Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Presuppositionalism, Again

Where do I even begin?

Presuppositionalists have got to be the most annoying kind of Christian that exists. I spend most of my time debating evidentialists because they're at least willing to start from a neutral standpoint and build a case for god using the same evidence that we all have access to. But when you put the evidence and arguments for god under the microscope for a detailed analysis, it often doesn't end well for god. And presuppositionalists are weary of this. So what they do is they dismiss the evidence altogether, and simply presuppose that Christianity is true and that the Bible is god's infallible word, and any evidence or argument that contradicts the "truth" of Christianity must be wrong by definition. This shields them from having to deal with any counter evidence - they will simply conclude that all the evidence against their religion is a delusion through their presuppositions.

I've been debating with this presuppositionalist lately to sharpen my skills in that area. His argument is basically this: We all assume a metaphysic on faith. He assumes Christianity is true on faith, and then he interprets all the evidence for it and against it under the metaphysic that Christianity is true. Therefore, it's impossible for him to be argued out of his position that Christianity is true because any evidence or argument you use against him is either dismissed a priori, or "interpreted" under the metaphysic that Christianity is true. It's a firewall of sorts. But think about it - if you have to presuppose a metaphysic that excludes even the possibility that you're wrong and that your religion may be false, that shows the inherent weakness of your religion. If Christianity is indeed true and the Bible is its god's infallible word, there should be plenty of evidence from the natural world corroborating its narrative and its claims. And on top of that, he accuses atheists of presupposing naturalism to interpret the evidence for and against god and Christianity. It's the most annoying thing ever.

This is what presuppositionalism gives you. If you don't assume the metaphysic that Christianity is true, then you'll be accused of assuming another metaphysic, either a naturalistic one or one presupposing another religion, in order to interpret the evidence for and against Christianity. In other words, no one can come from a neutral playing field, we all, according to the presuppositionalist, come to the table with our worldview already presupposed. This is because the presuppositionalist knows he can't win without presupposing his religion to be true. If going just by the evidence, and a debate over whether evidence bests fits his Christian worldview, or the naturalists worldview, the naturalist will do better.

The way a proper debate should go is that both parties should assume an agnostic starting point when making their case for god or a particular religion. They should essentially start from scratch to build their case and introduce lines of evidence just like in a trial. And then during the course of the debate, they will dispute the evidence and the interpretations of the evidence that each side has presented. Of course, this is not going to completely hinder one's biases, but at least it prevents one from coming right out and declaring that their worldview is true and that everything that opposes it is by definition false.

At the heart of the presuppositionalist's case is an attack on epistemology. According to them, revelation from god is given the highest epistemic reliability. It trumps all other epistemologies like empiricism and logic. And when empiricism and logic appear to be in conflict with revelation, it is the latter that should always take precedence. Furthermore, since the supernatural cannot be confirmed nor denied via logic or empiricism due to it existing beyond its reaches, the presuppositionalist claims that without faith in a revelation, one's worldview is incomplete. Of course, he has no real evidence of the supernatural, he just believes he does on faith in his religion. The naturalist on the other hand, duly recognizes that empiricism and logic are the only two reliable means by which we can know things that are true. Revelation is the most unreliable epistemology. Most of its claims can't be verified and must be taken on faith, and almost all of the claims derived from it about the natural world that could be verified have been falsified by empiricism via the scientific method.

There is no logically necessary principle that says that all information obtained via revelation cannot be corroborated via other epistemologies like empiricism, the presuppositionalist just assumes this.

And yet, to the presuppositionalist, none of this matters. He might even believe that god deliberately deceives us with misleading parables and natural wonders that can be interpreted ambiguously. In other words, they believe god has constructed the world in such a way that the one who rejects the presupposition that Christianity is true will be lead astray by the evidences that god deliberately planted to deceive them. What a wonderful god. This belief also further reinforces the presuppositionalist's metaphysic against any possibility that his faith can be wrong: anything that contradicts it is a deception either from god or from an evil demon and must therefore be dismissed a priori. And if you dare question this way of thinking, you'll once again be accused of presupposing a non-Christian metaphysic.

