Monday, July 16, 2018


I was asked to comment on a video by YouTube atheist "Ozymandias Ramses II" (or "Ozy" for short). I'm not going to watch hours of his videos. I think the popularity of podcasts and YouTube videos is intellectually lazy. A cumbersome way to expound and analyze complex issues. 

However, in response to commenters, Ozy sometimes provides lengthy explanations in writing. I will therefore assess some of his written statements. 

From what I can tell, his primary target is Sye Ten Bruggencate and his minions. Another target is Bible Thumping Wingnut (which I never view).  Secondary targets may include objectivism (Ayn Rand) and Scripturalism (Gordon Clark and his would-be disciples). Let's begin with some background information:

I live in Canada.  I studied psychology, Western intellectual history, and then  philosophy in Montreal (McGill and Concordia), and pursued (never completing) a doctorate in philosophy at UWO in London, Ontario. 

With respect to your question about foundationalism and Quine/Neurath, I'm in the latter camp.  In fact in some of the shows/hangouts I've challenged the foundationalist/edifice metaphor that informs presuppositionalism in favour of Quine's web of belief and Neurath's raft metaphors with respect to knowledge.  In fact, the approach to epistemology I find most promising is Quine's project of naturalized epistemology.  I did grad work in that area, specifically on the psychology of belief-acquisition and the enabling assumptions (aka properly basic beliefs) that constitute the main timbers within one's raft of belief (or the most well-integrated strands within one's web of beliefs).

I reject the Justified, true belief (JTB) definition of knowledge for a variety of reasons, but my principle objection is that I don't think justification is properly part of the definition of knowledge.

Justification is necessary in life and serves pragmatic purposes, being important for persuasion and for satisfying the conditions of public assertability, but it's not an ingredient in what makes a belief into knowledge. I embrace an externalist account of epistemic justification and repudiate the internalist account of justification as being a pre-theoretical intuition that doesn't stand up to scrutiny and which leads unavoidably to the problem of justificatory regress.   Instead of JTB, I define knowledge as 'reliably-produced true belief' which is how some philosophers define it who are working towards Quine's project of naturalized epistemology.  

So that's where he's coming from. He's an atheist. I've been told he's an ex-Jehoveh's Witness. Unfortunately, many former cult members are suspicious of religion generally. 

It is condition of reasonableness and rationality that one's confidence in one's belief in any proposition should scale with or be commensurate with the quantity and quality of evidence in support of that proposition.  Belief isn't all or none; it admits of degrees of confidence. 

True, although we frequently have more evidence for a given belief than we are conscious of. 

Certainty may be a psychological desideratum, but it's not a necessitatum.  Some  presuppositionalists (of the Sye-Clone variety) seem to make a fetish of the idea of certainty, but contra their intuitions and desires on the matter, certainty is not a requirement for knowledge. And if they think certainty is a requirement on knowledge, well....that needs to be argued for.  It's a tough argument to make.

Depends on what we mean by certainty:

i) Certainty in the psychological sense of certitude isn't equivalent to knowledge

ii) Knowledge isn't equivalent to proof. 

So, can we be certain of anything? In my view, yes, but that's a heavily qualified 'yes'.  To say that some proposition is a certitude is merely to say that within the scope of a set of  assumptions, some claims can be put forth as certainties.  But that's not the absolute, unconditional certainty that a presuppositionalist lusts after.  That kind of certainty is  what I call 'hysterical certainty'. It's illusory.

Apparently, that makes Ozy is a global skeptic. But global skepticism is self-refuting (see below). 

Regarding Bahnsen, I'm not sure what point you were making by mentioning his saying that his opponents lose just by showing up. Of course he thinks that. He's a presuppositionalist: He thinks that anyone who uses reason at all is borrowing from his worldview and so has tacitly admitted defeat by showing up for a debate.  That's part of their apologetic.  Did you think that the more sophisticated presuppers didn't apply presuppositionalism?  Did you think they were going to provide evidence to support their belief in god? That'd make them evidentialists, not presuppers.  Their proof (so-called) proceeds by transcendental argument - an alleged demonstration of the impossibilty (due to incoherence) of all other worldviews.

