Sunday, April 09, 2017

Rationalists and mystery-mongers

Recently, I had some exchanges on Facebook regarding presuppositionalism:

1. Jonathan McLatchie
What is the trouble with the presuppositionalist school of apologetics? The presuppositionalist argues that Christianity is the only self-consistent worldview, and thus on that basis one is rationally warranted in taking it to be axiomatic -- thus, the presuppositionalist argues, it is impossible that Christianity is false because no other worldview is self-consistent. My beef with this view is at least two fold. First, coherence is not the only test of truth (indeed, there are many propositions which are self-consistent and yet false). There is also the correspondence test for truth -- in other words, does the proposition correspond to reality? Second, while I think a decent argument can be marshalled for asserting that theistic belief is axiomatic to the presumption of the rational intelligibility of the Universe, and indeed reason itself, it is not at all clear to me that the same is true of belief in the Bible as God's revealed Word. I fail to see any logical contradiction that is entailed by asserting that the Biblical worldview is false. That is why, in my opinion, evidentialism is far more satisfying as an apologetic approach.

Several distinctions are in order:

i) There's a difference between Clarkian presuppositionalism and Van Tilian presuppositionalism. Clark and Van Till represent opposing extremes. Clark is a rationalist while Van Til is a mystery-monger. I think Clark's rationalism is sometimes simplistic while Van Til is often gratuitously paradoxical. 

Clark's epistemology is more Augustinian while Van Til's epistemology is more like a Reformed version of transcendental Thomism. 

ii) The Clarkian version is axiomatic and espouses the coherence theory of truth.

One problem is that Gordon Clark had no real successors. There are some efforts to improve on his approach. To my knowledge, Ryan Hedrick is the most promising candidate to develop Clarkian presuppositionalism. But that remains at a programmatic stage.

ii) Van Til was a big picture thinker who didn't excel at detailed formulations. And he's binary to a fault.

Van Til's two leading, immediate successors were Greg Bahnsen and John Frame, both of whom diverge from Van Til in some respects.

iii) At present, the most astute Van Tililian apologist is probably James N. Anderson, although Vern Poythress also does some really find work in apologetics.

iv) The "logical contradiction that's entailed by asserting that the Biblical worldview is false" is the claim that God himself is the source and standard of logic and human rationality. 

2. Suppose we take the crudest version of evidentialism, which would be akin to historical positivism. "Just the facts!"

Now when an evidentialist of that stripe tries to proves Christianity by appeal to the basic reliability of the Gospels, a halfway intelligent atheist will invoke Hume's argument for the presumption against miracles. Typically, an atheist will say that any naturalistic explanation, however implausible, is more plausible than a supernatural explanation.

That's why sophisticated evidentialists like Swinburne and the McGrews present a philosophical justification for the possibility and credibility of miracles. They do so to lay the groundwork for evidentialism. 

By the same token, a key issue in the debate over ID theory is whether methodological atheism is a sine qua non of true scientific explanation. That's why Stephen Meyer and Bill Dembski, as well as sympathetic referees like Plantinga and Del Ratzsch, criticize methodological atheism. 

Likewise, secularism is unable to justify induction and inductive logic. Or the first instance. 

By contrast, as James Anderson pointed out some years ago, a doctrine of providentially preserved natural kind is able to ground induction. 

On a related note are cliches about value-laden nature of observation, and the realist/antirealist debate over the philosophy of science.

These are examples of presuppositional issues in apologetics and related disciplines. So this is a crucial area in which evidential apologetics and Van Tilian apologetics overlap.

vi) That said, there's no doubt that much of the best work in contemporary Christian apologetic is hailing from the evidentialist camp.

3. Actually, the hardest things to prove can be obvious or fundamental things. That's because we use obvious or fundamental things to prove less obvious or less fundamental things. But once we hit bedrock, it's hard to directly prove what's intellectually bedrock. At that point the most promising line of argument is transcendental reasoning.

