February 20, 2009

Presuppositionalism

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, The Bible, Worldview tagged , , , , , , at 2:20 pm by Andrew

During the last 20 minutes of last week’s episode of The Atheist Experience — a consistently outstanding show, if you haven’t seen it — a fellow named Matt Slick from CARM (a Christian apologetics website) called in to the show armed with his presuppositional Transcendental Argument for God (“TAG”).

Let’s take a look at the underlying arguments.

Personally, I think Russell and Don did about as well as can be expected for people who were unfamiliar with this very technical argument, particularly coming from Mr. Slick, who has a rehearsed script from which he refuses to deviate. They did significantly better, for example, than “professional debater” Dan Barker from the FFRF did in his atrocious debate with Paul Manata.

Listen to that debate, and you’ll get a sense for the basic structure of the presuppositionalist argument. It goes something like this:

(1) We should compare the ‘atheist worldview’ to the ‘Christian worldview’ to see which is a better starting point.

(2) The ‘atheist worldview’ posits hardcore materialism such that no intangible things exist.

(3) But intangible things do exist; therefore, the atheist worldview is internally inconsistent. Usually, this part of the argument takes the form of either: (a) an assertion that logic exists (as set forth in the TAG); or (b) requests that the atheist explain some largely unresolved problem in philosophy, such as the problem of induction.

(4) When the atheist cannot solve the problem of induction or explain the epistemology of logic in 30 seconds, the presuppositionalist declares an irresolvable conflict within the ‘atheist worldview.’

(5) The presuppositionalist then asserts that the Christian worldview is not internally inconsistent, because (a) it posits that intangible things exist, and (b) it can “explain” anything with the assertion that God did it.

(6) Therefore, Jesus.

That’s it. As you can see, presuppositional apologetics is really more of a debating tactic than an actual argument; I can’t imagine a skeptic actually being convinced by this sort of wordplay. But you can hear in the Barker-Manata debate how it can be effective in catching an atheist off guard.

Upon inspection, virtually every component of the presuppositionalist argument is just dead wrong.

Start with premise (1). First, atheism is not a worldview. Second, the argument creates a false dichotomy whereby the presuppositionalist declares his worldview internally consistent, attacks what he believes to be the atheist’s worldview, and then argues his wins by default.

The simplest way to defuse presuppositionalism, then, would be to say: “I am not an atheist. I believe in the almighty god Zorbleen.” Then, when asked to account for X or explain Y, simply assert that “Oh, Zorbleen does that.” Zorbleen created the universe, made the laws of logic, ensures that nature is consistent, provides for inductive reasoning, whatever. At the end of the day, the presuppositionalist will be left with two assertive worldviews, both of which declare themselves to be internally consistent, and no means of comparing the two. On the other hand, you have to pretend to be an idiot to execute this kind of strategy, and you know the old aphorism about that.

Premise (2) is also false, and it’s probably one of the most basic misconceptions Christian apologists have about atheists. Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, to pick one example, provides for an entirely secular theory of a priori knowledge. Put more simply: when the theist insists that logic (or morality, or whatever) is universal and independent of human experience, one can simply reply: “Sure, it’s inherent in the human brain and a priori to experience. That doesn’t make it magic.” Kantian epistemology also cleanly answers the question of logic’s supposed ‘transcendental’ qualities; it’s one of the categories of the understanding. So what?

Claim (3) is the meat of the discussion and has been discussed at length elsewhere. I think the slipperiest aspect of the claim that a particular intangible thing “exists” is to pin down precisely what the apologist means by the word “exist.” As I set forth on the worldviews page, I think it’s intuitive that “five” exists — but that does not mean that it exists in the same way that five puppies exist or as a kind of Platonic ideal. Any apologist claiming that “logic” exists to a greater extent than “five” exists has the burden of justifying that claim.

Matt Slick does not even attempt to do so. His schtick, when challenged on the objectivity of logic, is to spout of a deliberately illogical stream of nonsense, declare victory, and then invite the atheist to dispute his conclusion — which, Slick argues, means that the atheist must concede the transcendence of logic after all.

Nonsense. Slick’s appeal to performative contradiction doesn’t even prove that logic is absolute; all it shows is that the parties to the debate agree, broadly speaking, that logic governs their discussion. This isn’t even proof of intersubjectivity; after all, it’s not uncommon for two people to share a subjective appreciation for art, or a particular sports team, or what have you. The fact that the Christian and the atheist agree to debate using logic proves nothing more than the agreement itself.

Logic is self-evidently neither “universal” or “transcendent” — and Matt Slick knows this from the way he veers away from the discussion of quantum mechanics in his debates. We have known for more than two centuries that electrons can literally be in two places at once; that they are particles and not-particles at the same time. On that fact alone — let alone modern quantum mechanics — electrons do not obey the laws of logic, and logic is neither “universal” nor “transcendant.” Logic is, as Russell and Don correctly described, a convention to describe how human brains process information. That’s it.

Premise (4) also smuggles in the assumption that ‘I don’t know’ equals ‘It’s not possible.’ But philosophy doesn’t work that way. For example: John Locke argued for an entirely materialist/reductionist epistemology; ideas were, on Locke’s view, the faint residual impressions of leftover empirical observations. Locke recognized that his epistemology lacked a mechanism for induction, but he considered that an unresolved problem, not an unresolvable one.

Now personally, I think Lockean empiricism is all wet as a theory of epistemology. But it’s not self-evidently crazy, and it seems absurd to hold a debater to a higher standard than John Locke.

Finally, it is worth holding the presuppositionalist’s feet to the fire with respect to assertion (5). Christianity emphatically is not consistent with either a universal, transcendant logic or with the uniformity of nature required to validate induction. Here’s why:

a) The trinitarian concept of God violates the law of identity. God the Father is God (A=B). But Jesus is also God (C=B), and the Holy Spirit, too, is also God (D=B). Via the transitive property, then, it is obvious that A=B=C=D, and God the Father is Jesus, both of whom in turn are also the Holy Spirit. Christians, however, almost uniformly have considered this simple application of logic to have been heretical for the past 1800 years. When the apologist asserts that Jesus is not identical to God the Father, he is asserting that A is not A, and hence violating one of the basic laws of logic.

b) Similarly, the Christian worldview is one in which miracles are possible. By definition, then, nature is not uniform, and there is no basis for inductive reasoning.

On all counts, then, I find the presuppositional argument unavailing.

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12 Comments »

  1. “On all counts, then, I find the presuppositional argument unavailing.”

    Very few presuppositionalists would accept the above statement, but anyone who has worked in the field with apologetics knows how true your statement is.

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD
    India

  2. Kris Rhodes said,

    Mostly great points. I disagree with what you said about the implications of quantum physics, though. It looks like you’re saying that in quantum physics, some contradictions are true, and hence quantum physics doesn’t follow logic. Your examples are that electrons can be in more than one place at the same time, and that electrons are both particles and not particles. But there’s no contradiction involved in a thing’s being located in more than one place. (Perhaps you didn’t mean to argue that this is a contradiction, but then, how else is multi-locatability supposed to “break” the laws of logic in some sense?) And in quantum physics, a thing’s being a wave doesn’t contradict its being a particle. In other words, being a wave is not not being a particle. So there’s no contradiction. It’s counterintuitive that something could be a particle and a wave at the same time, but not contradictory. And in any case, most physicists caution that “particle” and “wave” can apply at best only metaphorically or analagously to what’s going on at the quantum level.

    Some people have proposed that quantum physics follows a _different_ logic than classical logic. That brings up a point I once urged on Matt Slick, but which he didn’t respond intelligibly to. If logic is supposed to be “absolute” we need to ask–_which_ logic. There are an infinite number of them to choose from.

  3. Andrew said,

    Kris: electrons literally are and are not particles at the same time, which as far as I know seems to refute the laws of identity and noncontradiction (A=A, and A is not equal to not-A). I agree with you that perhaps the best way to describe that is to say that there are “different” logics, which again would refute premise 3(a).

    Thanks for your input! You might also enjoy the more recent Morality and Kant post, if you haven’t seen it.

  4. Andrew, Kris is right. Our best physics now tells us that something can be both a wave and a particle at the same time. That means that being a wave and a particle are not mutually exclusive. That means that being a wave doesn’t entail not being a particle, and being a particle doesn’t entail not being a wave. There’s no need to revise logic when all you have to do is deny the (now-refuted) premise that wave characteristics can’t be had by particles and particle characteristics can’t be had by waves. Something can be both, and it doesn’t mean it’s not the other. It means that it’s both. There’s simply no contradiction here. You don’t get A and not-A. You get A and B, and you only get the contradiction if A entails not-B or if B entails not-A. But that’s precisely what our best physics denies. It shows that A doesn’t entail not-B, and B doesn’t entail not-A, because it’s found something that has both characteristics.

    On a different matter, I want to state for the record that several philosophers have given accounts of the Trinity that are consistent with standard logic. To take one obvious example, it doesn’t violate logic to say that a use of “is” isn’t the “is” of identity of first-order logic. That avoids the problem without revising logic while still maintaining the orthodox position that the Father is God but the Father is not the Son, even though the Son is the same God. If it’s not the “is’ of identity of first-order logic, it’s illegitimate to make the transitivity move. There are those who revise logic, though, and that would undermine the presuppositionalist argument, but I have no interest in defending such a crazy argument, just in pointing out that the Trinity isn’t necessarily a violation of logic. Accounts have been given by very smart philosophers who know logic very well, and I don’t think it’s obvious at all that the Trinity leads to a real contradiction once you look at the possible ways of handling it.

  5. Andrew said,

    Jeremy, that’s not my understanding of the double-slit experiment, but I am a lawyer and not a physicist. If you want to represent to me that current physics states that electrons are always particles and never not-particles, I will happily accept that representation for the purposes of this argument.

    I think the use of different logics, as Kris suggests above, and you suggest in your answer, refutes the presuppositionalist argument, so again, I have no quarrel with that.

    (To amplify: I am not affirmatively arguing that belief in the Christian trinity violates all logics; I am merely arguing that the trinitarian presuppositionalist engages in self-contradiction.)

  6. Rhology said,

    Just a quick note – Barker had no excuse to have been caught off-guard in his debate with Manata. Doug Wilson mopped the floor with Barker fully 10 years before using the same type of argumentation. Just saying.

  7. Andrew said,

    Rhology: As you’ll see in this post and elsewhere (such as my “Advice For Debating William Lane Craig,” I’m happy to criticize fellow atheists when I think they’ve fallen down on the job, made poor arguments, whatever.

    However, from what I’ve seen of your posts (mostly on ERV and Pharyngula), I’ve never seen you criticize an apologist or concede that an atheist has the upper hand in an argument — even in the comical thrashing that ERV gave a ‘random hobo.’ So, color me skeptical when you concern troll about how badly Barker supposedly did a decade ago.

    For what it’s worth, I would not voluntarily appear in the same room with Paul Manata, let alone subject myself to his obnoxious style of “debate.”

  8. Rhology said,

    I don’t recall posting on Phar, actually, but I’ve been on ERV a bit lately, yes. Had me a good time, actually. Anyway, my cup of tea is less criticising other Christian apologists – there are plenty of bad atheist arguments out there. I have, however, been quite active blogging against bad “Christian” theology, such as Roman Catholicism (see the Beggars All: Reformation blog), the Emergent church, and various heresies like Hyper-Preterism.

    Anyway, don’t take my word for it – the Barker Wilson debate is still available; I commend it to. Wilson argues in a way similar to Manata but with much more humor.

    Peace,
    Rhology

  9. Cameron said,

    This is my response from reading both this thread and Presup part 2:

    1. Particles may appear to be in one place and not in one place at the same time. But even if they were actually and completely in one place and not in one place at the same time, then this actually has nothing to do with the 3 laws of logic. The reason is because phenomenons in nature are only descriptive of how nature is, not prescriptive of how something should be. If electrons behave differently and were always in one place, then that would have no bearing on whether or not nature would still exist (theoretically ). But if the law of identity can violate itself, then you can’t think, hence why it’s prescriptive.

    We require the law of identity to be in tract in order to for you to identify what “being there” and “not being there” is, or what a “particle” is as opposed to what a “particle is not”, for you to even attempt to make your case. You require the law of identity to be in tact to say the law of identity doesn’t need to be in tact (or can be violated).

    Again, if I were to take your reasoning to it’s full conclusion, and we can identify A as non-A, then we couldn’t be logical, thus think. You might make the statement, “Christianity is false”. But because A can be non-A to you, then I have every right to interpret you as saying “Christianity is true”.

    2. Who cares if it’s said that “Atheism isn’t a worldview”. You as a person have a worldview. You have a belief about the way things really are, as opposed to the way things really aren’t, hence there being no God or gods, morality, what the basic components of the universe are, etc. Thus, you have a view of the world. This type of clarification that atheists give is just silly to me.

    3. If Zorbleen is said to be eternal, immutable, omniscient, all good, etc, then anyone would have a rational epistamological starting point to things such as logic and morality. But the question I would ask next is, “where is your revelation of Zorbleen?” The Christian’s special revelation is Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Types of general revelation would simply be accounting for logic and real morality.

    4. I’m not going to argue that strongly from induction because I don’t think it’s the strongest argument. I will say though that the Christian presupposes that God is even more natural then the “natural”. The Christian believes that this finite world is held together by God’s eternal being, thus the natural is evidence of the supernatural, we just don’t think in these terms because we experience constant uniformity. Any non-uniformity is only non-uniform to us because we’re not as familiar with it (miracles), but still uniform to God. If miracles happened all the time, however, then we would begin to consider them to be uniform. With the argument of induction, it’s not so much that you don’t know if nature with behave just as uniform as in the past, but moreso of having a reason to “trust” it will behave as it has in the past. And if God has done miracles in the past, then we would expect Him to be the cause of them again if they were to happen. But again, me saying I trust that God will keep the universe uniform (in accordance to His promises and will) is only begging the question of His existence, hence why I don’t want to get into that type of argument. Just wanted to clarify some things.

    5. You can’t explain the Trinity with logical formulas. If you study the doctrine of the Trinity you wont get very far because you’ll run into a paradox. It is believed that the essence of the oneness of God in contrast to the essence of the 3 persons of God is different yet similar in a way we ants can’t fully grasp. We can come to conclusions of the Trinity, but we can’t really do those conclusions justice because of our ant brains. And as a Christian I’m fine with this because while I believe that the laws of logic are characteristic of the personal and not the impersonal, I believe God’s person is way beyond my own, which I can barely even grasp.

    6. You can’t enforce that in an alternative universe with no minds that 1 + 4 = 5 puppies. This is begging the question. In that universe there are no such things as “puppies” or “1” or “plus”, etc. This is attempting to argue outside of your mind and act neutral to the dilemma, yet you can’t! You can’t think from “nature’s” standpoint. You can only think by use of the laws of logic. You don’t say that the sun isn’t also cold because it isn’t, but only because the laws of logic force you to say it isn’t. All of reality, even all your 5 senses, must be filtered through the laws of logic in order for you to perceive what you believe to be reality. This is what Matt D’s girlfriend or whatever didn’t grasp.

    7. And if you have a hard time with the Trinity accounting for abstract, universal, and transcendent laws, then what IS your foundation after all?

    I would argue the laws must be eternal and come from an eternal mind.

    1. How does the finite and the logic-less bring about absolutes?
    2. How come something be absolute unless it’s eternal?
    3. The laws of logic are relational because they are used for knowledge and communication. Thus, whatever source they come from is most likely personal.
    4. Maybe you you believe there is an eternal personal source but are agnostic about what it is. If so, that is fine. I would call whatever that thing is “God” though.

