Sunday, October 25, 2020

Presuppositionalism and Induction: Apologists Courting Hume

As I mentioned in my previous entry, presuppositionalists routinely take Hume’s skeptical conclusion on the reliability of induction for granted, acting as though Hume’s position must be “answered” on Hume’s own terms. 

 Let’s survey a few poignant examples of this. 

 Anyone who is familiar with the Bahnsen-Stein Debate might remember this part:
Bahnsen: Okay, Dr. Stein you made reference to David Hume and his rejection of miracles. Have you also read David Hume and his discussion of induction or more popularly, the uniformity of nature? 
Stein: A long time ago. I can’t recall exactly what he said. I have read David Hume. 
Bahnsen: All right. Were you convinced a long time ago that you had an answer to Hume’s skepticism about induction? (Bahnsen-Stein Debate Transcript)
Hailed by Bahnsen groupies as a shining moment in apologetic history, this exchange in Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein has no doubt left a lasting impression on apologists ever since as one of those silver-bullet strength “Gotcha!” moments every defender of the faith hopes for. That Stein was not familiar with Hume’s argument against inductive reliability (he goes on to state, “I don’t remember what…this is at least fifteen years ago that I read this”) does not faze committed defenders of the Christian faith. On the contrary, it only encourages them. This exchange has served as a model for future encounters with non-believers, ironically trading on the assumption that, since it worked in the past, it will work again in the future.

Unfortunately, this just confirms the suspicion that the presuppositional apologetic method is just another god-of-the-gaps approach to defending theistic faith, for it consists in expressly sniffing out some area of ignorance that can be exploited against non-believers. “How do you answer Hume’s skepticism about induction?” asks the apologist. And we’re all supposed to shrug our shoulders and confess “I have no idea.” And from this confession of ignorance, the apologist proceeds to assert his god-belief as the only possible answer.

Many thinkers, including a long line of professional philosophers, have to one degree or another found themselves stumped by Hume’s doubts about the reliability of induction. How can we puny little mortals have any knowledge about things beyond our own firsthand experience? What justifies pronouncements about things we have no direct awareness of? David Hume was not the first philosopher to be puzzled by this, nor was he the last. In spite of the enormous energy and effort philosophers since Hume’s day have spent on trying to tease out this supposed mystery, it still persists with as much momentum as it had centuries ago in many circles.

This is where apologists smell an opportunity. After all, everyone makes statements of knowledge about things beyond his immediate firsthand experience – e.g., all babies need a loving mother or all cars need a drive train – but who can explain how such knowledge can be justified? If certificated philosophers can’t agree on an answer, certainly the average Joe on the street won’t be able to justify his own knowledge claims! We use knowledge all the time, but we can’t explain it. And if fallible human thinkers can’t figure this out, doesn’t this quandary then signal the need to train our eyes on the supernatural? Or rather, does this not provide theists with a ripe occasion for pointing to their supernaturalism as the source of all solutions?

What has always stood out to me about presuppositionalism’s use of the problem of induction as a debating ploy, is the apologists’ eagerness to appeal to the thought of a philosopher whose worldview they roundly reject. They reject Hume’s empiricism, his views on evil, his moral theory, his rejection of miracles, his pronouncements on religion, etc. But when it comes to induction, Hume was apparently on to something. Presumably the apologists’ thinking is something along the lines of “here’s one of their own who admits he has no answers.” And thus a dichotomy starts to form and ossify, with Hume at one pole and the Christian worldview at the other.

But this analysis begins to ring more and more hollow when we realize that the writings which inform the Christian worldview have nothing informative to offer on the topic of induction itself. One could scour the books of the Christian bible in vain, searching for any informed discussion of how the human mind discovers and validates knowledge about things beyond one’s immediate experience, and only come up empty-handed. Where do the prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the apostle Paul, or even Jesus himself reveal the trappings of this puzzling and persisting mystery?

