Monday, May 29, 2023

Bahnsen's Poof Revisited... Again

Recently this blog entry received a comment from Jeffrey Jay Lowder (yes, this Jeffery Jay Lowder), one of the original founding members of Internet Infidels (his articles there can be accessed here). It does not seem that Lowder is much associated with Internet Infidels any more, but the site did post an interview with him back in early 2022 (see here), which I have not at this time yet read.

Many years ago (I’m thinking 20-plus years at this point!), Internet Infidels was one of my more frequently-visited sites, though I do not visit very often at all any more. I just haven’t been keeping up, I’m afraid! But as I mentioned in my reply to Lowder’s recent comment here on my blog, I do remember enjoying his debate with an apologist named Phil Fernandes (that is with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’; the debate can be seen in its entirety, with the Q&A session, here). That was back in the video-cassette days. In fact, in my first collection of self-owning statements made by Christian apologists, From the Horse's Mouth: Apologists Shooting Themselves in the Foot, I included the following comment which Fernandes makes in that debate, which I take as a confession on his part:
"I just believe that we are very good about lying to ourselves, and only accepting, uh, or interpreting the evidence the way we would like to."
In his comment, Lowder provided a link to a video on Youtube in which he presents a very detailed analysis of Greg Bahnsen’s opening statement in his famous debate with Gordon Stein (PDF transcript can be found here). I watched the video and encourage readers here to check it out for themselves as well.

I have posted my own interaction with Bahnsen’s opening statement here on Incinerating Presuppositionalism. Back in 2005, in one of my earliest entries on this blog, I concluded that Bahnsen really does not present an argument for the existence of a god in his opening statement. Consequently I call what Bahnsen presents there a “poof” rather than a proof, for Bahnsen does not spell out any distinct steps of an inference from a clearly identifiable starting point to the conclusion “therefore, God exists.” In the comments of that entry several individuals challenged my assessment, prompting me to post a follow-up entry, Bahnsen’s Poof Revisited. Hence, the current post is “Bahnsen’s Poof Revisited… Again.” (I posted on the Bahnsen-Stein debate again in 2014 here.)

In his examination of Bahnsen’s opening statement, Lowder is much more detailed than I have been, at least statistically speaking, and examines not only its final paragraphs, where Bahnsen finally gets around to presenting his case (I use this term loosely), but all 2312 words in that opening statement! Lowder, being much more generous with his attention to Bahnsen’s entire opening statement than I was in 2005, provides the following word count distribution of Bahnsen’s initial presentation (with their respective percentage of the total statement):
1. Introduction - 22 words (0.95%) 
    A. Definitions - 184 words (7.96%) 
    B. Scope - 307 words (13.28%) 
    C. Concession to Stein - 168 words (7.27%) 
2. Opening case for the existence of God - 33 words (1.43%) 
    A. The Nature of Evidence - 375 words (16.22%) 
    B. Presuppositional Conflict of Worldviews - 985 words (42.60 %) 
    C. TAG - 238 words (10.29%)
In my blog entries on Bahnsen’s debate with Stein, I focused on just the very last section – what Lowder’s breakdown shows as the 238 words of section 2, part C.

In his video, Lowder makes the following comment reacting to the relative brevity (paltriness?) which Bahnsen allots to what should be the focus of his opening statement:
Finally, we turn to the third and final subsection C. Section C amounts to a little bit more than ten percent of the total word count in [Bahnsen’s] speech. And yet it is the first and only time in this speech that Bahnsen actually offers an argument for God’s existence. I think this is a really bad move on Bahnsen’s part for two reasons: first, again, at least 90 percent of a debater’s opening statement should be devoted to defending his or her position, with the remaining ten percent or less used for the introduction and conclusion. But as my math shows, Bahnsen managed to do the precise opposite: he devoted roughly 90 percent of his opening statement to introductory remarks, and only ten percent to arguing for God’s existence. The second reason I think this was a really bad move on Bahnsen’s part is due to the nature of Bahnsen’s transcendental argument. When Bahnsen and Stein debated in 1985, I think it’s fair to say that the presuppositionalist approach to apologetics in general, and the transcendental argument for God, or TAG, specifically, were not well known outside of some very tiny Christian circles. It was almost certainly unknown to non-Christians, including atheists. Because TAG is so different from traditional theistic arguments, I think Bahnsen would have been far better off explaining the argument itself and defending it.
Of course, Lowder is not remotely wrong here. Then again, I’ve come to see these theist-atheist debates, for the most part, as a kind of performance art, with more emphasis on rhetorical execution than on presentation of relevant substance. And while Lowder is more generous than I have been in referring to Bahnsen’s statement as actually including an argument, I do take his treatment as confirmation of my overall view that Bahnsen’s opening statement is an enormous missed opportunity. Christians who praise Bahnsen’s performance at this debate are apparently oblivious to the fundamental deficiencies glaringly evident to observers outside presuppositionalist circles, exhibiting the kind of loyalty that sports fans have for their favorite team, regardless of whether they win or lose. John Frame states that “Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein has become something of a legend in our circles,” which is apparently true. In his book Apologetics to the Glory of God, Frame writes glowingly that “Greg Bahnsen utterly bewildered atheist spokesman Gordon Stein in a debate some years ago with his ‘transcendental argument for the existence of God’… Stein was ready for the traditional proofs, but not this one!” (p. 76n. 19). Meanwhile, I stand by the comment I made in 2005 when I wrote in Bahnsen’s Poof: “If Stein lost the debate, it is not because Bahnsen won, but because Stein should have been more vigilant in pointing out his opponent's dishonest tactics.”

