"Presuppositionalism" is the name given to a special branch of Christian apologetics. In this blog, I will post my criticisms of presuppositionalism as it is informed and defended by apologists such as Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Richard Pratt, and their latter-day followers.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
In the beginning...
Friday, February 03, 2006
Presuppositionalism and the Argument from Ignorance
I always thought it was just an argument from ignorance.
First, let's get a good understanding of what the fallacy known as argument from ignorance really is. In support of his assessment, Zachary offered the following description of what constitutes an argument from ignorance:
The argument from ignorance, also known as argumentum ad ignorantiam or argument by lack of imagination, is a logical fallacy asserting that if something is currently unexplained then it did not (or could not) happen, or that if evidence of something has not been proven to their satisfaction, then it cannot exist. (1)
I don't know how X could be the case, therefore it follows that X cannot be the case.
It is clear to me that TAG and its customary defense strategy make use of an argument from ignorance in the hopes of securing the claim that Christianity is true. And this is not at all difficult to spot. Generally speaking, whenever the presuppositionalist says something along the lines of "you cannot account for [fill in the blank]," he's essentially just telling us that he simply does not know how the person addressed in such charges might "account for" such phenomena. And despite his announcement of his own ignorance of such matters in such an explicit manner, presuppositional apologists routinely regurgitate the same pattern throughout their defense of god-belief. Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen, who can be credited with popularizing this very approach to apologetics, used precisely this very tactic in his opening statement when he debated atheist Dr. Gordon Stein. Bahnsen simply asserted that
The atheist world-view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes. In that sense, the atheist world-view cannot account for our debate tonight. (2)
That the assertion of inability on the part of atheists to "account for" various aspects of cognition and experience is integral to TAG, is clear from statements such as the following:
TAG says that the atheist can't account for logic. (3)
I don't just think you can't 'account' for just logic and a some other things. The claim of TAG is that you cannot explain or account for ANYTHING. (4)
Premise 1: If the non-Christian cannot "account for" the "laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes," then the Christian god exists (or: the Christian worldview is true).
Premise 2: The non-Christian cannot "account for" the "laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes."
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian god exists (or: the Christian worldview is true).
Presuppositionalists themselves demonstrate that they need to rely on argument from ignorance (or, should we say, assertion from ignorance) when critiquing rival religious beliefs. For instance, when certain "truths" were asserted on the basis of what were called "the messages of phil," one presuppositionalist attempted to criticize this position with the following:
We could do a transcendental analysis of the "messages of phil." But all you have done is make a blanket statement that the messages of phil are divine. Nothing has not been stated or worked out as a worldview.
Now, after examining my reasons for agreeing with Zachary on this point, I asked myself the following question:
Is my conclusion that presuppositional apologetics bases its conclusions on the arguer's own ignorance of rival positions, itself based on my own ignorance of the presuppositionalist method and the evidences it recruits in deploying its defensive strategy?I don't think it is. And here's why: As I mentioned above, I have examined numerous defenses presented by presuppositionalists, both in published works either in print or posted on the internet (cf. Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, Pratt, Butler, Jones, Wilson, et al.), as well as in firsthand encounters with scores of apologists attempting to use this method of defense. In virtually all cases, the approaches employed share a similar basic strategy: the non-believer cannot "account for" some aspect or feature of cognition or experience, presumably because only an appeal to the believer's god can satisfactorily accomplish such a task and the non-believer by definition rejects or disavows the existence of the believer's god. But in each case, the feature or aspect of cognition or experience which the non-believer is said to be unable to "account for," can in fact only be addressed and understood if one has a good understanding of how the mind forms concepts and integrates them into larger conceptual structures. But this element is completely lacking from every deployment of presuppositional apologetics that I have examined, many of which I learned about because Christian debaters cited them as a supporting resource. (5) Not only do presuppositional apologists seem utterly ignorant of the importance of a good theory of concepts to such considerations, the worldview which they seek to defend - Christian theism - does not seem to have a native theory of concepts. (Apologists have been unable to show where in the bible one might find any information about concepts.)
Take for instance James Anderson's Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction, a paper intended to support the presuppositionalist position that non-Christian philosophy must confess defeat when it comes to providing a rational justification for induction. I give Anderson credit for at least trying to support this charge without simply stipulating it to be the case, for he does survey at least a few secular treatments of the supposed problem. But absent from his survey is any consideration of the Objectivist response to Hume's problem of induction. Granted, it may not be well known in some academic circles, but it does in fact exist (David Kelley summarizes his response to Hume in "Universals and Induction"). This can only indicate that Anderson's survey is incomplete and that the conclusion that "there presently exists no satisfactory solution to the problem of induction from a secular perspective" (6) is premature, in fact unwarranted. Indeed, his conclusion in fact rests on a gap in his knowledge of available treatments of induction. And I know that he was not familiar with the distinctive approach to induction that Objectivism provides when he wrote his paper based on his reaction to a statement I had made in our correspondence.
Specifically, I had written:
I must say, however, I'm always surprised, when reading a paper that attempts to deal with induction, that there is no discussion of concepts, the nature of their forming, or their relationship to inductive generalization, as if these issues did not matter.In response to this, Anderson replied:
Well, it's not immediately obvious to me how the nature of concept formation bears either on the description of the problem of induction or on the development of cogent solutions. Perhaps you can elaborate.This statement, especially coming from an apologist who has emphasized the "atheists can't account for induction" version of TAG so heavily, simply suggests to me that presuppositionalists do not approach induction as a conceptual matter. This tells me that they're ignorant of how induction is an extension of conceptual integration, which can only lead me to the conclusion that their apologetic ploy concerning this issue is based ultimately on their own ignorance of at least some opposing positions.
So unless presuppositionalists can do better than what they have done to date, the charge that TAG relies - at least in part - on an argument from ignorance, appears to be amply justified.
by Dawson Bethrick
(1) Quoting this online source.
(3) TAG as Teleological Argument
(5) For instance, section 7.4 "The Transcendental Nature of Presuppositional Argument," in Bahnsen's Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, pp. 496-529.
(6) Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction