I recently had a random encounter with a proponent of Christian presuppositionalism, over on the Premier Christian Radio forums. Presuppositionalism is a pretty odd position: not content with pointing out the evidence in favour of Christianity, as most Christians do, the presuppositionalist apparently reckons that unless you presuppose the existence of the Christian God, you can’t possibly make any sense of the world at all. The original thread the discussion was on got very convoluted (not helped by Ning‘s limit on thread nesting depth: if you ever want to start a social network, don’t use Ning, it’s crap). I started another one over here. My initial posting is below, for my reference and also because I’d like to know what you guys think of it. I’m an amateur philosopher, but I know there are some pros reading. Here’s what I said:
I’d like to clear the decks a bit rather than arguing in circles. I’m kind of new to presuppostionalism. I used to be a reformed evangelical, but more of an evidentialist (now I’m an atheist, as you might have gathered). Here’s what I’ve managed to glean so far:
Presuppositionalism (as advocated by Sye, at least) seems to be the position that it is necessary to presuppose that the Christian God exists in order to make any sense of the world at all. On this view, the Christian God is the only possible explanation for various stuff which we need for the world to make sense, like logic, mathematics, and our apparent ability to reason from specific cases to general cases (“all the copper we’ve seen conducts electricity, so all copper conducts electricity”). (This sort of reasoning is usually referred to by philosophers of science as “induction”, but note that it’s not the same thing as “proof by induction” technique you may have learned in maths lessons). I’ll refer to these things as “logic and stuff”.
<lj-cut text=”Now read on…”> The method of attack used by the presups (I’m now going to start using this abbreviation to save me from RSI) is to present the only possible alternatives as Christianity (of the reformed, inerrantist sort: liberals presumably need not apply) and radical scepticism, the belief that knowledge is impossible. You can see this method at work on the previous thread here, and in Sye’s responses to Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher. This is a bold claim: not only is the Christian God an explanation for logic and stuff, but it’s the only possible one.
Sye himself doesn’t appear to have an argument that Christianity is the only possible explanation. On Law’s blog, he asserted something called “the impossibility of the contrary”, but never made an argument in detail that the contrary is in fact impossible. Instead, his tactic is to attack whatever other possible position his opponent prefers, or, if his opponent won’t commit to a single preferred position, to attack them on the basis that they are using logic and stuff without sufficient grounds to believe that it produces true results.
David Snoke, a Christian professor of physics, has written a critique of presup from a reformed Christian perspective. It’s an interesting article: Snoke also goes into the history of presup ideas and various schools of thought within presup. I’m guessing Sye is more taken with Cornelius van Til than with Alvin Plantinga.
Of course, as I don’t possess the Holy Spirit, I’m unqualified to judge Snoke’s Biblical arguments. Instead, here are a few problems I see with presup:
1. Presups have not established the impossibility of the contrary. If presups were merely to claim that the contrary was unlikely, it might be possible to make an argument if presups could defeat all other known possibilities, but an argument to establish impossibility requires ruling out unknown possibilities as well.
2. Presup does not in fact remove the problems of knowledge that it claims to, so not only doesn’t establish itself as the only way to avoid radical scepticism, but doesn’t establish itself as a valid way to do so. Examples:
2a. Presups claim knowledge from God by revelation, but have not accounted for disagreements among Christians. Presups claim that the presup position itself is a revelation from God, but it seems God has not given this revelation to Christians like Snoke (and Richard Morgan, in the other thread). A presup might claim that God gives different revelations to different Christians, but this seems to further undermine their position (see below).
2b. Presups claim that non-Christians actually know the Christian God exists but suppress this knowledge. (Other Christians, for example, Richard Morgan and Karal (whose replies seem to have disappeared), disagree, another instance of problem 2a). While it’s possible for people to be deluded, presups have not explained how a mere mortal could shut out the revelation of an omnipotent being. Why not, as Carrier says, expect that “Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.”?
2c. Presups claim that non-Christians have no grounds to trust the evidence of their senses, memory or reasoning, but this is also true of presups. Whether the presup claim is that God’s reveals himself to their senses (by reading the Bible, say) or directly into their minds, someone with control of the Christian’s senses or with the inner workings of their mind could still deceive them (for example, by making what are apparently revelations from God). In this, the Christian is no better off than the non-Christian. Worse, even if God exists, according to Christians, humans cannot understand all his motives. Though he is generally in favour of truth, God might give a false revelation if it served his own purposes, just as God apparently allows suffering for some greater purpose despite being generally in favour of relieving suffering. So the presup cannot have absolute confidence in the truth of revelation even if it comes from God.
2d. Preups claim that the Christian God makes induction work, but I’m not quite clear what the actual claim is here. Do they claim to have a solution to the New Riddle of Induction, for example?
3. Presups claim that the Christian God is the only possible explanation. There does not seem to be a good reason why other sorts of God would not do.
3a. Sye mentioned that Allah will not do because the Quran contradicts itself. Yet he also claims that non-Christians cannot interpret the Bible correctly. If this is a legitimate move, surely a Muslim could claim that a non-Muslim could not interpret the Quran correctly (they might even add “How do you like your argument now?”) In fact, Sye’s reference to the contents of the Quran seems to be an evidential objection to Islam, not a presup one at all (but I won’t grass him up to the Presup Doctrinal Rectitude Council if he doesn’t want me too).
4. Worse, it’s not clear that some atheistic views won’t do as well as presup. In the other thread, I suggested Platonism, the view that logic and stuff exists necessarily and non-physically, and that this stuff governs the universe, and is perceptible to humans either because humans have some faculty that allows them to perceive it, or because humans evolved in a universe so governed (the second of these is probably weaker, but it’s a line of retreat in case the perceptual argument doesn’t work).
4a. Sye asks whether logic and stuff reveals itself, on this view, or whether humans perceive it autonomously. On Platonism, I take it the latter is true, because logic and stuff is impersonal, not a personal God. This seems to remove part of objection 2c, namely, that God might chose to deceive us, since impersonal stuff cannot chose anything. It also does well against the equivalent of options 2a and 2b, since if perception of logic and stuff is a human faculty, it may be weaker or non-existent in some people, and logic and stuff cannot be said to have chosen to allow this to happen.
4b. Sye asks for an example of such perceptions. I’d say that the truth of modus ponens is something we can just see to be true, and on Platonism, we just see it using this faculty.
To sum up, presup seems a vain attempt to avoid the problem that every theory of knowledge has to start somewhere (or be circular or infinitely recursive, I suppose) by grounding the starting point in God. However, I think I have more confidence that, say, logic “works” than we do in why. I drive my car without knowing what’s under the bonnet, and, unless there’s a Cartesian daemon deluding my senses, it apparently still gets me from A to B. I might claim that it runs on petrol (gasoline) or on batteries or on some as yet unknown technology, Sye might claim it runs on God. Yet the world is as it is: my car runs on something, and if it isn’t God, it’s something else.