Friday, February 03, 2006

Presuppositionalism and the Argument from Ignorance

On whether or not the presuppositionalist "transcendental argument for the existence of God" (TAG) qualifies as a variation of the argument from design, Zachary Moore made the following comment:

I always thought it was just an argument from ignorance.

After examining numerous apologetic sources pontificating on TAG and presuppositionalism, I am inclined to agree fully with Zachary's statement here. Of course, presuppositionalists will resist and protest this recognition, but the evidence to support it is wide-ranging and substantial, and it's quite easy to spot in the presuppositional strategy integral to deploying TAG.

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)

Technically known as argumentum ad ignorantiam, an argument from ignorance essentially consists of resting a conclusion on the arguer's own lack of knowledge of or familiarity with some key point of central concern to the topic under consideration. The argument from ignorance can thus be reduced to the following formula:
I don't know how X could be the case, therefore it follows that X cannot be the case.
As such, the argument from ignorance can be considered to be a form of non sequitur, i.e., an argument in which the conclusion does not follow from the premises offered in support of it. Of course, in actual conversation or debate, instances of this fallacy are typically not so bald-faced. In fact, the arguer himself may not even be aware that he is resting his conclusion on gaping holes in his summary knowledge. On the contrary, arguments resting their conclusion on the arguer's own ignorance of relevant matters usually tend to bury the arguer's ignorance under a mass of verbiage which conveniently disguises the fallacy such that the arguer himself may not readily detect his own error. Discovering and recognizing the error becomes all the more unlikely if the arguer is emotionally committed to the conclusion which his ignorance is supposed to validate.

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)

An examination of Bahnsen's opening statement does not prove fruitful in discovering just how the apologist might go about proving this negative claim, and yet presuppositionalists typically mimick Bahnsen's approach as if it had actual substance (often referred to as "thrust"). If the apologist has an actual proof that "the atheist world-view cannot account for" said phenomena, why doesn't he offer it? Such questions are frequently asked, but they remain unanswered. In spite of this, apologists persist in using this very same tactic, even though it only serves in telling the world that they are simply unfamiliar with what any particular atheist's views are on the topic at hand.

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)
Another apologist followed up this remark, saying:

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)

The apologists' dependence on their own ignorance here is not only uncontained, but brazen and belligerent. And this much is clear: Since TAG is supposed to be an argument proving the existence of the Christian god, and central to this argument is the charge that non-Christians (perhaps atheists especially) are unable to provide an "account for" various things (or "ANYTHING"), one can certainly be forgiven for supposing that TAG is supposed to derive the Christian god's existence from the non-Christian's alleged inability to satisfy such challenges. For it appears that the apologist is essentially arguing as follows:

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).

And while this appears to be the basic procedure in defending TAG, the apologist tends not to approach the matter as a topic of inquiry in which a comprehensive survey is conducted to review proposed "accounts" for the various phenomena in question in order to assure us that those proposed accounts are in fact flawed or somehow insufficient to the task. On the contrary, the apologetic method consists of simply stipulating this to be the case, as if the apologist's own say so were sufficient to seal the case. But in spite of the obvious reliance on his own sustained and indulged ignorance, the apologist fails to show exactly how the existence of an invisible magic being follows from someone's inability to develop a thesis on induction or some other mental process. So the non sequitur at the core of the apologist's argument from ignorance is clearly observed.

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.

Aside from the hapless use of a double negative, the apologist, who is clearly speaking out of ignorance, nowhere shows that the worldview associated with "the message of phil" has not been "worked out." For all he knows, there could be a 30-volume codex that defines and develops such a worldview from its fundamentals on up.

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.
(2) The Great Debate

(3) TAG as Teleological Argument

(4) Ibid.

(5) For instance, section 7.4 "The Transcendental Nature of Presuppositional Argument," in Bahnsen's Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, pp. 496-529.

Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction