Sunday, November 12, 2006

Self-evidency and Apologetics

I asked Andrew to spell out his concerns in a single post so that I could give him a better reply since it appears that we were talking past each other. He did so here.

Steve Hays responded here.

There's not much I'd add to what Steve said, and I agree with most of his analysis.

Still, I'll offer something by way of response.

I'll first look at his argument, and then his commentary:

I think to clarify my thinking to you I’d put it the following way:
1. There are self-evident truths (such as the fact that I exist) and there are logically necessary truths.
2. Logically necessary truths can be demonstrated by the rules of strict implication.
3. There is no logical proof for God’s existence that starts w/ premises that are indisputable (self-evident)to all.
4. If you believe in God, then either that knowledge is self-evident, or it is deduced from premises that are self-evident.
5. You can't argue for self-evident truths w/o circularity.
6. It, therefore, makes no sense to argue for self-evident truths with someone who doesn’t share them (or even someone who does, come to think of it)
7. The elect have been granted special, self-evident knowledge (Divine Revelation) by virtue of the work of the Spirit that brings them into a saving relationship with God.
8. By 6, it makes no sense for an apologist to attempt to argue for truths illumined by the Spirit.


The points I make are not to be understood as corresponding one-to-one with his premises above. I'll therefore use Roman numerals to mark off my outline.

i) Points (1) --> (8) do not constitute a valid argument. For one, "makes no sense" is extremely vague, and it is found nowhere in the premises. What ties the premises to the conclusion(s), then? Further, in (5) it looks like he denies the first half of the disjunct in (4) but then doesn't go on to consider the other half of the disjunct. Even though I wouldn't agree with it, it would have at least added validity to the argument. Since Andrew chose to cast his "problems with my view" in terms of a formal argument, we could technically stop here, saying he's not made his case.

ii) It's not obvious that "it makes no sense to argue for self-evident beliefs" considering that a majority of the history of philosophy has done just that. The onus is on Andrew to show that men like Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, were doing something which "didn't make sense."

Furthermore, look at some of the more current debates. Plantinga would say, pace Casteneda, that it's self-evidentially true that actualism is the case (i.e., it's not possible that there are non-existent objects). On the other hand, take serious actualism (that no object has a property in a world in which it does not exist). Some philosophers (more respected and knowledgeable than you or I (or, at least I!) will ever be) take serious actualism to be self-evident, some do not. Are you saying that what they do in the scholarly journals - i.e., argue - "makes no sense?" Clearly you have a tough road to hoe here.

Therefore, even if he's right about this "self-evident" business (which I'll address below), he hasn't made his case that it would "make no sense to argue for self-evident propositions."

iii) Consider (2). (2) only takes one kind of logically necessary truths into consideration. Why?

Andrew brings up the narrow sense, i.e., those that follow from the laws of logic alone. But then this expresses a logically necessary truth: "If Scripture does not err, and if Scripture tells us that God exists, then it is true that God exists. That's a logically necessary truth because the consequent conditional was deduced from the antecedent, thus the truth follows from the laws of logic alone.

But there's a broader sense. Another way to look at logically necessary truths are to take a sentence and exchange the terms with other definitionaly equivalent terms. So, all bachelors are unmarried is replaced with all unmarried males are unmarried. And in this sense logically necessary truths are identified with analytic truths. But of course Quine has something to say about that, doesn't he (cf. Two Dogmas of Empiricism).

Then there's a still broader sense. We can speak of logically necessary truths as those truths which are true in all possible worlds. And here if the Ontological Argument is sound, then it is a logically necessary truth that God exists.

iv) (3) is interesting. For one, how does he know that "there is no logical proof for God's existence using premises all men agree upon." All he can say is that he's unaware of such a proof.

Second, I've already argued above that "self-evident" is not synonymous with "indisputable."

Third, as Steve pointed out, hardly anything can meet this criteria.

Fourth, even the use of "self-evidency" can be turned into an argument for God. Self evident truths are those truths, traditionally, which no human person with proper-functioning cognitive faculties can be said to understand, yet deny. And, "proper functionality" makes sense within a theistic framework, not a naturalistic one.

