The Problem With Presuppositionalism

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login date: 2021-07-06

This is an essay I wrote awhile ago as a Google Doc, which I'm reposting to this blog because it seems relevant. I haven't looked at it or edited it in awhile, so it's not the most polished or up-to-date version of my philosophy or responses to these things, but I generally stand by it.

[A presupposition is] a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition... This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought. It merely applies the doctrine of scriptural infallibility to the realm of knowing. --- The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Theology of Lordship)

We must point out to [our opponents] that [non-theistic] reasoning itself leads to self-contradiction, not only from a theistic point of view, but from a non-theistic point of view as well... It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we reason from the impossibility of the contrary. The contrary is impossible only if it is self-contradictory when operating on the basis of its own assumptions.

--- Cornelius Van Til, A Survey Of Christian Epistemology

Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defence of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.

--- William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays

Presuppositional apologetics is a philosophy of desperation. When the evidence of God does not add up --- or count as evidence --- some other tack must be taken, one that strikes at the root of epistemology itself. For the Christian, after all, cannot use common sense epistemology to prove their case, nor any other usual standard, so they must strike at the possibility of a non-Christian standard at all. This is done in two ways. The first, I call "logical" presuppositionalism. It takes the form of a claim that knowledge of some kind is impossible apart from God, yet we all must rely on knowing things to live and argue, therefore we must assume the existence of God out of necessity, seeing the incoherence of the contrary. The second I call "pragmatic" presuppositionalism, which takes the view that the existence of God should be taken as a presupposition because it is useful, and because all other worldviews have presuppositions anyway, so they don't really have any better foundation themselves.

There are four central problems that, mutatis mutandis, almost all of the presuppositional arguments share. For the sake of brevity and consistency, I will state those here, and then only briefly reference them in my sections on the problems specific to each version of the argument. Note that some of these do not quite apply to the Van Tillian argument, since it is more of a classical transcendental argument.

The first problem I have with presuppositional arguments, in general, is that they assume that knowledge must be founded on absolute certainty. This is not true: although knowledge is defined for the purposes of this paper as "justified true belief," it is important to note that there are gradations of justification between absolute certainty and complete lack of justification. Some things have all possible evidence pointing toward them, yet may not be provable, such as the provisional validity of our senses in perceiving an external world that exists apart from our mind. These can be assumed prima facie unless other evidence can be presented, which, in the case of such hypotheticals as the Brain In A Vat, is not possible anyway. We do not need absolute certainty in anything to live our lives, and living is really the point of knowledge in the first place. We only need beliefs that generally predict the outcomes of our actions for our experience, and this can be done without a complete foundationalist picture of knowledge founded on absolute certainties. We do not need to know if our experience corresponds with some unreachable realm of "things in themselves," since we cannot actually escape the envelope of our own experiences in order to judge whether they are correct or find out that they are wrong.

The second problem I have with presuppositional arguments is that they assume that the things we take to be absolutely certain must be so (for instance, the existence of an external world and the laws of logic) in order to push for the absolute certainty of what (they claim) is the only proposition that could justify such certainties. Would it not be better to admit that some things are not, in fact, absolutely certain? That they are instead assumed prima facie, in the absence of controverting evidence and in the face of the wealth of inescapable experience? As I said above, uncertainty is no true blocker to living and arguing. It should also be noted that there are also solid arguments to be made that the laws of logic are necessary for any experience of reality whatsoever, so that we could never even conceivably come across evidence against them, and can be confident in their continued veracity because we could never perceive a reality in which they were wrong, and therefore could not run across that case.

The third problem I have with presuppositional arguments is that, at least in the cases where they attempt to prove the Christian faith, they ignore the fact that if we accept the Christian faith in order to justify the laws of logic and the provisional validity of our senses, we find that the standards of truth we were trying to reach actually falsify the very justification we were trying to provide for them: the truth of the Christian faith is not evident to our senses or to logic, and therefore if the goal is to be able to hold logic and our senses as at least provisionally true, Christian presuppositionalists have failed. For instance, most historians now agree that a literal Exodus could not have happened, there being no contemporaneous records of the event and no archaeological evidence of six hundred thousand Jews (just counting the warriors) having camped in the desert for forty years. As another example, the story of the Flood is clearly not correct, as we have records of civilizations happily existing right through the period when that is supposed to have happened.

The fourth problem I have with presuppositional arguments is that, if we presuppose the Christian faith to be true, we find that the doctrines of that faith (as found in the scriptures) actually make the epistemological foundations we desire to justify by adopting that presupposition explicitly impossible. For instance, we have accounts documented in the Christian Bible of God suspending or even violating the apparent laws of nature (this is the definition of a "miracle"), thereby making the uniformity of nature, an important epistemic axiom, not only unjustifiable --- as it would be without the presupposition of Christianity --- but actively false and impossible. Likewise, the laws of logic, another thing which Christian presuppositionalists desire to support via their presupposition, are violated by the Bible all the time: for instance, the concept of a triune God, or Jesus being both fully man and fully God, or any number of differences between the various Gospels. Similarly, we have examples of God manipulating the thoughts, intentions, and memories of people --- for instance, by hardening Pharaoh's heart --- and doctrines concerning the Devil manipulating people, meaning that we could never even trust the one thing radical Cartesian skepticism would leave us, our own minds, if we accept the Christian faith. These can be avoided with extreme hermeneutic contortionism, at least to a degree, but at that point, it seems better (as I will show later) to just leave this extra presupposition out.


1.1 MATT SLICK +++-----------

According to the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), in an article written by Matt Slick himself, the abbreviated version of the "transcendental argument for the existence of god" (not to be confused with Kant's, which is much different), goes as follows (I've put it in syllogistic form for clarity, but it's his own words):

  1. Logical absolutes exist.

  2. Logical absolutes are conceptual by nature --- are not dependent on

    space, time, physical properties, or human nature.

  3. They are not the product of the physical universe (space, time,

    matter) because if the physical universe were to disappear, logical absolutes would still be true.

  4. Logical absolutes are not the product of human minds because human

    minds are different --- not absolute.

  5. But, since logical absolutes are always true everywhere and not

    dependent upon human minds, it must be an absolute transcendent mind that is authoring them.

  6. This mind is called God.

  7. Furthermore, if there are only two options to account for something,

    i.e., God and no God, and one of them is negated, then by default the other position is validated.

  8. Therefore, part of the argument is that the atheist position cannot

    account for the existence of logical absolutes from its worldview.

I did not feel the need to bring in his longer version, as it suffers from the exact same fallacies and issues --- more in fact. In some senses, this is the stronger version, in my opinion, so I applied the principle of charity and used this version.

The first problem I have with this argument begins with its very first premise: what could it mean for the logical absolutes, which are logical propositions about the behavior of abstract entities, to "exist?" They can be true, as in, they can accurately represent something outside of themselves, and they can be coherent, as in not contradictory amongst themselves, but to say they exist makes little sense. This seems to commit a reification fallacy right of the bat, taking something that is not necessarily an object of any sort that can be said to exist, and converting it into an object. This almost assumes the thrust of Slick's argument right off the bat, although the way this is phrased would seem to more naturally and simply lead to Platonic idealism than theism.

My second problem with Slick's argument shows up in propositions two and three: logical absolutes are only ""true" in any meaningful sense with reference to spacetime and the objects that exist within it. One might not need a specific example from spatiotemporal existence to say that a proposition is capable of being true, but one certainly needs the hypothetical ability to compare that proposition to reality. If no reality existed whatsoever --- if there were no space, time, physical properties, or nature --- and never had been, saying that anything was "true" would be completely meaningless. After all, something cannot attest to its own truth: truth in the strict sense must come from a comparison outside the thing itself. Every proposition attests to its own truth value, it is only with comparison to something outside it, even a set of axioms, that makes it really true.

The third problem I have with this argument begins with the fourth proposition. The way in which Slick defines "absolute" seems to preclude logical absolutes from being a product of minds because he sees absolutes as existing objects in themselves which are not "true" but instead "exist." Obviously, of course, if one avoids the reification fallacy that began with the very first proposition of this argument and holds the logical absolutes to be true instead of existent, then they can be true with reference to reality without any particular mind holding them at all because if they were held, they would be true, and any contrary propositions --- likewise whether held or not --- would be false. Therefore, the truth of the logical absolutes can be preserved without appealing to idealism or a God, since they are true with reference to something which exists and does not depend on fallible and changeable human minds --- namely, reality. In this way, you can see that if one switches from the idealistic assumptions inherent in the phraseology of this argument, one can preserve the non-mind-dependant truth of the logical absolutes, while also admitting that their actual formulation and discovery is a result of human minds.

My issue with proposition seven is that it commits the black and white fallacy as actually used by Slick. I'm assuming he's taking this to be a proof of the Christian God, yet this sort of need for the logical absolutes to be held in an eternal and unchanging mind does not need to be satisfied by any specifically Christian god. Indeed, it could be satisfied by any number of various supernatural and metaphysical claims. Worse yet for him, the simplest way to satisfy the fallacious requirements of his argument is to go straight to Platonic idealism: after all, he is positing a much more complex entity in order to ensure the "existence" of the logical absolutes, when he could instead simply posit that they exist as some sort of Form. Additionally, his arguments would, to some degree, apply to making the logical absolutes dependent on that God: after all, surely he would think that, even if God did not exist, the logical absolutes would hold true?

Let me briefly respond to some of the responses Slick provides in the same article to the possible objections he foresees. Specifically, I will analyze his responses to the objections that are most similar to my own. First:

Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence.

  1. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do

    conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

  2. How does one chemical state of the physical brain that leads to

    another physical state of the physical brain produce Logical Absolutes that are not dependent upon the physical brain for their validity?

  3. If they are a part of natural existence (the universe), then they

    would cease to exist if the universe ceased.

    1. This has not been proven to be true.

    2. It implies that logic is a property of physical matter, but this

      is addressed in point 5 above.

In response to point one, the logical absolutes are not a direct result of natural existence, but they are a description of the behavior of natural existence that form as a result of the mental processes of material beings that have to live in and deal with this natural existence and find a description of its behavior useful for prediction and comprehension. Again, Slick seems to be confusing epiphenomena with specific material or ideal objects: just because some nebulous Form of Logic doesn't spring directly from an ice cube doesn't mean that logical absolutes, as the actual things they are --- a set of written and spoken and thought propositions about abstract objects --- couldn't result from material existence.

In response to point two, those logical absolutes are not dependent upon the physical brain for their validity because they were formed by those brains in order to describe a reality that itself doesn't depend on that brain's opinions. Thus, any conception of logic, and any other proposition about reality, is dependent for its validity on whether it actually matches reality or not. As for how it is physically possible that brains can perform logic, I direct the reader to neuroscience and computer science for an understanding of how this is actually done; one point I can make, however, is that there is absolutely nothing preventing this from happening at a metaphysical level --- no reason why a physical system could not conduct logic. Additionally, we know for a fact that our brains, as we would expect from physical processes and objects that are themselves the result of blind physical development, have numerous traps, pitfalls, biases, and shortcuts built right into them, which is actually the reason that we codify logical laws in the first place: we realized that, although it is often more natural to think fallaciously, those fallacious lines of reasoning often did not make good predictions about reality or match up with our actual experience of things, and often even conflicted with how we thought on a more basic level. The fact that we are the ones that codify the logical laws is made even more apparent by the fact that there are all sorts of contradictory systems of logic.

In response to point three, the logical absolutes would cease to have a reference if the universe had never existed, and so their truth value would be meaningless, but if it had at one point existed, or could exist hypothetically, they would be true in the same hypothetical sense that the statement "the sky was/is blue on Earth" would be true even if the Earth ceased to exist. Additionally, Slick seems unable to fully comprehend his own hypothetical: if nothing had ever or would ever exist, then there would be no minds to hold propositions about anything, and it would make no sense, from a position interior to that "reality to call anything true, because that reality would in fact not exist, and therefore nothing could be true about it.

Now, Slick claims to have a response to the idea that the logical absolutes are properties of physical matter, and considering that I have relied heavily on this claim in order to make my arguments, it behooves me to look at his response to that. Here it is, in all its fallacious glory:

  1. Logical Absolutes are not found in atoms, motion, heat, under rocks,


  2. Logical Absolutes cannot be photographed, frozen, weighed, or


  3. Logical Absolutes are not the product of the physical universe since

    that would mean they were contingent on atoms, motion, heat, etc., and that their nature was dependent on physical existence.

    1. If their nature were dependent upon physical existence, they

      would cease to exist when the physical universe ceases to exist.

    2. If they were properties of the universe, then they could be

      measured the same way heat, motion, mass, etc., are measured. Since they cannot be measured, they are not properties of the universe.

  4. But, if the universe did not exist, logical absolutes are still


    1. For example, if the universe did not exist, it would still be

      true that something cannot bring itself into existence and that if A=B and B=C, then A=C. The condition of the universe does not effect these truths.

    2. For example, if the universe did not exist, it would still be

      true that something cannot be itself and not itself at the same time.

    3. Therefore, Logical Absolutes are not dependent on the material


In response to point one, yes they are: they are found in the behavior of those things, and everything else in the universe. They are not components of the material world, but they are properties --- epiphenomena --- of it. Point two commits the reification fallacy again. In response to point three subpoint one, I don't understand what Slick means when he says that they need to continue to exist after the universe ceases to be completely (including all its laws and behaviors, even the behaviors of nothing itself, apparently). This seems almost to be a sly way of begging the question, insinuating that the logical absolutes need to be a sort of Platonic form, which is part of the conclusion of point 5 that he is trying to support. As to the second subpoint, they can be measured. We measure them every day in the behavior of matter, in the exact same way we measure heat and motion! It's just so obvious and basic that Slick doesn't notice it.

In response to point four, again, if nothing at all, not even the laws of physics exist, then I don't know what it would mean for the logical absolutes to be true. They're concepts abstracted from the material configurations of reality in the same sense as any of the other words we use or propositions we hold. They could be hypothetical true, in that if some such reality existed with relation to which they could be true, they would be true, and they could be true in relation to how a brain thinks or themselves, but those are not really meaningful for Slick. I have covered this in earlier paragraphs in more detail, so there's no need to reiterate it. There is, nevertheless, a further point that needs to be made: I don't even know what it would mean for the logical absolutes to be true in the total absence of anything: just as the word "car" wouldn't be intelligible without a whole world around it and some instances of a car at some point, so the logical absolutes wouldn't be intelligible without at least minds. I just don't know what Slick really means, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he doesn't either.

Here's another "response" Slick has to an objection similar to mine:

"Logical abstractions do not have existence independent of our minds. They are constructs in our minds (i.e., brains), and we use them to carry out computations via neural networks, silicon networks, etc., suggested by the fact that logic--like language--is learned--not inbuilt (balls in your court to demonstrate an independent existence or problem with this)." ( . . . continued in next objection . . . )

  1. How do you know that logical abstractions do not have existence

    independent of our minds? Saying so doesn't make it so. This is precisely one of the points about the nature of logical absolutes; namely, that they are a process of the mind but are not dependent upon human bodies because human minds contradict each other and are also self-contradictory. This would preclude our minds from being the authors of what is logically absolute. Furthermore, if they are constructions of our minds, then all I have to do is claim victory in any argument because that is how I construct my logical abstractions. But, of course, you wouldn't accept this as being valid. Therefore, this demonstrates that your assertion is incorrect.

  2. How can an atheist logically claim that one chemical state in the

    brain which leads to another state necessitates proper logical inference? It seems quite unlikely and without proof of some sort saying that Logical Absolutes are abstractions of (human) minds doesn't account for them.

