Monday, November 13, 2006

Should Presuppositionalism Be Taken Seriously?

Jeff Lowder recently wrote a post asking how seriously presuppositionalism should be taken.

Jim Lazarus wrote a blog entry asking the same question. He answered in the affirmative, or, at least as seriously as other approaches to apologetics are taken.

Here's my answer: No, don't take it seriously.


Well, here's a few reasons:

1. The internet infidels has a newsletter relaying Stein's comments on his debate with Greg Bahnsen. It's reported that:

"Gordon Stein concedes that Greg Bahnsen was able to catch him off-guard with TAG (although Stein says he now has a refutation of the argument);..."

2. Further, Edward Tabash didn't take the debate between him and Bahnsen seriously - he doesn't distribute those tapes.

So, yes, don't take presuppositionalism seriously. Then there will always be an excuse after the debate doesn't go your way.

3. Dan Barker didn't take me seriously, but most people, including atheists, don't think the debate turned out so well for him.

4. Someone posted a comment on Lowder's blog where he said that our arguments are "silly" and "nonsense." We like that attitude because then if the debate doesn't turn out so well for the atheist he gets beat by someone who had "silly" and "nonsensical" arguments. (Also, we were never told what was "silly" and "nonsense," and so it looks like not taking us seriously leads one to make unfounded assertions like these!)

5. Lowder seems to equate the method of presuppositionalism with the transcendental argument. As long as presuppositionalism is not taken seriously, then mistakes like this will continue to be made. That only helps us.

6. Please, don't take us seriously, this way you'll have an excuse for attacking straw men like Michael Martin does in TANG (e.g., his claim that miracles are violates of natural laws, and his view that Christianity teaches voluntarism, his ignorance of covenant theology).

7. Apropos (6), presuppositionalism is tied in with reformed systematic theology. To the extent you don't take one seriously, you won't take the other seriously. This leads to non-Christians attacking straw men.

8. So, don't take us seriously, please. Ignoring us only helps us, and since we're theists, we need all the help we can get!


  1. Wow, what a neat article. I think its impressive when you with the collective "us" statements.

    Here come the atheists!!! They all are being so convinced by the presupp arguments!!! On your knees atheists!

    Oh wait...only god can convert those poor saps...and playing the presupper is just mental whacking off for the 'hard hitting' apologists like Paul Manata.

  2. Paul said: Presuppositionalism is tied in with reformed systematic theology.

    Vytautas says: You raise an intereseting point.

  3. Boy, I sure do love anonymous comments.

    Anyway, as I said in the post, I think that presuppositionalism, when approached in the right way, using the right arguments, deserves more credit and consideration than the standard evidential arguments. I didn't argue for why in the paper. But I'll just give my own personal take on this, briefly, here.

    In my opinion, standard cosmological and design arguments have very little going for them. There is some interesting work from Alex Pruss and Richard Gale that may show differently about the cosmological argument, but the Gale-Pruss argument is hardly a "standard" cosmo argument.

    On the other hand, Reppert's argument from reason and Plantinga's EAAN are interesting arguments, and, in my never so humble opinion, deserve some serious consideration (as Plantinga received in "Naturalism Defeated?, by Kvanvig").

    Likewise, there are some moral arguments that are better than others, and some theologically based ethical theories that are more respectable than others, and so on the assumption that a presuppositionalist would choose to use the better ones, presuppositionalism would deserve to be taken seriously.

    I don't think I can put too much stock in *the* Transcendental Argument as it treats logic, but after discussing Goodman's Paradox with you, Paul, I think that there is something respectable to be said about a theistic picture of the world helping us to overcome inductive skepticism.

    So what this boils down to is that the arguments that I regard as the most respectable are those that are either a part of, or can be accepted by, presuppositional approaches to apologetics, whereas the arguments that I give lesser credence to are typical of standard evidentialist approaches to apologetics.

    - Jim

  4. Jim, that was a naughty thing for you to say. Didn't you read what anonymouse said?

  5. Jim Laz,
    YOu are a very different kind of Atheist...
    Jimmy LI

  6. too bad that Jim Laz is going to burn forever.

  7. Of course presuppositionalism should be taken seriously.

    What I would like to see, though, is a more worked-out version of its arguments.