Fifth, who cares? Since what people take to be "self-evident" is largely based on their worldviews, then (3) turns out to be making the claim that there is no logical proof for God existence which persuades all men.

v) With regards to (4), I'd definitely ditto Steve's response.

I'd further add that Andrew seems to be a foundationalist and one wonders how he avoids the problems with classical foundationalism. If he's not, then why cast the debate in terms of classical foundationalism?

Lastly, one needs read very little of Plantinga to see that properly basic beliefs can be properly basic and yet not self-evident (in the traditional sense).

vi) To say that one doesn't need to prove or argue for self-evident beliefs, because they are certain seems to shirk your responsibilities.

First, most people consider the law of non-contradiction to be self-evident. But, what do you do with dialethism? Tell them you don't need to argue for the classical claim? Tell that to Graham Priest. No, tell it to Priest while he's in the pub so that he can have a good, hearty laugh.


"Suppose my cognitive faculties are redesigned by an Alpha Centaurian superscientist in an experimental mood; he modifies them in such a way that when I consider any proposition of the sort n is a prime (where n is any of the first 10,000 natural numbers), it has for me the very appearance of necessity enjoyed by even the most elementary of elementary truths of arithmetic. I form the belief that n is prime, for some fairly large number n less than 10,000; chances are I form a false belief; but even if it happens to be true, I don't know that it is." - Alvin Plantinga, WPF, 108.

"A proposition can appear to be self-evident even though it is not. For instance. the proposition that all unmarried males are bachelors will appear self-evident to many until they consider that the pope is such a male. A proposition will appear self-evident to some but not to others, even though it must either have or lack the property of being self-evident... some self-evident propositions are obvious, such as the proposition that all stags are male, but others are not, since it may take considerable reflection to achieve an adequate understanding of them... that there is no knowledge of falsehoods is one of them." -Bruce Russell, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, p.826.

"One important point about self-evidence is made clear by the case of memory, and that is, that self-evidence has degrees: it is not a quality which is simply present or absent, but a quality which may be more or less present, in gradations ranging from absolute certainty down to an almost imperceptible faintness. Truths of perception and some of the principles of logic have the very highest degree of self-evidence; truths of immediate memory have an almost equally high degree. The inductive principle has less self-evidence than some of the other principles of logic, such as 'what follows from a true premise must be true'. Memories have a diminishing self-evidence as they become remoter and fainter; the truths of logic and mathematics have (broadly speaking) less self-evidence as they become more complicated. Judgments of intrinsic ethical or aesthetic value are apt to have some self-evidence, but not much." -Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Knowledge, P.117

And so given the above, why think that what you take to be self-evident shouldn’t be argued for? And why think it "makes no sense" to argue for them, especially since, for some of them, an argument can cause one to have a greater understanding of the proposition involved and, hence, allow one to see the self-evidency of it.

vii) (5) doesn't appear obvious. It's hard to see how an argument for, say, the self-evident proposition that you can't know something that is false would be "circular."

Also, ditto Steve's response. Not all circular arguments are fallacious. "Circularity is not always fallacious..." - Douglas Walton, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 135.

And why assume that this would be a defect? An internal critique could be leveled and so progress could be made when your opponent accepts your position for arguments sake. And this nullifies his number (6). (That, and the other points I brought up which show that self-evidency can (and should be!, in some cases) argued for.)

viii) Why assume that (7) is true? I don't think that, on the traditional understanding, the vast majority of Scriptural propositions are "self-evident?" When the Spirit illumines me to understand that "Jesus forever lives to intercede for the saints," why assume that that is "self-evident?" That strikes me as odd.

ix) I think (8) "makes no sense," especially given the arguments above and in Steve's post.

Furthermore, the Bible commands us to evangelize, and to "defend the faith delivered to the saints." Since I don't draw a distinction of kind, but of degree between evangelism and apologetics, then Andrew's argument seems to imply that Christians should not evangelize. But the Bible clearly says that we should. So Andrew's position says that parts of the Bible is false. But his position would say that "it makes no sense" for me to respond to it! Thus he can offer criticisms and get away Scott free.