There are certain beliefs we don't normally attempt prove, such as the existence of other minds, an external world, or sense knowledge. And it's difficult, if not impossible, to prove them directly. Rather, we use these them to prove other things. And, in a roundabout way, that's the best way to prove these beliefs. We can't do without them. To deny them means to deny too many other things.  Belief in God often operates at the same fundamental level. 

Mind you, there can be more direct lines of evidence for God (e.g. miracles, answered prayer). 

To take an example, W. V. Quine was the top secular philosopher of his generation. Labored to formulate a systematically naturalistic epistemology and ontology.

He started out as a mathematician. His initial reputation derived from his work on mathematical logic. However, as a consistent atheist, he denied logical necessity. That didn't fit into physicalism. He did admit to being a "reluctant platonist" to accommodate the higher ranges of set theory.

So, from a secular perspective, what is logic? Is logic just how human brains think (assuming brains do the thinking)? If so, what's the standard of comparison? What makes one brain logical and another brain illogical? If logic isn't independent of brains, then what's the basis for saying someone used a logical fallacy? Logic is nothing over and above how brains operate. Whose brain is the benchmark? 

By contrast, Christian philosophers like Greg Welty and James Anderson have argued that abstract objects like logic are constituted by the infinite, timeless mind of God. That grounds logic in a way that naturalism/physicalism cannot.

4. Regarding Josh Parikh's infinite regress objection to Sye's brand of presuppositionalism, I think part of the problem may be Sye's equivocal, slipshod terminology about "making sense of X". Suppose we recast the issue using epistemic justification lingo. Suppose we then draw the following distinction. A belief can be justified in two different senses:

i) A person's state of belief may be justified or justifiable

ii) Providing a philosophical justification for a belief

If we're using "justified" in the sense of (ii), and if someone must presuppose Christian theism in that sense to be justified (="make sense of"), then that may well generate Josh's infinite regress. You can never get started if you must provide a preliminary philosophical justification for everything you say or believe. For every claim you make will then be unjustified absent a prior justification. In other words, if you're providing a justification for X, but the justification you provide requires a justification in its own right. I think that's the kind of regress that Josh is angling t. 

One way to sidestep that deadlock is appeal to (i). We can begin in a state of justified belief. That psychological state may in turn be amenable to philosophical justification, so we can take it a step further. A justified belief in the sense of (i) can be subject to additional analysis and philosophical justification. To have a justified belief in the sense of (i) is the starting-point for having a justified belief in the sense of (ii). 

So, for instance, a young child is justified in the sense of (i) in believing that he knows his mother by sight and his mother loves him. 

And in principle, that might be justifiable in the sense of (ii) through corroborative evidence. 

By analogy, unbelievers can hold many justified beliefs in the sense of (i) even if their atheism implicitly undermines those beliefs. Given atheism, they can't justify their beliefs in the sense of (ii), even though some of their beliefs are justified or justifiable in the sense of (i).

Josh may or may not agree with me, but it's an attempt to disambiguate the issue.

i) One issue is that you have different religious epistemologies which intersect with different apologetic methodologies. although the fit is sometimes adventitious.

For instance, there's the infallibilist tradition of the Westminster Confession, where a Christian can attain "infallible assurance" of the faith.

Towards the opposite end of the spectrum are apologists who consider dialogue with atheists to be genuinely open-ended. It could go either way.

These are deeper differences than apologetic method. And it often has a lot to do with the personal experience of individual apologists.

ii) A problem with Van Tilian apologetics is a shallow talent pool. Much shallower than the available pool for classical and evidential apologetics. A lot of what passes for Van Tilian apologetics doesn't get beyond the level of slogans. 

On a related note is Sye ten Bruggencate, who has quite a following among people with low philosophical standards (to put it kindly). 

iii) One further problem is a bad development within Van Tilian apologetics, where Oliphint, Nate Shannon, Dolezal, and even Poythress (who's head and shoulders above the other three) are on the warpath when it comes to univocity. That's a dead-end.

