Friday, June 15, 2007

Dialogue With a Reformed Baptist Presuppositionalist, Round Two (vs. John Knight)

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John Frame (b. 1939): leading Reformed presuppositionalist
[source]


See Part One.

It is a pleasure to be welcomed into friendly disagreement.

Likewise; especially in light of certain criticisms from certain quarters that were not -- shall we say -- particularly gracious, to put it mildly . . .

As I pointed out in response to your analysis of an old article by the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen, “Bahnsen is not attacking the good intentions of classicists & evidentialists. He is instead pointing out the futile nature of trying to prove the truth of Christian theism from non-Christian presuppositions.”

That would have to be unpacked as to exactly what it means. I suspect that I could agree with it entirely or in large part, once it was elaborated upon in greater specificity.

Whatever other mistakes we may make, I hope we can all avoid attacking the good intentions of our brothers in Christ.

I don't attack anyone's good intentions or sincerity (and that applies to even my severest critics). It must be noted, however, that since Bahnsen was an anti-Catholic, he would not consider a fully observant, orthodox Catholic (such as myself) as his "brother in Christ" in the first place. And when that is done, it is very difficult for human beings to avoid being condescending, with such a huge category mistake in place.

I look forward to better understanding your apologetic outlook while helping you better understand my perspective & the outlook of my fellow presuppositionalists.

Yes; same here. How refreshing.

I think that the difference between us is, in some ways, probably much smaller than conventionally thought. In other ways, it is very large, but perhaps we can begin to bridge that gap.

I think so.

In my understanding, the key difference between the archetypal Presuppositionalist & the Evidentialist counterpart is not any particular argument. Evidentialists often use arguments that attack the presuppositions of the unbeliever.

I certainly do all the time, because that is what socratics do.

*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***


As noted above, C.S. Lewis used an Argument from Moral Law of that type in Mere Christianity & an Argument from Reason of that type in Miracles. (Whether or not Lewis deserves to be called an evidentialist, most evidentialists claim him as one of their own.) Likewise, I personally use a version of the Argument from the Resurrection, usually considered the sine qua non of evidentialist apologetics. Presuppositionalist Thom Notaro has even written a short book on the use of evidence in Van Tillian apologetics.

Duly noted.

What then is the difference? The real difference, I think, is the question of epistemological neutrality. When evidentialists like John Warwick Montgomery try to provide a defense of the faith on empiricist grounds — on the idea that the facts speak for themselves — they violate the old proverb, Even unbelievers like Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, & Kuhn can see the failure of empiricism to overcome basic problems in the theory of knowledge. Why build your argument upon the sand of unbelief?

One can do this on probabilistic and plausibility grounds. There is wisdom in using the opponents' arguments and turning it against them. Paul urged us to do this and "become all things to all men." It is ultimately only a methodological adoption of the opponents' presuppositions (provisionally only), in order to show that they come to the end of thesmelves eventually, and that unbelieving views end in self-contradiction, utter incoherence, and despair.

The presuppositionalist rejects even the possibility of epistemological neutrality. Instead, he seeks to expose the necessary failure of all unbelieving philosophies & world-views.

I agree that they all fail. So I don;'t see any great difference here. It seems to me that it is largely one of method.

This approach follows his understanding of another proverb, “Argue with a fool according to his folly.” By accepting arguendo the presuppositions of the unbeliever, he works to show that they lead to complete futility, undermining their own claims at the very outset of the conversation.

That's exactly what I try to do with the atheist. But there are a lot of particulars to be dealt with in that overall endeavor. And to argue particulars there must be something held in common by both parties. Logic and widely-accepted scientific facts provide that common ground.

At the same time, the presuppositionalist offers the unbeliever the benefits which flow from acknowledging the fear of the Lord as the beginning of knowledge, wisdom, & understanding. He points to the riches of knowledge that are to be found in Jesus Christ. As Augustine put it, “Without belief there is no understanding.”

How does one have a discussion at all with someone, if one requires them to accept one's own conclusion in the first place? That would mean that there is no rational discussion to be had at all, because in effect one is required to say, "you have to be a Christian [my position] before we can even begin this discussion". So the situation reduces to blind faith from the outset, since the Christian cannot discuss anything with the atheist until the atheist first becomes a Christian (or, adopts Christian presuppositions, which amounts to the same thing, in terms of the discussion at hand).