The problem with this entire argument is that you utilized your reasoning in the very act of defending the reliability of your reasoning. This is a manifestly circular argument.  If your brain wasn't functioning properly, if your memory was compromised in the very act of evaluating the premises in your argument, if logic was not valid, then you'd have no reason to trust your conclusions.  So, you're exactly where you started; you're assuming the very thing you were asked to defend and prove to be the case - namely that your cognitive capacities and the inferential processes you relied upon are reliable.   There is no way out of this problem.

The presuppositionalist is simply requiring the impossible: He or she is demanding that you defend rationality, but will only accept a rational argument.  Well, one can't have one's reason and eat it too.  That's what needs to be pointed out - that one is being asked to do the impossible. The mistake people are making here is to set out on the fool's errand of trying to use one's cognitive capacities and inferential practices (eg: deductive reasoning)  to show that those cognitive capacities and inferential practices are reliable.  One is simply being challenged to do the impossible.  One should never waste one's time trying to do the impossible. One should instead point out that the challenge betrays a confusion on the part of the challenger.  Tell them to show you how they do it. Ask them to put up or shut up. And the moment the presuppositionalist starts with his presuppositional argument and invokes his god as the guarantor of his own inferential practices and cognitive capacities, just point out that he seems to have used his cognitive capacities and inferential processes to reach his conclusion that he can trust his inferential capacities and inferential processes and thus, has argued in a circle and thus has assumed their reliability in the very act of trying to establish their reliability...and so has failed at the challenge they have set out for us.

And the same problem holds for inferential reasoning and for the reliability of our perceptual capacities.  These properly basic beliefs are the enabling assumptions that make possible the testing of all our other beliefs about reality, but their reliability cannot be confirmed because we have to utilize them in the very act of evaluating the outcomes which result from acting upon them.  They are, in that sense, pre-rational beliefs we are all naturally disposed to believe and by means of which we can formulate and develop ever-improving models of reality. 

1) When using the primacy or existence argument - or any argument at all - one is implicitly assuming that inferential process one is using is reliable and can be trusted to yield true conclusions when the very conclusion one is supposed to be demonstrating is that one's inferential processes being used are reliable and can be trusted to yield true conclusions.  Why, after all, would you use an inferential process to prove anything unless you assumed its proper application yields true conclusions?

2) When using the primacy or existence argument - or any argument at all - one is implicitly assuming that one's own cognitive capacities, in that very act of cognition, are reliable and not malfunctioninng and so can be trusted to yield true conclusions when the very conclusion one is supposed to be demonstrating is that one's cognitive capacities are reliable and properly functioning. Why, after all, would you employ or rely upon a cognitive faculty process to prove anything unless you assumed it was reliable and properly functioning when you were relying it?

Hence that argument, and any such argument, is circular.  The reason it feels like a trick is because we don't have any other way of arriving at reasonable conclusions and we're so accustomed to the use of inferential processes and our cognitive faculties that we assume that any conclusion can be supported by such means - but the rationality and reliability of reason and our cognitive faculties is one conclusion which we cannot support in this way, except on pain of circular argumentation.

All circular arguments are junk. There are no virtuous circular arguments. 

There are two basic problems with Ozy's objection:

1. He fails to distinguish between a circular argument/syllogism and circular reasoning

i) In a circular argument, as I understand it, the conclusion repeats the major premise without the minor premise(s) contributing any additional reasons. Put another way, the difference between an assertion and an argument is that an argument provides reasons in support of a truth-claim. 

A circular argument is a technical fallacy of a logical syllogism. It renders the syllogism invalid. 

In a valid argument, the major and minor premises combine to yield the conclusion. There's a logical interrelationship between the premises which yield a conclusion over and above the force of each individual premise, separately considered. In that event, the conclusion isn't reducible to the major premise. Rather, the combination of premises mark an advance over the major premise, or any single premise, considered in isolation to the whole. 

ii) By contrast, circular reasoning is broader than formal syllogistic argumentation. Every argument takes some things for granted. There's a distinction between presuppositions and premises. Presuppositions are not a part of the argument proper, but underlie the argument. It's not fallacious in the formal logical sense to engage in circular reasoning, where you take certain things for granted, that fall outside the scope of the syllogism (e.g. the external world). 