  10. Cameron said,

    This is my response from reading both this thread and Presup part 2:

    1. Particles may appear to be in one place and not in one place at the same time. But even if they were actually and completely in one place and not in one place at the same time, then this actually has nothing to do with the 3 laws of logic. The reason is because phenomenons in nature are only descriptive of how nature is, not prescriptive of how something should be. If electrons behave differently and were always in one place, then that would have no bearing on whether or not nature would still exist (theoretically ). But if the law of identity can violate itself, then you can’t think, hence why it’s prescriptive.

    We require the law of identity to be in tract in order to for you to identify what “being there” and “not being there” is, or what a “particle” is as opposed to what a “particle is not”, for you to even attempt to make your case. You require the law of identity to be in tact to say the law of identity doesn’t need to be in tact (or can be violated).

    Again, if I were to take your reasoning to it’s full conclusion, and we can identify A as non-A, then we couldn’t be logical, thus think. You might make the statement, “Christianity is false”. But because A can be non-A to you, then I have every right to interpret you as saying “Christianity is true”.

    2. Who cares if it’s said that “Atheism isn’t a worldview”. You as a person have a worldview. You have a belief about the way things really are, as opposed to the way things really aren’t, hence there being no God or gods, morality, what the basic components of the universe are, etc. Thus, you have a view of the world. This type of clarification that atheists give is just silly to me.

    3. If Zorbleen is said to be eternal, immutable, omniscient, all good, etc, then anyone would have a rational epistamological starting point to things such as logic and morality. But the question I would ask next is, “where is your revelation of Zorbleen?” The Christian’s special revelation is Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Types of general revelation would simply be accounting for logic and real morality.

    4. I’m not going to argue that strongly from induction because I don’t think it’s the strongest argument. I will say though that the Christian presupposes that God is even more natural then the “natural”. The Christian believes that this finite world is held together by God’s eternal being, thus the natural is evidence of the supernatural, we just don’t think in these terms because we experience constant uniformity. Any non-uniformity is only non-uniform to us because we’re not as familiar with it (miracles), but still uniform to God. If miracles happened all the time, however, then we would begin to consider them to be uniform. With the argument of induction, it’s not so much that you don’t know if nature with behave just as uniform as in the past, but moreso of having a reason to “trust” it will behave as it has in the past. And if God has done miracles in the past, then we would expect Him to be the cause of them again if they were to happen. But again, me saying I trust that God will keep the universe uniform (in accordance to His promises and will) is only begging the question of His existence, hence why I don’t want to get into that type of argument. Just wanted to clarify some things.

    5. You can’t explain the Trinity with logical formulas. If you study the doctrine of the Trinity you wont get very far because you’ll run into a paradox. It is believed that the essence of the oneness of God in contrast to the essence of the 3 persons of God is different yet similar in a way we ants can’t fully grasp. We can come to conclusions of the Trinity, but we can’t really do those conclusions justice because of our ant brains. And as a Christian I’m fine with this because while I believe that the laws of logic are characteristic of the personal and not the impersonal, I believe God’s person is way beyond my own, which I can barely even grasp.

    6. You can’t enforce that in an alternative universe with no minds that 1 + 4 = 5 puppies. This is begging the question. In that universe there are no such things as “puppies” or “1” or “plus”, etc. This is attempting to argue outside of your mind and act neutral to the dilemma, yet you can’t! You can’t think from “nature’s” standpoint. You can only think by use of the laws of logic. You don’t say that the sun isn’t also cold because it isn’t, but only because the laws of logic force you to say it isn’t. All of reality, even all your 5 senses, must be filtered through the laws of logic in order for you to perceive what you believe to be reality. This is what Matt D’s girlfriend or whatever didn’t grasp.

    7. And if you have a hard time with the Trinity accounting for abstract, universal, and transcendent laws, then what IS your foundation after all?

    I would argue the laws must be eternal and come from an eternal mind.

    1. How does the finite and the logic-less bring about absolutes?
    2. How come something be absolute unless it’s eternal?
    3. The laws of logic are relational because they are used for knowledge and communication. Thus, whatever source they come from is most likely personal.
    4. Maybe you you believe there is an eternal personal source but are agnostic about what it is. If so, that is fine. I would call whatever that thing is “God” though.

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