In response to the first half of point one, saying so may not make it so, but that's true for Slick's argument as well: just because he says that logical absolutes have some kind of Platonic existence outside of minds and matter doesn't mean it's true. The whole point of this exercise is to prove that there are no other coherent conceptions of the logical absolutes, in order to leave his conception of God as the only choice. Thus, he has to prove all other conceptions actually false in order to make this work. Thus, the mere coherency of this other possibility destroys his argument. And again, our minds are the authors of the logical laws, but they are not the authors of the reality that dictates those laws' validity. Thus, the fact that humans contradict each other, are self-contradictory, and change over time has no bearing on the truth of the laws of logic, since there is a mind-independent reality to refer to.

In response to the last part of point one, I wouldn't accept your own constructed version of logic as valid because it doesn't rely on a set of propositions that accurately describe reality, so it wouldn't be describing anything in reality, and would therefore probably be false (except if correct by accident). It wouldn't make good predictions for my reality and, if you went to far with it, might not be intelligible. Again, "logical absolutes" don't need to be some kind of Platonic form to have their validity not depend on individual human minds --- or minds at all.

As for point two, see section 3, "A Note on Explanation." But also, we know for a fact that our brains actually don't necessarily make proper logical inferences. Cognitive biases exist for a reason: we're chemical and evolved brains, and while there was a survival advantage to being able to predict and describe reality (the purpose of the laws of logic, at heart), there wasn't a strong enough advantage to doing it perfectly all the time for natural selection to develop us with perfect reasoning capabilities. However, now that we've encoded the laws of logic and analyzed how they do in fact concord with reality better than the fallacies and biases that our brain uses as shortcuts, we can use them as rules to better understand reality. This is why people have to learn logic and fallacies, and why we have multiple systems of logic. But again, it is not my job to prove that it is actually possible that physical brains could perfectly produce logic --- although it obviously is possible --- but Slick's job to prove that it isn't.

In summary, Slick's argument is built on a massive set of begging the question and reification fallacies leading to an ultimate black and white fallacy. The entire thing falls apart like wet tissue paper under rigid scrutiny, as it becomes revealed that he has no idea what his terms mean or what they would have to imply were they true. Furthermore, as a final capstone, he finishes off by committing the special pleading fallacy with regards to his God, saying that although the logical absolutes themselves cannot exist as eternal, timeless, spaceless, transcendent absolutes --- but his God can. In the end, this argument fails to be convincing because of how confused it is regarding its own meaning.

1.2 SYE TEN BRUGGENCATE +++--------------------

Sye's argument was difficult to find in syllogistic form on the internet, but let me attempt to state his argument in the best way I can:

  1. Knowledge is justified true belief.

  2. In order for a belief to be justified, the premises it is based on

    must be justified.

  3. The laws of logic, and the provisional validity of the senses,

    cannot be justified without appealing to them, resulting in a circular argument. Therefore, they cannot be justified at all.

  4. However, we can overcome this circularity by appealing to an

    omniscient being, since that is a justification outside of the laws of logic and the senses themselves; moreover, an omniscient being could overcome the infinite regress seemingly required by premise 2.

  5. Therefore, knowledge is impossible without appealing to an

    omniscient being, which we call God.

  6. The Christian Bible is the word of an omniscient being, which we

    call God.

  7. Therefore, knowledge is impossible apart from the Christian Bible.

There are, again, a whole plethora of problems with this argument. First and most concerning for the presuppositionalist, any attempt to know God or reason about him happens by first presupposing the existence of an external world, the provisional validity of our senses, and the laws of logic. Therefore, even assuming that an omniscient God could solve the infinite regress and circular reasoning problems noted in premises 1-3, that still doesn't help anyone using this argument, since they must still use a circular argument in order to attempt to justify their knowledge of their (pre)supposed God: one must presuppose the validity of one's senses and reason in order to read and understand Scripture. Additionally, this whole line of reasoning raises another question: how does Sye establish that that particular Christian Scripture is in fact the words of the omniscient deity he "knows" to exist? One possible response Sye might have to this question is that he receives special revelation from God as to the truth of the Scripture. Since this assertion shows up in both Gordon H. Clark and Alvin Plantinga's thoughts as well, I've put it in a unique section; please see "A Note on Special Revelation.

All this means that any attempt to justify these basal presuppositions is inherently circular, whether one appeals to a God or not. Sye has responded to this by claiming that justifications that appeal to a God are somehow virtuously circular, while ones that do not are viciously circular. This, however, is once again special pleading. Sye tries to justify drawing this distinction by claiming that virtuously circular arguments are ones that "go outside his head"; this is, however, merely an assertion, and a totally unhelpful one at that, since all of his perception and reasoning about these "revelations" he's getting are still happening within his own head. This necessary circularity in the justification of the laws of logic and other such basic presuppositions is unavoidable because any attempt to justify them must use them in so doing, thereby begging the question and failing the conditions of truth which the argument is in fact trying to justify! The only way to avoid this is by not trying to justify these axioms at all. Thus, the presuppositionalist cannot answer their own challenge concerning how one can ever arrive at certain beliefs, since neither they nor their opponent can actually justify them.

Furthermore, any "justification," so-called, of the laws of logic and the provisional veracity of our senses in perceiving an external world is not only circular but, when it assumes or states things not evident to our reason (by which I mean a combination of our logic and our senses), only adds more uncertainty, not less, to the justification. To help illustrate this, let me use an analogy: you're lost in the woods and trying to navigate your way out using a compass. Which is the better approach: just using the compass, or handing it to an expert who will tell you what the compass is saying, but will never show you the compass? In the first case, you've got the uncertainty about whether the compass is accurate, but in the latter case, you've also added the uncertainty of whether the expert is actually telling you the truth, or even whether he's mistaken. Likewise, any attempt to justify something self-evident by adding more premises to the argument can only make the argument that much more uncertain, as each premise makes certain assumptions which may or may not be true. This is Occam's Razor.

A second problem with this argument is that it, once again, assumes that certain knowledge is the only kind of knowledge worth anything, so that if one does not in fact have a justification for one's reason (and thus cannot be certain of it) one cannot have any knowledge whatsoever. I won't go over why this is wrong, since I covered it in the introduction.

A third problem is that it is unclear how even an omniscient God can solve the infinite regress of justifications necessary for certain knowledge. Sye seems to simply define God as a being that can do that, but he has no argument for why that is the case, or why it is even possible, leading to another case of special pleading, one which any atheist can exploit simply by saying that he, too, has a special being which solves all epistemic problems to appeal to.

Once again, as well, this argument provides no reason besides the presuppositionalist's internal feelings as to why it is the Christian God and not some other God that solves the problem. In fact, couldn't one just start a religion with a God specifically designed as having the minimal amount of properties necessary to solve the presuppositionalist's problem (assuming that it could be solved, which it can't)? Why isn't that possible? Or, we could even go the atheistic route and simply posit a special sense, akin to special revelation, which attests to us the reliability of our reason and senses.

In conclusion, not only does this argument fail to present a good reason to believe the Christian is on any better ground than the non-Christian regarding epistemic certainty or overcoming radical skepticism, the argument it actually presents as a "justification" for the assumptions it desires to justify is actually more uncertain than the assumptions themselves, and undermines them in the process of its use. Either it's a circular argument with extra steps and added uncertainty, or it's an argument that, while not necessarily circular, undermines the validity of the desired assumptions by forcing them to depend on an unsubstantiated, unjustifiable feeling that is nevertheless not self-evident in the way the assumptions themselves are. It is acceptable to begin with an unjustifiable presupposition only if that presupposition is implied in any argument which might criticise it or any action at all. This is what I mean when I talk about "self-evidence." Even then, these properties of self-evidence do not "justify" these presuppositions, they just demonstrate the impossibility of not starting with them. One does not either need a reason why one should trust them nor a justification for them, as both would be impossible, and could only serve to undercut what certainty they even have. Furthermore, in order to approach correctness as closely as possible, one should keep the number of "self-evident" presuppositions to a minimum in order to avoid unnecessary assumptions.

