The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 103)

[The previous series, 102, can be found [url=]here. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found here. This series, 103, picks up with the topic arrived at the end of the previous series.]

[Entry 1 for “Presuppositionalism vs. Progression to a Worldview”]
Now I will examine another set of tactics, similar in ends, if not in means, to those of the negative agnostics.

[Footnote: please keep in mind that my goal throughout this series of entries, as is typically the case throughout this Section 100, is to see whether a particular stance or set of stances properly prevents me from trying with any good hope to reach conclusions on metaphysical topics, including most especially any conclusions that can be legitimately shared by opponents and myself. Keeping this in mind will help avoid misunderstanding what I’m actually trying to do here; and will also help avoid critiques of what I am [u]not actually trying to do.]

There are two subgroups of Christian proponents (and I think I can safely assume they have their mirrors in Judaism and Islam) who would agree with the negative agnostic that philosophical analysis cannot (by its very character) reach useful and/or true conclusions about God’s existence and His characteristics.

Both these groups may be called Presuppositionalists; and for sake of discussion I will distinguish them as Scriptural Presuppositionalists and Theological Presuppositionalists.

[Entry 2]
Both types of thinkers are typically devout and loyal to God, and to what they (in many cases ‘we’!) believe to be writings He has to one degree or another inspired. Furthermore, both types of thinker are likely to hold Scripture to be not only inspired, but also utterly inerrant (no errors or mistakes of any kind were allowed by God in the material, even down to our present-day translated copies) and virtually dictated to the writers in all instances by God.

These people are, in essence, likely to attribute Divine characteristics to scriptures. Again, these people do this very largely out of loyalty to, and love for, God.

[Footnote: The Theological Presuppositionalists need not necessarily be so stringent, but they often are. At the same time, the Scriptural Presuppositionalist–or any other proponent of scriptural inerrancy–may hold the more moderate view that the original “autographic” documents were inerrant to this extent, but have become corrupted to some degree in the centuries and millennia afterward, thanks to copy errors, misidentified scribal glosses, damaged documents, etc.

There is, in fact, a wide range of theories concerning scriptural inspiration, and even of the character of scriptural inerrancy. My discussion will leave these issues mostly to one side; certainly the point I wish to make in these current entries, concerning Presuppositionalistic methodologies, does not depend on accepting or rejecting this-or-that type of inerrancy or inspiration; although frequently an acceptance of this-or-that type of inerrancy or inspiration will depend upon such methodologies.]

[Entry 3]
Sometimes certain individual proponents of these two stances will choose this tactic in order to avoid direct confrontation with the opposition–while still trying to confront the opposition.

I do not think this makes sense; partly because I think it flies in the face of any successful Christian witness on our part. I do not consider flinging grenades onto the field and then crouching behind our benches–hoping the grenades will somehow do our responsibilities for us–to be fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission. The proponent of such a tactic needs only to ask himself how he would probably respond as a sceptic to this sort of bullyragging; or perhaps (if he is a traditional Christian) he should consider what he would think of Jehovah’s Witnesses (for instance) trying the same tactic on him. If he would reject such a tactic applied against him, would he consider himself to be doing so out of willful rejection of the truth? Or because such a presentation gives him no good reason to change his mind? (On the other hand, I would say ‘staying home’ in such a fashion out of a humble recognition of lack of skill, would make fine sense as far as it goes; but by default this would not involve opposing opponents.)

However, not all Presuppositionalists are trying to safely toss grenades onto the playing field (despite what some sceptics might be tempted to suspect!)

Instead, they may be operating according to this concern: they quite consciously start with a set of beliefs they want to preserve, and so they (with equal intent) put those beliefs first as the only possible way of successfully interpreting reality.

[Entry 4]
So, a person who is a Scriptural Presuppositionalist will (in essence) start with the following propositions: only God can be the ground for any true proposition, and the only way of discovering aspects of God is through the Scriptures He has inspired. Therefore, the Scriptures (being our only pipeline to ultimate truth) must be used as the standard for deciding the truth of any other proposition.