It's this accusation of "presupposing naturalism" to interpret evidence for or against god that I have one of the biggest hang ups with. The presuppositionalist says that evidence must be interpreted under a metaphysic and it will determine the outcome of one's interpretation of the evidence. So a Christian presuppositionalist metaphysic will always allow one who holds to it, to "interpret" the data favorably to Christianity. If one interprets the data unfavorably to Christianity, then they must have adopted a naturalistic (or some other kind of non-Christian) metaphysic. Think about this. According to the presuppositionalist, no one can objectively interpret data. It must always be interpreted with a worldview already presupposed. But how does one get their worldview if they haven't looked at the data yet? Easy: faith. The presuppositionalist says we adopt our worldview on faith first, then we interpret the data within that worldview. That's certainly what he does, but is that what the atheist does? Most people who come to atheism started out in theism. They believed in god through a particular religion, but then began to have doubts. Obviously, one could not have adopted the presupposition that their religion is true and that everything that contradicts it is false, a priori, and have come to have doubts. Not all theists adopt such a stringent metaphysic. What many former theists go through, is a long transition towards atheism that often takes years. The arguments against their religion seemed more compelling than the ones for it. This is often due, ironically, to many theists taking the fundamentalist approach at apologetics, whereby they construct a dichotomy between their religion and evolution. The overwhelming evidence for evolution pushes many theists towards atheism when this dichotomy is presented. But even with out it, the sophistry deployed by theists forced to defend their faith under fire weakens the case for god and compels many theists who can sense the dishonesty in such tactics to view the atheist position as being much more defensible. I debate theists all the time, it's pretty much what I do for fun, and I can tell you first hand the kind of charades I encounter from them on a regular basis. And one reason I know I could never be a Christian, is because I could never defend it.

But once the theist begins to see the arguments for atheism as being more compelling, the presuppositionalist will say that the theist has switched their belief - they're metaphysic - over to a naturalistic one. But couldn't the arguments against theism still be considered more compelling than the ones for it, while one is still a theist? The answer to me is a resounding yes. For example, an atheist could be fooled by the evidential arguments for god while they are well within their naturalistic framework. And likewise, a theist who already believes that atheism is false as per their presupposition, might realize the intellectual price it's costing them in order to continue denying the arguments for atheism while still holding to it. That's how people move around from religion to religion, and from theism to atheism and vice versa. But the presuppositionalist says secondary beliefs cannot effect one's ultimate beliefs, they can only reinforce them. That's absurd. A secondary belief can shatter one's ultimate belief by exposing a contradiction in it. (Like for example, learning that an all-loving deity is incompatible with the millions of years of unnecessary conscious animal suffering required by evolution, which this argument I made here exploits.) And if you're metaphysic forces you to deny or somehow "interpret" the evidence in a friendly manner so that your ultimate belief remains intact, then you're not willing to own up to the data honestly and are guilty of the kind of sophistry that we atheists have become far too familiar with debating with theists. This is where presuppositionalism earns its money shot and exposes what an intellectual ruse it is.

And no, atheism does not do the same thing. Atheism can be falsified very easily within its own epistemological framework. Destroy evolution, and you will have essentially destroyed atheism. Show a verifiable example of the laws of nature being violated where it's clear something supernatural is behind it, and naturalism goes out the window. If the Genesis account of creation for example, was corroborated by modern science and it did show the earth to be a few thousand years old and there was no evidence for evolution, Christianity would be vindicated and no one would be able to rationally deny it. I as an atheist would be forced to come to the conclusion that Christianity is true, whether I liked it or not. But the presuppositionalist might object and say, "But these are all naturalistic epistemologies you're using to verify the supernatural." Well yes, and no. Yes because there's no other way to falsify naturalism than a verified observance of the supernatural. Someone's reported revelation or subjective experience of the divine is evidence of nothing. And no because there's nothing naturalistic about empiricism; empiricism works under supernaturalism too. In principle, the supernatural could be verified if it interacts with the natural world. Furthermore, one cannot conflate naturalism or atheism with logical positivism; they are not the same and no atheist need be a positivist.

Finally, I want to say that we're all capable of inherent biases when it comes to all sorts of things. We have to be conscious of that and do our best to stay as objective as possible when looking at the evidence for and against something. While it is impossible to be completely neutral, like the ladies and gentlemen of a jury, we should seek as neutral a perspective as possible by recognizing and eliminating any biases against the evidence we may have. I could still reject Christianity for example, even if I were a theist on the account of how absurd, inconsistent, contradictory and antagonistic Christianity is with logic and evidence. And I could be a deist and still reject theism without adopting a naturalistic or positivist philosophy. The presuppositonalist sinks to the lowest intellectual depravity imaginable. They think they can't be wrong, because they've presupposed - on faith - that they're right. It's like trying to talk with a child who sticks her fingers in her ears when she doesn't want to hear the other side.


  1. I don't think you're being very effective by arguing evidence with him, since he doesn't base his starting point on any evidence.