1.3 CORNELIUS VAN TIL +++------------------

It is difficult to find an explicit and unified presentation of Cornelius Van Til's presuppositional argument, as many of his proponents agree that he left it rather informal and subject to misunderstanding, as well as having many of its premises and conclusions strewn throughout his writing. After several hours of searching, I was able to find a paper entitled An Analytical Presentation of Cornelius Van Til's Transcendental Argument from Predication. According to that paper, the fundamental argument goes as follows:

  1. That there is a possibility of assigning truth values to

    propositions presupposes that the Bible is entirely correct on all metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical teachings.

  2. There is a possibility of assigning truth values to propositions.

  3. Therefore, the Bible is entirely correct on all metaphysical,

    epistemological, and ethical teachings.

This is basically the prototypical presuppositionalist argument, and it requires meat on its bones, since defending proposition one is where all the action happens. Although Van Til doesn't provide a reason for believing premise one to be true himself, Michael R. Butler, one of his defenders, does attempt to:

Thus, the Christian apologist may boldly assert that without an absolute personal being as the foundation of all things, there is no possibility of ethics. Without the ontological Trinity as the fount of all being, there is no possibility of unifying the particulars of human experience. Without the combined doctrines of the Trinity and man being God's image bearer, there is no possibility of predication and, thus, language. Without the doctrine of God's sovereignty and providence, there is no ground for inductive logic and science. Without a good and all-powerful God who creates both man and the natural realm there is no reason to believe that our senses are reliable. From these considerations it is clear why TAG is often described as an argument that proves the impossibility of the contrary. There is, at bottom, one non-Christian worldview, and this worldview is easily reduced to absurdity... When one version of the non-Christian worldview is refuted, the general non-Christian worldview is refuted, for all of them are variations on a common theme.

The first point is simply incorrect. Not only is ethics demonstrably possible without an absolute personal being, even if we had such a being it would not improve the state of ethics, as the mere existence of a creator doesn't overcome the is-ought dilemma, and the Euthyphro dilemma neutralizes any other advantage a God might have in forming a moral system.

The next two points are essentially appeals to incredulity and ignorance: the theologen/apologist finds the scientific accounts of how humans can experience things and how minds can evolve to predicate things unlikely or unbelievable, and therefore discards them without actually satisfactorily demonstrating their impossibility --- see section 3, "A Note on Explanation" for more on this.

The fourth point is actually contraverted by the Christian scripture, since, as I mentioned in my opening, we have countless examples of God suspending the rules of the natural world for his own ends. Moreover, why should nature not be uniform? If the laws of logic are derived from reality, as I posit (in fact, I don't think anything could exist without adhering to them), then the law of identity means that each thing is a particular kind of thing, having a nature which dictates how it should act, such that it won't change how it acts unless its nature is changed, which is what we indeed observe. Can the laws of nature, and the laws of logic, not be brute facts about existence? Similarly for induction, change requires an explanation and a cause, but a lack of a change does not require either, therefore one should require an explanation for why the future wouldn't be like the past, not why it would.

As for the fifth point, my own phenomenological-pragmatist epistemology is a direct rebuttal to that point, and there are many other versions of epistemology (including Plantinga's reformed epistemology, which theologians should be aware of) which provide reasons to trust the provisional veracity of our senses in experiencing an external world. Ironically, though, we know for a fact that our senses are not reliable, thanks to optical illusions and various kinds of madness; in fact, we know that our mental faculties are not reliable either, due to cognitive biases and the like!

Thus, the non-theistic worldview is not necessarily reduced to absurdity. Similarly, any worldview based on a monotheistic supernatural deity would be able to answer these questions in the exact same way as the Christian worldview, even ones that were recently made up. Therefore this is an argument for, at best, a deity only slightly more specific than the one the ontological or cosmological arguments argue for. In essence, this presuppositional argument is an argument from design, the same kind of argument non-presuppositionalist Christians make all the time, except couched in terms more amenable to the Christian dismissing his opponent and walking home smug and self-assured in his superiority.

One of the points that I see often brought up with regards to Van Til (and this seems to be his fundamental reason for supporting proposition one), is his idea that only the doctrine of the Trinity can solve the "problem of the one and the many." As Van Til says in his introduction to "systematic" theology:

The whole problem of knowledge has constantly been that of bringing the one and the many together. When man looks about him and within him, he sees that there is a great variety of facts. The question that comes up at once is whether there is any unity in this variety, whether there is one principle in accordance with which all these many things appear and occur. All non-Christian thought, if it has utilized the idea of a supra-mundane existence at all, has used this supra-mundane existence as furnishing only the unity or the a priori aspect of knowledge, while it has maintained that the a posteriori aspect of knowledge is something that is furnished by the universe.

Or, as he says in A Survey of Christian Epistemology:

We may contrast this doctrine of the Trinity with Plato's thought by calling attention to the fact that for Augustine the Trinity furnished the basis of the principles of unity and diversity in human knowledge. In other words the Trinity is for Augustine as for all orthodox Christians a conception without which knowledge were impossible to man. That there is plurality which man must seek to relate to some underlying unity, is patent to all men. From the earliest dawn of reflective thinking it has been the effort of man to find unity in multiplicity. But the difficulties that meet one when trying to speculate upon the question of unity and plurality are that if one begins with an ultimate plurality in the world, or we may say by regarding plurality as ultimate, there is no way of ever coming to an equally fundamental unity. On the other hand, if one should begin with the assumption of an ultimate abstract, impersonal unity, one cannot account for the fact of plurality. No system of thought can escape this dilemma. No system of thought has escaped this dilemma. Many systems of thought have denied one of the horns of the dilemma, but all that they have accomplished by doing this is to find relief in the policy of the ostrich.

What Augustine and all theistic thinkers after him have done is to say that in God, and more specifically in the triune God, lies the solution of this difficulty.

Unfortunately, all of the secondary sources --- even the ones sympathetic to Van Til --- admit that he does not argue for this, or even clarify what problem he's actually referring to, so I'm going to apply Hitchens' principle again and dismiss without evidence that which was proposed without evidence.

In conclusion, Van Til's argument is unclear, unsupported, and, when stated clearly, relies on evidential claims regarding the possibility of certain things without God --- claims that can be tested using the assumptions Van Til wishes to justify through his argument.


Many of the objections I made to the above arguments, regarding the possibility of reason and morality without God, as well as the impossibility of reason with the Christian God, hold here as well. I'll just skim over those points to get at the main problem with each of these apologetics.

2.1 GORDON H. CLARK +++----------------

Here I am drawing from an essay entitled System and Demonstration in which Dr. Clark clarified his apologetic approach in The Bible Today. I will not be covering everything in that essay, since not all of it is relevant to Dr. Clark's presuppositionalist apologetics. I will be going through a more extensive quote than for the other arguments, since this is a more nuanced argument.

Accordingly the point must be emphasized that a Christian, even a true Christian, and Christianity are two different things. The Christian is inconsistent. Christianity is the whole consistent truth. Similarly an atheist and atheism are two different things. Atheism, a system, is as consistent as any false system can be. But an individual atheist not only may, but does believe propositions inconsistent with his professed atheism.

It is opaque to me how Dr. Clark, believing --- as he professes in the text following this --- that the world must always be seen through the lens of some presuppositions, and that therefore anything contradicting those cannot be seen to be correct, could believe he has the standpoint to claim that atheism is false. According to his views, since he begins with Christian presuppositions, he could never perceive the atheist position to be true, so it is false by tautology and therefore the statement itself is utterly meaningless beyond its use in sophistry and rhetoric (a favorite of Clark's, it seems).

I should very much like to find out what these propositions are that atheists believe that are inconsistent with their atheism. I have a sneaking suspicion that what Dr. Clark is referring to here is logic and morality, but we have dealt with the supposed impossibility of these on an atheistic worldview amply enough above, so that this point can be dismissed, for the time being at least.

Additionally, I should like to point out that Dr. Clark seems to be very conveniently defining Christianity as necessarily consistent in such a way that the statement is both meaningless and totally unfalsifiable: if any contradiction was found in Christian doctrine, a Clarkian could simply and blithely dismiss it as merely a mistake on the part of the Christian(s) who held the inconsistent beliefs. Even if every known interpretation of the doctrines of Christianity was shown to be inconsistent, since Dr. Clark asserts that it is necessarily consistent, he could simply find refuge in claiming that something else was missing. This is an extremely dishonest tactic, and, sadly, indicative of the rest of his reasoning abilities.

