Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dear Sal

Recently an individual who goes by the moniker Sal_et_Lucis, apparently a Christian, kindly stopped by my blog and posted a brief comment in which he asked me a question. In this blog entry, I will attempt to provide him with a comprehensive answer.

Sal asked: "Just how much of Van Til and Bahnsen have you actually sat down and read?"

My first reaction to this question was to wonder how much of either author one needs to read before he's allowed to have an opinion on something either one of them has written. My next reaction was to wonder how much those who ask me such questions have read my own writings. And though I think these are relevant questions, I doubt I'll get much of an answer to either in return.

Nevertheless, in response to Sal's question, I must admit that I have read quite a bit of both Van Til and Bahnsen, focusing primarily on their apologetic works. For example, VT's The Defense of the Faith, Christian Apologetics, various articles available on the net such as "Why I Believe in God," etc.; Bahnsen's Always Ready, Van Til's Analysis: Readings & Analysis (which contains lengthy quotations from many of Van Til's publications), and numerous articles available on the net, not to mention the writings of other presuppositionalists such as John Frame, Richard Pratt, James Anderson, David Byron, Greg Welty, Michael Warren, Massimo Lorenzini, Matt Slick, etc., etc. I have found much of these writings tiresomely repetitive (there seems to be no end to the list of woes that they attribute to non-belief in their invisible magic beings), and yet I've taken it upon myself to wade through their tortured prose in the hopes of finding anything that resembles an argument for their god-belief.

Now, I'm not so naïve as to suppose that, even if I have read everything written by these and other authors, that this would eliminate all detractors who would want to charge me with not reading enough. I have found that the easy-chair routine of dismissing Christianity's critics by saying they don't understand or haven't read enough is overused by self-styled apologists, many of whom consider their defense of the faith a kind of "ministry" commissioned by their god. I want to believe that the fact that so few apologists attempt to answer my challenges is explained by the possibility that they're simply not aware of my blog; and I would prefer not to think that presuppositional apologists, with all the fire-power they claim to have in their "transcendental arguments," are choosing to shy away from my criticisms. Then again, I don't find that the criticisms I present in my blog and on my personal page can be found elsewhere that I know of, so it may simply be the case that those apologists who are aware of my writings currently have no answer to my challenges, or that they would prefer to simply dismiss me as someone who hasn't read enough (such as one
Jeff Downs tends to do on occasion). That's fine with me, as I know the word is getting out.

But since Sal has inquired, I am always willing to read more Van Til, Bahnsen, et al., for I know there is much literature on the topic of presuppositionalism which I have yet to digest. I would be very eager, for instance, to find any passage in either Van Til or Bahnsen where they deal with the issue of metaphysical primacy. I take this to be the make-all/break-all issue in all philosophy, since it is inescapable to all cognition. And even though Van Til, Bahnsen et al. pay ample lipservice to "the necessary preconditions of intelligibility," this issue never seems to come up in their writings. I find this astounding. I have my own suppositions for why this is the case, but I'd like to know what Sal and other Christians might think on this. I'm inclined to suppose they will want to rescue Van Til by saying the issue of metaphysical primacy is unimportant, or they may say Van Til addresses it and yet will not provide any citations or quotes to support this.

And while we're on it, where do either Van Til or Bahnsen spec out a theory of concepts? Indeed, to what source would the Christian go for an understanding of concepts? The bible doesn't provide such a theory (and yet
we're told over and over that "only the Christian worldview provides the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience"), so to find a theory of concepts, it seems that believers would have to either invent their own theory as they go or consult some extra-biblical source which does provide such a theory (thus putting the believer at risk of succumbing to "the wisdom of the world"). My suspicion is that Christianity has no native theory of concepts. I've asked believers who say I'm wrong on this to come forward and show me where the bible presents its own theory of concepts, but none have done this (many retort by saying that the bible is not a philosophical lexicon, but this only confirms my suspicion). And even though a good theory of concepts will go a long way in correcting a large number of presuppositionalism's mistakes and in answering most of presuppositionalism's characterizations of and challenges to "non-believing worldviews," it is precisely a theory of concepts which they seem to lack.

