Presuppositionalism, Circular Argument, and Oliphant’s Defense
Whatever the case may be, since this objection is so frequently encountered, one would think that presuppositionalists would take greater care in locating the source of the problem – whether it is in fact a problem haunting their argument scheme, or the manner in which it has been marketed which misrepresents its product – and correcting it. Instead, presuppositionalists seem to have adopted a more reactionary stance of letting things sit as they are and circling the wagons when the objection is raised yet again, which of course is inevitable.
It is helpful to get a good understanding of what exactly this fallacy is, and why it is fallacious. So let’s survey a few sources and try to get the essence of the problem. In his Dictionary of Philosophy and Reason, William L. Reese states that petition principia (p. 225):
is committed when one assumes among one’s premises what one is supposed to prove.
Begging the question is an informal fallacy that occurs when a reasoner presents an argument for a conclusion but omits a crucial premise, one whose acceptance would entail prior acceptance of the conclusion.
More generally, the term begging the question (or petition principii) is used for any fallacious argument where the truth of the conclusion is already implicit in one or more of the premises.
in which the conclusion is itself required as a premise to support the argument being advanced to justify the conclusion. Many cases of this type of fallacy are disguised by being quite complex arguments - see Walton (1991) - but a simple case would be the following argument: someone asked to prove that God is benevolent replies, ‘God has all the virtues, therefore God is benevolent.’ Since benevolence is presumably a virtue, the premise requires the prior assumption that God is benevolent.
…begging the question is the use of a proposition as a premise in an argument intended to support that same proposition. This is fallacious. The point of reasoning is to throw light on the truth or falsity of a proposition (the conclusion) by relating it to other propositions (the premises) that we already have some basis for believing to be true. If our reasoning does nothing more than relate p to itself, then it hasn’t gained us anything.
Premise 1: Whatever the bible says is true because it is the Word of God.
Premise 2: The bible says that God exists.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
The Wikipedia article on begging the question makes an important point when it classes begging the question as “an informal fallacy where the conclusion that one is attempting to prove is included in the initial premises of an argument, often in an indirect way that conceals this fact” (emphasis added).
Kelley points out that (op. cit., pp. 148-149):
A more subtle form of the fallacy occurs when the circle is enlarged to include more than one step: the conclusion p is supported by premise q, which in turn is supported by p (though there could be any number of intervening steps).
Concealed Premise: (Blarko the WonderBeing makes knowledge possible.)
Stated Premise 1: If we have knowledge, then Blarko the WonderBeing exists.
Stated Premise 2: We have knowledge.
Stated Conclusion: Therefore, Blarko the WonderBeing exists.
Unfortunately from what I have seen from presuppositionalists over the years, much of their argumentation strongly resembles this. Couple with this the fact that presuppositionalism, as an extension of Christian theology, has no theory of concepts, it is poorly equipped (to put it mildly) to produce an analysis of knowledge which can reconcile its conceptual nature with theism. Concepts are mental integrations which an individual thinker forms in his mind ultimately on the basis of perception, and are thus a firsthand form of awareness (not a secondhand, derivative phenomenon transmitted to man’s mind by means of “revelations” a la “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”). Thus, due to the absence of a conceptual understanding of knowledge, the presuppositionalist case can be seen as supporting its circular argumentation on the basis of an appeal to ignorance.
Of course, as I have consistently maintained in my critiques of Christian apologetics, the notion of the Christian god assumes the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, the fundamental assumption that the reality we perceive and experience around us finds its source in a form of conscious activity – for example, that a supernatural being essentially wished the universe into being (see for example here). Thus before attempting to prove that the Christian god exists, one would first have to validate the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. But how would one do this without assuming the primacy of consciousness to begin with and thus begging the question? The primacy of consciousness view entails the notion that wishing makes it so. But does the believer hold that his own wishing makes the primacy of consciousness metaphysics so? If yes, then he’s simply indulging in subjective fantasy. If not, then his basic assumptions are in conflict with what he’s trying to argue.