The atheistic system, and the professed atheist too, conceives the world as a non-created, self-existent entity. "A world naturalistically conceived" is precisely the system of atheism. A world naturalistically conceived is a world whose trees and whose stars have not been created by God. And I maintain that from such a world it is impossible to prove the existence of God or to derive any part of Christianity. If anyone doubts the truth of my position on this matter, he may convince himself by attempting to produce an argument that begins with a world naturalistically conceived and concludes with the existence of the triune God. The attempt would result in some such argument as this: animals and men, plants and planets are the evolutionary results of a purely natural process; nothing has been created and supernatural intervention is inconceivable; therefore, God exists. The argument is obviously absurd. From such an atheistic or naturalistic world, no Christian truth can be deduced. There is no proposition common to the two systems. There is no logical passage from one to the other. And until someone improves on this absurd argument, I shall have to maintain my original opinions...

To borrow Clark's own phrase, this argument "is obviously absurd." The atheist does not start out with the presupposition that the world was naturalistically conceived, that nothing has been created, and that supernatural intervention is inconceivable. They begin with the presupposition that their senses are, for the most part, reliable, and that the laws of logic hold. From there, they seek out those theories about the data they gather that best describe, explain, and predict what they experience, so they can go about living. In fact, atheists often start out as Christians, the only difference being that they understand that the evidence of their reason and senses must be their starting point and not the Bible, since the Bible cannot be more fundamental because they must use their reason and senses to understand the Bible anyway.

But Dr. Clark seems not to be talking about atheists at all here, since atheism is simply the lack of belief in a God. Instead, he seems to be specifically targeting atheists who have a specific affinity for science; this is understandable, since atheism is often associated with this affinity, but I think it is important to note.

Scientists (not only atheist scientists, either) begin with the assumption that supernatural intervention should not be resorted to unless it is obviously in evidence, since supernatural intervention is not a good way of consistently explaining the world moving forward, because it is by definition the exception and not the rule. If one wants to have a predictive system --- not a "true" system in the sense Dr. Clark would likely use that word, as his article Science and Truth clearly demonstrates --- one cannot base one's theories and explanations on the exception instead of the rule. This is called methodological naturalism, and Dr. Clark seems to be confusing it for metaphysical naturalism, which does actually make the claims he says atheists in general do. As you can tell, however, methodological and metaphysical naturalism are entirely different beasts, and even Christian scientists have to use methodological naturalism on a daily basis. Additionally, it should be pointed out that only a small minority of atheists actually hold to the metaphysical naturalist position as anything but a starting point based on continued confirmation, which they would be willing to rescind if a demonstrable miracle took place.

The only reason Dr. Clark gets the impression from scientific atheists that they presuppose supernatural intervention is impossible is that there has, as yet, been a stunning lack of evidence, of any kind, for supernatural intervention. It is only because of this stunning lack of evidence that most atheists are quite comfortable in saying that they have an extremely high expectation that there will be no supernatural occurrences in either the past or the present. Again, this is because they begin with the presuppositions that are focused on describing and living in the world around them, and so if something is not evident to them and does not help describe or predict anything, they need not assume it exists. In short, naturalism is not a presupposition of atheism, but the supreme, complete, and shocking lack of evidence for a Creator or miracles of any kind has led to a derived and provisional, if pretty solid due to the lack of countervailing evidence, expectation that the supernatural will not occur and does not exist.

I should note, too, that this lack is a very surprising and troubling discovery for one who believes in the Bible, which depicts miracles so obvious that any scientist would have to attest that it was some sort of supernatural intervention, were they able to confirm it. In fact, this is an even more troubling fact for those who believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God, who would know what would convince everyone of his existence, would be able to do it, and would want to do it, at the very least to make sure that those who choose not to worship him are "without excuse." Instead, we appear to be in a universe that is organized exactly as we would predict it to be if there was no Creator.

Furthermore, as I pointed out at the beginning of my response to this section, there are in fact at least a few fundamental propositions that are held in common between Christians and atheists, focusing around the validity of the senses, thought, memory, and the laws of logic. Some Christians try to use special revelation to get around this, but it doesn't help --- see the Note about that at the end of this essay.

Nor can Christianity allow the existence of neutral facts, i.e. facts whose meanings can be determined without theological presuppositions. Dr. Buswell in his Editorial Note says that he thinks nobody believes in neutral facts. I think that many people do; was this not the usual "scientific" attitude, at least until quite recently? Sir Isaac Newton's famous claim that he did not invent hypotheses was characteristic of nineteenth century physics. It was argued that the facts themselves, apart from the scientists' wishes, choices, or manipulations, irresistibly forced certain conclusions. The facts themselves were there with all their meaning, and should be accepted in their own right without presuppositions, bias, or prejudice. This is a refrain that is very familiar to me.

Again, there are indeed facts that can be interpreted with no prior theological bias. Dr. Clark merely asserts the contrary, but I can find no coherent argument as for why this should be the case. Supernatural claims could, in theory, be demonstrated --- at least, for theological systems whose Gods aren't expressly hiding (Matthew 4:7) --- and the fact that they have not been so demonstrated is the only reason why one cannot get to the Christian God without prior presuppositions. It is not logically impossible, it merely so happens that, in our experiential envelope, God is so not in evidence that the only way to arrive at him is by assuming him. Essentially the problem here is that Dr. Clark correctly sees that to start with these four presuppositions: (1) the provisional validity of the senses in perceiving an external world, (2) the existence of other minds, (3) the validity of the laws of logic, and (4) the default uniformity of nature (not that nature must be uniform, but that when there is no cause for it not to be, it is), we cannot arrive at a God. Therefore he assumes that, somehow, these presuppositions must be biased against his God, and therefore that they can be placed on equal footing with presuppositions biased for Him.

And while I do not deny that there is some interpretation that must be done to the facts in order to arrive at a hypothesis, the facts, and the supplemental methodologies of science --- which are designed very simply and obviously to increase the probability of correctness, and can have no theological bias --- make it much more difficult to arrive at some hypothesis than others, and the facts can falsify many such hypothesis. I would like to see Dr. Clark explain how his mysterious biases and prejudices could be introduced to the hard sciences without quickly having reality slap you in the face. Again, the facts themselves rule out an infinity of hypothesis, and while the number of hypothesis that could be made to fit also remains infinite, due to the need to actually fit, they will all look alike in very important and substantial ways, so that the infinity that remains is composed of substantially identical, not meaningfully different hypothesis. Furthermore, if one has any experience at all with basic highschool calculus, one will know that there are different sizes of infinities, and if one has a much smaller infinity on top of a fraction and a larger one on the bottom, one can actually arrive at a probability of one!

When unbelievers object to Christianity on the basis that it views the world on the basis of undemonstrated hypotheses, the reply should plainly be made that everyone more or less consciously bases his conclusions on undemonstrated assumptions. There are no facts, no meaningful facts, apart from presuppositions. And hence I stated that unless we begin by assuming the Triune God, we shall never get to God at all.

Indeed, there are no facts apart from undemonstrated presuppositions. That does not mean that all undemonstrated presuppositions are equal. A simpler, smaller set, which still serves the purpose of allowing us to arrive at "knowledge" about the experiential envelope and operate within it, is more likely to be correct because the more undemonstrated (and therefore possibly wrong) presuppositions we add, the less sure our foundation gets. Furthermore, if that set of presuppositions comes with a lot of baggage, then if we desire to continue to operate functionally in the world, we must spend a lot of time attempting to reconcile that baggage --- which, being undemonstrated, are possibly and even likely to contradict what is truly real, whatever that means --- with what the operational facts of the world indicate to us. Additionally, if one wishes to live in this world as we inescapably experience it, it is most expedient to begin with presuppositions that are closely tied to the experiential envelope itself, instead of random presuppositions torn from a book that has no such relationship or purpose. I repeat, furthermore, that it would in principle be possible for the set of four presuppositions I suggested above to get us to God. The fact that they don't is not a demonstration of the fact that one could only ever get to God through presupposing him --- only that it just so happens that God is not evident to what is, truly, a neutral set of presuppositions or to our actual experience.