Presuppositionalism reduces to, therefore, literally "anti-apologetics." It undermines from the outset the very goal of apologetics: convincing the unbeliever in terms that he can relate to in order to have the discussion at all. We have to defend our viewpoints with something outside of themselves (reason and fact and experience); otherwise, no discussion is possible, because no reason can be given for our belief; therefore it is blind faith, as far as the observing atheist is concerned. I'm not impressed by such a method in the slightest. It accomplishes nothing.

If there is no objection, I would like to present a few selections from a conversation with some atheist friends to illustrate the form that this kind of argument should take.

Sure.

* * *

1. In my haste, I misquoted part of the proverb. I should say that the presuppositionalist tries to follow the proverb, “Argue with a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

2. I’m still getting used to this format, so I missed the bulk of Dave’s very polite reply. But I am glad that we have as much common ground as we do.

3. Sometimes presuppositionalists do spend too much time proclaiming & too little time developing lines of argumentation. I have seen more examples than I care to admit: Such cases make me cringe. But bad examples of presuppositionalism should not blind us to good examples of that approach.

Fair enough. I would just add that if too many of these examples occur, I submit that perhaps it is because the premises of presuppositionalism inevitably lead to this sort of thing.

* * *
In fact, one might argue that [presuppositionalism] must [abandon argumentation for mere proclamation], insofar as it holds that believer and non-believer hold so little in common that they can scarcely communicate with each other (and incorporating the effect of Total Depravity or the unregenerate state).
I cannot, of course, speak for all presuppositionalists, but the teachers who have influenced me have taken a different approach. They instead emphasize the common ground that the believer has with the unbeliever owing to the unbeliever’s pre-existing knowledge of God as spelled out in Romans 1.

That is valid; however, the trick there is that your average atheist will not accept this, as it is already presupposing the truth of revelation, so it can be tried, but I am very dubious as to how successful it will be in convincing any atheist.

True, unbelievers have suppressed the truth of God in their rebellion against God, as a result of which their foolish hearts are darkened, and (though thinking themselves wise) they have become fools. We are even told that their speculations — their theories & philosophies — have become futile. The unbeliever is thus unable to justify his knowledge-claims. Hence, the unbeliever’s world-view is ripe for destruction.

The text doesn't require us to conclude that absolutely every unbeliever is in express rebellion against the truth. I have argued that the very next chapter (Romans 2) presents a picture that suggests a great deal of goodness (from God) in some nonbelievers. Romans 1 is typical proverbial-type language of "universality" that was not intended to be taken literally. So both forms of Hebrew / biblical expression and context mitigate against this use of Romans 1 as an ally for presuppositionalism.

But the unbeliever still has a knowledge of God: so much that he is “without excuse” in the face of God’s wrath.

I agree, but usually this knowledge is buried deep under many layers of rationalization and disinformation, by which the person is burdened. He is often not even consciously aware of it. Men have a high capacity for suppressing divine truths and knowledge.

The unbeliever secretly relies on the knowledge of God when using math, logic, science, language, moral claims, and so on. We have common ground, not neutral ground.

One can distinguish between these two propositions:
1) Whoever does math, logic, science, language, and makes moral claims is ultimately relying on the inherent knowledge and presuppositions that God gave them [ability to reason, senses, presupposing basic tenets of knowledge and existence of ourselves and the universe, assuming the general "uniformitarianism" and predictability of life and nature, etc.], whether aware of it or not.

2) Whoever does math, logic, science, language, and makes moral claims must deliberately, consciously adopt overtly Christian presuppositions before it is even possible to do these things.
I wholeheartedly accept #1 and with equal vigor reject #2. Perhaps this might explain some of the discrepancy between us and cast light on where some confusion might be present in understanding each other. I also accept the following notion:
3) Math, logic, science, and language can be done and made starting with "religiously neutral" premises. The truth of 2+2=4 or e=mc2 or "if a=b and b=c, then a=c" or linguistics and syntax do not require adopting Christian presuppositions in order to be understood or applied to real life analyses.
For morality, I would argue that it is a fundamentally different case (and we would likely agree much more here), and that morality without a God of some transcendent sort is difficult to achieve in theory or in practice.
Take courses on those subjects [logic, science, mathematics, & history] in some school. One doesn’t have to start with Christian presuppositions to learn any of those things.
And here is where we really disagree.