Meanwhile, apologists insist that they can prove the existence of their god by means of argument. And presuppositionalism is typically characterized by those apologists who champion it as possessing an insuperable arsenal of arguments proving the existence of their god. Yet it is not uncommon for presuppositional apologists to make statements to the effect that one must “presuppose God” in order to perform any reasoning whatsoever. As Greg Bahnsen famously put it in his highly celebrated debate with Dr. Gordon Stein, “the transcendental proof for God's existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything.” Thus, say presuppositionalists, no argument can even get off the ground unless the existence of the Christian god is presupposed. Now “presupposing” a thing to be true is a mental action. It is one thing to say that X is a metaphysical precondition of Y, quite another to say that one must presuppose X in order to affirm Y. Christians may hold that the former is the case with respect to the existence of their god (X) in relation to reasoning (Y), but they certainly affirm the latter. Moreover, presuppositionalists are well known for interpreting statements found in Romans 1 to mean that every human being already knows that the Christian god is real.
The charge of begging the question, then, seems quite inescapable when presuppositionalists affirm, on top of affirming these background points, that they can prove that the Christian god is real. Generally, proof is the systematic effort to draw a conclusion from more fundamental premises. Given what presuppositionalists say about their own position, the conclusion they claim to be able to establish in their “proof” is that the Christian god exists. But their background assumptions clearly show that they begin with the view that the Christian god exists already in mind. The existence of the Christian god is their starting point. So they have already assumed that their god exists by the time they get to assembling any proofs (since their god is, they say, necessary for proving anything), including the purported proof that their god exists.
It is bafflingly unclear how apologists could settle in their mind that such an enterprise is not fallaciously circular.
But K. Scott Oliphant thinks he can somehow rescue presuppositionalism from the charge of circularity. It is important to note at this point that Oliphant directs his defensive points in response to criticisms of presuppositionalism by another Christian apologist, Paul Copan. So Oliphant’s defense is cast in the context of believer versus believer. Indeed, it is curious how worshipers of purportedly the same god can disagree on such fundamental matters as how one should properly go about establishing that said god exists! Copan offered his criticisms of presuppositionalism in a paper he published on The Gospel Coalition website titled Questioning Presuppositionalism. In that paper, Copan states that presuppositionalism
engages in question-begging---assuming what one wants to prove. It begins with the assumption that God exists, and then concludes that God exists. Such reasoning would get you an "F" in any logic class worthy of the name!
Oliphant reacts to Copan’s criticism by saying “it is bit naïve to think that Van Til, with a PhD in philosophy, would have missed something so basic.” But in fact, it seems much more naïve to suppose that simply because someone has achieved a Ph.D. in a certain field, that his reasoning in the field of his specialty must therefore be flawless. Christians themselves should be acutely aware of this trap. Richard Carrier, for example, is (according to this article) “one of the leading current proponents of the Christ myth theory,” and in spite of the fact that he holds a Ph.D. in ancient history (see here), he is continually lambasted by Christian apologists as some sort of clobberheaded neophyte who doesn’t know which way is up (for examples of this, search the archives of Triablogue).
Oliphant insists that Van Til’s system does not “engage… in question-begging---assuming what one wants to prove,” and cites a footnote that he added to the 4th edition of Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith, which we shall get to momentarily.
In the meantime, it is important to cover some preliminary points.
Famed Christian apologist William Lane Craig, himself holding a Ph.D. in philosophy, makes the following statement about presuppositionalism in Five Views on Apologetics (pp. 232-233):
Where presuppositionalism muddies the waters is in its apologetic methodology. As commonly understood, presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism. Frame himself says that we are “forced to say, ‘God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion),’” even though such reasoning is “clearly circular” (p. 217). It is difficult to imagine how anyone could with a straight face think to show theism to be true by reasoning, “God exists. Therefore, God exists.” Nor is this said from the standpoint of unbelief. A Christian theist himself will deny that question-begging arguments prove anything.
Blarko the WonderBeing exists (presupposition), therefore Blarko the WonderBeing exists (conclusion).
Furthermore, Van Til himself states point blank that “the Reformed apologist will frankly admit that his own methodology presupposes the truth of Christian theism” (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 100). And since Christian theism affirms that the Christian god exists, then the Reformed apologist’s “own methodology” must therefore presuppose that the Christian god exists. Insofar as this goes as a statement about the apologist’s position, this should be uncontroversial. Indeed, as Van Til himself states in the very next sentence:
Basic to all the doctrines of Christian theism is that of the self-contained God, or, if we wish, that of the ontological trinity. It is this notion of the ontological trinity that ultimately controls a truly Christian methodology. Based upon this notion of the ontological trinity and consistent with it, is the concept of the counsel of God according to which all things in the created world are regulated.