Indeed, why think that it "makes no sense" to point out the errors committed when people attack our faith? This strikes me as all very odd. Indeed, Andrew can argue for his worldview, other philosophers can argue for theirs, but Christians can't argue for theirs!?

I'll now address what he takes to be his cash value for all of this:


I think apologetics (in any world view) is completely legitimate for talk within a system or even between systems if some common ground is found for those systems. But it seems pointless (and in the strictest sense, impossible) at the “foundational” level. It would be pointless, for instance, to try to prove to myself or someone else that I really exist. I’d say my existence is true but unprovable.

If you say your belief in the Bible is foundational, but then attempt to argue for it, then that belief must not be truly foundational (self-evident).
My sense is that sometimes apologists mix that which can be argued for and that which cannot and this leads to unwarranted frustration.

If someone were too dense or pig headed to grasp basic logic, I’d get frustrated too. On the other hand, if someone didn’t accept something I consider purely self-evident, or if they objected to an attempt to *argue* for it, it’d be unfair for me to express frustration, since, on my view, they’d be within their epistemic rights.


Notice that above (8) he says that it makes no sense to "argue for truths illumined by the spirit." But then he says Christians can engage in apologetics.

Illumination is the process by which God's Holy Spirit enables us to understand His word and apply it to our lives.

J.I. Packer tells us that,

"The knowledge of divine things to which Christians are called is more than a formal acquaintance with biblical words and Christian ideas. It is a realizing of the reality and relevance of those activities of the triune God to which Scripture testifies. Such awareness is natural to none, familiar with Christian ideas though they may be (like “the man without the Spirit” in 1 Cor. 2:14 who cannot receive what Christians tell him, or the blind leaders of the blind of whom Jesus speaks so caustically in Matt. 15:14, or like Paul himself before Christ met him on the Damascus road). Only the Holy Spirit, searcher of the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10), can bring about this realization in our sin-darkened minds and hearts. That is why it is called “spiritual understanding” (spiritual means “Spirit-given,” Col. 1:9; cf. Luke 24:25; 1 John 5:20). Those who, along with sound verbal instruction, “have an anointing from the Holy One... know the truth” (1 John 2:20).

The work of the Spirit in imparting this knowledge is called “illumination,” or enlightening. It is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to love the revelation that is there before us in the biblical text as heard and read, and as explained by teachers and writers. Sin in our mental and moral system clouds our minds and wills so that we miss and resist the force of Scripture. God seems to us remote to the point of unreality, and in the face of God’s truth we are dull and apathetic. The Spirit, however, opens and unveils our minds and attunes our hearts so that we understand (Eph. 1:17-18; 3:18-19; 2 Cor. 3:14-16; 4:6). As by inspiration he provided Scripture truth for us, so now by illumination he interprets it to us. Illumination is thus the applying of God’s revealed truth to our hearts, so that we grasp as reality for ourselves what the sacred text sets forth.

Illumination, which is a lifelong ministry of the Holy Spirit to Christians, starts before conversion with a growing grasp of the truth about Jesus and a growing sense of being measured and exposed by it. Jesus said that the Spirit would “convict the world” of the sin of not believing in him, of the fact that he was in the right with God the Father (as his welcome back to heaven proved), and of the reality of judgment both here and hereafter (John 16:8-11). This threefold conviction is still God’s means of making sin repulsive and Christ adorable in the eyes of persons who previously loved sin and cared nothing for the divine Savior.

The way to benefit fully from the Spirit’s ministry of illumination is by serious Bible study, serious prayer, and serious response in obedience to whatever truths one has been shown already. This corresponds to Luther’s dictum that three things make a theologian: oratio (prayer), meditatio (thinking in God’s presence about the text), and tentatio (trial, the struggle for biblical fidelity in the face of pressure to disregard what Scripture says)."SOURCE

Thus "illumination" applies to every verse in the Bible.

