A while back, Daniel Morgan posted a link to a presentation by Gene Witmer.
At the time I was busy with other things, so I’ll now take the occasion to revisit that issue.
I would note, in passing, that Witmer freely concedes that Manata handily won his debate with Barker:
“To my disappointment, Barker did a terrible job defending atheism; indeed, I
couldn't bear to listen to the entire thing, quitting perhaps 3⁄4 of the way
through. The debate made it clear that presuppositionalists can be effective in
throwing advocates of atheism off balance, leaving them disoriented and at
apparently a terrible disadvantage in responding. Perhaps Barker's generally
not too good at debate; I don't know.”
Exposition aside, Witmer’s presentation is a combination of a few substantive objections along with a lot of tactical advice. These are somewhat interrelated, but, for clarity of analysis, I’ll make some effort to address them separately. Let’s address the substantive objections first:
One obvious difficulty with this style of argument is that it requires that
the options be eliminated, and given how many there are, this seems quite
difficult. It is not enough to sum up the opposition as one simplistic kind of
atheism and argue that that can't be right; all varieties thereof must be dealt
That’s a valid criticism of one particular formulation of presuppositionalism. But this is easily rectified by scaling back the claim to a more reasonable burden of proof. The onus is not on the presuppositionalist to rebut every conceivable alternative to the faith. That would be an inhuman burden of proof. And it would saddle him with a double standard, for no one, whether believer or unbeliever, can meet such a hypothetical challenge.
Rather, the claim is limited to real life alternatives. To an actual debate between a presuppositionist and an actual opponent, representing his own position—whatever that might be.
Another difficulty to bear in mind: this sort of argument only succeeds if the
same kind of alleged incoherence does not threaten Christian belief as well.
Suppose we eliminate the opposition, but the tools we used eliminate our own
position; we then need to go back and rethink the techniques used. So, for
instance, if the presuppositionalist argues that atheistic treatments of
morality fail because of such and such an implication, he needs to ask himself
whether or not his own treatment of morality has the same problematic
True, when it comes to arguing for one’s own position or against a competing position, both sides have their own burden of proof to discharge.
But Witmer forgets this when he gets around to giving practical advice (see below).
In any case, note too what is said about God's originating logic. He did so
"because they are a reflection of his nature." So his nature includes the laws
of logic. This is hardly an explanation of the laws of logic; it's just putting
them, so to speak, inside God. I'm reminded of a famous parody from Moliere
("The Imaginative Illness") in which a pill's ability to cause sleep is said to
be explained by its dormitive virtue -- i.e., its sleep-causing power. In the
same way, the explanation is merely pushed back: Logic is explained by God's
nature, his, you know, logic-causing nature.
This is a valid criticism as far as it goes. Presuppositionalists can be guilty of substituting slogans for arguments. Paraphrasing the original claim.
Witmer’s objection exposes the limitations of giving short, snappy answers to complicated questions.
However, this doesn’t mean that no such answers exist. There are book-length treatments on modal metaphysics from a theistic perspective which go into excruciating detail.
It is, of course, an interesting fact if we cannot argue for the claim that
induction will lead to the truth without presupposing that very claim. But it
is, frankly, absurd for the presuppositionalist to complain about this
presupposition when he, of course, admits doing the very same thing with his
beliefs about God. If it's okay to take some beliefs for granted, then, of
course, this belief -- that using induction is likely to get us to the truth --
may well be one we can take for granted. It is in any case hardly clear why
that belief should be thought any less worthy of being taken for granted than,
say, the belief that God exists!
Here he’s transitioning from substantive objections to tactical advance. And notice, in the course of this transition, how he’s forgotten where he himself positioned the burden of proof?
His advice takes the form of: “You think we’ve gotta problem? Well, you’ve gotta problem too!”
But this is an attempt to flip the burden of proof rather than discharge the burden of proof. To say that unbeliever doesn’t have to justify induction on secular grounds because the believer has unwarranted beliefs as well—even assuming that this is true—is not an intellectually responsible answer.
It’s fair to point out that the believer has his own burden of proof to meet. But that doesn’t shift the burden of proof from the unbeliever to the believer.
The onus is still on the unbeliever to justify induction on secular grounds. The onus doesn’t go away just because he can claim that the believer has failed to meet his own burden of proof.
For one thing, these are logically unrelated. To say that I don’t have to justify belief A because you can’t justify belief B is illogical. For A and B are not about the same thing. B has nothing to do with A.
It’s like saying “I don’t have to justify my belief that it’s going to snow tomorrow because you can’t justify your belief that the stock market is going to crash tomorrow!”
For another thing, even if these beliefs were about the same thing, both sides would bear their respective burden of proof. The onus is on the believer to justify induction on Christian grounds while the onus is on the unbeliever to justify induction on secular grounds.
Even if the believer was guilty of shirking his side of the argument, that would’t prove that the uvbeliever was right.
Finally, let’s move on to some of his tactical advice:
Notice that our discussion earlier of beliefs that we take for granted indicates
that some beliefs might be reasonable without argument. So if my belief that my
senses are mostly trustworthy is to be taken for granted, then, if someone
insists on a basis for this, I can of course say, "there is no basis; this is
one of the things I take for granted." (Again, there's a good question as to
why some things should be taken for granted and others can't; that's a deep
question that I don't want to try to tackle here.) In the same way there are
truths that don't have any deeper explanation. So, perhaps the right answer to
"why is it that 15+16=31?" is just "That's just the way it is; there's no
further explanation." Just as it's hard to see how one could avoid taking some
beliefs for granted, it's hard to see how one could avoid allowing that some
facts are just primitive or unexplained in this fashion. The presuppositionalist
has his own primitive fact, too, of course: the existence and nature of God.
Nothing further explains why God exists or why he is the way he is, on their view.
Maybe he can explain everything else, according to them; but nothing else explains him.
So by their own lights they will accept that some things can be primitive in this way.
I stress this because it is in fact always open to you, if you are defending
yourself against this negative strategy whereby they aim to show that all belief
systems contrary to theirs are self-undermining or incoherent, you can take
advantage of this option. If they say, "But what is your basis for logic?" (and
if they mean "what explains why these things are true?"), you can always say,
"They just are, and that's the end of the story. They can hardly complain that
this move is never allowed, as they need to make it themselves, albeit with a
different (alleged) truth.
Of course, you might not like Platonist atheism. Maybe you'd like something
more satisfying. But it's certainly available as an option. One could explore
other explanations but hold out this one is always what you can revert to if the
other explanations fail.
Keep in mind that while you might want to have more interesting and ambitious
theories about, say, the nature of logic and morality, you can always say things
like "While I'm inclined to think that the laws of logic can be explained by
linguistic facts, I recognize there are problems here. If it turns out that the
laws of logic are primitive and unexplained by anything else, then, so be it."
Above all: remember that insofar as they have an argument, it is purely
negative in character: trying to show that the atheist is committed to some
incoherent view. This gives you enormous resources for responding. All you
have to do is point out that you can be minimal in your commitments and not be
incoherent. You can say that lots of things are primitive and unexplained and
that they've hardly shown that you can't consistently say such things.
The problem with all this is that it’s so transparently cynical and unprincipled.
The unbeliever is entitled to take some things for granted “if” he has good reason to take these things for granted. The unbeliever is entitled to treat certain facts as primitive facts if they are primitive facts, and he has good reason for believing so. The unbeliever is entitled to say, “they just are, and that’s that,” only “if,” as a matter of fact, that’s a truthful claim.
The unbeliever is only entitled to revert to atheistic Platonism as his last-ditch stand if that fallback maneuver is actually true or he has good reason for believing it’s true.
And, of course, if that’s what he thought all along, then he wouldn’t “revert” to atheistic Platonism, now would he?
The unbeliever is entitled to be noncommittal if he is, indeed, truly noncommittal, and has good reason to be a minimalist.
But what Witmer is saying throughout this section is that an unbeliever should make opportunistic use of any blocking maneuver or evasive maneuver whether he believes it or not.
He is coaching the unbeliever on how to win the debate without winning the argument. How to lose on the merits, but survive intact. It’s pretty revealing that Witmer would resort to such unscrupulous counsel.
Use any old argument, good or bad, just to get the presuppositionalist off your back! The convenience, and not the cogence, of the argument is all that matters.
On another subject, Danny also refers us to an article by Nino Cocchiarella on “Logic & Ontology.”
i) Does Danny subscribe to Cocchiarella’s solution? Of is this just one of those blocking maneuvers recommended by Witmer to silence the presuppositionalist if you can’t answer him?
ii) Cocchiarella discusses the three standard theories of universals, and opts for a synthetic solution: conceptual realism.
I myself also opt for a synthetic solution: theistic conceptual realism.
Cocchiarella confronts me with a false dilemma, for I favor an option which isn’t even on the list. Therefore, Cocchiarella hasn’t boxed me into accepting his solution.
And, for reasons I won’t go into at the moment, I don’t accept his solution.