5. Sye Ten Bruggencate 
They are indeed without excuse because the HAVE the evidence, so why are you giving them evidence when Scripture says they already have enough?

i) Enough for what? Enough to be culpable? 

ii) Having enough evidence to know that God exists isn't the same thing as having enough evidence to know that Christianity is true. Assuming Rom 1 teaches that people generally have natural knowledge of God, it doesn't follow that people have natural knowledge of Christianity, for that is based on historical knowledge, and not something intuitive, innate, or inferable from reason or nature.

iii) There's a distinction between tacit knowledge and conscious knowledge. For instance, people of normal intelligence have a prereflective knowledge of informal logic and math (i.e. how to count). 

But that tacit knowledge can be further developed through analysis. 

iv) People can have enough evidence for something, but be in denial. As such, there are situations in which it's useful to present additional information to make their denial untenable. 

I don't have any evidence that people have been saved by evidence.

It's unclear what that's even supposed to mean.

Give me one example where evidence was presented by Jesus and Paul for the existence of God. Just one please.

i) Of course, Jesus and Paul were typically dealing with Jewish theists or pagan polytheists. 

ii) In addition, we need to guard against caricaturing sola Scriptura. Sola scripture doesn't mean the Bible is an encyclopedia. Many things are true that fall outside the purview of Scripture. The fact that you can't find something in Scripture doesn't ipso facto mean it's false or unwarranted.

Please show from Scripture that the 'atheist' does not believe in God. Thanks.

There's a potential distinction between knowing something and believing something. A wife may suspect that her husband is cheating on her. There's telltale evidence. But she refuses to believe it. 

How about explain how you can make sense of ANYTHING without presupposing Christian Theism, thanks.

What does Sye mean by "making sense of x"? Seems to be a basic equivocation here. Surely it's possible to understand a sentence without presupposing Christian theism. You can "make sense of" what a sentence means without presupposing Christian theism.

So does Sye really mean something like you can't justify any of your beliefs without presupposing Christian theism? 

How about you just tell us ONE thing you know without presupposing Christian theism and how YOU know it? Thanks.

What about a young child who knows the sound of his father's voice or recognizes his mother's face? 

So you know something for certain, because it is not doubtable? is that your claim?

Josh used an example of a self-presenting state: pain. I can't be mistaken about feeling pain. I can be mistaken about the source of pain, but not pain itself. 

BTW, this goes to the question of whether all knowledge is propositional.

6. Kelly K Klein
Wow, so that's it, it just seems to be the best explanation for you, I guess until someone convinces you to the contrary. You make your reason and acceptance the standards by which you determine God might exist?

i) Well, there's an obvious sense in which every Christian must rely on his own reason regarding what seems to be true to him. What's the alternative? You mind is the instrument by which you apprehend truth and falsehood. It's not as if you can climb out of your own skin and see things from a vantage-point independent of your own mind. 

ii) There's an important distinction between knowledge and proof. It's possible to know things we can't prove. Indeed, that's commonplace. Take memory. We can know that something happened because we remember it happening, even though, in many cases, we may have no supporting evidence over and above our memories.

iii) There's a distinction between what I can know and what I can prove to someone else. 

Why do you claim to be a Christian, is it because to you at the moment it just makes the most sense?

From a Reformed standpoint, it's ultimately up to God to conserve the faith of the elect.

But to others it doesn't make the most sense, so who is correct, according to you no one really knows.

There's a difference between mere belief and belief that's rationally defensible. Notice what a poor job the atheists on these comment threads do at defending their beliefs. Notice how often they resort to sheer assertions and diversionary tactics.

I listened to the Sproul/Bahnsen debate years ago. Sproul is a popularizer. Spreads himself very thin. He's hardly the most able exponent of classical apologetics. Bahnsen is more competent. But in that debate Bahnsen repeatedly committed the semantic fallacy of supposing you can infer a concept of knowledge from quoting a Greek word that's translated "knowledge".