To their credit, they don’t have to mean by this that every single question must rely on Scripture for an answer: they do not turn to Scripture to learn how to find the sum of 41 and 39; nor to find the best ways of planting seed; nor to learn how to make an airplane (or a horse-cart for that matter).

But, they would say that any answer that contradicts ‘clear’ scriptural teaching must be wrong, no matter how correct the answer otherwise may look.

(The question of what counts as ‘clearness’ can be more than a little muddy, though! I find that even proponents of extreme literalism become selectively metaphorical when it suits their purposes. The Immanuel prophecy from Isaiah chapter 7 is an excellent example. The surrounding story has nothing literally to do with God Incarnate; and everything literally to do with a son of Isaiah whose birth and early life will mark the limit to the current siege of Jerusalem and hostile occupation of the southern kingdom of Judah.)

[Entry 5]
On the other hand (and of much more importance for my immediate topic), if a conclusion does match a position of theirs, they may admit the conclusion is technically correct–because otherwise they would be denying their own position! But they will also say the conclusion could not really have been reached by the method used.

Thus, even if an argument seemed to conclude that a supernatural Creator God must exist (with any further details inclusive to that theism), these people would say that the argument simply cannot be doing what it looks like it’s doing, because it isn’t using Scripture to get to that conclusion and only Scripture is capable of giving us those kinds of truth.

There are, of course, adherents of scriptural inerrancy who are entirely in favor of using arguments other than scriptural authority to reach conclusions proposed by scripture. I think these inerrantists constitute the majority of such believers, and I am not discussing them here; because in principle they would be in favor of apologetic argument. I am only speaking of a minority of inerrantists who would insist that no way of reaching such conclusions can be possible aside from mere acceptance of scriptural authority. Most inerrantists would be content to check the validity of my logic as an auxiliary to scriptural authority; and that would certainly be fine with me–although then we would have to go into questions concerning grounds for translations, interpretations of grammar and concept, etc.

But notice that ‘interpretation of concept’ basically means we would be back to a preliminary metaphysical discussion after all!–not a discussion of scriptural exegesis.

This being the case, I would rather start with the metaphysics and save a step.

Which, in their own way, is what the Theological Presuppositionalists are also, trying to do–more overtly so than the Scriptural Presuppositionalists (who, as just noted, cannot help but also be doing this tacitly, even when they don’t realize it.)

[Entry 6]
The Theological Presuppositionalist takes a similar yet distinctive view. She would begin with the proposition that only God’s existence (and perhaps other characteristics), used as a ground, can provide a coherent non-contradictive philosophy. She then attempts to illustrate that God’s presumed existence allows us to account for more of reality than another presupposition would.

Depending on how she goes about it, this is not necessarily a faulty method; but it should be presented as an abductive argument (at least for purposes of arguing in favor of God’s existence and characteristics), instead of a deductive one, and would share the weaknesses of an abductive argument.

If she tries to make it deductive, it becomes circular, and thus invalid:

Step 1, Presume (for sake of argument) x-type God exists.

Step 2, Demonstrate that the notional system based accepting the existence of this God doesn’t ‘crash’, and provides us with a working basis for the conversion of philosophy into, for instance, valid sciences for discovering and predicting true facts about our world.

Step 3, Demonstrate that true facts about our world mesh with the system; preferably some facts the system predicted in advance.

Step 4, Conclude therefore that this God must exist.

Even if steps 2 and 3 can be shown to work, step 4 cannot legitimately follow, because step 2 requires step 1 to be true first–and step 1 equals step 4, so the argument goes nowhere, like triggering an empty revolver at a target that has already been shot. However, stopping at steps 2 or 3 can still be useful: demonstrating that a proposed system ‘works’ is certainly important, and at least provides a valid option.

(Another way of attempting a deductive argument along this path, would be to presume God’s existence (with such-n-such characteristic set); demonstrate (formally) that this presumption works without crashing; and then demonstrate that all other proposed presuppositions fail. This is one proper approach, and I call it the system-check duel; but it has some practical shortcomings. I will discuss it a few pages from now.)