For the presuppositionalist, the fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom, knowledge, & understanding. Unbelieving men are able to be very good scientists, logicians, mathematicians & historians only because they have an innate knowledge of God that they suppress & deny in self-deception.

I agree in the sense of #1 above, but not if by this you mean something akin to what I described in #2. I am most eager to hear your response to this.

Unbelieving world-views cannot justify knowledge claims: they are nothing more than “empty deception” & “futile speculations.”

Ultimately, but often not in their initial stages. I'd have to see more specific examples to really unpack this adequately. We can only argue in generalities for so long.

* * *

The unbeliever unconsciously relies on his knowledge of God, but he has already engaged in self-deception to suppress that knowledge.

Oftentimes; not always. In fact, I would say this is self-evident, because some atheists do , in fact, become believers. Everyone is at a certain point on the spectrum between total atheism and committed Christianity. If an atheist is to convert to Christianity, say, 13 years from now, then God has moved him further towards the Christian end of the spectrum in six of those 13 years, moving toward the goal (in God's Providence).

Therefore, such a person is relatively less hostile to Christianity and certain of its claims and assumptions after these six years, than he would have been before. God is moving him along, by His grace. Most conversions take place gradually, not suddenly. See, for example, C.S. Lewis's accounts of his journey from atheism to theism and Christianity. Process; grey areas. It's not a matter of his being totally wicked and then transformed into an angel of light when he talked to J.R.R. Tolkien and was convinced of the "true myth" of Christianity.

Now, if you accept this premise, then it means that many atheists (the ones who will eventually convert) are less hostile to Christianity than others, who are completely hostile and, indeed, examples of how you are applying Romans 1. Ergo: the passage cannot be applied with the absoluteness that you claim, by the fact of conversions alone.

By the same token, I have often made the same argument in reverse, against so-called Calvinist perseverance or Baptist eternal security. No one knows for certain who will fall away in the future, just as no one knows which atheists will convert to Christianity. We may claim that we know, but we really don't. Only God does. When the supposed "solid, godly" Calvinist falls away and becomes an atheist, the Calvinist quickly asserts that he never was a Calvinist or justified at all. But they didn't know that till it happened in practice. Their system then requires such a judgment because it doesn't allow for apostasy of a person truly justified.

Likewise, you don't know what atheist will convert. Until they do, you apply your absolutist reading of Romans 1 to them when it may not apply, if indeed the man or woman is on his way to conversion and has become less hostile to Christian assumptions and arguments, while not totally convinced. You could argue, I suppose, that all conversions are instantaneous (like St. Paul or someone like Ebeneezer Scrooge) and involve no process, but I would consider that extremely weak argumentation and difficult to establish on observational grounds.

He is like a man who lives in the penthouse of a 50 story building, while denying the first 49 floors. He could know an awful lot about the penthouse, and have a great view of the city, but could he explain how he came to have such a great view?

But the validity of many observations do not directly depend on presuppositions, except in the very basic sense of being able to reason and observe in the first place.

Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7) and of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10),

Of course this is proverbial literature. The statements are true, but I don't believe they necessarily apply to atheists in the way presuppositionalists argue. This shows that:
"Christians are knowledgeable and wise because they are building on the solid foundation of belief in God and reverence towards Him."
It doesn't necessarily also mean:
"No atheist can be wise or knowledgeable in the slightest degree without belief in God."
those who deny their knowledge of God cannot give an intelligible account for the basis of their knowledge, just as I could not give an intelligible account of my birth if I denied the existence of my mother.

Ultimately, this is the case, but that is on the deep, presuppositional level, not the "everyday" one of observation and application of the basic building-blocks of reason and knowledge.

Paul even equates philosophy with “empty deception” when that philosophy is “according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Col 2:8,9) Their speculations “futile” — that is, their theories & philosophies are pointless, useless, ineffectual. (Romans 1:21)

Oftentimes, yes. But not always; else why would Paul bother to cite two pagans in his Sermon on Mars Hill?

Colossians 2:8-10 connects intellectual faithfulness to the deity & authority of Christ. Romans 1:18-23, in a dark reflection, connects the rejection of God’s authority with its replacement by idols and with hearts that are darkened, with futile speculations, and with men “professing to be wise” who become fools.