If the presuppositions are in dispute, then it begs the question to take them for granted, but if they're reasonable, inevitable, or shared by both sides, it's not question-begging to take them for granted.

2. His objection is self-refuting. He contends that demonstrating rationality is impossible because the proponent must assume and utilize inferential reasoning in the very act of defending the reliability of his cognitive abilities and inferential processes. But notice that Ozy must rely on his own cognitive abilities and inferential processes to argue that you can't rely on your cognitive abilities and inferential processes to justify human reason! So he himself simultaneously depends on what he denies. He can't rely on reason show that the reliability of reason is indemonstrable, for that shoots a hole in his boat. If true, it's false; therefore it's false. 

We do not have any way - no test - by means of which we can rule out the possibility of solipsism. Think about that fact you were not taught or told there was a mind-independent reality. It's not a conclusion you reached. Rather, you have never doubted it, just as our pets assume, pre-theoretically and without any process of inference, that the world exists outside of them.  We learn what was IN the world, not that there IS a world.  Any putative test or evidence you could put forward as a potential demonstration of the veracity of this assumption is perfectly compatible with it all happening in your mind without an external reality.  So, you  have not reasoned your way to the conclusion that there's a mind-independent reality, you've just always assumed it.  And it's not an intuition either.  It's a pre-rational assumption that we make by virtue of the sorts of organism that we are.

i) One of the problems with Quine's naturalized epistemology is the status of logic. If logic is reducible to human psychology, to how humans think, then logic is descriptive rather than normative. What makes anything illogical? What makes your inference fallacious rather than mine if there's no intersubjectival standard of comparison, if there's nothing over and above how humans reason? On that view, logic is just an inductive generalization of human psychology. What makes one sample superior to another? Indeed, Quine denied logical necessity. 

According to solipsism, my disembodied mind is the only thing that exists. The "physical world" is a hallucination, a mental projection of my consciousness. 

But that means logic is just a product of my contingent mental states. In that event, we can rule out the possibility of solipsism because it nullifies logical necessity. On that view, you can't even affirm or deny solipsism because the law of identity requires logical necessity. 

ii) If the physical, empirical world is an illusion, why do I imagine a physical empirical world? Consider dreams. Dreams simulate a physical empirical world because our dream state is parasitic on our waking state. But if there was no physical world to experience, why would that be the content of our imagination? 

iii) If I'm the only mind, a disembodied mind, why don't I have a memory of an infinite past? Didn't I always exist? 

iv) Do I cease to exist when I'm unconscious (e.g. a dreamless sleep)?

As Ozy concedes:

With respect to "solipsistic dreamscapes", no one is actually a solipsist. These nightmare scenarios are thought-experiments which serve to shed light on certain concepts by presenting idealized or limiting cases. They help us map out the landscape of possibilities. They are not offered up as plausible outlooks to be embraced.

Yet he seems to deploy that thought-experiment to warrant universal fallibilism. But I think we can rule out solipsism (see above). 

You also invoke transitivity of definition at point 5, but it's worth noting that the logical property of transivitity is a basic principle in logic and can't be derived without assuming transivitity itself. Logic can't be defended using logic without arguing in a circle.

It's true that logic isn't directly justifiable. Yet he himself relies on logic to deride the possibility of absolute certainty about anything. So he keeps shooting a hole in his boat. 

So, the moral of the story here is not that we can't trust our memories and other cognitive capacities or that properly basic beliefs are "arbitrary", "intuitions", or "mystical".  Rather, it's that, at bottom, rationality is the tool we use, the ladder we climb, to reach conclusions and justify them, but rationality is composed, constituted, out of universally-shared assumptions which are indispensible and which, unfortunately, can't be used to justify themselves.  This shouldn't surprise us.  Evolution by natural selection furnished us with the sorts of minds we need to survive in the world, but it wasn't trying to make us into epistemic angels who can guarantee that our assumptive dispositions are correct.  Mother Nature gave us what will work.  She didn't supply us with any guarantees.  And that's another reason why the quest for certainty is a fool's errand.  

Notice how his argument is only as good as the truth of naturalistic evolution and evolutionary psychology. He temporarily abandons his radical skepticism to affirm naturalistic evolution, but then uses that to sabotage human reason. Once again, he shoots a hole in the bottom of his boat. 