Consequently, the Christian viewpoint is the result neither of isolated nor of neutral facts. It is not the result of induction at all. The knowledge of God must precede a Christian view of the world. If we know God to begin with, we can see that the world is created. But if we have something other than God as our presupposition, we see other things. And if we have no presuppositions, we simply do not see.

At pain of repeating myself, I state again: the four propositions I suggested above are taken as presuppositions by those not of a Clarkian bent, and conclusions or presuppositions by those of such a bent. Yet, in both cases, Clark admits, the truth of the scriptures that those of the Clarkian bent accept as their starting presupposition is not in evidence. Those four propositions are, I state again, neutral. They are not unique to atheists or Christians, but shared between them --- just justified differently. The real difference is that while the atheists honestly say that they start with those four propositions, the Christians say they start with scripture, but then use justifications based on those four propositions to backport data from them to reinterpret scripture. As such, scripture is essentially null and void unless extreme hermeneutic contortionism reaches its limit (i.e. when hell freezes over) or a Christian must form an opinion on non-scientific things. In the former case, if one desires to live in the world of their experience, they must choose their senses and reason over scripture; it is only in the latter case that things become interesting: the case where Christianity does not and cannot conflict with the envelope of our experiences.

Christians claim that this is where the true use of the scripture comes in: "in giving us morality and a belief in an afterlife and other such" things as may be comforting and even useful in this world. To that, my response is simple: insofar as these beliefs influence our actions, they may come in contact to reality, and as Jordan Peterson says, "reality is what objects to your stupid theory." Inasmuch as morality is related to reality, for instance, a morality derived from something outside of and contradictory to the envelope of experience within which we exist will birth only monstrosities, wrongnesses and failures. Thus, if the teachings of religion concerning human nature, what makes us happy, and so on are wrong, they can only hurt us. And if they are right, why not accept those right things on their own terms? It goes likewise for the afterlife: if it is real, so much the better and truer. If it is false, it makes us waste our time in this life, not caring to make it better, waiting to apologise or say those last few words to a dying friend until you see him in heaven (or hell). It terrorizes children and keeps people afraid for, ultimately, no reason.

Perhaps this point can be made clearer with an illustration. Consider a man who lives in a simulation. In reality, humans can fly, but in the simulation in which he finds himself, the experiential envelope within which he finds himself gives him no indication that he can fly, although he himself has never tried. Contrary to what his experiences indicate to him, however, he decides that, since the possibility of his flying has never been actually tested, and isn't directly contradicted by the evidence available to him, he will believe he can fly. After all, such a belief can have many benefits: it can alleviate his fear of heights, which will allow him to provide for his family better as a construction worker; it can also be extremely freeing, as he can lay around dreaming of the day when he will fly. One day, however, he decides to actually test it out. He takes an elevator to the top floor of a building, gets out on the roof, and, serene in his confidence, plummets to his death.

In this story, it is a moot point as to whether, in the base reality, this man really could fly. The problem is that he is trapped inside the envelope of his own experiences and cannot step out of them. He must obey the laws of the simulation, so if his experiences of the simulation indicate to him that he cannot fly, that there is no such thing as a flying human, he should take that to be the truth until falsified. He should not assume something that is not evident to his experience and not testable (we're assuming that it wouldn't be testable for whatever reason), because we are bound by our experiences.

Now, one point that I brought up in response to Sye Ten Bruggencate's argument should be brought up here as well: it is my view that even Christian presuppositionalists of a Clarkian bent must first assume at least the first three of propositions above to even get as far as reading the Bible and deciding it is true. Therefore, not only are those three propositions more basic than the Bible in the sense I mentioned above, but they come before the Bible in time and justification as well, meaning they are by far more basic, and even if the Bible provides an explanation for them, it cannot provide a justification. Sye and Clark's response to this is to appeal to "special revelation": that is, a prerational, pre-sense intuition, akin to Plantinga's sensus divinitatis, of the existence of God and the truth of scripture. Thus, they say, scripture still remains more basic than Christianity. I have a number of responses to this. First, I could simply say that I have a sense that the four propositions above are accurate that is also prerational and pre-sense --- in fact, necessarily so --- which is what causes me to be forced to use those presuppositions as if they were true even to doubt them. Additionally, we have a myriad of reports from all sorts of religions, from Islam to Paganism, of similar revelation in favor of their holy scriptures, so that to claim that the Christian's revelation is uniquely correct is simply special pleading which no one has any reason to accept --- even the Christian himself. Thus, Clark, in making this objection, has no reason to believe, as he so strongly states at the beginning of my quotations of him, that atheism or any other non-Christian belief is false in any real sense. He must adopt pluralism, and dispense with even trying to convince others of his own faith. On top of this, the idea of special revelation must account for why some do not have the same revelation, or even do not have revelation at all. Claiming that those who do not have revelation, or have different revelation, are merely confused by sin is merely special pleading, and no good reason at all.

In conclusion, Clarkians are left on very shaky ground: they essentially have, by their own admission and by the structure of their "arguments, no ability to convince others of their views, no reason to think their views are more true, and no grounds on which to condemn any other views except those those other views could level against each other or Christianity itself. Their only real claim would be that Christianity is not more true, but more useful in living, but since the arbiter of what is successful in life is experience and reason, going with the primary of the four reason and experience-based propositions I suggested earlier is a quicker route to arrive at the same objective with less baggage.

2.2 ALVIN PLANTINGA +++----------------

Alvin Plantinga, one of the foremost progenitors of Reformed Epistemology, has two (substantially overlapping) arguments for the rationality of the belief in the existence of God (not necessarily the existence of God himself) which fit the format of the pragmatic presuppositionalist argument to some degree. The first, to be found in God and Other Minds, was stated this way on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (I couldn't actually gain access to a copy of God and Other Minds unfortunately):

Plantinga argues that belief in other minds and belief in God are in the same epistemological dilemma; all of the arguments in their favor fall short when it comes to philosophical scrutiny. Yet, as Plantinga states, "if belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter.

The problem with this argument should be fairly obvious from the outset: we have some reason to believe that other minds exist, namely that we are aware of how we present and act in the world we appear to live in, and it would not only be special pleading, but also fail Occam's Razor, to introduce an entity that acts and presents almost identically to us in all important respects, but which does not have the same internal experience as we do. Furthermore, we are almost forced to accept the reality of other minds because everyone else in the world acts as if they have internal experience, and so we, being forced to live within the rules of the experiential envelope around us, have to treat them as if they do if we wish to get around. Importantly, as well, whether it is an accurate feeling or not, we do possess empathy, so treating other people as p-zombies wouldn't be a good way to achieve flourishing anyway, which is the goal of all human action. Meanwhile, the arguments for the existence of God all actually fall afoul of special pleading, instead of avoiding it, as well as failing the Occam's Razor test as a theory trying to explain our experience. Moreover, one can certainly act as though God does not exist without running into practical difficulties, and unless one is indoctrinated by the church one does not have a sense of violating God's commandments in the same way as we have a sense of empathy. This, last, however, brings me to Plantinga's second argument.

The second, found in Faith and Rationality, deals with this idea of having senses and what it might mean for the rationality of belief in god. It is must succinctly stated thus:

Calvin's claim, then, is that God has created us in such a way that we have a strong tendency or inclination toward belief in him. This tendency has been in part overlaid or suppressed by sin. Were it not for the existence of sin in the world, human beings would believe in God to the same degree and with the same natural spontaneity that we believe in the existence of other persons, an external world, or the past. This is the natural human condition; it is because of our presently unnatural sinful condition that many find belief in God difficult or absurd. The fact is, Calvin thinks, one who does not believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position --- rather like a man who does not believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is likely a cleverly constructed robot and has no thoughts, feelings, or consciousness. Although this belief in God is partially suppressed, it is nonetheless universally present.

