Friday, February 16, 2018

Am I a presuppositionalist?

1. Am I still a presuppositionalist after all these years? If so, what kind of presuppositionalist, and why?

It's difficult to discuss the question in separation from alternate positions since these are mutually defining to some degree. To be a presuppositionalist is not to be an evidentialist or vice versa. The distinctives of each differentiate it from the other.

But then that pushes the question back a step. What's evidentialism? Who are good representatives of evidentialism? 

For instance, Tim and Lydia McGrew are among the most astute evidentialists of their generation, so that's a useful point of contrast. In this presentation:

Lydia only cites two defining tenets of evidentialism:

i) No dichotomy between faith and reason 

ii) Christianity cannot be known directly, without reasons

I'm somewhat puzzled by why Lydia oversimplifies evidentialism, since that's surely a very incomplete description of evidentialism. Perhaps that's due to time-constraints in combination with the lay audience which causes her to oversimplify. I'm sure she could go several layers deep if need be. 

Do those two tenets demarcate evidentialism from presuppositionalism? 

2. Regarding (i), to some degree I think she's pushing back against the atheist caricature of Christian belief as fideistic. And, of course, many lay Christians are fideistic. 

A presuppositionalism can and should agree with her that there's no ultimate dichotomy between faith and reason. There is, though, the venerable issue of whether there's sometimes prima facie evidence against certain aspects of the Christian faith. One way of modeling that tension is a balance where there's evidence for Christianity as well as some apparent evidence to the contrary, and when you put all that on the scales, the weight of evidence for Christianity tips the scales in favor of Christianity. 

That isn't distinctive to religion. Apart from religion, many of our beliefs are a balancing act, where there may be some apparent counterevidence, and we simply hold that in tension with what we continue to believe. That's somewhat weak, and I'll have more to say about that in due course (see below). 

3. Regarding (ii), I'm unclear on how Lydia distinguishes knowledge from reasons. On the one hand the content of the Christian faith can be known apart from reasons. You can know what Christian theology represents, you can know Christian doctrine, without having any reasons. 

Perhaps Lydia is speaking in shorthand for knowing that it's true. If so, there are two elements: (i) knowing what it stands for, and (ii) supporting evidence.

There's an obvious sense in which most Christians lack direct knowledge of the Christian faith. That's a type of historical knowledge. We rely on historical records (i.e. the Bible). Unlike 1C Palestinian Jews who witnessed the public ministry of Christ, our knowledge is mediated by the Biblical record. Perhaps that's part of what Lydia has in mind. If so, a presuppositionalist can and should agree with that.

4. By "reasons", she cites miraculous signs (e.g. Exod 4). However, the Bible is ambivalent about the role of miraculous signs. Take the classic:

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).

Thomas had a sign. Thomas had reasons to believe in the form of the the Risen Jesus, standing right before him. But that's the kind of evidence most Christians don't have. 

Indeed, it's not coincidental that this is the lead-in to the following conclusion:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-21).

From the narrator perspective, the reader's evidence isn't miraculous signs, but his eyewitness account. It turns on the historical accuracy of his record. 

In fairness, that could be supplemented by Jn 14:12. Although that's hyperbolic, it's the case that some Christians throughout church history do receive miraculous confirmation. So it's not confined to testimonial evidence. Yet I don't believe that Tim and Lydia McGrew have directly witnessed a miracle. So they don't have signs in the Exod 4 sense. 

5. Although she doesn't mention it in the introduction to her presentation, another tenet of evidentialism distinguishing that position from classical apologetics is the evidentialist position that miracles can furnish direct evidence for God's existence or the supernatural. It isn't necessary to first prove God's existence before you can credit a miracle and regard that as evidence for God's activity in the world. As a presuppositionalist, I agree with that. 

6. Another tenet of evidentialism that crops up in the literature is appeal to common ground. Assumptions that Christian believers and unbelievers share alike. Stock examples include beliefs and criteria like the existence of an external world and other minds, the basic reliability of the senses, the basic reliability of reason, the general uniformity of nature and induction, the correspondence theory of truth, and the role of logic. But as presuppositionalist, I have some reservations about that appeal:

i) There's a problem is when common ground is classified as beliefs or criteria that aren't Christian/theistic on the one hand or naturalistic on the other hand. But that's very artificial. Are the aforesaid assumptions independent of naturalism, theism, and Christianity? Assuming those are true beliefs and good criteria, they either obtain in a world where God exists or where God does not exist. There is no third alternative. They can't very well obtain in a world that isn't Christian or theistic or naturalistic. Reality must match one of those options. So those assumptions can't be truly agnostic. In what kind of world to they actually obtain? 

ii) Apropos (i), a presuppositionalist simultaneously argues from and for his Christian beliefs and criteria. These "common ground" assumptions implicate the Christian worldview.  Naturalism lacks the metaphysical resources to underpin them. That's where transcendental arguments can come into play. Mind you, many presuppositionalists never get beyond question-begging slogans, but thinkers like Greg Welty and James Anderson have been making progress on that front, by formulated detailed arguments. Much work remains to be done. 

iii) Another problem with common ground appeals is that unbelievers range along a spectrum. Some of them are intellectually evasive. Some of them are irrationally skeptical. It isn't always possible to have a constructive dialogue with an atheist. Take methodological atheism. The proper reaction is not to operate within that paradigm but to challenge that paradigm. 