I responded to this above. It is a general truth, of course, but how to apply it to each individual non-believer is much more complex and tricky.

‘It is therefore important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume within a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority…’

~Bertrand Russell

Russell claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas was not a philosopher, on the grounds that no Christian who incorporates revelation into philosophy can be one, by definition. So, for him, there are no true Christian philosophers. He's the opposite mirror image of the presuppositionalist, who thinks there can be no true atheist philosopher.

I wrote:
Bahnsen is not attacking the good intentions of classicists & evidentialists. He is instead pointing out the futile nature of trying to prove the truth of Christian theism from non-Christian presuppositions.
Dave replies:
This, of course, hinges on what one means by “prove.”
Oddly enough, no, I’m not sure it does. At any rate, I don’t think it is the real point of disagreement.

I have no idea what just happened there, but anyway, I continue . . .
I think there are relatively few things that one can absolutely prove. On the other hand, I believe in natural theology, which means that I think there are certain things that all men know intuitively or instinctively or with a properly formed intellect by virtue of logic, that Christians can then build upon in their apologetic.
For Bahnsen, Van Til, & Frame, the question is not whether we can prove anything with absolute certainty. For them, the question is whether unbelieving presuppositions permit one to rationally warrant any claim as even probably true. Their answer is, “No.”

This has to be unpacked and argued with reference to specific instances; otherwise we are just spinning our wheels and not moving the discussion along. I dealt with Bahnsen's particular arguments in my critique and showed, I think, how they fail, according to both reason and the data of revelation.

* * *

“Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it.”

~Ludwig Wittgenstein

That's right.

My atheist friends have commented that there is no evidence for the existence of God. The example of Russell’s Teapot implies as much by comparing our knowledge of God to our knowledge of an invisible teapot orbiting another planet.

This claim is, of course, untrue. There is an abundance of evidence for the existence of God. The debate is not about the quantity of evidence, but rather concerns how that evidence should be handled & interpreted. A few examples are in order…

First example:

A century ago, most cosmologists believed that the universe was infinite in scope & eternal in duration. The universe, they believed, had no beginning & would have no end. Later, a new theory displaced the old model. The universe, most cosmologists now believe, came into existence through a Big Bang. The universe has a beginning … and it came from nothing. Nothing material, at any rate.

(The fact that the scientific community can change its position on a question is a good reason not to base either theism or atheism on “science.” The dominant explanation may change in surprising ways.)

I disagree. Science, as it increased in knowledge (hence truth in an empirical sense), has confirmed Christian beliefs all the more, because all truth is God's truth. We need not fear science. It bolsters Christian belief at every turn. The Big Bang is entirely consistent with creation, whereas an eternal universe would not be. Intelligent Design has made, I think, the traditional teleological argument stronger than ever. The inability of scientists to discover even the basic processes for the evolution of life, DNA, reproduction, consciousness, etc., only confirms that a Divine Hand must have been involved. It can't be "proven" but it is highly plausible.

When Copernicus established heliocentism, some folks were very upset, as if this supposedly overthrew biblical cosmology. But it turned out that the earth simply wasn't the center of the universe (i.e., in physical terms)
and this was God's plan. Nothing in Christianity was overthrown. Upon reflection, Christians figured out that the truth of Christianity does not rise or fall on whether the sun goes around the earth or vice versa.

The same applied to the change from Newtonian to Einsteinian and quantum physics. What is threatened in Christianity by relativity? To the contrary, Einstein demonstrated that time is not an absolute. Christians already knew that because we believed that God was outside of time, that time began, and that eternity is to be distinguished from time (St. Augustine had already discussed this 1600 years ago). We have nothing whatsoever to fear from science. Modern science arose in a Christian milieu and it has not ever "disproven" Christianity. It has confirmed it.

However, it is philosophically problematic to think that the universe really came from nothing. Ex nihilo nihil fit, according to the old dictum: Nothing comes from nothing. So, many have argued, the universe must have had a cause outside of itself, a Creator.

Does the origin of the universe count as evidence for God? From a Christian perspective, it obviously does. “Here,” says the Christian, “are facts that reflect what we have been saying all along.” And he is obviously correct — from his perspective.

