Monday, September 28, 2020

Presuppositionalism and Induction

Presuppositionalists who raise the problem of induction as a debating point in their encounters with non-theists, typically point to the uniformity of nature as the key issue to unlocking and solving the problem. After all, say the presuppositionalists, if nature were not uniform, then we’d have no basis for supposing that the future will resemble the past, which would throw induction under the bus.

In fact, the uniformity of nature is only one of several key issues, and, I’d argue, not the critical one. Even if nature is uniform, this alone would not explain how we know it’s uniform, nor would it explain what the human mind does when drawing inductive generalizations. Indeed, the Objectivist view is that nature is uniform regardless of what anyone thinks, believes, knows, prefers, hopes, etc. It’s something we discover, but this is only the beginning, not the end of explaining induction. After all, if nature is uniform, it’s not uniform only in my experience, but also in my cat’s experience. However, my cat will never draw the general conclusion that touching hot stovetops will result in a painful burn. But I can. Surely there’s more to the issue than merely “here’s why the assumption that nature is uniform is justified.”

However, apologists who raise the problem of induction against non-theistic worldviews, tend to make the uniformity of nature the centerpiece of their focus, as though this were the only piece that needed explaining. I suspect this is the case because it provides an opportunity to direct the discussion exclusively to metaphysical concerns while serving as a distraction from the fact that their worldview lacks the epistemological resources needed to spell out an actual theory of induction in terms of human mental functionality.

The psychology of this approach is clear, given theism’s central claims: the world and everything in it was created by a supernatural conscious being, this supernatural conscious being controls everything – which logically entails that man’s mind is at root noetically passive, and only by appealing to such a being can one “account for” the uniformity we observe in nature. The assumption here is unmistakable, but typically goes unstated: the uniformity we observe in nature is a product of conscious activity, not a mind-independent feature of reality which we discover by means of reason. Thus if we are going to solve the problem of induction, we need at minimum to believe this, even though it rests entirely on the imagination.

This strategy introduces a number of liabilities which typically escape notice on both sides of the debate. For one, it typically results in missed opportunities to point out explicitly that the presuppositionalists’ “solution” to the problem of induction, essentially constituting a god-of-the-gaps defense of theism, is inherently subjective in that it casts this universal feature of nature, its observed uniformity, as a product of conscious activity. What objective evidence can the apologist present which can validate an essentially subjective conception of nature? Indeed, a universe in which miracles can happen is certainly not a precondition for confidence in induction. As one thinker once astutely put it, “I believe that there is consistency in the universe because there is no god that has the power to mess with it.” Without the possibility of supernatural mischief, the alternative is not utter chaos, but an inherent stability which is not alterable by means of conscious intentions, no matter who or what does the wishing.

Another, I would say entire category of liabilities, has to do with the fact that the presuppositionalist “account” fails to shed any light on the epistemological side of things – specifically, it ignores what man’s mind does when he performs inductive inferences, and even more fundamentally, how man’s mind forms the concepts which are employed in drawing inferences to begin with, the one area which holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of induction which have eluded philosopher for centuries. The critical question really has to do with how man can expand his knowledge beyond the range of his immediate sense experience to knowledge of things which he has not and even never will experience. A good theory of concepts is indispensable to grappling with this question, and yet the presuppositionalist has no theory of concepts to begin with. To call this a mere oversight would be a tragic understatement.

In spite of these liabilities, however, even apparently unaware of them, presuppositionalists deploy their debating strategy as though their position, owing to their theistic worldview, held all the cards on the matter, and that non-theistic contenders were completely unarmed. Rather than exploring induction as an area of philosophical inquiry in its own right with the goal of elucidating the epistemological principles involved in this entirely human ability, apologists have spent their time building an arsenal of retorts waiting to be unleashed on any non-believer they encounter on the matter: the atheist is begging the question, missing the point, appealing to conventions, or falling into any number of other pitfalls to which the apologists’ appeal to theism is presumably immune.

The overall strategy driving the presuppositionalists’ use of induction as a debating point and the rationale behind their dismissal of any non-theistic solution to the problem of induction, seem to rest on at least the following central points:
1. David Hume’s conception of induction and his overall skeptical conclusion about induction are to be accepted as soundly drawn (at least with respect to the predicament man finds himself in – cf. #3 below) and must therefore be addressed on Hume’s own terms (as opposed to critiqued and rejected for any faults which may be lurking in its premises). As Anderson puts it: “Hume’s conclusion was that, regrettably, we have no good reason to think that such inductive inferences are justified. The problem of induction, then, is the problem of answering Hume by giving good reasons for thinking that the ‘inductive principle’ (i.e., the principle that future unobserved instances will resemble past observed instances) is true.” (See also the Bahnsen-Tabash Debate.) 
2. Inductive reasoning rests on some general principle of uniformity of space and time. As Anderson puts it: “inductive reasoning will be reliable only if a certain assumption holds, namely, that nature is generally uniform in space and time,” which is equivalent to saying that “induction assumes that the way nature operates tomorrow will be much the same as the way it operated yesterday.” 
3. Human beings, given their epistemic limitations (e.g., fallibility, non-omniscience, finitude, particular-bounded awareness, etc.), are not capable of even knowing (let alone justifying) that principle without appealing to the supernatural. As Anderson puts it: “Knowing directly that nature is uniform across space and time (including the future) is impossible for creatures like us who are so spatiotemporally limited; it would require a divine (or close to divine) epistemic perspective. Knowing it indirectly would thus require dependence on a divine source (i.e., our knowledge of the uniformity of nature would be dependent on God’s knowledge of the uniformity of nature).”
In some version or another, Presuppositionalists deploy these points in their debates with non-believers with the urgency that, if one does not accept theism – indeed, the approved form of theism, he’s stuck with Hume’s skeptical conclusion and thus trapped in an epistemological pickle from which he’ll never be able to escape.

However, if it’s the case that (a) Hume’s conception of induction and his overall argument for inductive skepticism fails to hold up under scrutiny, (b) spatial and temporal considerations are not of primary concern to the validity of inductive reasoning as such (and yet can be solved by addressing more fundamental considerations), and (c) the human mind, in spite of the limitations philosophers hold against it, is in fact fully capable of expanding its awareness beyond the immediate limits of perceptual experience to things beyond the reach of perceptual experience without the need to introduce the notion of supernatural agents, then I would say that this frequently encountered strategy of presuppositionalist apologetics is a doomed apologetic enterprise.

These are three areas that I hope to explore in future entries here on Incinerating Presuppositionalism, to see if any of these planks can hold up under the weight of rational investigation. Readers who have examined my past writings on induction (see here) will probably not be surprised if I find, on yet another pass on the topic, that the presuppositionalist endeavor suffers fatal defects. However, given that this is a topic close to my heart and I see that apologists still apparently think it’s a fruitful means of defending theism, I’m happy to continue my exploration of this fascinating area of inquiry.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson! Looking forward to those future entries.


praestans said...


But theists hold that jujmunt day etc will insue wun day - so the next day mayn't be the same as the day befor...

And evn now in sum plasis in the univurs - tumorros arn't da same as yestrdays - eg at blakhols.

valid points?

Robert Kidd said...

Great installment. I can't wait to see the rest of this series.

Our spatial and temporally limited minds (their view) can't know that the future will be like the past, but these same minds can know and comprehend something that is imperceptible and outside of space and time and then use that knowledge to justify our confidence in induction. Right. That doesn't even pass the smell test.

Robert Kidd