Michael Martin, in his 1997 paper Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God? also seems to find the presuppositionalists’ fixation on Hume as rather peculiar, writing:
Christian apologists like Bahnsen who appeal to TAG acknowledge their debt to David Hume, the eighteenth century Scottish skeptic, and Bertrand Russell, one of the twentieth century's most famous philosophers. Both thinkers raised skeptical questions about induction. Bahnsen's strategy was to take these seriously and then try to show that belief in the Christian God could dispel them. Unfortunately, he exhibited no awareness of the philosophical arguments that have challenged inductive skepticism in general and Hume's and Russell's versions of it in particular.
I’m reminded of a statement by Greg Welty, himself a Christian apologist of the presuppositionalist bent, made in the relatively insular setting of the Van Til List. Reacting to a comment by another member of the list justifying his general association of materialism with atheism, Welty retorted:
materialism is not 'the consistent testimony of the modern atheist.' Many atheists believe that something more than concrete, material objects exist, and present plenty of arguments for that view. Acting as if they're all materialists makes us look, well, a bit outdated. Sort of like never progressing beyond Hume in our understanding of 'the inductive problem'. (“Re: [Re: [Re: On b) and possibly not-a)]],” 16 Sep 1999)
I suspect that Welty was on to something here, probably aware, like Martin, that David Hume may in fact not be the pinnacle authority on induction. I suspect, however, that Greg Bahnsen put into motion something which has only gained momentum since his debate with Gordon Stein, and a tiny notice like Welty’s will simply never be loud enough to slow it down.

In my initial post in this series, I made reference to James Anderson’s appeals to Hume. Anderson was the moderator of the Van Til List, and has a very close relationship with Welty. Two decades ago, Anderson published his seminal paper on the topic, Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction, which begins by pointing to Hume as an authority on the topic:
The so-called ‘problem of induction’ has proved to be one of the enduring problems of epistemology. Since it was first raised by David Hume in the 18th century, numerous philosophers have grappled with the challenge laid before them by Hume, resulting in some ingenious attempts to solve (or dissolve) the problem.
After providing a brief summary of the problem in question, Anderson states:
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. The need for such an answer is immeasurable, since the majority of scientific research is based on inductive reasoning — not to mention most of our everyday inferences about what to expect in the world.
But rather than recognizing that Hume is essentially a dry well on the issue (indeed, the conclusion that “we have no good reason to think that… inductive inferences are justified” is itself a general statement and thus would have to be a product of induction, the very mechanism which Hume’s conclusion cancels out), apologists like Anderson proceed to treat “answering Hume” as a duty unto itself, as though Hume were an uncontested authority whose final pronouncements must be reckoned with on his own terms. For look what’s at stake if we don’t “answer Hume”!

After cursorily reviewing some hand-picked samples of attempts to answer Hume, Anderson gives us a foretaste of what would pass his own criteria as a “justification” of induction when he writes:
a Person for whom universal a priori knowledge of the very constitution of the universe is attainable (and perhaps even essential) would be an invaluable ally in such an epistemological predicament — especially so if that Person were inclined toward revelation of Himself and His universe. But how high a price are philosophers prepared to pay in order to banish the epistemological terrorism of inductive skepticism?
So, the human mind is incompetent and deficient and thus unable to draw inferences from knowledge of what is observed to knowledge of what is not observed, but it can have knowledge of this “Person” with “universal a priori knowledge” which likewise cannot be observed. How is awareness of this alleged “Person” attainable? My bet is that imagination is the quickest (if not the only) route to it.

As to the question with which Anderson closes his final paragraph, I give some brief thoughts at the end of this post.

That was twenty years ago. And even though David Hume died in 1776, his ghost lives on in the heart of the presuppositionalist. For example, just under a year ago, Anderson published on his blog an entry titled A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument, which itself is an excerpt from an entire book (!) that Anderson has written on Hume. In the excerpt, Anderson points out that “Hume’s answer [to the problem of induction], in effect, is that such knowledge is impossible.” No doubt a thinker who “in effect” tells us to accept as knowledge his conclusion that “knowledge is impossible” is worthy of such devoted study, even an installment in P&R Publishing’s great thinkers series.

But among living presuppositionalists, James Anderson is certainly not alone. It’s instructive also to note how much use Chris Bolt, in his debate with Ben Wallis in August 2010, makes of Hume’s thinking. Bolt’s opening statement is so saturated with references to and quotes of David Hume that one gets the impression that for Bolt, Hume is the uncontested authority on those matters to which he speaks.

