Thursday, December 27, 2007

My Chat with a Presuppositionalist

One day while on a short flight to Denver, a presuppositionalist apologist was seated next to me. He didn’t waste time and started right in with his robotic apologetic babbling. Our conversation went as follows:

Presuppositionalist: “God, as absolute personality, is the ultimate category of interpretation for man in every aspect of his being.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 52)

Non-believer: Are you simply trying to state your beliefs, or do you have a proof of your god’s existence?

Presuppositionalist: “There is the evidence of the created order itself testifying to the wisdom. power, plan, and glory of God.” (Greg Bahnsen, The Great Debate, opening statement)

Non-believer: Are you saying that you infer your god’s existence from things that you perceive, or are you saying that you perceive your god directly? It sounds like you’re saying you infer its existence rather than have direct awareness of it.

Presuppositionalist: “God is not found at the end of an argument; He is found in our hearts.” (Van Til, Why I Believe in God)

Non-believer: So, you don’t have an argument for your god’s existence. Instead, you look inwardly, consulting the subjective realm of your feelings and emotions?

Presuppositionalist: "The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound. Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold." (Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 62)

Non-believer: So you do have an argument? If you infer your god’s existence, from what do you infer it, and what is the course of reasoning by which you arrive at the conclusion that your god exists? Or, if you perceive it directly, by what means do you perceive it? And if you do perceive your god directly, why would you need any argument for its existence?

Presuppositionalist: "The theistic proofs therefore reduce to one proof, the proof which argues that unless this God, the God of the Bible, the ultimate being, the Creator, the controller of the universe, be presupposed as the foundation of human experience, this experience operates in a void. This one proof is absolutely convincing." (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 192, emphasis original)

Non-believer: I don't find this convincing at all, let alone "absolutely convincing." And something is still not clear to me. I asked if you infer your god's existence. But here you say you presuppose it. One could say this about any arbitrary belief. So if you claim to have an argument for your god’s existence, you’re tacitly admitting that you do not perceive its existence directly (for we do not argue for that which we perceive directly). So, what’s your argument?

Presuppositionalist: “The proof of Christianity is the impossibility of the contrary. That is, the validation of the Christian worldview is that without it you cannot prove anything.” (Greg Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis, p. 148)

Non-believer: That is not an argument, it’s simply a naked assertion. Similarly, the Lahu tribesman can say “Geusha exists because of the impossibility of the contrary,” and I can say “All gods (including yours) are fictitious because of the impossibility of the contrary.” So you still need an argument.

Presuppositionalist: “The atheistic worldview cannot account for the laws of logic/absolutes, and must borrow from the Christian worldview in order to rationally argue.” (Matt Slick, The Christian Worldview, the Atheist Worldview, and Logic)

Non-believer: This too is not an argument. Even if it is true that a particular non-believer “cannot account for the intelligibility of human experience,” etc., this would not prove that no atheist individual or atheist philosophy can do so, or that a god exists or that Christianity is true. All it would prove is that the individual in question is ignorant on these things. Since we’re born ignorant, and the issues being inquired on are very complex and rife with controversy even among those who have devoted their entire academic lives to them, a particular individual’s ignorance in some area of philosophy is wholly understandable. Most people are too busy living their lives to delve into philosophy in the manner that the presuppositional method demands of them. So, do you have anything more than mere assertions?

Presuppositionalist: “It is impossible and useless to seek to defend Christianity as an historical religion by a discussion of facts only.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 7)

Non-believer: I realize that. Since the basis of your religion is not factual, you have no choice but to retreat into the imaginary. Only you refuse to acknowledge that it is imaginary. But you offer nothing other than one’s imagination as the means by which one can “know” its so-called “truths.” For instance, I can imagine Jesus rising from the dead in the confines of his stone sepulcher, but doing so does not establish what I imagine as actual historical fact. There is a difference between fact and imagination, and your religion trades on blurring this distinction.

Presuppositionalist: “To engage in philosophical discussion does not mean that we begin without Scripture. We do not first defend theism philosophically by an appeal to reason and experience in order, after that, to turn to Scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity. We get our theism as well as our Christianity from the Bible.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 8)

Non-believer: I realize this also. Your imagination of your god is inspired by the content of a storybook. The anecdotes, speeches and episodes that we read about in the bible supply inputs which the believer substitutes for actual facts, and quickened by the imagination they take on what seems to be a larger-than-life quality. The same process happens when we allow ourselves to be absorbed in a Harry Potter novel. We imagine the characters of the story and the events that the story has them go through, and in our imagination they take on their own life. The biblical realm, like the realm of Harry Potter, is a creation of the human mind invested in the imaginative elaborations inspired by what is given in the text.

Presuppositionalist: “If Christian theism is not true then nothing is true.” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 208)

Non-believer: Okay, let’s try this. I have a simple challenge for you. You say your god is real, that it truly exists. Can you explain how I can reliably distinguish between what you call “God” and what you may merely be imagining?

At this point the presuppositionalist turned forward and stared directly ahead. His eyes were wide and bleak, and his mouth pursed shut. Completely mute, he looked like a gambler who was realizing that he had just lost his life’s fortune.

The man didn’t say anything for the rest of the flight, even when the flight attendant asked if he wanted anything. He just sat there in silence, staring off into space, as if pretending no one else existed.

When we finally landed and were preparing to disembark, I said to him, “Thanks for the chat. I hope you enjoy your stay in Denver.” He just nodded slightly and turned his back on me. I guess he couldn’t answer my challenge.

by Dawson Bethrick