    I think he is grossly mistaken, but since he has started out with a fairly complex, non-evidence based belief as absolutely true, any evidence you might bring up will be taken as either supportive of his position, or as nothing more than misunderstanding or falsehood (which I think he's tried to explain a couple of times on that thread).

    1. Greatest answer in the debate:

      Hodge: The Bible is true. Anything that conflicts with what it conveys as true is a delusion.

      Me: Make sure you turn that into a bumper sticker so everyone can know you were home schooled.

    2. Ah, home schooling, the pièce de résistance of indoctrination.

  2. When you have no good arguments for the existence of your god, presuppose. Then claim everyone else does the same thing.

    1. That's pretty much it. But there's no equivalent to what he's doing and to what he's accusing me of doing. He presupposes a metaphysic that precludes even the possibility that he's wrong. Whereas he accuses me of presupposing naturalism, but naturalism could be falsified within its own epistemic framework.

    2. If naturalism is adopted a priori, as B.C. adopts Christian theism, then is would not be falsifiable within it's epistemic framework - much as B.C.'s own claims are not subject to falsification within his set of beliefs.

      However, B.C. seems to think that Naturalism can only and must be adopted in this fashion, and so feels justified in accusing you of the same excesses he is guilty of (he also thinks that this is the correct way to be a Christian).

      Unfortunately, Naturalism can (and should) be a provisional position, arrived at after investigation. B.C. denies that this is possible without already assuming your position (he does it so you must too).

    3. Naturalism could be falsified within its own epistemic framework. In principle, the supernatural could be verified as it interacts with the natural world, and naturalism could be shattered.

      Hodge just assumes that concluding your worldview using evidence presupposes naturalism. But nothing about using logic and empiricism presupposes naturalism. There's no logically necessary reason why revelation couldn't be verifiable via other epistemologies. Hodge just assumes this, as per his personal views within his personal Christian metaphysic.

    4. Naturalism asserted a priori, could not be falsified in the same way Hodge's Christian Theism cannot be falsified - if something you and I thought of as supernatural was verified, then the a priori naturalist would either expand his natural ontology to include the new phenomena, or state that the verification was not successful.

      Hodge seems unable to see that one can actually start out without asserting either supernaturalism or naturalism, and arrive a a conclusion. He seems to think that you need to start with such an expansive claim as a part of your ontology, and are never able to rationally adjust it - that is exactly what he is doing, and he assumes you are doing the same.

    5. That's the thing, naturalism should not be asserted a priori, it should be concluded a posteriori. If Jesus came back and conducted a series of miracles that violated every known law of physics in front of a panel of the world's expert scientists, that would certainly shatter naturalism. So there's certainly ways naturalism could be demolished. Getting that through to Hodge is impossible.

    6. That's the thing, naturalism should not be asserted a priori, it should be concluded a posteriori.
      I'd say that whatever your metaphysical/ontological position, anything which could possibly be rationally denied should be up for revision - whether it be supernaturalism vs naturalism, solipsism vs other minds, idealism vs realism, and on and on.

      So there's certainly ways naturalism could be demolished.
      There's ways your naturalism could be demolished. Our hypothetical a priori naturalist could simply claim that Jesus is utilising some advanced technology or understanding of reality in order to perform his miracles.

      Getting that through to Hodge is impossible.
      Hodge seems unable to see that his approach to metaphysics/ontology is not the only way.
      It also seems that he is certain of the truth of Christianity, so the fact that you do not accept this truth indicates to him that your assuming Christianity cannot be true from the outset.

      He also seems pretty touchy - I suggested that perhaps he didn't understand the arguments you and Photo are making on that thread, and he interpreted that as going for the kill.

    7. The hypothetical a priori naturalist is a caricature of the way almost all naturalists operate. But to Hodge, every naturalist is an a priori naturalist. He can't see it any other possible way.

      I've debated him on and off for a year on issues like morality and secularism and it always comes down to semantics. He always redefines terms in his way so that they can make his Christian worldview more plausible. He's a skilled artful dodger. But I like debating him because he's challenging, much more so than your average creationist.

    8. He does seem to be fun, if a little sensitive :-)

    9. I had been debating him for weeks on and off, and a few other atheists were too, so we wore him out, apparently. Check out this site of an atheist who's specialty is presuppositionalism and he links to a long debate he had with Hodge.


      Feel free to bug Hodge from time to time and challenge him. He deserves it. Usually he responds very quickly and gives you a thorough response.

    10. I've read a bit of Dawson's blog. Not sure I buy objectivism, and the primacy of consciousness vs primacy of existence argument seems a little too simple (so I don't buy it), but it's interesting.



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