And since Andrew takes it that when the Spirit illumines something to use it makes the proposition "self-evident," and since Andrew simultaneously holds the belief that Christians shouldn't argue for (or, it doesn't make sense for them to argue for) their self-evident beliefs, and since Andrew says that apologetics is appropriate, and since apologetics involves defending and advancing biblical propositions and doctrines, and since these propositions and doctrines are understood by the Christian via the Spirit's illumination, then Andrew has contradicted himself; or, at best, he doesn't understand what "illumination" means.

Next, I'd like to say that there is common ground between all systems in that God owns all the ground. From our vantage point, since all men are created in the image of God, and since all the facts point to their creator, then we have common ground with every man and can use any fact. This common ground is not a neutral common ground, though.

Lastly, to say that someone is within their "epistemic rights" presupposes that there are epistemic norms. And if someone cannot account for epistemic norms, then, given their worldview, they're not within their epistemic rights since there are no such "rights."

And so I fail to see how it's "pointless" to engage in apologetics. Indeed, Andrew's argument is naive, contradictory at points, misleading at points, and far from being clear.

Therefore the Christian can defend and argue for his belief system. There's a "point" to doing this. That it may be used as a means by God to convert or shut the mouth.


  1. Paul, this isn't related all that well to your post, but what would it take to break you Christianity?

    I've seen you discount/offer what you think is a refutation of evidentialism, so what could serve to refute your view even in theory?

    Let us say aliens came down to earth and presented how they had fertilized our earth with cells and so forth, would you still stick with your views as this is only experience and you have the words of the all knowing being on your side?

    I guess my curiousity is about coherentist views. It doesn't seem to me that they need to contact reality much if one allows unlimited ad hocisms as well as accepts premises discounting interactions with the world. For example the person walking around thinking the world popped into existence 5 minutes ago. You talk with them in the morning, then later in the afternoon, they can't possibly be right, correct? They simply respond that the world popped into existence 5 minutes ago in such a way that you remember seeing them this morning saying such a thing. Their view doesn't seem defeatable, yet I think we agree that it is dismissable.

    This is getting long, so I will just leave my question, what would even in theory refute your view? If the answer is there isn't anything, then 2 options seem to come up. One that it is actually true, and two that it is simply a consistent view that can be constructed if one accepts coherentism and certain premises in regards to it. I happen to think the latter is likely correct.

  2. 1. Christianity is not synonymous with *my views.*

    2. I've already posted on a disagreement I had with my former self's apologetic method.

    3. I'm pretty Lutherian, i.e., convince me by sound reason or Scripture, if not, here I stand.

    4. Christians stay Christians, ultimately, because they persevere in the faith, and this is the work of God.

    5. As far as the aliens go:

    a) Let's say I agreed with the aliens. That would only convince me that *one aspect* of my faith was wrong.

    b) The question would be pushed back: How'd the aliens get here? Aliens spead seeds on their planet? Well, how 'bout those aliens? Ad infinitum.

    6. At the end of the end, for me, it comes down to Romans 3:4. So, assuming the aliens are finite, fallible beings (otherwise mormonism might be true! :-)), I'll take the "presentations" of God over the "presentations" of aliens.

    7. I'm not a "coherentist." At least how that's traditionally understood.

    8. People's experience with the world is always viewed through a set of presuppositions. Seeing, vs. seeing as.

    I gave the example of the ancient Greek who believed that Apollo was a god and all gods are immortal. If he saw Apollo die in battle, which belief does he drop? he could drop either. Depends what he's most commited to.

    Thus empirical observation never in-and-of-itself tells us wich of our beliefs to revise.

    9. YouTo your boiled don question:

    a) The one-by-one myth, i.e., that beliefs are excepted and rejected in a one-by-one fashion seems to be assumed in your post.

    b) Any belief can be the central belief. Since empirical evidence never tells us which beliefs to drop, the person has a vast amount of beliefs he could drop before he drops his most basic one.

    c) I hold my committment as an ultimate authority. All men do so, with their own ultimate. So, though there may be things in theory that would "falsify" a belief, the believer's acting commital does not mean the belief cannot be falsified, in theory.

