Showing posts with label presuppositionalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label presuppositionalism. Show all posts

The Failure of Van Tillian Presuppositional Apologetics

Guest Essay Written by Cat_Lord:


Throughout the course of Christian history, there have been many and various attempts to argue for the truth of Christianity. In this post, I will discuss one popular form of apologetic argumentation named presuppositionalism. The main points I want to write about are what this apologetic is as it relates to Cornelius Van Til, its relationship to what are called “transcendental  arguments” in the philosophical literature,  give examples of how presuppositionalists often proceed with their argumentation, and finally point out some problems with this apologetic.

A Pragmatic Approach to Evangelicals, Calvinists, and Presuppositionalists

There are various perspectives among people who criticize religion. 1) There are critiques of religion coming from within each one of them over specific doctrines; 2) There are critiques coming from former believers of a specific religion; 3) There are deistic critiques of all "revealed" religions, 4) There are agnostic critiques of all metaphysical claims; 5) There are atheist critiques of all religion, and with it faith itself.

My present perspective is represented by (2) and (5). But I have embraced all five of them in my intellectual journey from believer to atheist. So, being the pragmatist that I am, let me introduce just a few selected Christian works on biblical issues that should shake most evangelicals, Calvinists, and presuppositionalists to the core, representative of (1) above.

Does "Walking" exist, Dusman?

Here's a quick response a section in a recent post by "Dusman", in which we find Dusman, a reducing philosophical materialists to absurdities via the magic of presuppositional apologetics.

Dusman advances the following argument:

Argument One:

1. Material things are extended in space.
2. Logical laws are not extended in space.
3. Therefore, logical laws are non-material.
4. Materialism posits that non-material entities do not exist.
5. Therefore, logical laws do not exist.

Just thinking about that, I wonder if Dusman thinks the activity of "walking" is a materialist absurdity:

The "Walking" Corollary:

1. Material things (like legs) are extended in space.
2. "Walking" is not extended in space.
3. Therefore, "walking" is non-material.
4. Materialism posits that non-material entities do not exist.
5. Therefore, for the materialist, "walking" does not exist.

If you've spent any time wading into the rhetorical devices of presuppositional apologetics, you'll anticipate that Dusman might just want to assert that materialist really don't have any basis for believing in "walking" or any similarly derived concept.

Walking, as a concept, has physical infrastructure -- the brain-state(s) that reify the concept in the mind -- and is thus perfectly "real" and extant as a physical entity, but the subject of the concept is abstract.

Logic, like the activity of walking, isn't a physical entity beyond the electro-chemical patterns of the brain that holds the concept. And logic, like walking, is descriptive of natural properties and phenomena. Both are useful abstractions for understanding and describing the world around us, but they are abstract beyond their physical housing as brain-states. When I get out of my chair and walk across the room, I have not created a "walking" when I get out of my chair and walk across the room, nor destroyed a "walking" when I sit down again. The concept in both cases -- "walking" and logical principles -- is just that: conceptual, and thus real and extant in the form of brain-states. The referents of the concepts are real and existent in the straightforward sense; legs are "extended objects" in space/time, and "walking" is an abstraction about the patterns of movement and activity of the legs.

I don't know who the philosophical materialists are that Dusman can get to take him seriously with the argument he presents, let alone find themselves reduced to absurdities, but whoever they are, they aren't philosophically anything much at all, if they are, in fact, actual in the first place. In any case, all the materialist needs to do is show that "walking" doesn't exist under the terms of Dusman's argument, which winds up making Dusman dealing with the absurdities, not the materialist. Does Dusman believe the materialist thinks "walking" doesn't exist, or must disbelieve in walking as a materialist? It's as if the concept of abstraction itself has somehow eluded him, or that he supposes that the concept of abstraction somehow necessarily eludes the materialist.

In any case it's too bad Dusman doesn't make himself available to actual responses to his arguments, to see who is really trafficking in absurdities.

What say you, materialists? Does "walking" exist? Has Dusman removed that from our cognitive reach along with logic?

Christian Presuppositionalism - A General Response

I'm sure most of our readers are familiar with the style of apologetics known as Christian Presuppositionalism (CPS). In general, it argues against all other worldviews via reductio, or internal critique. One of the favorite sorts of positive arguments that CPS employ are the Transcendental Arguments for God's Existence (TAG) [also see here]. These all run along the same lines (If X, then God):
i) God is a precondition for X
ii) X exists
iii) Therefore, God exists
(X = logic, uniformity of nature, induction, morality, mathematical truths, universals...)
My student freethought group, AAFSA at UF, enjoys a hell of a faculty advisor -- a philosopher who specializes in religion and metaphysics. Prof. D. Gene Witmer (from Rutgers Phil Dept.!) is a pretty well-known guy in the world of physicalism (so far as I can tell from his numerous citations in academic works on the subject), and he teaches a phil of religion course every year, PHI 3700.

I attended a PhilSoc meeting in March where Prof. Witmer discussed the problem of evil, after which I asked him how he would respond to Van Tillian Presuppositionalists (from C. Van Til) on the PoE. He seemed taken aback, and had no idea what in the hell I was talking about. I later came to find out that this is because the CPS ideas are basically absent from awareness in academic circles (at least at secular universities). Following this, we exchanged quite a few emails discussing CPS, and I suppose I piqued his interest into the arguments and methods employed by CPS's.

On Sept. 26, I asked Prof. Witmer if he would talk to our group, and we discussed possible topics a bit before he decided to talk about CPS at our meeting 9. I have now made the abstract of the talk, and the full-text (.pdf) of his presentation available online. Please download and feel free to comment on his arguments and major points. I especially enjoyed his presentation of a "conditional PoE", wherein he argues that either there are moral facts or there aren't, but either way, the PoE shows that God does not exist.

Download the .pdf HERE.

Presuppositionalism: Arguments 4, Supports 0


In this brief post, I will address four arguments made by presuppositionalists. I will contend, that all four are left unsupported by the proponents of this argument.

Argument One

Greg Bahnsen writes, "In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary."

Bahnsen believes there are only two worldviews, the Christian worldview and the non-Christian worldview. He believes that the Christian worldview can be proven true because all other worldviews are contradictory and cannot make sense of logic, science, or ethics. He writes, "It is the Christian's contention that all non-Christian worldviews are beset with internal contradictions, as well as with beliefs which do not render logic, science or ethics intelligible."

Bahnsen believes that only one of these "two" worldviews (i.e. the Christian worldview or the non-Christian worldview) can be "intellectually justified." He writes, "Whose perspective is intellectually justified, the Christian's or the non-Christian's?" (emphasis added) Going back to his contention that the Christian worldview is correct because of the impossibility of the contrary, we can formalize this argument in a disjunctive syllogism.

Q v P

So that, "The Christian worldview is true or the non-Christian worldview is true. The non-Christian worldview is not true, therefore the Christian worldview is true."

Given the premises, the argument is valid. It is up to the person making the "contention," however, to support the premises.

First, then, one must support the claim that the first premise is correct. It must be shown that only one worldview can be true and the other false.

This premise could be easily established if the Christian worldview merely stated that all other worldviews are false. If this was the Christian worldview, then if another worldview could be true alongside of the Christian worldview, the Christian worldview would then be false and the first premise would hold.

So, easy enough, right? Just show that the Christian worldview states that it and only it is the true worldview.

But how is this proven? By reference to the Christian Bible? Well, that assumes (1) that the Christian Bible is a unified body of literature that says only one thing about this subject, and (2) that the Christian worldview is beholden to the Bible in the first place for definition of its worldview.

The first assumption may be easily proven. I can't think of any support off hand for the idea that the Christian Bible is anything but hostile to other worldviews (except, perhaps, Jesus' statement in Luke 9:50 ". . .for whoever is not against you is for you." but this is questionable, at best).

The second assumption, however, is not so easily demonstrated. How can it be proven that the Christian worldview is beholden to the Bible for its definition of its worldview. Many people who claim to be Christians do not believe this. They believe that they receive messages from God that tell them how to live. Others believe that the Bible is simply a human record of God's interactions with humanity and that their own interactions with God shape their worldview, not the recorded interactions of others long ago.

Must an unbeliever choose sides in this internal debate? When the presuppositionalist tells us that only one worldview can be true, must we believe them and disbelieve others who also say they are Christians but who claim that more than one worldview can be true at the same time?

This dispute may be a little easier to resolve between certain atheists and Christian theists. Most atheists believe the Christian God does not, and never did, exist. If an atheist has a materialist/naturalist/physicalist worldview, part of which says the Christian God does not, and never did, exist, one can justify the first premise of this disjunctive syllogism by reference to theistic beliefs.

The second premise of this argument, however, is that it is not the case that any non-Christian worldview is true. This is more difficult to support.

As I see it, presuppositionalists use three arguments to support their assertion that all non-Christian worldviews are not true.

Argument Two

Presuppositionalists use the transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG). Bahnsen writes that if "predication, reason, explanation, interpretation, learning, certainty, universals, possibility, cause, substance, being, or purpose, counting, coherence, unity, or system in experience or in a conception of a 'universe,' logic, individuating of facts, unchanging 'natures' or laws in a chance universe, uniformity, science, connecting logic and facts or predication to reality, avoiding contradictions, avoiding the irrationalism or scepticism which arise from the tension between knowing discursively and knowing-asystematic, etc," are possible, then God exists. These are possible; therefore God exists.

Or, formally:

<> P-->Q
<> P

Though, I think the second premise of this might be harder to justify than many presuppositionalists admit (these are some pretty weighty philosophical questions), I want to concentrate on the justification of the first premise.

How does the presuppositionalist support the assertion that the existence of any of the concepts mentioned above necessitates the existence of the Christian God?

The only thing I've seen from presuppositionalists is a slight-of-hand trick. Instead of justifying their own assertion, they demand that their opponent prove it wrong. Instead of supporting their assertion, they ask something like, "Show me how universal laws of logic (or any of the other concepts listed above) can exist in the non-Christian worldview?"

This, however, is not a support of their assertion. It is, instead, the introduction of a new argument. It is an implied argument, that I haven't seen explicitly stated, but it is present in almost every presuppositionalist argument I am aware of.

Argument Three

This implied argument can be stated formally.


E = the predication "cannot account for everything that exists"
T = true
n = all non-Christian worldviews

So that,


Verbally, this implied argument states, "For any worldview, if that worldview cannot account for everything that exists, then that worldview is not true. All non-Christian worldviews cannot account for everything that exists, therefore all non-Christian worldviews are not true."

The first premise of this may well be true enough. One would think that a "true" worldview could account for everything that exists.

It is the second premise, however, that the presuppositionalists must support. How do they do that? How do they show that all non-Christian worldviews do not account for everything that exists?

To actually "prove" this, the presuppositionalists would have to prove a non-tautological universal negative. They would have to demonstrate that no existing or possible non-Christian worldview can account for everything that exists.

I would be very interested to hear support for this one. I, personally, don't think it would be possible.

At this point, though, the presuppositionalists that I am aware of pull another trick. They form a new argument that they would never voice, but quietly assume.

Argument Four

This new argument goes like this--

P1: If a non-Christian debate opponent cannot account for all that exists in terms of his or her worldview, then that non-Christian worldview is not true.

P2: This non-Christian debate opponent cannot account for all that exists in terms of his or her worldview.

C: Therefore that non-Christian worldview is not true.

Here, P1 must be justified. How is it the case that a worldview is not true just because a particular proponent of that worldview cannot account for everything that exists? The non-Christian opponent's ignorance does not invalidate the worldview he or she may hold to. There might be a way to account for those concepts that the non-Christian debate opponent is simply unaware of.

To hold this argument is to hold an ad hominem fallacy. It says that a person's belief is not true because of the person's inability to demonstrate it. [An equivalent argument would be, "My old pastor couldn't justify the existence of evil in the universe given an all-wise, all-powerful, benevolent, free God. Therefore, there is no way to justify this reality."]


This is the lack of support and trickery that I have observed in presuppositionalists.

First, they cannot, in every case, justify their claim that only one worldview can be true. In cases where they can justify that claim (as mentioned above), they cannot support the claim that all non-Christian worldviews are not true.

Second, in the argument that is meant to support the claim that all non-Christian worldviews are not true (i.e. TAG), they cannot support their first premise that the existence of logic (and the other list of concepts above) demands the existence of the Christian God.

Third, in an attempt to support the claim that all non-Christian worldviews are not true, they adopt an argument that states that a worldview that cannot explain everything that exists is not true. While this may well be the case, they cannot support the second premise of that argument that all non-Christian worldviews cannot account for everything that exists.

Fourth, in attempting to support the premise that all non-Christian worldviews cannot account for everything that exists, they assume an argument that states that if "a non-Christian debate opponent cannot account for all that exists in terms of his or her worldview, then that non-Christian worldview is not true." This argument, however, commits a fallacy (i.e. ad hominem).

We see, then, that the presuppositionalist argument is smoke and mirrors. It has been successful in the past because it takes the presuppositionalists' opponents by surprise. If the argument has proven anything, it proves that there are some tough questions in philosophy.

The presuppositionalist thinks that s/he can easily answer any of the difficulties of justifying basic beliefs. The word "God" is invoked like some kind of magical, cure-all elixir. As a team-member here similarly stated, Why is the sky blue? God. Why are bumble-bees yellow and black? God. Why do babies die? God. How can I prove there are other minds? God. How did the universe get here? God. How can a universal exist? God.

That word just fills every gap. You can squeeze it anywhere. The presuppositionalists have a ready answer for problems in philosophy. It's "God."

"What does that mean, though? Define God for me."

"God is powerful."

"Powerful like a truck?"

"No, powerful in a way that you have never experienced. Powerful in a way that you cannot imagine."

"Then what does this tell me about your God?"

"God is benevolent."

"You mean benevolent like volunteers for Doctors without Borders? He heals everyone he can?"

"No, God has actually ordered people to kill children and infants, donkeys and cattle. He is 'benevolent' in a way beyond your understanding."

"Then what does this tell me about your God?"

". . ."

Gees, that word "God" is a convenient bugger though, isn't it? You don't even have to define it intelligbly and you can use it to explain any problem in the world!

Come on, presuppositionalists! There is a reason that your view is ignored by so many. The argument is so full of holes, Swiss cheese is jealous.

Van Tillian Presuppositional Apologetics One Last Time

I've taken an afternoon and read some things about Van Tillian apologetics. I will waste no more time on it. It's stupid and incoherent to me, and that's all I can say. How intelligent people can actually believe this stuff, much less defend it, is simply beyond me. All they would have to do is to step back from their own arguments and they would see them as ridiculous and not worthy of the energy to type them into the computer.

Take for instance, Van Tillian presuppositionalist John Frame, who wrote: "But are we not still forced to say, 'God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion),' and isn't that argument clearly circular? Yes, in a way. But that is unavoidable for any system, any worldview. One cannot argue for an ultimate standard by appealing to a different standard. That would be inconsistent." Five Views on Apologetics, ed., Steven B. Coven [(Zondervan, 2000), p. 217].

William Lane Craig: "Presuppositionalism commits the informal fallacy of begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could with a straight face think to show theism to be true by reasoning, 'God exists, therefore God exists.' A Christian theist himself will deny that question-begging arguments prove anything." Five Views on Apologetics (p. 233).

Gary R. Habermas: "Van Tillians seem to have a notion that all presuppositions except the most circular ones are on the same level. Since no one can be neutral, we must all begin with some sort of prior notions. Given such a stance, they can basically begin with the truth of Christian theism in at least some form. But somehow Frame proceeds from here to Scripture, as if this entire body of truth is justified by the need for a starting point."

"Here Frame commits the informal logical fallacy of false analogy. He argues that rationalists must accept reason as an ultimate starting point, just as empiricists assume sense experience, and so on. So the Christian may begin with Scripture as a legitimate starting point. But these are not analogous bases. While the rationalist uses reason and the empiricist uses sense experience as tools from which to construct their systems, Frame assumes both the tool of special revelation and the system of Scripture, from which he develops his Christian theism. In other words, he assumes the reality of God's existence, his personal interaction with humans, plus a specific product: Scripture. Does Frame not realize that, in the name of everyone needing a presupposition, he has imported an entire worldview when others have only asked for tools?"

"But these presuppositions are not all created equal! Frame allows rationalists and empiricists their methodological hook, while he demands the hook, line, and sinker for Christianity!" Five Views on Apologetics (p. 242).

Four other comments from me:
1) There is no reason why the existence of logic and reason demand that Christian theism is true when the Jew, the Muslim, or the Deist could make the same kind of argument. Jumping to Christian theism is a non sequitur. Hence there is no reason for presuppositionally preferring Christian theism to these other faiths, especially since a true "internal critique" is impossible (from the presuppositionalist's perspective). Even if a particular faith is found to be internally consistent, we still may ask if it corresponds to reality, if that is even possible.

2) To assert that God is the basis of logic is to fall within the same trap of the Euthyphro dilemma with regard to moral truth. Is something reasonable merely because God proclaims it so, or does God proclaim something reasonable because it is?

3) If God does not exist, then logic and reason may have no ultimate foundation, much like morals do not have an ultimate foundation. The way we reason may be nothing more than a Wittgenstein language game. Maybe reason has merely shown itself trustworthy by pragmatic verification based in the anthropic principle evidenced in the universe--it just works. Of course, it may be that reason doesn't work as well as the presuppositionalist proclaims. While the law of non-contradiction corresponds to reality, once we apply that law to a specific case in the empirical world, opponents will still disagree whether or not it applies. Oriental philosophers may reject logic outright as maya because it's based on a world-view they reject, due to their own presuppositional approach. [How presuppositional apologetics can make a dent in Oriental beliefs is a puzzle to me]

4) Chance cannot be rationally explained. If this universe took place by chance, then the fact that reason cannot figure it all out is exactly what we would expect. We would not be able to ultimately justify our use of reason, and so all we would have left from which to justify ultimacies of any kind are presuppositions. But the problem with presuppositions is that they can sometimes be viciously circular, disallowing any true internal critique. Hence if this universe took place by chance, then the fact that we have over 25,000 different religious sects in the world is just what we should expect to find. Why? Because reason is impotent to help decide between ultimacies here--each sect must presuppose what it must prove, and each one is thereby incommensurable with the others.

Presuppositional Apologetics

Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics were looked down upon and dismissed by every Christian professor I had when in seminary. This, by itself, says something. So I never paid that much attention to it. I'll make some comments about it before too long though, but I don't know when as of yet.

Suffice it to say that a Muslim could make much of the same presuppositional case on behalf of Islam. The fact that no Muslim does this doesn't mean that a Muslim couldn't do this, because he could. But if a Muslim did offer a presuppositional apologetic, there would be no way to know whether the Muslim or the Van Tillian is right, since there is no common ground, except for the rules of logic and reasoning, which both sides would claim support their religious viewpoint. These two views would be considered "incommensurable" with each other. Even though both views couldn't be right, they could both be wrong.

Speaking of presuppositional apologetics, see what Victor Reppert said about a debate in this link:

"What happened here? I read this debate and thought that Wilson was exposed as someone who, in the last analysis, had no arguments whatsoever." --Reppert.