    Here are some comments regarding your points above:

    1. The Bahnsen-Stein debate. Stein had prepared to discuss traditional arguments for the existence of a God. Bahnsen was not utilizing any of those traditional arguments. But what was he doing?

    Although Bahnsen alludes to TAG a few times, he never explicitly spells it out. This is very unlike the other traditional arguments that stand on their own. Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument, for instance, is clearly stated and defended. He offers a deductively valid argument and then supplies support for each of the premises. His case stands or falls on his ability to demonstrate his argument to be true.

    The Bahnsen-Stein debate was very different, though. Bahnsen never (to my knowledge) sets down a clear, deductively valid argument that he then supports. Instead, he asks Stein questions about laws of logic.

    What I would have liked to have heard from Stein would be something to the effect of, "Greg, I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with this argument for the existence of God. You have mentioned the impossibility of the contrary several times. What do you mean by this? How does a discussion of the laws of logic fit in with your argument for the existence of your God?"

    I would have liked to have seen Bahnsen's answer to this. I would like to have seen Bahnsen spell his argument out clearly. Maybe it would have been tremendously powerful and convincing.

    I can't help but feel that the Bahnsen-Stein debate was only a victory for Bahnsen because he derailed the argument. He kept Stein off-topic. He certainly demonstrated that Stein was a poor epistemologist, but how does Stein's poor epistemology demonstrate the existence of a God?

    2. The Tabash-Bahnsen debate. Pretty much the same thing. What was Bahnsen's argument? Why was the discussion of moral laws important? It couldn't be as simple as: "You can't account for moral laws; I can; therefore a God exists," but this is almost how it came off.

    Similarly, I would have liked Tabash to say, "Greg, I don't understand where you are going with this. What is the argument you are trying to make?"

    Here, again, I can't help but feel that Bahnsen won the debate by derailing the conversation. Why is talk of morality significant to the question?

    3. Manata-Barker. This one might have been less decisive than the others. But the topic was also very different. The other debates were about the existence of a God, this one was about reasonableness.

    I'm not sure that the same criticisms apply here since Paul was not directly arguing for the existence of a God, but rather the reasonableness (or lack thereof) of another's philosophical commitments.

    4. Talk of presuppositionalism being "silly" and "non-sense" is "silly" and "non-sense." Obviously, it should be reasonably considered.

    5. It is significant that "Lowder seems to equate the method of presuppositionalism with the transcendental argument." Why is this? Is it because Lowder has been a poor student of presuppositionalism? That could well be the case. Conversely, though, might it not also be that presuppositionalists have not been very clear about it?

    I'm sure at the scholarly level, presuppositionalism is clearly defined. It's the lower levels that I'm concerned with. I, for instance, probably will not take the time to do a thorough investigation of all of the scholarly literature on presuppositionalism. I have other things to do. I have other things to read and consider. I'm not going to go out of my way to dig through books and journals to discover what presuppositionalism is all about.

    Why won't I do this? Well, because I'm a shopper, not a defeator. I'm interested in hearing good arguments for the existence of a God. I'm willing to be convinced by those arguments (even if I may be resistent to becoming a follower of believer in a particular religion, I am still willing to find out whether that particular conception of God is true or not).

    So, as a shopper, who is being confronted with a new argument, I want to know more about it. I want to know exactly what the "seller" of the argument has to offer me in terms of the arguments reasonableness.

    With presuppositionalism, though, I have always felt a little cheated. I have always felt that something was being hidden. [I.e. with one very notable exception. Steve's post a couple of weeks ago was very clear. His presentation of the argument, however, led me to believe that there was much more work to be done before I will be convinced by it.]

    There do seem to be a lot of "misrepresentations" (or, at least, a lot of contrary representations) of presuppositionalism. Maybe the blame should fall on the atheists who misrepresent it. Or, maybe, the blame should fall on presuppositionalists who have not clearly presented their arguments.

    6. I never liked the TANG argument.

    7. Reformed theology has been very clearly spelled out. My feeling, though, is that presuppositionalism has not been.

    8. I'm taking it seriously.

    I'm going to be calling into Gene Cook's radio program on Friday to ask about presuppositionalism. I've been trying to think about how to phrase my question. Originally, I thought I would ask by the scenario I'll give below, but decided that it was too long for radio, and I've pretty much settled on a different phrasing. I think my original wording is appropriate for blogging, though.