The final line in the above quote from Van Til only confirms the fact that Christian theism is inherently rooted in the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, for it assumes that everything in the universe was created by an act of will and that it is “regulated” by the consciousness of the Christian god. The assumption of the primacy of consciousness here is not open for debate. Christian theism explicitly holds that the objects populating the universe are the product of some unexplained activity of a supernatural consciousness and that they conform to that supernatural consciousness’ will. The primary fundamental governing the universe, according to such a worldview, is not identity or causality, but somebody’s wishing.
Van Til goes on to say that (ibid., p. 101):
To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.
Elsewhere Van Til makes statements which are disturbing in their implications for his system’s reliance on circular argument. In his A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Van Til claims that
that the Christian method uses either the inductive nor the deductive method as understood by the opponents of Christianity, but that it has elements of both induction and of deduction in it, if these terms are understood in a Christian sense.
neither of them [i.e., induction and deduction] could be thoroughly Christian unless they already presupposed God.
Van Til acknowledges that, on their own, both induction and deduction cannot take one beyond the universe and into a supernatural realm. By themselves, these methodologies leave apologists vulnerable to opponents’ objections. In response to this predicament, Van Til writes:
if it be said to such opponents of Christianity that, unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all, there is no argument in return.
Van Til’s own reaction to the charge of arguing in a circular manner does not give cause for rescuing our confidence in his system. He writes (A Survey of Christian Epistemology):
And this brings up the point of circular reasoning. The charge is constantly made that if matters stand thus with Christianity, it has written its own death warrant as far as intelligent men are concerned. Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? Our answer to this is briefly that we prefer to reason in a circle to not reasoning at all. We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning that is possible to finite man. The method of implication as outlined above is circular reasoning. Or we may call it spiral reasoning. We must go round and round a thing to see more of its dimensions and to know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating. Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way, than by a transcendental or circular argument. The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of opposition to Christianity. Reasoning in a vicious circle is the only alternative to reasoning in a circle as discussed above.
In the first place it must be affirmed that a Protestant accepts Scripture to be that which Scripture itself says it is on its own authority.
The divine word is authoritative in itself, carrying its own evidence inherently. Consequently, no man has the prerogative to call it into question (Rom. 9:20); instead, those who contend with God are required to answer (cf. Job 38:1-3; 40:1-5). God’s veracity is to be automatically presupposed (Rom. 3:1), for He speaks with unmistakable clarity (Rom. 1:19-20; Ps. 119:130).
God has the right to command and be obeyed. He has, therefore, the right to tell us what to believe.
As we saw above, Van Til famously asserts that circular reasoning is unavoidable, and that the only alternative to circular reasoning is “not reasoning at all.” His statement about needing to “go round and round a thing” in order to “know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating” is baffling. The Empire State Building is larger than I am, but I don’t see what good it would do to “go round and round” it. Nor is it clear what relevance the size differential may be between us as knowers and the things we investigate would have for such an endeavor. But what is clear is that Van Til equates “transcendental argument” with “circular argument,” and seems to treat circular reasoning and circular argument interchangeably. The relevance of this will become clear when we get to Oliphant’s defense against the charge of begging the question, which I shall now take up.
As mentioned above, Oliphant quotes his own remarks in defense of presuppositionalism against the charge of petitio principii from a footnote he included in the 4th edition of Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith. (I have only the 3rd edition, so I cannot confirm this directly.)
There Oliphant says that “circular reasoning is not the same as a circular argument.” Thus he wants to introduce a distinction here between “reasoning” and “argument.” But an argument is essentially a formalized course of reasoning. I am not off here. This online dictionary gives the following definitions for ‘reasoning’:
1. the act or process of a person who reasons.
2. the process of forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or premises.
3. the reasons, arguments, proofs, etc., resulting from this process.
Now it may be that some thinkers distinguish between circular argument on the one hand, and circular reasoning on the other. But given what we have already seen above (both from Van Til himself and his pupil John Frame), the suspicion that presuppositionalism involves a question-begging (i.e., fallacious) argument has plenty of support.
Oliphant goes on to explain:
A circular argument is one in which the conclusion of the argument is also assumed in one or more of the premises.
Oliphant next says that
Van Til's notion of circularity is broader, and more inclusive, than a strict argument form.