This is stated without evidence, and although it would be convenient if true that everyone had a sensus divinitatis innately telling them that God exists, only suppressed by the noetic effects of sin, something stated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence as well. For more on such ideas of "special revelation," see "A Note on Special Revelation.

There are other false equivalencies in the above quote concerning other beliefs Plantinga wants to say are just as (un)sure as the belief in God, but they are equally as convincing as his attempted comparison between the existence of God and the existence of other minds. According to my own epistemological approach, as I state elsewhere in this paper, one should adopt the simplest possible theory that can explain all the phenomena of one's experience. It should explain all of them in order to ensure that it can continue to explain future phenomena, and it should be as simple as possible in order to make as few assumptions as possible. Therefore, even if someone had a religious experience, the simplest possible explanation would still be to attribute it to the material world that is already being posited, instead of positing an entirely new realm of existence with new kinds of entities. Furthermore, the theory that one does posit should not be contrary to the rest of your experience, including your experience of the veracity of other people's claims about their experiences of the world with respect to yours (i.e. the ability of others to make observations which hold both in their experience and yours), meaning that if the theory you arrive at contradicts the evidence available to your experience, then it should not be accepted. This would be an objection that holds for a belief system that, for instance, insists the world is flat and space is full of water.

In conclusion, Plantinga draws a false equivalency between some of our more basic beliefs --- such as the existence of other minds --- and a belief that he desires to justify. In the process of defending that, in later work, he introduces the concept of a special divine sense which, if it did exist, might provide a rational reason to believe in God; this, however, does not actually solve the problem because the existence of such a sense cannot be demonstrated to anyone outside of Plantinga himself and those who feel like them, so there is no reason to believe them, unlike even the basic axioms (laws of logic, etc), which although they cannot be justified, can be demonstrated to be inescapable to those on the receiving end of the argument.


I would like to add a side note here about a possible defense of these apologetic approaches which moves them out of the realm of presuppositionalism and into the realm of evidentialism, while keeping their form the same. It is a form of argument that both Van Til and Sye Ten use, so it's worth covering here. Essentially, it is the claim that only a theistic Christian worldview can account for why reason and morality are true (not justify them, but just explain why). Sye usually explains this point by making reference to the fact that, on a naturalistic account, our brains are just running on chemical reactions, so that any argument between an atheist and a thiest is akin to shaking up a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a bottle of Coke, opening them, and watching them fizz, to see which one is fizzing more "truly.

This is fallacious for several reasons. Primarily, it is essentially an appeal to incredulity: simply because the theist finds it hard to believe that reasoning consciousness can arise from matter does not mean it is not so; after all, we do know that non-conscious things can "refer" to other things (such as a footprint in the mud), and that those references can be more or less accurate. Furthemore, there are several quite convincing and overlapping evolutionary accounts of how our reasoning capabilities might have come about with no need for religion to get involved; the mere fact that we do not know the exact account, down to every last detail, does not give the theist license to say that it is impossible, or to suggest his own God as an "explanation." That's an appeal to ignorance.

Conversely, the mere fact that a hypothesis could "explain a lot" does not give us license to believe it if it does not have evidence pointing to it that is positively indicative of it, and/or exclusively concordant with it. Furthermore, any such explanation must go through Occam's Razor before it can be accepted. Just because, for instance, a theory about Superman creating all the different cool rock formations in the Arizona desert could explain a lot of things doesn't mean that it's the right theory to select.


One other point I should make before I move on is on the presuppositionalist doctrine, originating, I believe, with Van Til, of "no neutral ground." Essentially, the argument here is that to abandon one's belief in the veracity of scripture and existence of the Christian God, even hypothetically, in order to convince one's non-Christian interlocutor, is abandoning one's strongest ground; for, they claim, there is no such thing as neutral ground: either you're on the Christian's ground (presupposing God does exist) or the "atheist's ground (presupposing he doesn't). I've dealt with this in more detail in my section on Clark, but I think some general remarks, sufficient to deal with the other places this argument shows up, should be enough.

This is essentially fallacious because it presents a black and white fallacy: "one does not have to move directly from having a Christian set" of presuppositions to having a set of presuppositions based on the non-existence of a God. There are, in actual fact, a set of common presuppositions that both Christian and non-Christian ("atheist" to them, since this is an important part of their black and white fallacy) share which assume neither the existence nor non-existence of God:

  1. The provisional validity of the senses in perceiving an external


  2. That other minds exist which share our reality

  3. The validity of the laws of logic

  4. The uniformity of nature in the absence of a cause for it not to be


Whether these assumptions are assumed as presuppositions themselves, justified by special revelation of the truth of scripture, or justified by scripture (which itself is analyzed with these presuppositions), this is the common ground between all theists and atheists, and nothing about these presuppositions says anything about the existence of a God whatsoever. It is only because, on the basis of these presuppositions alone, God is not to be found, that Christians have come to associate starting with only these presuppositions with the conclusion of atheism. Hence the problem for them: it is not inconceivable that one could arrive at God without the need to presuppose him, it is simply that he is not in evidence that makes it the case that that is necessary. One can argue about whether or not these presuppositions actually rest on the truth of the Christian faith --- as has been discussed in the preceding pages --- but that is beside the point here. There is logically neutral ground --- it's just not neutral ground that happens to conform to the Christian apologist's wishes.

It is from that neutral position one must argue, anyway, if one wishes to actually convince the other party instead of just shouting them down. After all, they're either starting in this neutral position or, in fact, in the opposite position, so you must show them how to move from their current position to yours if the discussion is to mean anything. If one does not desire to do this, there is no reason for further debate, and one is contradicting one's very beliefs by continuing to have it. At that point, reason is out of the question, and the only three options that remain are: incoherent screaming, a parting of ways, or physical violence.

When moving to this neutral ground temporarily, a Christian need not abandon any of his beliefs concerning the truth of his scripture and theology, nor even abandon his belief that any worldview besides the Christian one is incoherent (the presuppositionalist position). He only needs to not assume them from the beginning in order to demonstrate them in a way that could even have a possible chance of convincing the "atheist.

One common response to this, endorsed by Van Til and Sye, is to quote Romans 1:20: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse..." Thus, to assume that the atheist does not already believe in God is, in fact, to abandon a Christian belief in the truth of the Bible --- or at least the book of Romans. To one not already converted (or one having been deconverted), this verse seems like a clear and obvious attempt to strengthen the virulity of the religious meme by making it seem as if there is not only no possible coherent non-Christian position, but no possible genuine non-Christian position. To a Christian reading that verse, all I can say is this: do you actually think it is so evident? And even if you do, don't you think that publicly embarrassing atheists with all this apparently copious and undeniable evidence your Bible says you have could at least motivate others to check out your faith? And, to those Christians who have tried this, isn't it interesting that that evidence wasn't very strong after all? And further, to presuppositionalists in particular, if the Bible, which you presume to be totally infallible and true, says the evidentialist argument for Christianity is so strong, aren't you violating the dictates of your God by trying another route?


One of the common responses presuppositionalists give to an accusation of circularity in their argumentation, or the point that they actually assume the four propositions above (or at least propositions one and three) to even get as far as Christianity (since it is not possible to reconstruct Christianity from scratch, one must read the Bible to get it) is that they get "special revelation" from God that attests to them the truth of their scriptures without the use of any other senses. Thus, their only actual presupposition is that that special revelation is accurate.