  1. Clark and Van Till represent opposing extremes. Clark is a rationalist while Van Til is a mystery-monger. I think Clark's rationalism is sometimes simplistic while Van Til is often gratuitously paradoxical.

    BOOOM! Truth bomb!

    If we're using "justified" in the sense of (ii), and if someone must presuppose Christian theism in that sense to be justified (="make sense of"), then that may well generate Josh's infinite regress. You can never get started if you must provide a preliminary philosophical justification for everything you say or believe. For every claim you make will then be unjustified absent a prior justification. In other words, if you're providing a justification for X, but the justification you provide requires a justification in its own right. I think that's the kind of regress that Josh is angling t.

    If I understand correctly, Josh is critic of presuppositionalism (probably a non-Christian) who's claiming that it would be inconsistent and hypocritical for presupper Christians to require a form of evidentialism that would commit them to an infinite regress if they themselves (i.e. Christians) can't shoulder the same burden as well. I currently disagree with that (though I'm open for correction). As Van Til has said, the non-Christian will always speak from two sides of his mouth. On the one side, he'll speak as if he has knowledge, and on the other side he'll admit (readily or eventually) to at least some ignorance. The non-Christian, to be consistent, either has to claim omniscience or admit (as some do) to global skepticism. If he claims some ignorance, then he has no basis of predicating anything at all since all knowledge (or every fact) is interrelated to and with everything else (every other fact). You cannot truly know A unless you know it in relation to B, and C and D all the way to Z. The same is true with B, and C and D etc.

    I think it's fine to push non-Christians to those two extremes. Whether the non-Christian leans more toward rationalism or irrationalism, or empiricism, or fideism, or mysticism, or revelationism (of the non-Christian kind, e.g. the Qur'an, Upanishads, shastras, Bhagavad Gita, etc.). It's not hypocritical for the Christian because, as Van Til said, we're trusting in the Revelation of the Father. As Van Til wrote, "My unity is that of a child who walks with its father through the woods." Elsewhere, he wrote, "Man can rejoice in the mystery that surrounds himself because he believes that no mystery surrounds God. If mystery should be thought of as surrounding God, then nothing would remain for man but utter despair. A child who knows that his father is a millionaire does not need to have more than a dollar in his hand."

    The Christian unashamedly/unabashedly acknowledges he's walking by faith in God's revelation. Whereas various non-Christians who lean toward rationalism, when pushed can't given rational arguments to ground their rationalism. The non-Christians who lean toward empiricism can't rationally or empirically ground their empiricism. Irrationalists are self-contradictory in speech and behavior.


    1. Mystics and Fideists are usually arbitrary and usually have no sufficiently encompassing or coherent worldview. And non-Christian revelationists usually don't have revelations from a personal Omni-God. The major ones (not necessarily the only ones) that do have an Omni-God are Judaism (which contradicts their own Scriptures which prophesied of Jesus), and Islam which contradicts the previous Revelations of the OT and NT. More could be said, but that seems (at least to me) to answer the charge of hypocrisy. Christians are supposed to be rational, but aren't Rationalists. Though many non-Christians virtually claim they're the "truly rational ones" (recall the atheistic "Rational Response Squad" as well as how atheists claim to be "freethinkers").

      I don't think the charge of fideism on (properly) presuppositional Christians sticks [with the possibly exception of Clarkians], but the fact is that every non-Christian holds to unproven and unprovable axioms and presuppositions given his worldview and so lives by "faith" so to speak. But a "faith" falsely so called because arbitrary and because it's not on the basis of the Revelation of the true God.

      By analogy, unbelievers can hold many justified beliefs in the sense of (i) even if their atheism implicitly undermines those beliefs. Given atheism, they can't justify their beliefs in the sense of (ii), even though some of their beliefs are justified or justifiable in the sense of (i).