    So, one "theoretical" way my belief would be falsified is as the Apostle Paul says: "If Jesus has not risen from the dead your faith is in vain."

    10. I think my view is true, and coherent.

  3. Paul,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I wasn’t making a formal argument, but the charge of being vague is still valid. I’ll attempt some further clarification:

    Both you and Steve have misread item 5 as a negative value judgment regarding circular arguments. It was meant to be a simple statement of fact. I actually have no beef with your view and Steve’s on this matter.

    Further, in (5) it looks like he denies the first half of the disjunct in (4) but then doesn't go on to consider the other half of the disjunct.

    I think your thrown by my use of the term "circularity". Fact is, I absolutely do NOT deny the first half of (4). I’m not quite sure why you think this. Some consider their belief in a higher power to be a given. I believe them.

    I don’t work out the second half of (4), you are right. However, I am not saying a logical proof does not exist, only that I’ve not seen one whose premises I consider to be self-evidently true. Sorry for not making this clear. My sense is that a God proof would be part and parcel of a theory of everything.

    Regarding self –evidence:

    I think we’re making different distinctions.

    If one were to come to believe that, say, “serious actualism” is true on the basis of a formal argument, I’d not consider that belief to be self-evident. The axioms that feed into the formalization are what I’d actually consider self-evident.

    On the other hand, if a person’s case for actualism turns into a never ending spiral of argumentation, or appeals to vague terms like “intuition”, “common sense”, “elegance”, well that’d be a subjective value judgment. It could rise to the level of self-evident (or certainty) in the mind of the person convinced, but It’d have no claim on my assent. Without a formal argument based on something *I* consider basic, there’d be no purely *rational* reason for me to accept what someone else might consider self-evident.

    I could theoretically become convinced for vague reasons of my own, but those reason, being vague, couldn't be shown to be purely rational.


    You make mention of numerous heavyweights.

    All I’ll say about Quine is that he does not have the final word on the matter. Putnam, for one, demures.

    As far as Plantinga being okay w/ properly basic versus something being self-evident in the classic sense, I’m not quite sure what to say except that certainty is certainty whether you call it the former or the latter. My take is that Plantinga helps mostly those inside the fold.

    I’d don’t pretend to prove dialethism isn’t true. I’m not sure it even makes sense to argue for or against it. At any rate, it seems any attempt to argue for or against it will *have* to have recourse to 2 valued logic. Taking an extreme example, do I need to prove I exist? I’ll put the notion that “not all propositions are both true and false” in the self-evident category and endure Priest’s ridicule. I’ll do the same w/ my existence.

    My association of "self-evident" and "circular" is a matter of taste. I connect them because, for me, saying that something is self-evident is like saying that “it is, because it is”. Again, I was not implying that circularity is a “defect”.

    As to your other comments regarding the validity of apologetics and the true nature of divine illumination, I’ll direct you to Steve’s post and my response, if you haven’t already seen it.

    Let’s just say that I do NOT object to apologetics; I find it impressive and I have deep respect for it. I do, however, consider it unfair when someone is called irrational for not holding to core beliefs that I feel could only be mediated by the Spirit, as opposed to arguments alone.

    Incidentally, I'm not really trying to prove an argument or advance a theory. I'm trying to put into words what NOT knowing is like for me and elicit much appreciated feedback.

    Thanks again for the exchange…Andrew

  4. Thanks for the reply Paul, sorry for the poor spelling a grammar last night.

    Some of this stuff doesn't make much sense to me, I'll be back later with a few more questions.


  5. :::YAWN!!!:::

    Paul, your words fail on both counts...they aren't used by god to convert anyone, and they don't shut mouths either.

    You loose.

  6. Anonymous Yawner,

    You assume that by "shut mouth" I mean, "they will stop making any comments whatsoever."

    Actually, it could mean that all they will do is "yawn."