There are problems with this, however. For one, special revelation is not self-evident in the sense that the presuppositions an atheist uses are. Instead, it is a largely arbitrary choice, based on some internal experience of feeling. This experience or feeling is not, however, self-evident, and therefore should be justified in order to be rational. Furthermore, if one is using it to justify the whole of the Christian Bible, we arrive at a central problem with arbitrary presuppositions: they only function usefully by accident. Self-evident presuppositions are inescapable and are, if one desires to understand the phenomenal world around you and live in it, the most direct epistemic basis for being able to understand one's world. If one desires to understand the world presented to you by the senses, one should begin by analyzing what the senses report, and if one desires to be able to plan for (and act in) that reality, one should focus on creating theories that can predict reality, instead of being reconciled with reality after the fact. Likewise, if one desires to have a higher probability of being correct --- since we must operate within a state of epistemic uncertainty since all of our foundations, whether self-evident or not, are unjustified --- one must assume the smallest number of foundations and, in explaining the world, the smallest number of entities not in evidence that can still explain the facts of your experience. Presupposing arbitrary things breaks all of these rules: since presupposing special revelation, and through that, the Christian Bible, has nothing necessarily at all to do with the reality present to our senses, it is right only by accident; since the Christian Bible is an extremely complex set of propositions that can easily be misinterpreted and which make very clear statements about metaphysical realities not in evidence to our senses, it violates the rule of limiting non-obvious assumptions; since the Christian Bible makes predictions about reality that seem wrong and can only be interpreted as right after someone has used their senses and reasoning skills to construct the correct model of reality, it cannot help with planning or acting (it's essentially only correct post hoc by having reinterpretations foisted upon it ad hoc); and since the Christian Bible is not self-evident (either necessary for thought or action) it is not part of a minimum set of foundations either. Thus, even if one does not have to assume three of the four basic atheist presuppositions in order to get to the Bible, beginning with special revelation of the Bible is still a dubious beginning.

Again, this is the problem I have with presuppositionalists drawing false equivalencies between the atheist worldview and their own. It's essentially the old "you have faith in science" chestnut, after all. Just because some foundational presuppositions can't be justified doesn't mean you can just choose your own foundation and say it doesn't have to be justified --- the reason self-evident propositions can be taken as presuppositions without justification is because they are inherently unjustifiable, and have that property due to their various levels of inescapability. Meanwhile, special revelation could be justifiable in theory, it merely isn't in our experiential reality for whatever reason, and it still cannot really serve as a basis or justification for the presuppositions atheists start with and Christians want to arrive at because in describing special revelation and how it leads them to and justifies those propositions, they are using them and proving how much more basic they are in the very act!

There are more problems for the special revelation presuppositionalist, as well. One would assume that such a person believes in an objective external reality that is also perceived by other minds. As such, they have a question to answer: how are we to interpret the special revelation that other people receive from their Gods? If it is simply evidence of the supernatural --- i.e. these people are receiving a message from God (or Satan) as well, and simply misinterpreting it --- then the question becomes, how does this theist know they are interpreting it correctly? If those other people are mistaken, how does this theist know they are not mistaken also? If those other people are sinful, and that's why they have these incorrect special revelations (or don't have them at all, in the case of atheism), then how does the theist know that they are not receiving incorrect special revelation from someone else's God, and it is their sin, as defined by that other religion, that is preventing them from being that other religion? All of the answers to these questions seem, by necessity, to involve special pleading.

Moreover, it seems that if one has an experience that is out of the ordinary --- a hallucination of divine revelation, for instance --- one should interpret it within the framework of the ordinary, i.e., the majority of their experiences, not the other way around. The reasons one should do this are manifold, but just one is that the majority of one's experiences weigh more heavily in one's experience of the envelope of experience than the minority, so one should, if one desires to live in the world of one's senses, bias their views in the direction of the ordinary. This is also the solution of the madman: if one occasionally has episodes of insanity and hallucinations, one should interpret the rest of the world based on the majority of those experiences, if one wants to function the majority of the time.

Additionally, this kind of justification is not demonstrable. It is not a reason for the non-believer to believe, only a rationalization for why the believer can continue to believe. It cannot convince anyone except the one who is already convinced. This is fine, but it presents yet another reason that the presuppositionalist must be a pluralist, and cannot claim to have the truth. They might claim to have the most fruitful philosophy, but that is an empirical claim about their sense experience and the sense experience of others, regarding history and the present, and can be tested. In a similar vein, since this is not a demonstrable reason, it is a reason that can apply just as well to the madman as the religions believer: they can claim that they have had a direct experience, and although others have different or contrary experiences, and although they cannot show this experience to be concordant with anyone's reality but their own, they can still believe because of this special experience. From an outside perspective, there is no reason to believe them, since they have completely removed themselves from the intersubjective reality that everyone else shares; indeed, if they prove to be dangerous or unhelpful to those around them, they can be physically removed from sane people's company for that reason. In essence, the religious person who admits to special revelation is admitting to insanity.

This becomes all the more clear when we analyze what they mean by special revelation. For, if they mean information revealed to them through some non-sensory, non-rational means, then they would still require at least their logical faculties to interpret what that information means, and their senses to determine how to act on it. If they could not interpret what it means or determine how to act on it, it would be essentially null and void, because they would neither think on the basis of it or act on it. Thus, for special revelation to make sense under this definition, the religious person must still assume at least two of the propositions the atheist holds as presuppositions. Conversely, if special revelation does not at any stage require interpretation and determination, what is it? Is it the sort of animal instinct that goes directly from perception to action? This seems extremely unlikely in the case of a belief about the truth of a particular book --- how can that be made evident to someone without either?


Presuppositional apologetics, like all other Christian apologetics, essentially spends its time begging the question, doing special pleading, and asking of atheists what the religious cannot themselves provide. It may be the best Christianity has, but it's not that good. Fundamentally, presuppositionalism in either its logical or pragmatic form is an expression of desperation.

In its logical form, it's an argument constructed around the goal of not letting the other side argue. If one can state the premise that debate is impossible without God early enough in the debate, one has a seemingly-reasonable excuse to not let one's interlocutor get a word in edgewise for the rest of the debate, and since he can't get a word in edgewise, he can't point out that the theist himself has no good reason to assume debate is impossible without God, or that he can't answer his own challenge. Let me be clear: pointing out that the Christian can't answer his own challenge isn't a tu quoque fallacy in this instance because, since the Christian is proposing a criterion for truth that invalidates both his own worldview and all others, yet we're still capable of living, having knowledge, and debating, it becomes clear that the criterion must be lowered --- or at least changed.

In its pragmatic form, the presuppositionalist argument is basically that they find belief in Christian theology to be useful (either in functioning or in holding non-contradictory beliefs) in some way. The problem with this is that there are many other, similarly useful, faiths and worldviews, and more can be constructed. Why should I not take Aristotle's view of the world on faith instead? That's a complete philosophy, equally as obviously wrong scientifically/epistemologically speaking, but equally as "useful." Maybe I should just take Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and science on faith. Most unfortunately for the apologist, the rhetorical move of the pragmatic presuppositionalists of attributing all beliefs to faith doesn't work, and the concomitant attempt to reduce all presuppositions, regardless of justification, basicness, self-evidence, or consistency with our phenomenological existence in the world, to equal footing is equally unsuccessful.

I will state my position simply here: I choose to presuppose the minimal set of self-evident propositions necessary to arrive at a functional and practical understanding of the world around me that is most likely to lead me to truth about the world I am living in, which I cannot escape, where each of the self-evident propositions I choose to presuppose are grounded necessarily in my experience of myself and the world, and therefore have a chance of explaining my experience itself. Meanwhile, Christian presuppositionalists choose to presuppose their Bible, because, although it is not self-evident, minimal, or connected to their sense experience in any way which assures them that it will help explain that experience, they find it comforting --- or because they got a special feeling that it was true. I'm sure you see the difference. Presuppositionalism reduces to faith, which is madness and blindness, pure and simple.

In the end, I am not sad that these arguments don't work, either. Even if the Christian God could be demonstrated to exist, he could not generate positive moral obligations on anyone. The best he could do would be to provide heaven and hell, that ultimate carrot-and-stick, but belief is not volitional, so I would be damned either way, and therefore left to decide how best to live with my own sense of morality --- which, I assure you, does not comport with His. Likewise, I find it difficult to believe that a God who so desires my worship, or at least my acknowledgement, would make it so difficult for me to believe in his very existence. A God who plays hide-and-seek is not a God worth seeking.