Oliphant gives an example of circular reasoning which is presumably not fallaciously circular:
For example, in William Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), Alston argues that it is impossible to establish that one has knowledge in a certain area without at the same time presupposing some knowledge in that area. His example is an argument for the reliability of sense perception. Any argument for such reliability presupposes that reliability.
Thus given the distinction which Oliphant wants to introduce here, namely between circular reasoning and circular (i.e., fallacious) argument, he might attempt to find a better example to support this.
Oliphant continues, saying on behalf of Alston that an argument for the reliability of sense perception must presuppose that reliability
Here Oliphant seems to be suggesting, by reference to what he calls “the epistemic situation in which human beings exist,” that the question of the Christian god’s existence is somehow analogous to the question of whether or not sense perception is reliable. If circular reasoning is required to establish the reliability of sense perception given the “epistemic situation” in which we find ourselves, such reasoning should be available for establishing other aspects of our “epistemic situation,” such as Christianity’s metaphysical claims.because of the epistemic situation in which human beings exist. Alston is right here, it seems. Not only so, but, to go deeper, the epistemic and metaphysical situation in which human beings exist is one in which the source of and rationale for all that we are and think is, ultimately, in the Triune God of Scripture. Circularity in this sense is inevitable. We will never be outside the context of image of God as we think and live---not in this life or the next.
Unfortunately this doesn’t work. For one thing, given the axiom of consciousness, the reliability of sense perception does not need to be established by means of circular reasoning. Sense perception would already have to be reliable before one could embark on such an enterprise to begin with. Also, in the case of sense perception, we are not talking about establishing an entity existing independent of our faculties. The fact that we perceive is self-evident, and our perception is not something existing apart from us. But the Christian god is supposed to be an entity existing independent of our faculties. This would put the Christian god into the broad category of independently existing things, such as rocks, puddles, chunks of concrete, clouds, telephone poles, etc. But unlike these things, the Christian god’s existence is not perceptually self-evident: we perceive clouds and piles of leaves directly, but we do not perceive the Christian god directly. In fact, speaking for myself, I have never perceived something that I could, given Christianity’s descriptions, identify as the Christian god. On the contrary, I know of no alternative but to imagine the Christian god, just as I have no alternative but to imagine Blarko the WonderBeing. Unfortunately for Christianity, however, I am honest enough to recognize that what I imagine is not real.
Like other presuppositionalists, Oliphant assumes that circularity is “inevitable” at the basis of one’s worldview, not because this is really the case, but because apologists are projecting here. Presuppositionalists are telling us about themselves when they make such assumptions. And what they’re telling us is the fact that their worldview has no objective starting point. An objective starting point does not need to be established or validated by means of argument. It is not something inferred in the first place. Rather, as an irreducible primary, the truth ofan objective starting point is perceptually self-evident. Hence Objectivism begins with the axiom “existence exists.” The fact that existence exists is perceptually self-evident: we just open our eyes and see existence directly. Some thinkers don’t think we see existence. But in fact we do. “’Existence’… is a collective noun, denoting the sum of existents” (Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 4). Or, as Tom Porter puts it (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 205):
... anybody who’s seen an existent has seen existence. Then what does existence look like? Well, what color is a rainbow? If you’ve seen anything real, you’ve seen existence too. But perhaps you haven’t; perhaps you’ve only introspected your sensations, your feelings or your linguistic experience. Too bad, you’ve missed a lot. But you have eyes: look! You’ll see things, real things. And you’ll see existence too.
Proof is the logical process by which we reduce that which is not perceptually self-evident to that which is perceptually self-evident. Perceiving is action; perceiving a thing is an act of consciousness. If we perceive something, we are conscious of that thing. That’s where we begin – with direct awareness of objects that exist in our immediate environment. From this basis we form concepts of concretes, and those concepts we subsequently integrate into broader abstractions, and we integrate those broader abstractions into yet broader abstractions, and so on.
One cannot argue for an ultimate standard by appealing to a different standard. That would be inconsistent.
But presuppositionalists have no alternative to this, since their starting point (the god which they imagine) is neither perceptually self-evident nor objective in nature: we do not discover the Christian god by looking outward at the world. Quite the opposite: we have no alternative but to look inward into the contents of our imaginations and create this god on the basis of descriptions that we select from whatever source(s) and concoct into a mental invention. This explains not only why apologists like Van Til and Frame think that circular argumentation is unavoidable, but also why they tend to cite other mental phenomena – e.g., “abstract entities,” the laws of logic, moral absolutes, etc. – as “evidence” of their god. (For more along these lines, see for example my blog entry A Critique of Sye Ten Bruggencate’s www.proofthatgodexists.org.)
