Friday, May 25, 2012

Presuppositional Apologetics

When I began my independent study on Philosophy of Religion I read very very little on Presuppositional Apologetics. Though I was roughly familiar with the transcendent argument I hardly found it convincing due to the counter-intuitional and often confusing nature of such claims, and the non-presence of such work in Philosophy of Religon today. However a few days ago I did have the pleasure of meeting a presuppositionalist of sorts, and as such it merits a response.

The Argument

The Presuppositionalist argues that everyone must presuppose the existence of God, in order to make the world intelligible. Thus ethics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology all presuppose the existence of God, more specifically, the Triune Christian God. To presuppose any x is to assume the truth of x by it's affirmation or it's denial (It's different then any x entailing y where x assumes the truth of y in it's affirmation but not in denial). So according to the Presuppositionalist when one denies the truth of Christianity one does so only by affirming the truth of Christianity! So we can construct the argument like this:

1. The world is intelligible
2. The world is only intelligible, if Christian Theism is true.
3. Therefore, Christian Theism is true.

Since everyone thinks the world is intelligibility entails Christian Theism. Notice however that in denying Christian Theism one also asserts the intelligibility of the world (that we can know at least some things, there are some objective facts, and so on), thus according to the Pressupositionalist we must assume the truth of this argument.

This argument is logically valid modus ponens, but it hardly appears sound. Premise 1 is clearly true, but why think premise 2 is true? The statement (a) Christian Theism is false and (b) The world is intelligible are not in any way saliently contradictory. So premise 2 is obviously needed in order for the claim that they (a) and (b) are inconsistent. There is as far as I can tell there is one central reason for supposing premise two is true. Namely, Christian Theism is the best way to make sense of the fact that the world is intelligible; because logic, ethics, and so forth all demand a foundation which can only be supplied via Christian Theism. This argument I will claim is entirely unconvincing. By doing so I will confront the issue of logic in isolation. I take it that if one need not presuppose the existence of God in order to affirm the truths of logic, one shouldn't have to presuppose the same for ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and so on. Though of course the existence of God may best explain, be confirmed by, or entail such phenomena such arguments are noticeably different from the one advanced here.

Of course, it would be greatly appreciated if readers comment on ways in which the presuppositionalist argument could be better formed, or other arguments for premise 2--if there are such possibilities.


What We Actually Presuppose 

Since the presuppositionalist demands that logic needs a foundation we might ask why. I suppose that they would say something like this: "You can only justify the use of reason with reason. That is begging the question. We must all beg the question this way, but the only view which makes sense of this is Christian Theism" or they might create a dilemma "Logic is either founded in physical things, social conventions, or the Christian God. Since it isn't physical and they aren't social conventions, Logic's foundation must be the Christian God." Lets take the latter argument first (Which is sounding a bit like the argument from reason, not really a transcendental argument). First, it doesn't seem entirely implausible (though improbable) that facts about logic are really physical facts, however lets grant the point that facts about logic cannot be founded in physical facts. Even so, there is no reason to grant Christian Theism. For Logic might be founded in necessarily existing abstract entities. Thus the state of affairs in which logic obtains occurs necessarily (it could not not occur). There is no possible world in which these state of affairs do not obtain. Hence we can affirm logic, while consistently denying the existence of God. After all this is what theists will say about the existence of God, that her existence occurs necessarily, that she cannot not exist and so on. But at this point the presuppositionalist may yell "no so fast!" and revert to the first criticism. This criticism has two problems, first we should be skeptical of the claim "We must all beg the question this way, but the only view which makes sense of this is Christian Theism." Why think this is true? Why think Christian Theism is the view that best makes sense of Logic? This question will be investigated below. Further though the statement "You can only justify the use of reason with reason. That is begging the question" reveals our actual presupposition, and I think the key for undoing the presuppositionalist argument. For look at these claims:

(4) because of logic you can't beg the question
(5) logic is justified because of logic and
(6) logic is logically unfounded because it begs the question.

First off (5) may very well be false, logic may be justified because it occurs necessarily void of any logical considerations, but lets grant that there is no escape route here. What do (4)--(6) assume? The truths of Logic! Hence Logic is presupposed in affirmation or denial. Thus it is a fundamental presupposition. To make this clear let's investigate this further by introducing a standard question begging argument.

(7) Christian Theism is true if the Bible is true
(8) The Bible is True
(9)Therefore, Christian Theism is true

If you don't like this example pick another one. Essentially the conclusion of this argument is assumed in one of the premises (since at least in this example, the claims Christian Theism is true and the Bible is true are equivalent). This goes wrong because of another thing which is assumed namely logic. We sketch out this arguments invalidity because of logic, and nothing else. Observe (Christian Theism is true=C, Bible is true=B, and Logic obtains=L); The argument for B and C is invalid because L. Compare this statement with the argument which claims logic needs support because it begs the question: The argument for L is invalid because of L. The only way this argument could work would be if the reasons for supporting logic beg the question, but in order for an argument to beg the question logic must obtain. The denial of L assumes the truth of L! Thus one asserts the truth of Logic by assertion and denial.

Yes, of course the presuppositionalist might reply, but logic still presupposes God. But how can one presupposition presuppose another? For it's not that logic entails God, it's that logic presupposes God. This seems incoherent, even if it isn't how could we know? For since the truth of logic itself is presupposed in discourse, how could it be dependent on God's existence? If God didn't exist could we couldn't say logic wouldn't exist, because we must presuppose logic! Thus we have a problem of incoherence, and epistemology. This objection appears to damn the presuppositionalist's argument.

Why Presuppose Christian Theism?

Even if what I said earlier is false there seems to be little reason to suppose we ought presuppose Christian Theism over other alternatives. Why not Islam, Mormonism, or Buddhism? Or better why not presuppose "the ultimate foundation being" which is an impersonal, amoral being which is the foundation of all things. Or perhaps, a set of beings or entities which together found logic? Christian Theism hardly seems to have the upper hand against these alternatives, and due to atheological arguments it may very well have a lower one. Surely we ought to have reasons for preferring Christian Theism over what could very well be an infinite number of alternatives capable of grounding the intelligibility of the universe.

On the Fear of  Pleasing the Unbeliever 

As such I am inclined to pronounce the presuppositional apologetic strategy, as formulated, a complete failure. In closing I would like to ponder whether the strategy is reasonably motivated by theology. Here is a quote from presuppositionalist John Frame in response to the charge that presuppositionalism begs the question:

"God created our minds to think within the Christian circle: hearing God’s Word obediently and interpreting our experience by means of that Word. That is the only legitimate way to think, and we cannot abandon it to please the unbeliever. A good psychologist will not abandon reality as he perceives it to communicate with a delusional patient; so must it be with apologists."

The argument here is that using neutral standards such as reason and evidence (Natural Theology, the approaches of Swinburne, William Lane Craig etc.) surrenders the ground to the unbeliever whose whole standards of reason and evidence depends on the presupposition of the Christian God. But as we saw earlier there is no need to do such a thing, further what we presuppose are standards of evidence and reason! So we (the apologist, philosopher, naturalist, skeptic, whatever) are like psychologists who argue with other psychologists by accepting common standards of reason and evidence, not like the some psychologists attempting to communicate with some deluded patient. As such this fear of pleasing the unbeliever is unfounded, for despite Frame's words, his life testifies to the fact that  he is already pleasing many unbelievers. Thus it would seem as though Presuppositional Apologetics is not only a philosophical failure, but a theological one as well.


  1. Thanks for the post. I have a few comments based on the first section, and will come back to respond more later.

    1. I would want to be sure you are understanding that the argument is that the Triune God is a necessary precondition to intelligibility. Also, that he is proven to be so by the impossibility of the contrary. It is not that people ought to believe in him to retain their reason, but that everyone actually does presuppose him. As Van Till says, you have to sit in his lap in order to slap him in the face. The only court you can bring him up before is his own, as he is the standard.

    I am off to eat a few BLT's right now, but I will try to show the impossibility of the contrary later. Everything in its order.

    1. How prompt! It seems as though that what you mean by impossibility of the contrary is synonymous with how I defined what it means to presuppose any x, namely that you assert it's truth even in it's denial (which of course is nonsense--hence the impossibility of the contrary). The analogy is helpful.

  2. Sorry for the delay in responding. It is not due to a lack of interest or desire.

    I am not sure I have a lot of time, so let me bite off another small chunk in responding to your post. My goal will be to show the impossibility of the contrary over several posts. I am happy to hear your response or correction of my reading of you at any point.

    You say, "Logic might be founded in necessarily existing abstract entities." I find this to be a puzzling move. I find it puzzling because I don't know what you are talking about when you say "abstract entities." What are these necessarily existing abstract entities? What could they possibly be? By calling them entities, I take it you are saying they have some kind of real existence. By saying they are abstract, I take it you are saying they are not persons, but something else, perhaps something like Plato's ideals.

    If I am rightly understanding you, I am curious how these abstract entities communicate this logic to us. As non-personal, they would seemingly be incapable of communicating to us. How did their logic get into our brains? What is the connection between our use of reason, and these entities?

    Can we trust these entities? Should we? What reasons could we give for conforming ourselves to these abstract entities?

    1. Thanks for the discussion, I think it has helped sharpen one another argument at least a little.
      When I say logic would be abstract I mean they are the things which don't causally affect other things (they also aren't physical or mental). For example; numbers (if they exist) will be abstract, for they don't cause anything.

      Now there are various ways they might interact with the world, and there are various suggested ways in which we might come to know about the world. For example perhaps persons have the capability to know logical truths via metaphysical necessity. It simply could not be otherwise. There is no possible world where natural properties x will not conform to logical principles. Be that in causation, epistemology ect. One might be dissatisfied with this account because it seems to "lucky" or much to much like a brute fact. However saying that logic is grounded in God will imply similar metaphysical necessity. We might ask why there is a connection between logical properties and our natural world. The answer would eventually be that it couldn't be otherwise, because God's nature couldn't be otherwise.

  3. I am eager to hear if I am understanding you in my last post, and to hear your response. In the mean time, I will keep chipping away and respond to a bit more of your post.

    I think you have misunderstood the presuppositionalist argument in the section "what we actually presuppose." (likely because I have not presented it clearly enough yet.) My point is not that logic begs the question and therefore cuts off its own legs. That is to say, I do not wish to make point 6 above. I would only make point 4 in a qualified way because I believe that logic demands question begging at the point of ultimate authority. I think it is good logic to beg the question at the bottom of your worldview, and furthermore, I think it is unavoidable.

    I agree with your conclusion that we affirm logic both in our affirmation and in our denial of it. I do not deny logic. I think logic makes a great servant, but a bad master. So let me move on to your anticipated objections.

    You ask: "how can one presupposition presuppose another?" Much in the same way that walking presupposes standing on your feet, which presupposes a ground beneath them.

    You say "For it's not that God entails logic, it's that God presupposes logic."

    I am not sure if you are summarizing me here or making an argument. It seems you are summarizing me, since you go on to say that the idea is incoherent. If you are summarizing me, I have not made myself clear in this regard because I believe that logic presupposes God, not the other way around.

    Then things get really interesting, but I may need more clarification. You say "For since the truth of logic itself is presupposed in discourse, how could it be dependent on God's existence? If God didn't exist could we couldn't say Logic wouldn't exist, because we must presuppose logic! Thus we have a problem of incoherence, and epistemology. This objection appears to damn the presuppositionalist's argument."

    I agree that the truth of logic is presupposed in discourse. If God didn't exist we could not make an argument, because there would be no order to the universe, there would be no order to our minds, there would be no universal to appeal to in order to try to persuade each other. I may have misunderstood this last point, and if so, please correct me. However, I will try to make my point further about reason.