7. Apropos (6), a popular evidentialist slogan is to "follow the evidence wherever it leads". That's often a good rule of thumb, but it has limitations:

i) Everything can't be up for grabs. Our belief-system must have some stability and priorities. 

ii) There's a dialectical relation between evidence and one's priority structure. On the one hand, one's plausibility structure ought to be informed by evidence. On the other hand, one's plausibility structure a ranking system that assigns degrees of plausibility to different kinds of claims. There needs to be some give, some flexibility, in both directions. 

For instance, how should I assess alien abduction stories? That involves conflicting lines of evidence. On the one hand there's testimonial evidence, which has some prima facie value. On the other hand, there's theoretical physics, which provides some prima facie evidence that aliens couldn't surmount the distance in light years. Not to mention other considerations. 

iii) What if there's some prima facie evidence for physicalism, but physicalism entails eliminative materialism, which is arguably self-refuting? If following the evidence wherever it leads ends up leading you to a blind alley, then you need to back up. I refuse to follow the evidence over the cliff, which is what atheism amounts to. I have no epistemic duty to embrace nihilism. That's diabolically idiotic. 


  1. Nope, I haven't witnessed a miracle. :-) (It would be nice...) But I consider testimonial evidence to be, itself, evidence. When I witness something "directly," there's still a degree of inference involved (e.g., that I wasn't dreaming or hallucinating). When I take testimony into account, there is also inference involved. Both are inferences. The inference from testimony just has, informally speaking, more steps. So my acceptance of Christianity on the basis of (indirectly) the apostles' testimony is, ultimately, basing my Christian faith on the miraculous sign of Jesus' resurrection, just as it was for them. There are just more inferential steps to my inference than there were for them.

    What I meant by point 2 is, as you correctly surmised, that we can't be justified in knowing that Christianity is true except by way of evidential reasons. These could include religious experience, which could be a kind of data, but generally religious experience isn't going to provide a strong enough argument by itself to justify believing a set of highly contentful and strong religious propositions such as even the basic tenets of Christianity. In any event, what I was contrasting evidentialism with there was the idea, often articulated in presuppositionalist circles, that one can and must "start with" belief in the truth of the Bible, belief in the existence of God, etc. Epistemically, I think that is incorrect. One can't "start" by believing that Scripture is true, Christianity is true, etc. One has to believe those things on the basis of some other reasons/evidence.

    1. I don't have any particular bone to pick with your first paragraph.

    2. "what I was contrasting evidentialism with there was the idea, often articulated in presuppositionalist circles, that one can and must 'start with' belief in the truth of the Bible, belief in the existence of God, etc. Epistemically, I think that is incorrect. One can't 'start' by believing that Scripture is true, Christianity is true, etc. One has to believe those things on the basis of some other reasons/evidence."

      That's a helpful clarification. But, of course, that's complicated:

      i) People approach Christianity from different starting-points. Some are insiders (e.g. cradle Christians) while others are outsiders (e.g. atheists, agnostics, heretics, pagans).

      ii) We assess claims based on other things we take to be true. We reference our understanding of what the world is like as a benchmark. But if Christianity is true, what's the relation between Christianity and the benchmark? At the very least, they must overlap, otherwise the benchmark would have no implications for Christianity one way or the other.

      Is Christianity part of the larger truth we use to assess Christian claims? Or is Christianity the larger truth, of which the beliefs/criteria we use to assess it are ultimately a part?

      If Christianity is true, then *that's* what the world is like. So the criteria aren't ultimately separable from what they verify or falsify.

      iii) And, of course, many people entertain false beliefs. They judge Christianity to be false on the basis of their false beliefs. So what's the corrective?

      iv) One possible strategy is to adopt the Christian viewpoint *as if* it's true, for the sake of argument, then consider the explanatory power of the Christian viewpoint, compared to other alternatives (e.g. naturalism, Buddhism).

  2. My mention of needing evidence for Christianity was also meant to set evidentialism in contrast to Reformed Epistemology/Plantingianism, according to which the truth of Christianity can be known as "properly basic."

  3. As I recall, Plantinga defines a properly basic belief as a belief you may hold without evidence, but which is prima facie justified, yet defeasible.

    I don't think that's the best model for Christian belief, although there's a grain of truth to what he says. I think it's better to distinguish between evidence and argument.

    Also, I agree with George Mavrodes that the the primary concern shouldn't be whether a belief is rational but whether it's true.

  4. And I would say that we have no access to what is true besides what is rational. So our desire for truth leads us to try to be rational.

  5. Or, to put it a little more precisely: If we are not believing rationally, we may accidentally believe what is true, or we may believe what is true in the way that a non-rational creature "knows" things, such as a bird who "knows" by instinct how to build a nest for the first time. But once we become self-conscious enough to be concerned about *whether* what we are believing is true, then these possibilities will be cold comfort if we cannot conclude upon reflection that our instincts or spontaneous beliefs have some connection to the truth. And that itself would be an enterprise of rational belief evaluation. So there is no getting around the search for rationality if one wishes to engage in a search for truth.