set the ground rules before you start answering their questions. Always, when possible, force clarification and ask them to robustly answer their own question first.
3. Be playful. Don’t give up more information than you have to and try to coax the conversation where you want it to go. This is their strategy, and it works rather well.
4. Give them time, and they will eventually hang themselves.
5. Remember that you cannot “win”, they will just move on to engaging someone else.
I’ll happily give you more specific strategies and links if you want them. You can contact me through my blog.
“Briefly after the discussion, I was able to Skype with him . I asked him if he was asserting that humans are incapable of reasoning without a divine revelation. Immediately, his handler piped in to answer for him. Aron pressed him to answer the question himself. I added to the question if it was impossible for me as a nonbeliever to reason that two plus two equals four. The discomfort was plain to see on his face as he haltingly answered that the universe has laws.”
Presup apologetics are a little like the Crane Kick. If done properly no can defend. But only because they essentially sidestep a rational way of thinking. Looking at the quote here I have seen and heard other presup’s make the following responses/claims.
…It doesn’t really matter that you claim to be an atheist. The Bible tells us that God has written the truth of his existance onto your heart. You may claim that you don’t believe in God, but the Bible tells me (them) that you in fact know there is a God and you are simply deceiving yourself.
Given this, of course you “an atheist” can reason and use logic. For exactly the same reasons I (they) can. Because of God, and the truth of his word…
My own personal opinion is that presups are only worth laughing and pointing at. And conversation will only end in frustration as essentialy the two parties will just be talking past each other. Plus the presup will be smothered in verbal slippy grease.
I would suggest that if a presuppositionist debater claims truly to believe it is impossible to know what is real, the debate be temporarily adjourned so that the presuppositionist may go stand in a highway for a few minutes. It is after all impossible to know whether the traffic is real, so it shouldn’t be any more dangerous than any other course of action.
If he/she is still alive and uninjured afterwards, the debate can continue.
My own method of choice, when faced with a presupper:
I. Start by asking them if all presuppositions are equally valid/true/real. Keep at them until they actually answer the fucking question with a “yes, all presups are equally valid” or “no, all presups are are not equally valid”.
Ia. Followup if it’s “yes, all presups are equally valid”: Come up with a really blatant factually false statement — I like “the Moon is ten miles from the Earth”, but there’s nothing magical about that one as distinct from any other blatantly false statement — and then ask “Okay, so what if John Doe holds the presupposition that [blatantly false statement] is true? Are you saying it’s wrong to disagree with Doe by telling him that [blatantly false statement] is, in fact, not true?”
Ib. Followup if it’s “no, all presups are are not equally valid”: Point out that if presups are not all equally valid, some presups must be more valid than others. Because the only way for there not to be any more-valid presups, is if all presups are equally valid. And they’ve already agreed that not all presups are equally valid, right? And it makes sense to want to discard less-valid presups in favor of more-valid presups. So ask them “how do you determine whether Presup A is more or less valid than Presup B?”
This is the farthest I’ve ever gone with this argument, because the godbots I’ve used it on get all evasive and non-answer-y, and I haven’t had the patience to nail their jelly to the tree (you should pardon the expression). Hope you find it helpful anyway.
Russell’s observation is particularly appropriate to presupposition:
My personal response, to which I commend your attention, is inspired by PZ’s, but with my own take-no-prisoners attitude: “When you are willing to define the term god in such a way that I can unambiguously discriminate between a god and a non-god, then come back and we can have something to discuss – since none of you xians (or other faithists) are willing to define your terms, you render discussion just a game of Calvin-ball. When you are willing to define your word god, then you will need to further define how the various gods that have been invented can be identified, so that we can know which gods we are discussing. Somewhere along the way, you may have been willing to define your terms sufficiently to allow discussion of auxiliary characteristics of one or more gods, like necessity (CF Craig), omniscience, omnipotence, morality, creationist, and so on.”
To me, the emphasis is on their (un)willingness to discuss in good faith, without giving much of an opportunity for them to claim ad hom. The burden should be on the proponent, of course, to propose definitions for the terms; the respondent gets to accept or reject the proposal.
I also like to reduce syllogisms to their proper form: IF all men are mortal AND Aristotle is a man THEN Aristotle is mortal. This is an implicit rejection of the apologetic tendency to replace IF with SINCE, thus perverting the logic to their own ends.
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