    Scenario One:

    Imagine that I have decided to attend a debate on the existence of God. The debate features William Lane Craig and some atheist (it doesn't matter for my purposes).

    I am supposed to meet friends there, but I get stuck in traffic and arrive 15 minutes late. As I walk in, I hear Craig talking about an "infinite regress."

    I see my friend standing in the back and I walk up to him.

    ME: "Hey, Sorry I'm late. Why is Craig talking about an infinite regress? I thought they were going to be talking about whether or not a God exists."

    FRIEND: "Oh, you see, Craig began his talk by giving an argument. It went something like this:

    (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause for existence.
    (2) The universe began to exist.
    (3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for existence.
    (4) The cause of the universe would have to have certain properties.
    (5) God has those properties.
    (6) God is the best explanation of the cause of the universe.

    What Craig is doing now is supporting his second premise."

    I think I would easily understand why the subject of infinite regress was important to the conversation.

    Scenario Two:

    [Same circumstance, but this time the debate is between a presuppositionalist and some atheist.]

    As I walk in, I hear the presuppositionalist talking about "laws of logic."

    I see my friend standing in the back and I walk up to him.

    ME: "Hey, Sorry I'm late. Why is the presuppositionalist talking about laws of logic? I thought they were going to be talking about whether or not a God exists."


    My question is this: What should my friend tell me if he properly understands what is going on in the debate?


    Debates are usually argument-driven. Any particular topic of conversation should be easily plugged into a particular premise of a particular argument. I see this clearly with other apologists. Their argument is clear and their premises clearly supported.

    I don't feel the same when it comes to presuppositionalism. I always wonder where they are going with the things they say.

    Someone asks me, "How do you account for moral laws?" And I say, "I really don't know. There are some good arguments for moral realism, but there are a lot of problems there as well. Ayer's emotivism solves some problems but raises others. Relativism, in some forms, sounds reasonable, but has it's own difficulties. I really don't know. Why do you ask?"

    The same is true about laws of logic. Are they revisable? Are they situational? Coherentism, foundationalism (strong or weak)??? I don't know!

    So, does this mean a God exists? Why does this mean that a God exists? How do we go from "I don't know," to "God exists"? What are the steps? What is the argument? What is going on in presuppositionalism? This is what I can't figure out.

  8. It seems obvious that the objectivity, metaphysical necessity and universality (OMNU) of logic/morality/etc. are the crux of any argument that they can give, and this "support" only works against someone who denies these things. They believe that, since God is by fiat OMNU, and since these things are, they can just say, "Aha!"

    This still doesn't get to the heart of necessity vs. contingency -- ie logical laws apply in all possible worlds, but can we say that God had to have the specific nature that God has? If so, is God OMNU, or is God's nature contingent upon these other OMNUs, which just pushes the problem back a step further.

    If not so, then how does the theist argue this? By fiat. By assertion.

    If someone agrees with them about OMNU status of these things, and simply says, "Give me the evidence that a God is either necessary or sufficient in your explanation for these things," then we have a real debate, and a real conversation.

    I have yet to see a single theist even try to engage this. James Anderson definitely doesn't in his paper.

    The only thing that PS has done is cause physicalists to realize the OMNU entities require an expanded metaphysics/ontology.

  9. Regarding the lack of pubication on the transcendental argument, perhaps this is evident in Faith and Philosophy, but it isn't in the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. The articles below argue for and analyze various versions of the transcendental argument for God. These are fairly recent and this is one of the major journals in the field.

    Sami Pihlström, ‘Pragmatic and Transcendental Arguments for Theism: A Critical Examination’,
    International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 51 (3) (June 2002): 195–214.

    D. P. Baker, ‘Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: A Transcendental Apologetic?’, International
    Journal for Philosophy of Religion
    47 (2000): 155–174.

    D. P. Baker 'Morality, structure, transcendence and theism: A response to Melissa Lane's reading of Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self', International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 54 (2003): 33-48

    Baker has also published the following article in Explorations in contemporary continental philosophy of Religion: ‘Imago Dei: Towards a Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God’, in Baker D.P.
    and Maxwell, P. (eds.)(Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2003)