Ever anxious to find some way to turn a philosophical issue into an apologetic debating point, Van Til gives us some indication of his understanding of concepts in the following passage:

We seem to get our unity by generalizing, by abstracting from the particulars in order to include them into larger unities. If we keep up this process of generalizing till we exclude all particulars, granted they can all be excluded, have we then not stripped these particulars of their particularity? Have we then obtained anything but an abstract universal?" (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 26.)

If summaries like this are at all any indication of the presuppositionalist understanding of concepts (James Anderson, in his paper If Knowledge, Then God, cites pp. 23-28 of Van Til's The Defense of the Faith as "the most direct discussion of the problem [of the one and the many]" in Van Til's writings), then non-believers needn't worry whatsoever about what this camp has to say. Van Til errs by supposing that the process of abstraction involves "excluding particulars," when in fact this is not at all the case. The process of abstraction involves, among other operations, the omission of specific measurements precisely so that particulars can be included in the scope of reference subsumed by a concept. My suspicion is not only that Van Til did not understand this, but also that such facts would not be very welcome news to someone like Van Til for they do not avail themselves to the conclusions he hoped to draw, namely that "the problem of the one and the many" requires a supernatural solution (cf. the "concrete universal" which Van Til equated with the Christian trinity).

Sal listed three options to explain his impression of my understanding:

"You either are a poor reader, have a short term memory, or you haven't read them at all."

I can name two more possibilities which Sal overlooks. One is that I have misunderstood these authors. Consider the following admission which one presuppositionalist found necessary to make in order to highlight Bahnsen's contributions to presuppositionalism:

One of the major obstacles in the way of promoting presuppositionalism has been Van Til's own writing style. Friends and critics alike have expressed chagrin at his 'torturous English', his redundant and unclear style, his penchant for sloganeering, and his disorganization of themes. Though he considered these criticisms overstated, Bahnsen likewise recognized these shortcomings in Van Til. (Michael Butler, "The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence," ed. S. M. Schlissel, The Standard Bearer: A Festschift for Greg L. Bahnsen, p. 70.)

Even those who are sympathetic to Van Til's program have complained about the warbling mentor's muddled handling of the issues central to his primary thesis. And while many would point to Bahnsen one of the prime movers in clarifying Van Til's apologetic, he often turns out to be little more than a cheerleader who is content to cloak those same issues in similar vague jargon and "penchant for sloganeering." So if I have misunderstood Van Til, some apologists have already provided a good explanation for this.

The other possibility which Sal overlooks is that I have read and understood these authors, and that my detractors simply want to dismiss my writings out of hand by tarnishing their source (i.e., me). This of course only serves to attack me personally, and allows my criticisms to go unchallenged. This means that, if my understanding and criticism of these authors are in error, we will not learn of my faults from these detractors. Indeed, it's not unusual for my detractors to do a "drive-by comment," saying I don't understand, I've misrepresented, or that I'm simply dishonest, and yet provide no substantiation whatsoever to these charges when my own writings are right there, available for examination.

There are numerous examples in my writings where I examine and interact with the authors Sal mentions which provide opportunity for my detractors to cite when casting their character slurs against me. One such example is Bahnsen's opening statement in his debate with Gordon Stein. To my utter amazement, many Christians seem to think Bahnsen's performance in this debate was somehow impressive. For instance,
John Frame recently wrote that "it was evident as the debate progressed that the audience became convinced that Bahsnen won the debate," and that "Bahnsen's transcendental argument was carefully put together and eloquently stated." I wonder if he attended the same debate whose transcript I read and examined. I've made my interaction with Bahnsen's opening statement available to my detractors for quite a while now, and even though many of them have, as Frame characterizes Stein, "huffed and puffled and sputtered away" in defiance of my conclusion that Bahnsen offered a poof rather than a proof, none have come forward to piece together an actual argument which validly infers the existence of the Christian or any other god from anything Bahnsen claims in his opening statement. I'm willing to entertain the possibility that I've missed something, but unless one of Bahnsen's defenders takes the time to point it out to me, I'll rest with my analysis.

So, to address Sal's question, the answer is yes, I have read these authors, and no, I don't think I'm a poor reader. But, I will also answer by saying again that I am always willing to read more, and if my detractors want to specify a passage in either Van Til's, Bahnsen's or someone else's writings which is supposed to present the knock-down, drag-'em-out argument that presuppositionalists think they have, I'm certainly willing to examine it.

by Dawson Bethrick