Lastly, Oliphant begs the question by appealing to the Christian notion that man is the “image of God.” We could be the image-bearers of the Christian god only if the Christian god actually exists. Oliphant might have a case that given the existence of the Christian god it is not circular to suppose that we are its image-bearers. But when the apologist's task is to offer support for his claim that the Christian god exists, its existence is clearly not a given at that point. Nor does this appeal help Oliphant rescue presuppositionalism from the charge of petitio principii by supposing that, as in the case of the reliability of sense perception, man’s being the “image of God” is part of the “epistemic situation” in which he finds himself. One cannot argue in a non-question-begging manner from the supposition that man’s “epistemic situation” involves his being the “image of God” to the existence of said god, nor can he appeal to such a supposition to justify his circular reasoning in defense of his theistic commitments.
Oliphant raised another point in his footnote:
Van Til's affirmation of circular reasoning should be seen in the context of the point he makes in various places about "indirect" arguments. Any petitio principii is, by definition, a direct argument---containing premises and a conclusion.
In theistic argument, the indirect argument would run like this: “God doesn’t exist; therefore causality (or whatever – ultimately everything) is meaningless.” Since we are unwilling to accept the conclusion, we must negate the premise and say that God does exist.
Frame continues (Ibid.):
Are indirect arguments really distinct from direct arguments? In the final analysis, it doesn’t make much difference whether you say “Causality, therefore God” or “Without God, no causality, therefore God.” Any indirect argument of this sort can be turned into a direct argument by some creating rephrasing… if the indirect form is sound, the direct form will be too – and vice versa.
Oliphant provides some more clues here:
Van Til's indirect method moves one out of the context of a strict proof or direct argument, and into the context of the rationale for any fact or law assumed to be, or to be true. Thus, circularity is inextricably linked to the transcendental approach, and is not meant to be in reference, strictly speaking, to direct argumentation.
This is why the presuppositionalist argument becomes more mysterious the more we investigate it. Essentially the apologist is bluffing: he claims to have an argument, but when called to present it he offers instead a series of disclaimers. The disclaimer that presuppositionalism relies on “indirect” arguments turns out to be nothing more than a copout: if the apologist has an argument, let’s see it. If it turns out to be a circular argument, the apologist should be willing to acknowledge this and abandon it, simple as that. But this is not what happens. Notice what does happen: the apologist shows up claiming to have a “nuclear-strength” argument (as Bahnsen claimed to have had). He does not spell out a series of premises and show how they support his conclusion. In fact, it’s not always clear what conclusion he is really trying to establish, but he allows his audience to presume that he’s all about proving the existence of his god. But when it is pointed out that he’s presupposing the existence of his god - the very thing he is purportedly setting out to prove – all along, he comes back with the disclaimer that circular reasoning and circular argument are two different things. How exactly are they different? He never makes this distinction clear. He then says that given man’s “epistemic situation,” circular reasoning is unavoidable. But his example is not analogous to what he is called to prove: he cites the reliability of sense perception, but this is not analogous to proving the existence of an independently existing being which we cannot perceive (and which we can only imagine). Moreover, the example he gives suggests a profound misunderstanding on his part about the nature of knowledge and its conceptual structure, rooted as it is in perceptually self-evident facts. Then he says that his argument is “indirect” rather than direct, and that begging the question can only occur in a direct argument, so his circular logic is off the hook.
This is a wild goose chase. If the apologist has an argument, he should present his premises and his conclusion and be willing to see matters through without constantly trying to cover his tracks. That he is constantly trying to cover his tracks only confirms the rightful suspicion that our leg is being pulled.
Oliphant closes the section with the following question and comment:
Maybe we can put it more simply. Is it possible to posit any truth at all without that truth having its genesis and its impetus from God's creating and sustaining activity? If not, then every truth presupposes that God is, that he is the Creator of all that is, and that he sustains it.