Apologist Brian Knapp, a close associate of Bolt’s, contributed a whole chapter discussing the matter, titled “Induction and the Unbeliever,” to Jamin Hubner’s book The Portable Presuppositionalist (an absolute steal at $902.81!). Again, Hume takes center stage in framing the dilemma which “the unbeliever” faces, given his tacit rejection of Christianity’s deity.

Elsewhere a fellow posting under the name of Ted at Credo Courses has compiled a nice sampling of apologetic deployments of Hume-tag in a posted titled David Hume’s Problem of Induction in Debate and on TV. And over at Van Tillian Fire there’s a post cautioning against the tendency of Thomists to treat Hume’s problem of induction as “a mere ‘pseudo-problem’ [which] can be hand-waved away with proper metaphysics.” After all, as apologist Michael Butler reminds us in his TAG vs. TANG, “David Hume has taught us that to say the future will be like the past is to beg the question.”

And yet, while such endorsements of Hume’s conclusion are legion, what I find lacking is an informed awareness of, let alone a penetrating investigation into, the underlying assumptions, or “presuppositions,” which drove Hume to his infamous conclusion. Indeed, to accept Hume’s conclusion is to grant validity to all the premises which support it.

I have long suspected that the presuppositionalists’ preoccupation with the skepticism of Hume et al. stems not so much from intellectual curiosity as it does from psychological resonance. In fact, it seems that it is an overall lack of intellectual curiosity which allows presuppositionalists to satisfy themselves with Hume’s diagnosis of induction (so far they are willing to explore even this) such that they never seem to graduate beyond it (“never progressing beyond Hume,” as Welty puts it). Rather, what apparently holds them captivated with skepticism as such is the implicit underlying assessment about reality and man which Christianity shares with skepticism: this world is inherently chaotic and thus requires consciousness to bring order to it, man’s mind is essentially incompetent and therefore is doomed to failure if left to his own devises, genuine values like truth, love, virtue, etc., are not possible in a world which is at root red in tooth and claw, etc. When it comes to knowledge, man really cannot know anything, and when he claims to know something, he can’t even know how he knows anything (cf. John Frame’s declaration that “we know without knowing how we know”). This fundamental assessment drives one either to retreat into the supernaturalism of Christian mysticism, or to surrender to the crass nihilism of postmodernism and the like.

This of course plays into apologetic expedience. The Christian, seeing skepticism as the inescapable condition of man, finds Hume to be a convenient prop suitable for bamboozling purposes. Without embracing Christianity, Hume’s nightmare skepticism is the only alternative, so the thinking goes. The apologist thus finds Hume to be of great use in the attempt to tap into this base skepticism which all human beings allegedly share. But in fact this is because such skepticism is the believer’s secret starting point for the human condition, and the rest is projection; hence everyone needs to be “converted” and “saved.” In the believer’s view of the world, we all begin in the frothing marinade of abject skepticism and the only out is to be rescued by divine intervention.

From there the apologist attempts to flesh this out by interrogating non-Christians as to how they answer Hume, thus foisting Hume to a position of authority in the godless world of the atheist. Thus the apologist sets up a false dichotomy where Hume handily serves the apologetic aim of providing a ready foil for purposes of advancing an explicitly mystical worldview. All the standard machinery of Christian apologetics thus come into play, whether it’s the god-of-the-gaps, setting deliberate traps (how many folks out there walking around have any inkling of what David Hume might have believed?), splinter dichotomies, stolen concepts, fallacious arguments, and an insistent distraction from matters of genuine philosophical import.

What’s ironic is that Christianity fails to achieve the escape velocity necessary to overcome the gravitational pull of the inherent skepticism of its own starting point. And it always will fail in this effort, for Christianity begins by denouncing and wiping out, starting with a negative, not by recognizing and identifying and thus starting with a positive.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson!

Robert Kidd said...

Wow. I'm only halfway through and already I know this is one I will come back to read again and again. I've read just about every one of your posts.

I am always perplexed when skeptics like Matt Dillahunty claim that the conclusions of a valid and sound deductive argument are certain while those of inductive arguments are only probabilities. I guess it's the analytic-synthetic dichotomy rearing its head.

Robert Kidd

Jason mc said...

Enjoying this series, looking forward to see where it goes.