    If the only challenge left to my faith is that a guy "yawns" at all my posts, I'd say the mouths have been shut.

    So, yawn away, it just shows me that you have lost the intellectual battle.


  7. blah blah blah blah

    Paul continues to yap....and nobody gets converted....and the only 'shut mouth' is in Paul's mind, as my mouth is open, laughing at him, and mocking his silly god.

  8. Andrew,

    i feel a lot of my distinctions answered even what you say here. Nevertheless, I think this is the heart of what you're wanting to get at,

    " I do, however, consider it unfair when someone is called irrational for not holding to core beliefs that I feel could only be mediated by the Spirit, as opposed to arguments alone."

    To this I draw, again, on my distinction between *reasons* and *causes* for belief.

    There are *myriad* reasons for belief. I have never called anyone "irrational" in that he doesn't believe in the "causes" sense.

    I hope that's clear.

    For example, there are deists (I disagree with this, but follow for sake of illustration). Many are deistic through, say, traditional theistic arguments, e.g., cosmological and teleological arguments.

    I wouldn't say that their God-belief was due to the spirits illumination.

    Likewise, I know plenty of people who think my theism is rational and they believe in thr God I do. But, they tell me that they *refuse* to *submit* (or, "believe" in the "cause" sense) to my Lord simply because they don't "feel like living that way."

    Here I've convinced people of the truth of my position, yet they have no desire to "believe."

    So I deny that people can't believe in God, or the Christian claims, without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

    I drew the reasons/causes distinction back in our first go at it. And this is why. I think this distinction cuts to the heart of your objection.

    I maintain that you're equivocating. There are two senses of belief. In one sense, you're correct. People can't be argued into belief and they shouldn't be ridiculed as irrational for not believing.

    On the other hand, since 'rationality' is a property of beliefs of cognizers, we can say that an agent (or, cognizer) is irrational for rejecting the plain evidence in front of his face. I maintian that the evidence for God's existence is so overwhelming that men have no excuse for their unbelief.

    The above would involve the second sense of "believe" (i.e., *reasons* for). In this sense, we sure can call the unbeliever irrational since he's denying something like the hand right in front of his face, but God's existence is even more clear!

    I hope that clears things up.

  9. "2. I've already posted on a disagreement I had with my former self's apologetic method."

    I appreciated and believe I commented on that post.

    "5. As far as the aliens go:

    a) Let's say I agreed with the aliens. That would only convince me that *one aspect* of my faith was wrong."

    The reason I brought up the aliens, is that that would seem to wreck the genesis creation story, garden of Eden and the fall. With no fall, the atonement is gone too, so it seems my hypothetical aliens would execute the 'guts out the bum' move on Christianity. (Blue Streak ;) )

    "b) The question would be pushed back: How'd the aliens get here? Aliens spead seeds on their planet? Well, how 'bout those aliens? Ad infinitum."

    And those would be very interesting questions.

    So, connected to this, how do you go about revising your views? Is it mainly going back to the bible and seeing where you misunderstood it to harmonize with experiences?

    "6. At the end of the end, for me, it comes down to Romans 3:4. So, assuming the aliens are finite, fallible beings (otherwise mormonism might be true! :-)), I'll take the "presentations" of God over the "presentations" of aliens."

    This seems contradictory to what you said earlier, that the aliens would convince you of the error of some of your beliefs. Which is it?

    "7. I'm not a "coherentist." At least how that's traditionally understood."

    From my limited understanding of it, it seems like presuppositionalism uses that kind of conception. A web of beliefs, some centralized, a single true, coherent web, etc. Maybe I'm misunderstanding.

    "he could drop either. Depends what he's most commited to."

    I'd be interested in expansion on the nature of this commitment. Emotional? Plausibility? Etc.

    This is just a comment on the side, it seems to me that if someone holds empiricism near the core of their beliefs, inconsistency is pretty much guaranteed. They have to deal with a constant stream of new data coming in from the world and try integrate it, meaning beliefs get tossed out from the periphery quite often. Make any sense?