Saturday, 10 October 2009

Please Choose Your Presupposition

I've been following the debate between presuppositional apologists and others (including the odd Christian) over at Premier Forums, and I thought I would write a little on the subject, in the hope of clarifying my own thinking about it.

To start with, as a sceptic, I'm still in the position where I can evaluate different world views and tentatively indicate which is currently preferred. I'm not committed to any world view, and am open to persuasion. So far, given our human condition, it seems *necessary* to maintain a tentative position. That *could*, in principle, entail preferring a theist world view (it doesn't at the moment!).

(It's noted, though, that provisionality, on the face of it, would seem to rule out a lot of theist world views, which demand *commitment* - Kierkegaard's leap of faith. Doubt is frowned upon, even though acknowledged at times.)

Many theists insist that the sceptic *must* declare a world view. This strikes me as transparently rhetorical; anyone can imagine how a person could be sceptical, non-committal and honestly ignorant, and they *should* address *that* position, not any number of straw men positions they would prefer to attack. However, this is part of their tactic, since they are interested in showing the impossibility of the contrary view, and to deny any criticism of their assumptions. See this, from a presup:
No, God is not on trial, WE ALL ARE. It is obvious to me that evidence doesn’t win the day with atheists, so I choose to argue for the impossibility of the contrary and from a position of accountability.
This is not entirely unreasonable (well the evidence bit is!); as Sherlock Holmes said:
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Unfortunately for the presuppositionalist, I think we can see that they haven't eliminated the impossible.

Consider a typical demand from a presuppositionalist: do YOU account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of loigc [sic] according to YOUR worldview?
Little defence of his own world view, since he understands that his world view begs the question. So straight onto the attack. Your world view begs the question, you make assumptions too. Again, I think this is fair enough, to a degree; we do not have a sure foundation for any epistemology - philosophers have wrestled inconclusively with this knotty problem for centuries, and I'm not about to challenge their (lack of) conclusions! Although it's plain that many are satisfied that we can have *tentative* knowledge, through the comfort we have derived from the scientific method.

So let's consider the claims of two possible world views. The presuppositionalist might say:
  1. I presuppose that God provides the foundation for logic/induction/reason.
  2. I can now justify my use of logic/induction/reason and apply these to the evidence to determine reality.
  3. The atheist world view, because God provides this foundation for logic etc, is impossible.
Unfortunately for the presup, number three is criticising the atheist world view according to his own world view - an external criticism. A typical atheist could then say:
  1. I presuppose that logic/induction/reason is a brute fact.
  2. I can now justify my use of logic/induction/reason and apply these to the evidence to determine reality.
  3. The theist world view assumes a god; please provide the evidence for that, and I will evaluate it (little to no evidence for a god, therefore no god is proved).
There is no *internal* problem with the first two steps of the two world views, if we agree that presuppositions are necessary; which I think is hard to argue against. But it doesn't mean we *have* to accept any presupposition; we are at liberty to evaluate which is the best world view for the reality we see around us.

As a sceptic, I cannot see anything compelling about the theist presuppositional position. It plainly hasn't established a reason to believe its presupposition, and it cannot offer an explanation of how this works. Logic is founded in God? God is logic? This suggests that logic *could* be something else; that there is possibly a state of affairs where 2+2=5 and things could be p and ~p. A presup *must* believe that, otherwise, if this isn't the case, and 2+25 and things can never be p and ~p, then logic still just *is* a brute fact. So the God presupposition does not help.

Also, the presup must demonstrate that there is *no* world view that is possible other than theirs. This assumes that they know all other world views, and have proved them impossible; a brave and foolhardy claim. A sceptic doesn't claim to know all world views, but can analyse those of which he's aware, and tentatively prefer one.

Furthermore, it's difficult to see how one could not plug *anything* in place of God in the presuppositional world view:
I presuppose that my cat/the clouds/love provides the foundation for logic/induction/reason.
Any world view like this is internally consistent, once the presupposition is allowed, and not analysed as above. But it cannot be persuasive to the sceptic, because they *have* to choose between different presuppositions. The presup think it's a compelling argument because they demand everyone commits to a presupposition, and don't examine it. That is their fatal error. We *are* at liberty to adjust our presuppositions, which means we must be allowed to analyse them. They want to deny analysis of the God proposal to all. The sceptic, by contrast, wants *everything* to be open to analysis. Even the foundation of logic (if anyone's got any ideas).

I don't think most Christians think like this (at least, not to this extreme), and it doesn't seem like a position that's worth debating. The presup is obviously happy with their presupposition for internal reasons, and appears blind to the *sceptical* position. The debate will constantly ping pong between demands for a justification of logic, to evidence for God, and no-one will be any the wiser. Best to give the presups a wide berth! They're not for learning.


  • Laurie says:
    31 October 2009 at 04:23

    Nice, Mark! A beautifully-rendered response to the false doctrine of pre-supp.

  • Laurie says:
    17 January 2010 at 22:13

    Bloody brilliant!

  • Laurie says:
    17 January 2010 at 22:14

    Just thought I'd respond again, not having read this piece for a few months. Just superb, mate - says it all.

  • Richard Emmanuel Jones says:
    18 January 2010 at 00:37

    Da iawn.

    So it's bollocks then.

  • Mark Jones says:
    18 January 2010 at 01:30

    Thanks Laurie and REJ!

  • severalspeciesof says:
    18 January 2010 at 08:54

    I've always felt that existence is a presup that both parties can agree to. But with that presup, nothing else is logically infered, not even logic... ;-)

  • Little Green Penguin says:
    28 January 2011 at 07:01

    Thanks for showing me this blog here from the Choice in Dying one! I've been wondering why people debating a presupper (sounds like an extra Hobbit meal, no?) never pointed those two things out. That it's fallacious to demand that someone have a 100%-all-figured-out worldview, and that someone could just declare logic and existence brute facts!

    It seems too soon to declare a victory or stalemate (or maybe I'm just nervous and don't trust myself?) with this one, but it at least shows that the presupper isn't on any better grounds than anyone else. And, actually, it's a lot more parsimonious to declare logic a brute fact, since unlike the Yahwist hypothesis, there aren't any embarrassing problems to explain away...

    I'm actually spewing brainvomit into a text file that will, I hope, eventually be useful for people who debate presups. The Bahnsen crowd is my last obstacle to justification beyond gut feeling and pure science (inductive only) for deconversion. So, hopefully I can show you sometime, and maybe you and some others can edit it?

  • Mark Jones says:
    18 February 2011 at 13:39

    Cheers, LGP (sorry only just seen your comment). Hope these thoughts help with your plans, and I'd certainly be interested to see what you come up with.

Post a Comment