Doubt (to crib a line from Wittgenstein) comes after certainty (the feeling of deep conviction). We presuppose a lot - a whole lot - before we can ever muster a doubt about anything. This is because we do not enter the world as blank slates who are disposed to doubt and don't adopt beliefs until we have reasons and evidence. Rather, we enter the world like other mammals, filled with behavioral and doxastic dispositions, that is, pre-rational assumptions, which are sometimes described as 'properly basic beliefs' by philosophers and cognitive scientists. Among those dispositions are ones to trust our memories, senses, inferential practices and whatever we're told by our epistemic and linguistic communities as we are growing up.

Thus, we are not born as skeptics who learn to believe. We are born credulists who learn to doubt. Doubt happens within the scope of pre-rational properly basic beliefs. And so it is only within the scope of what we already believe and take for granted that specific doubts can arise, be expressed, and explored in the hopes of confirming them or assuaging them. So, could I be wrong about any particular belief within my belief set? Yes. There is no particular belief within my belief set that's immune to the possibility of error.

To be mistaken demands a standard of comparison. False beliefs can't be the criteria for other false beliefs. So either some human beliefs are immune to the possibility of error or all of God's beliefs are immune to the possibility of error, which is what makes the contrast between truth and error coherent in the first place.  

Your objection is a highly intuitive one, but here's why it's question-begging.  When you begin with axioms and then set out to evaluate the feasibility of those axioms by means of an evaluation of the desirability or undesirability of the outcomes resulting from your actions, your evaluation of the desirability or undesirability of the outcomes will rest on a host of properly basic beliefs.  Your very ability to recognize an outcome as desirable or undesirability at all requires that you assume, in the very act of evaluating what it happening around you, that:
1) there's a a world around you in which things are actually happening.
2) You will be assuming that you exist, as an agent in that world, and you will only be able to notice what consequences arise from your decisions on the assumption that
3) your perceptual capacities are properly functioning and tracking reality. Further, your ability to reach any conclusions based upon these perceptual experiences of what's resulted from your decisions and actions will rest upon the presumed
4) reliability of your memory.  

Just ask yourself, how could you get as far as testing some hypothesis or some axiom's veracity if you couldn't even trust that you were remembering which axiom you were testing or which axiom you'd begun with when you made your decision.  Further, if you didn't trust in your
5) inferential practices such as induction and deduction,
you would have no reason at all to trust your own conclusions.  

Pragmatism is a marvelous and indispensable thing, as is hypothesis-testing of axioms, but it's only possible within the scope of certain assumption that certain facts are already in place and certain capacities we have are reliable.  Without assuming those first, we can't evaluate the efficacy of any axioms.  So, yes, one can start posit axioms and we can evaluate them, but the evaluation of the feasibility of those axioms presupposes a host of beliefs about us, the world, and the reliability of our cognitive capacities.  In short, axiomatic reasoning and evaluation rests upon properly basic beliefs.

i) That may be a legitimate objection against the backwoods Scripturalism of John Robbins and his minions. 

ii) However, the fact that certain assumptions are unavoidable in human reasoning is not an argument for skepticism. Rather, that's a launchpad for transcendental reasoning:

Transcendental arguments are partly non-empirical, often anti-skeptical arguments focusing on necessary enabling conditions either of coherent experience or the possession or employment of some kind of knowledge or cognitive ability, where the opponent is not in a position to question the fact of this experience, knowledge, or cognitive ability, and where the revealed preconditions include what the opponent questions. Such arguments take as a premise some obvious fact about our mental life—such as some aspect of our knowledge, our experience, our beliefs, or our cognitive abilities—and add a claim that some other state of affairs is a necessary condition of the first one. Transcendental arguments most commonly have been deployed against a position denying the knowability of some extra-mental proposition, such as the existence of other minds or a material world. Thus these arguments characteristically center on a claim that, for some extra-mental proposition P, the indisputable truth of some general proposition Q about our mental life requires that P.