      Agreed. Unbelievers who do have (i) do so because they live in God's world and are made in His image. Revelation surrounds them internally (sensus divinitatis, conscience etc.) externally (General Revelation, history, and if fortunate enough temporally and geographically, with Special Revelation).

      BTW, like Van Til, I'm all for using they type of arguments used in by non-presupper Christians, so long as one is presuppositionally self-aware and use them as sub-arguments in an overall presuppositional approach. Especially, if they can be reformulated presuppositionally. That's why Van Til could say, "I would therefore engage in historical apologetics.....But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer's philosophy of fact" - Van Til [The Defense of the Faith p. 199].

      If I had to side with either Sye or Steve, I'd side with Steve because what Steve does is consistent with Van Tillian-like presuppositionalism. What I've written seems to side with Sye, but that's because we agree on Van Til. Where I disagree with Sye is his unsophisticated Christian epistemology where he seems to claim to satisfy an infallibilist and internalist constraint on knowledge for himself and other Christians. Some of the criticism of Aquascum on Vincent Cheung apologetic applies to Sye. I also disagree with Sye's under utilization of historical and other empirical evidences for Christianity. Presuppositionalism is not a Silver Bullet.

  2. It is very simple on what method of defense of theology one should use. If one believes that all humans are created in the image of God, then God is not a conclusion to an argument, but an assumed premise in any argument. The basic distinction of theology and philosophy. Also, any "evidence" will only be a confirmation, or a "remembrance" of a forgotten truth, to use a platonic reference.
    To ignore this, it is to be very ignorant of philosophy and why a sound theological defense of the faith can not place God as a conclusion in a argument/debate.

    1. You're recycling the same claim you made on another post, despite the fact that I responded to your claim. I have zero tolerance for commenters who lack the integrity to acknowledge and engage my responses to their objections. If you wish to retain the privilege of commenting here, you need to up your game.

      And I take it that you're a Clarkian, based on your appeal to Plato's theory of anamnesis.

    2. Your first response lacked in soundness that I would be repeating myself; thus, my first comment stood for itself.
      I hoped to see a more in depth response and interaction with Van Till or Clark, but it is the same shallow view of anthropology you present. Since, you know very well that God created human beings in His image, instilled the moral law in their hearts ( Romans 1), but sin makes man suppress, repress, or keep out of one`s mind God`s existence and His demands.
      There is nothing to prove or arrive to, steve. The only duty is to show their repression, bring to mind what they refuse to keep before their consciousness.
      Once again, the only reason for "evidentalism", of the type of William Lane Craig, for example, is to rub elbows with the secular in the universities and be not considered foolish for accepting the Bible as a starting point that must be assumed.

    3. Ludwigg, is it clear that all men in fact do know that God exists? See the following old blogpost by Paul Manata where he explores that assumption, HERE. I'm generally a Van Tillian, but I'm not so certain that all men actually do know God. Though, at the very least I do think all men *ought* to know God. Apologetics can either help bring to the surface the knowledge of God men already have, or help/aid them see more clearly God's existence through General Revelation, the sensus divinitatis, conscience (etc) which they ought to have concluded and inferred.

      Whatever the case, there is some epistemic distance between God and man that can vary even among regenerate Christians (e.g. those who are doubting the faith). If that's true of Christians, how much more non-Christians?

    4. @Annoyed Pinoy, " is it clear that all men in fact do know that God exists?"

      Here is Paul`s assertion that it is very clear. And, if you notice, God`s proof of His nature, wrath, power, etc., is not an argument but an assumption with nature only confirming the triune God`s ownership of the rebellious. Also, as far as helping people bring to mind the repressed thoughts of God, yes, I do agree that is the work of apologetics, but as far saying that God is a conclusion? No, I don`t believe that. :

      Rom 1:18

      For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,

      Rom 1:19

      because what can be KNOWN ABOUT GOD IS PLAIN to them, because God HAS MADE IT PLAIN to them.