    If reason is grassroots (made up by people), then it has no authority other than what people agree to give it. Therefore, reason is not an absolute, but a relative good. It cannot ever persuade someone who doesn't instinctually see the merits of it. It would therefore make a poor foundation for a worldview, and would not seem to conform with the way we expect reason to be normative for all people.

    I argued in my previous post (or at least raised some challenges that I don't think can be answered) about the possibility of grounding reason in an abstract entity. We can talk more about that one.

    I also don't think other views of God present an adequate grounding for logic. I am considering the fact lately that all religions can either be categorized as some form of monism, or as Abrahamic. This helps to simplify things a bit.

    Monistic religions deny the law of contradiction by collapsing x and not x into one thing, thus rendering it an illogical system.

    That gets us down to logic presupposing the God of Abraham: Yahweh, and I am also considering some arguments about the necessity of the Triune view of God for logic, but I don't think I am ready to bust those out yet.

    I look forward to being sharpened by your response.

    1. It is at this point unclear to me how your argument actually goes, could you formulate for me? That would be quite helpful. Sometimes it appears to me you are running some sort transcendent argument (What I labeled the first argument and spent most of my time rebutting) at other points the argument is slightly different. Such as in this most recent post when you appear to be making something like this claim:

      1. Logic is either grounded in human convention or God or abstract entities (and so on)
      2. Logic isn't grounded in human convention or abstract entities (and so on)
      3. Therefore it follows that Logic is grounded in God, from which it will follow that God exists

      Now I have some suspicions as to whether this is what is usually called the presuppositionalist argument, but that is a minor detail. This argument will escape the main argument in the section what "we actually presuppose", but I think we are wrong in ruling out options like abstract entities, physical things, and maybe even a few more.

      Also your quite correct, I made a mistake in saying "For it's not that God entails logic, it's that God presupposes logic" I should have reversed logic and God, I will correct the post.

      When you say "If God didn't exist we could not make an argument, because there would be no order to the universe, there would be no order to our minds, there would be no universal to appeal to in order to try to persuade each other." You did indeed miss the point ;) for we can't reasonably talk about what the world would be like if there were no logic because of how we presuppose logic. Thus the epistemological issue, we can't possibly know what the world would be like without the law of logic because in order to conceive of that world we have to presuppose logic, thereby affirming it's truth. This is where the walking, feet, ground analogy breakdown, because those things are contingent (they can be the case or not be the case)but it is the case the logic is true necessarily. By questioning logic, we must presuppose logic--that was what I attempted to argue in "what we actually presuppose." It appears as though you agree with this point.

      So I think it would be best if you formulated what exactly you are arguing and we can go from there, not just the conclusion, but how you arrive at the conclusion.

  4. Thanks for the response.
    Here is my argument.

    1. The existence of Yahweh is a necessary precondition for reason, morality, and meaning.
    2. Therefore, any argument (which necessarily uses reason, and assumes morality and meaning) against Yahweh necessarily presupposes him, which renders it a self-defeating argument.

    I go on to support premise 1 by arguing for the impossibility of the contrary. That is, there is no other way to support reason (among other things) than grounding it in Yahweh. This is why I spend time examining other attempts at establishing reason. I would be happy to further explore that part of the argument, since you seem to express some doubts about my claim at that point.

    One further thing to note, presuppositionalism (P) is not to be equated completely with the transcendental argument (TA). P is an approach to philosophy and apologetics which presupposes Yahweh and argues at the point of presuppositions. The TA is a key part of this approach, but P is bigger than TA.

    1. Perhaps you could formulate precisely how reason is grounded in God. How do we know about reason? Why think if God doesn't exist that logic wouldn't exist? How does God succeed in being a necessary precondition against other options of grounding reason, morality, and meaning? What sufficient conditions are there for being a necessary precondition for reason, morality, and meaning (in other words what is enough, or what conditions must be met in order for God to fully presuppose reason and so on). Answering these questions would help me not straw man you!