First of all, what one considers as “possible” (the realm under consideration in Oliphant’s initial question here), is ultimately determined by the fundamentals of one’s worldview. If one accepts, for example, that all of reality conforms to the will of an invisible magic being, then one must accept as “possible” whatever he thinks this invisible magic being can do. If the invisible magic being is imagined to be “omnipotent,” then there’s really nothing that it cannot do. Thus to ask what is possible on such a pretext can have no factually based answer since all facts are said to be creations created ex nihilo by this same invisible magic being, and this invisible magic being can revise them at will. This is confirmed by apologists’ own reaction to arguments against the resurrection of Jesus premised on what is deemed to be possible. If the omnipotent Christian god is real, then suddenly the resurrection of Jesus loses its apparent improbability. An omnipotent deity can make anything happen, so talk of possibilities and probabilities becomes irrelevant. Indeed, if one accepts the view that reality conforms to the will of an omnipotent mind, what objective basis would he have for assessing the probability of any proposal? Blank out.
Second, if truth is objective, then it must be based on facts which obtain independently of any consciousness, including the consciousness of the god which theists enshrine in their imagination. In other words, the objective theory of truth is premised explicitly and uncompromisingly on the primacy of existence metaphysics. It has to, otherwise we surrender our cognition to “wishing makes it so,” and most thinkers will acknowledge the fact that wishing in fact doesn’t make it so, at least when they’re honest or need to. (For more guidance on the objective theory of truth, see my blog entry Answering Dustin Segers’ Presuppositionalism, Part I: Intro and the Nature of Truth.) But theism is essentially premised on the metaphysics of “wishing does make it so.” That’s the whole point of Christianity – to get everyone scared witless of the imaginary wisher they call “God,” because if you don’t fear this magic wisher, it just might wish you into the cornfield. So obey, or suffer.
So if we understand truth to be objective in nature, then clearly the answer to Oliphant here is: Absolutely yes, it is “possible to posit any truth at all without that truth having its genesis and its impetus from God's creating and sustaining activity.” In fact, since the Christian god is simply a figment of men’s imagination, no truth has “its genesis and its impetus from God’s creating and sustaining activity.” Truth is an aspect of identification, and identification is a function of man’s conceptual consciousness. Truth hinges entirely on the relationship between man’s consciousness and the objects he perceives and the method by which he secures his identification of those objects.
The concept ‘possible’ does not apply to just any alternative to reality that we can fantasize. And yet, this is precisely how the theist uses the term in his apologetic schemes. Consider the question, popularized by presuppositionalist Sye Ten Bruggencate (which I am paraphrasing here): “Can God reveal something such that I can be certain of it?” Once one accepts the premise of the primacy of consciousness which the notion “God” assumes, then clearly one would have to answer this question affirmatively. But basing one’s views on the primacy of consciousness can only result in fantasy by allowing the imagination to substitute whatever it invents for facts. If this premise is not accepted, then all bets are off; the question can only be answered negatively. One can hold that “God can reveal something such that I can be certain of it” only if he grants metaphysical primacy of wishing over reality. This is what Bruggencate’s question needs, this is what Oliphant’s defense of Van Til’s presuppositionalism needs, this is what Christianity needs.
Given these points, if we consider the matter generally in terms of metaphysical primacy, the answer to Oliphant’s question boils down to whether we accept the primacy of consciousness or the primacy of existence. If we accept the metaphysical equivalent to the notion that “wishing makes it true” – i.e., the primacy of consciousness, then we do not say that “the sky’s the limit,” but rather that “the imagination is the limit,” for on the primacy of consciousness, reality conforms to whatever consciousness might dream up. If we align our thinking according to the primacy of existence, then we simply have to tell the theist to go jump into a lake.
So do Oliphant’s attempts to salvage presuppositionalism from the charge of begging the question succeed? I’m afraid I cannot say that the jury is out on this one. Deliberation did not take long since the evidence is so obviously against presuppositionalism. We have seen how Van Til’s own words write presuppositionalism’s own “death warrant,” as he put it himself. We have seen John Frame affirm an overtly circular argument (“God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion)”) as the species of reasoning that his system’s presuppositions force him into affirming. We have seen Oliphant’s own attempts to heap questionable qualification after questionable qualification on presuppositionalim’s ever-increasingly mysterious argument to both excuse its circularity and claim that it’s not really circular at all. None of this helps the presuppositionalist’s enterprise. I suggest Christians abandon this doomed form of apologetics as soon as they catch their breath.
by Dawson Bethrick