But unlike Frame, there are Christians who are not so smitten. Kelly James Clark writes:
I have listened to the tapes (which Frame commends) of the debate between Gregory Bahnsen, presuppositional apologist, and Gordon Stein, defender of atheism. Quite frankly, I found Bahnsen’s arguments precious thin and his approach wearisome – he simply repeated over and over that unbelievers have no grounds for reason and then offered the briefest defense of his view that only Christian theism provides grounds for reason. Van Til, I’m afraid, had a similar awkward tendency to prefer assertion over argument. (Five Views on Apologetics, p. 256)
My observation is that repetition of assertions as well as treatment of rehearsed questions, often regurgitated in rapid-fire succession, as in effect substitutes for argumentation, are not just a fall-back devices for presuppositionalist apologetics, but in fact a significant aspect of its overall strategy. High-profile presuppositionalists like Sye Ten Bruggencate (who, according to this article, has been “permanently disqualified” from activities in the apologetics ministry), prefer public-forum debates, whether on a stage like Bahnsen and Stein, or in video or audio format, because for them presuppositionalism is at root a kind of performance, not an authentic philosophical position that can be defended in carefully developed written form open to close examination and serious scrutiny.

Lowder’s presentation includes a screen quoting the initial paragraph of James Anderson’s blog entry A Selection of Presuppositional Arguments:
One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.
Lowder reacts to this, saying:
I couldn’t have written it or said it better myself. Now, Anderson doesn’t call out Bahnsen by name, and I don’t know if Bahnsen is one of the unnamed presuppositionalists who [sic] Anderson had in mind when he wrote this. But, as my presentation has made clear, Anderson’s comments match my analysis of Bahnsen’s opening statement to a T. In the lead-up to the transcendental argument, Bahnsen beautifully laid out the nature of evidence and the presuppositional nature of conflict between worldviews. Once it was finally time to defend the transcendental argument, Bahnsen didn’t deliver the goods.
So the question at this point is whether this failure to “deliver the goods,” as it were, on the part of presuppositionalists as defenders of the Christian faith, or even on the part of presuppositionalism as a distinct approach to apologetics, is a bug, or in fact a feature. While my many interactions with James Anderson’s writings right here on my blog will testify that Anderson is a cut above the fray in this regard (since he does actually attempt at times to piece together what resemble formal arguments for the existence of a god in written form), the outcomes of those interactions tally up in favor of the view that this failure may in fact really be a feature of presuppositionalism and some of its champions, like Anderson himself, have yet to admit this to themselves. The aim of presuppositionalism seems to be to disarm non-Christians in a debate setting without letting on the fact that no actual argument has been presented in the first place. It is for this reason why I suspect many apologists are impressed with Bahnsen's performance at his debate with Stein.

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

I found something interesting, a philosophical and sociological examination of the presup big names (and some new to me), in a veritable marathon of a video discussion -- nearly 7.5 hours!

Currently watching the Bahnsen section.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for sharing this link, Jason. I noticed that this was in my bookmarks and had watched part of it before, but that must have been a while ago. I doubt I watched the whole thing - 7+ hours is quite an investment with unknown promise of reward. I think I had only watched the section on Van Til. Please let us know if the sections on Bahnsen and others are worth the time, if you make it through yourself that is.

Hope all is going well!


Jason mc said...

I thought you might have come across it before, Dawson. I admittedly skipped most of the Van Til segment. I'll let you know what value I get from the parts I watch. (I'm intrigued to hear their takes on Jeff Durbin, mostly for the socio-psychological examination of that peculiar character and his influence as a church leader, and "Darth Dawkins", as that section features his debate with Graham Oppy, a Australian academic analytic philosopher who seems pretty cool.)

All's fine! I hope you're doing well too.


Jason mc said...

My evaluation of the Greg Bahnsen segment: it's a decent conversation. They comment on one of his recorded short lectures to apologetics students, where he makes his typical baseless grand statements about the impossibility of atheists 'accounting for' logic, cognition, causation, without any indication of any genuine interest in the rich substance of the topics, without a demonstration that his god conjecture gives a modicum of explanatory utility to these fields. It's all about 'winning debates'.

I'd say your blog post effectively covers the same ground.

Jason mc said...

Update: the other parts were amusing. Jeff is a comical figure. The "Dawkins" vs Oppy exchange was a failed attempt to run a script, but Oppy didn't uncritically accept the terms and framing, so that failed. Then DD claimed victory.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Jason,

I haven't been able to listen any more to the commentary you linked to above, but I do have the link and one of these days if/when I get time, I'll try to get to it. I don't think I'm familiar with Jeff Durbin - the name just doesn't ring to me. I have read a few articles by Oppy, but that must have been years ago at this point.

I have an entry posting tomorrow on Frank Turek.

In the meantime, my back is acting up again. I need to lay down!