      Rom 1:20

      For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes - his eternal power and divine nature - HAVE BEEN CLEARLY SEEN, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.

      Rom 1:21

      For ALTHOUGH THEY KNEW GOD, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.

    5. You've disregarded Steve's point where he says,

      Assuming Rom 1 teaches that people generally have natural knowledge of God, it doesn't follow that people have natural knowledge of Christianity, for that is based on historical knowledge, and not something intuitive, innate, or inferable from reason or nature.

      Romans 1 doesn't explicitly say General Revelation clearly tells us about the deeper Christian doctrines like the doctrine of the Trinity or redemption through Christ's death. Maybe (probably IMO) it doesn't.

      Also, you've by passed Manata's points as well.

      It’s fair to say that a key component to traditional Van Tillian presuppositionalism (of which I still number myself, though in an attenuated way) is the universal knowledge of God thesis (UKT). UKT is taken (mainly) from Romans 1. It can be stated thus:

      (UKT) All men have knowledge of God.

      But UKT, as it stands, is vague. Almost all sides could agree with UKT as stated, though they would also disagree with each other as to what UKT means. Consulting some standard commentaries bear this out. For example, Barrett, Cranfield, Fitzmyer, and Zeisler are representative of those who claim Paul is only claiming that this knowledge is attainable by men, not that all men have it, or that it is “in” them. Others, like Moo, Schreiner, Witherington, and probably Murray (because I interpret him recognizing his Van Tillianism, though he could fit in the latter category), say this is a knowledge all men have. Others, like Barnett, Morris, and Wright, are vague.

      Involved here is that there is some textual ambiguity in the Greek. The knowledge could either be taken to be manifest to them or in them. Both sides have a pedigree and it’s not obvious which reading is correct. Add to this that they do not specify what they mean by ‘knowledge,’ and whether they consider it in its post-Gettier condition or not. Nor do they specify what they mean by “all.” Given the fact that many are Reformed, it’s not obvious that “all” means all for them! Other views that weigh in are those like the Westminster Confession of Faith. But the statement on natural revelation is vague. It’s not clear they meant to argue for an ability or a possession of knowledge. And, if they left it open, it’s not clear what is meant by ‘knowledge.’ The positions are diverse among the Reformers, and the Reformed Scholastics (as Muller’s PRRD makes clear, also cf. Michael Sudduth’s book on natural theology). Not only that, but when interpreting Paul in Romans 1, we should beware of mapping the precisions of modern epistemology onto Paul’s language in Romans 1. But some have claimed a lot for Paul’s claim, drawing interesting theological and philosophical conclusions from it.
      [I reproduced the italics that was in the original- AP].

      Paul may not be referring to the knowledge of God that each and every individual actually has immediately (as opposed to mediately) via General Revelation. But rather to how every [or nearly every] culture does have such a collective concept of God [that aproximates the basic attributes of the true God] that even those who haven't themselves personally come to (immediately) infer a supreme Deity's existence have nevertheless been exposed to such a concept in that culture they grew up in. Or exposed enough to the basics of such a concept that they ought to construct a conception that more closely gropes at the characteristics of the true God. And so, that's why such cultures and individuals are without excuse. So, at the very least all humans OUGHT to know a supreme God exists, even if they don't actually know such a God exists. There's also the issue of culpable ignorance as well as (a Protestants version of) vincible ignorance.

    6. In the last paragraph of my last post, I was referring to the apostle Paul, not Paul Manata.

    7. It goes without saying that in his article Manata provides other [more sophisticated] reasons to question whether all men do in fact know God. Here's the link again:

  3. Should presuppositionalist accept some form of foundationalism or coherentism? From my understanding, coherentism has the problem of multiple contradictory webs of belief can also be coherent.

    1. Granting there are objections to foundationalism like Münchhausen trilemma.