But there are other perspectives, and those perspectives will interpret the evidence differently. The Muslim will see the Big Bang as evidence of the might of Allah. The atheist may very take the ex nihilo problem as evidence that the Big Bang Theory is wrong, or dismiss the question as an “unsolved problem,” — just one more research grant.

How do you resolve such a dilemma? “More evidence” is unlikely to resolve the matter, since the evidence is subject to different interpretations, each dependent on the presuppositions of the interpreter. Somehow, we must resolve the question of how to interpret the data.

I am not required to claim that science (and/or philosophy) is all the knowledge there is. Reason and revelation / faith have to be incorporated into an overall coherent epistemology or worldview. If the atheist relies on science alone, that is as foolish as a Christian relying on "faith alone" and refusing to incorporate reason into his overall belief-system.

Second example:

At the risk of letting this thread spin wildly out of control, let me raise another example: the question of design. Please, let’s not have an evolution-creation debate. I happen to believe in both — subject to definition of terms, of course — but I just want to provide a small example, not launch another flame war.

As it happens, I used to believe in the argument from design. During my college years, however, I realized there was a problem: Answering the question empirically was an exercise in circular reasoning — for both the atheist & the theist. If the universe is designed, then this is what a designed universe looks like. If the universe is not designed, then this is what a universe without design looks like.

If you believe the universe is designed, then the universe is full of evidence for design. If you do not believe the universe is designed, then the universe is full of evidence against design. Conclusions, once again, are a function of presuppositions. How to resolve the fundamental difference in presuppositions? How can we decide how to interpret the evidence?

I don't argue it in this fashion. What I do is say that there are all these marvelous processes (more discovered all the time) that don't seem to be able to be remotely explained (as to origin) by "random" or purely materialistic processes. If one believes that they can be explained by such natural processes, then presumably some explanation is (at least potentially or theoretically) to be had.

But failing that, one must admit that it is a view held with no direct empirical evidence. It is basically "blind faith" or materialistic presuppositionalism. Therefore, it is not a whit better than Christian (or otherwise theistic) metaphysical belief in a Designer. The Designer hypothesis is at least some internally-coherent attempt to explain how we got from Point A to Point B. It is as reasonable (if not far more so) than materialism. The same process of reasoning can be used for the Big Bang and related cosmological arguments.

Bottom line: both views require faith. Materialism is at the most no better than a theistic worldview, to explain these mysterious processes. We also attack the ridiculous notion that science is the sum of all knowledge, and methodological naturalism. Scientists are not required to give up religious belief in order to be scientists. I've written at great length on this. We can show the ludicrous nature of materialism and then -- quite rationally - suggest that some truths about nature and origins lie outside of science proper and far better explain the natural world than a ridiculous materialism that keeps firing epistemological and explanatory blanks.

Third example:

An even better example involves the Resurrection that we celebrate today. A scholar can point to literally thousands of manuscripts recounting the life, death & resurrection of Jesus. These ancient texts give strong evidence of multiple sources recounting first- and second-hand testimony of the miracles & resurrection of Jesus. Internal evidence suggests that these accounts were accurate. External evidence supports that conclusion.

In one sense then, the Resurrection has the best attestation of any event in ancient world. But is it true?

The atheist, of course, may answer that it is not true. Accounts of men rising from the dead are not to be believed. Why not? Well, because men do not rise from the dead. The argument is consistent. And circular.

Yes, of course at that point we have to argue that the miraculous is entirely possible and cannot be ruled out a priori.

Christians, OTOH, have no problem believing that God would raise His Son from the dead. The argument is circular — and consistent.

It's not circular if we can establish that miracles are possible, and that this one plausibly, very likely occurred, based on eyewitness testimony and behavior. And we believe it in faith, and have a certainty based on revelation, which is another form of knowledge.

How can atheists & Christians settle the debate when they have different presuppositions that lead to different conclusions? How do we decide how to interpret the data? How do we decide which epistemology is correct?

We have to go back to the prior argument for the supernatural and the miraculous. And epistemologically prior to that, we can easily demonstrate that science itself starts from metaphysical axioms that cannot themselves be proven, and that it is not the sum of all knowledge. Those fallacies are what cause the unbeliever (on a purely rational plane, which is not all the factors involved by any means) to deny it. They are slaves to their false presuppositions. But we can break those down by using reasoning and fact acknowledged by both parties.

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