  1. I used to chat with "Ozy" on a nearly daily basis for years on Internet Chat Relay in the early 2000s. He knew me by my nick "BeStrong" or "BibleLosophR". I would apply my understanding of Bahnsenian presuppostionalism in our discussions. Now that I know a little bit more about apologetics and philosophy, I realize the limitations of my approach back then. His insightful comments and objections helped me refine my apologetics and theology. While I was never against the use of evidences [as any good Van Tillian wouldn't be], I wish I had used more of them in our discussions. If one watches his videos on YouTube, Calvinists like myself will likely realize he's one of those people who have been gifted with a lot of Common Grace in terms of intellect. There have been many times I thought how great it would have been if he became a Christian and used his intellect in defense of Christianity. I still pray for him on occasion. I'm probably only a few people on the internet who knows his real name (and he mine). Though, I won't betray that confidence.

    //So that's where he's coming from. He's an atheist. I've been told he's a former Christian, now apostate.//

    He's a former Jehovah's Witness. Having been influenced by (I believe) his mother in his youth. He's been interviewed by Justin Schieber and Ben Watkins at Real Atheology on why the popular definition of atheism among atheists as being a lack of a belief in God is both unhelpful and less clarifying. I often recommend atheists and Christians listen to the interview in hopes that the popular definition finally gets put to rest as useless. Here's a LINK to various definitions of atheism from respected works or thinkers on why atheism is a belief in the non-existence of God or gods.

    So either some human beliefs are immune to the possibility of error or all of God's beliefs are immune to the possibility of error, which is what makes the contrast between truth and error coherent in the first place.

    I wonder if the part I've bolded is a typo or not. I'm having to re-read it to determine if it is.


    1. Ozy undergirds his views of evolutionary psychology and cognition on Evolutionary Reliabilism.

      Here are some links to James Sage's critiques:

      The Circularity of Evolutionary Reliabilism

      The Evolutionary Basis of Self-Deception

      Of course there are other problems with atheists must hurtle like the problem of Eliminative Materialism. Or how theism makes better sense of the various axioms of science and justified belief in those axioms.

      If I were an atheist I would take seriously eliminative materialism which argues that human consciousness, thoughts, desires, beliefs, feelings, deliberations, decisions, intentionality, ratiocinations and acts of will aren't real. That makes a lot of sense if materialistic atheism were true. Though, not all atheists confirmed are materialists/naturalists.

      I think there's some truth to Ozy's point that says (words to the effect) that having a worldview that apparently provides for the preconditions of intelligibility is a desideratum, but not something that absolutely necessary or necessarily proves its truth. It may be that a worldview (e.g. Christianity) that appears to provide such might be wrong, while a worldview that has less axiomatic resources to ground knowledge might be true (e.g. atheism). Yet, I think the case for theism (existentially) and Christianity (evidentially) is strong enough that we ought to desire theism to be true and see that Christianity is the best candidate out there (though, limiting oneself to inductive investigation cannot demonstrate its absolute truth). I could say more, but I've already explained my views in my various blogs, as well as comments on Triablogue over the years.

  2. "Rather, it's that, at bottom, rationality is the tool we use, the ladder we climb, to reach conclusions and justify them, but rationality is composed, constituted, out of universally-shared assumptions which are indispensible and which, unfortunately, can't be used to justify themselves."

    I know of Ozy and I'm not a fan. I think it is a bit naive for atheist to think that by just stating they are foundationalist eliminates the difficulty of explaining these things. The issue with merely assuming them is that that leaves an underdetermination problem where he could be assuming what the Christian worldview explains. The other issue is that people often seem to try to explain why law of logic are true(anti realist and realist). How does he know his belief in logic is properly produced? I think the Stroudian problem applies here because he sets his criteria for properly basic beliefs to be that they are indispensable and that they are universal. How does he know any beliefs are universal? Christians appeal to the sensus divinitatis, but what gets him to that conclusion? The Stroud thing is to show the indispensability factor doesn't get you out the waters yet. How does he know that these aren't simply fictions necessary to the mind that he imposes on the outside world?

    "If I'm the only mind, a disembodied mind, why don't I have a memory of an infinite past? Didn't I always exist?"

    I completely agree with the critique of solipsism. I just wondered if I'm the only mind that exists, then why am I the last to hear about it? But Steve, great article once again.