Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Presuppositionalism and metaphor

I sometimes run across Internet presuppositionalists who contend that we can't justify our ultimate epistemological commitments. Instead, we simply posit the "axiomatic" status of Christianity. 

But if it can't be justified, then it's just an arbitrary stipulation, and anyone can resort to the same tactic (e.g. atheists, Muslims, Mormons). 

I think presuppositionalists of this stripe are trapped by an architectural metaphor, where standards and authority are hierarchical–higher and lower. Depending on which feature of the metaphor to press, there's a topmost standard or a bottommost explanation. 

There's nothing wrong with using metaphors so long as we recognize that these are merely metaphors, with the limitations thereof, and not a literal description of how authority is logically structured. 

An epistemic "foundation" or "higher" standard doesn't imply that you can't justify your ultimate epistemological commitments. To take a comparison, suppose a friend tells me he suffers from chronic back pain. I tell him that my wife used to suffer from chronic back pain until she saw an osteopath who was able to relieve her back pain. Likewise, I suffered from chronic back pain until I saw the same osteopath, who was able to relieve my back pain. 

The fact that I'm recommending this physician doesn't imply that I'm assuming the position of a superior medical authority or appealing to a higher standard, over and above the osteopath. Rather, I'm simply presenting evidence from experience that he seems to be good at his job.


  1. Reminds me of a response Doug Groothuis offered in his book Christian Apologetics, ch. 9, "In Defense of Theistic Arguments":

    "Nonetheless, whatever speaks with authority must be viewed by others as having authority if it is to be recognized as authoritative. For example, a text on physics may be the definitive statement on the subject and thus have the highest scientific authority. This authority would not be damaged by those who refuse to view it as authoritative out of ignorance, perversity or disagreement. Neither would its authority be diminished if someone were to defend its credentials. Even if its authority needed to be corroborated, it would still have the highest authority as a physics text. Certifying its credentials as an authority does not undermine its authority but rather establishes it. Similarly, although the intrinsic authority of Scripture is not dependent on the arguments of natural theology, God’s existence may be demonstrated or rendered more rational through such arguments. If so, the Bible would gain authority in the eyes of those who had previously dismissed as irrational the existence of God and any God-inspired book."

  2. Clarkian presuppositionalism does this. It's sometimes called Deductive, or Axiomatic or Rational or Dogmatic presuppositionalism.

    The other forms of presuppositionalism doesn't do this. Whether it's Van Tillian [Biblical or Authoritarian Presupp.], Schaefferian [Practical Presupp.], Carnellian [Systematic Consistency/Coherency Presupp.] or Nashian [Abductive Presupp.].

    The late apologist Greg Bahnsen [who was a Van Tillian] argued in his debate with Gordon Stein that Christian presuppositions are not just presupposed, but they are also evidenced in the world. Unlike Clarkian apologetics which rejects extra-Biblical evidences.

    1. I think that there is a distinction between epistemology (how we know something) and apologetics (how we defend something). How we may know something may not be how we defend something - e.g. in the case of "presuppositions," there are pragmatic considerations that can come into apologetic play.

      Clark himself doesn't seem to oppose this. He wrote, "By the systems they produce, axioms must be judged." Presumably, he wouldn't say axioms are "known" because of the systems produced; rather, they are defended in that way.

      Granted, Clark's understanding of legitimate ideas of "knowledge" may have been wrong, but that is less an indictment against "Clarkian presuppositionalism" than it is Clark himself.

    2. Yes, that's a valid distinction.