But, if the proponent insists on trying to make a safely certain deductive argument from this presuppositional process instead–which has commonly been attempted in theology, unfortunately–it can only offer a very backhanded sort of ‘help’.

[Entry 7]
What is a sceptic supposed to say to an argument like this? “So, if only I will accept God does exist, then I will see that God must exist?”

That may be true, but it isn’t worth saying! To ‘see’ (or accept as a belief) that God exists, on this plan, the thinker must essentially begin by accepting that God exists! I do not think a rejection of this type of plan by a sceptic necessarily indicates sinful obstinance or imbecility: it might indicate a sensible and ethical virtue on the part of the sceptic–not to accept a supposed ‘argument’ that by its very characteristics cannot show what its adherents claim for it!

The circular Presuppositionalist may understand what I mean, if the tables are turned. Nature prevents us from presenting comprehensible cases simultaneously to each other, so one or the other must ‘go first’. Therefore, let us say an atheist happens to go first.

He begins with the assertion that God does not exist: that the rock-bottom most basic Fact in reality upon which all else depends is not itself sentient. He then proceeds to demonstrate that useful and accurate philosophies and sciences can be built upon this assertion. Therefore, he concludes, God must not exist.

Would the Presuppositionalist agree with him? I hope not! This atheist’s ‘conclusion’ that God must not exist, requires as a necessary presumption that God does not exist!

I do not mean this atheist would have accomplished absolutely nothing: if he does get this far he will have demonstrated, to use my earlier simile, that the revolver does indeed cycle and click. But dry-clicking a revolver, although very useful and important in itself, is far from being a final decisive threat of any kind, either.

The Scriptural Presuppositionalist has an even harder job, because claims of self-grounding written material tend to cancel out one another; and the advocates can easily end up (perhaps even literally) waving books in each other’s faces like crucifixes against vampires, yelling “Bible!”, “Koran!”, “Bible!”, “Koran!”, “Little Red Book!”–before everyone loses patience and starts shooting.

[Entry 8; the next to last entry]
Yet, in one way, a debate between two philosophical types of Presuppositionalists–for instance a theist and an atheist–may accomplish something worthwhile. Both sides can get into what I call a system-check duel, where they pick at problems (or perceived problems) in the opposing systems while defending their own. This could (potentially) lead to a Last Man Standing situation: the last one with a working system may reasonably be considered to be the winner!

However, both sides have massively complex arguments; and not only is there no motivation, there is virtually no provision for keeping the entire argument of either side in view at once. Also this method highlights (and indeed magnifies) the adversarial aspect of the exercise.

And in such a strategy, the ‘loser’ always has an infallible escape hatch: he can always say that some new development in the future might re-open the case. Insofar as an inductive argument goes, he would be within boundaries to try clinging to this hope.

I would rather try a different route. I would, in short, prefer to grow a theist rather than merely weed out atheists.

A deductive argument to a conclusion of theism, by being a deductive argument, will certainly weed out alternate proposals; but it shouldn’t necessarily weed out the people who propose them. Ironically, even though inductive or abductive comparison arguments are often promoted as being less tolerant and more hostile than deductive arguments, a system-check duel, of itself, does not invite or facilitate a shared experience of discovery. Yet the Great Commission is a call for all people to accept a banner; not a call to destroy the infidel.

Paradoxically, a deductive argument can more tolerant and less hostile than an inductive or abductive argument, since those forms (even when, for induction, an idea isn’t hypothetically proposed first for presuppositional defense) tend to rely primarily on personal estimations of likelihood which can easily be not shared between disputants. A deductive argument, on the other hand, depends on a valid logical presentation and an agreement about data. The key thing, then, is to find agreements about data between disputants and then to proceed from there. This isn’t necessarily easy to do, but at least cooperation between disputants is built-in as a goal from the first.

Whereas, opposition between opponents is necessarily built-in from the first, when the worldviews are presented as presupposed for abductive (or, improperly, circularly deductive) establishment and defense.

[Entry 9; final entry for this series]
I agree that some presupposition (or limited set of presuppositions) must be proposed, upon which the rest of the argument can then be built. Near the beginning of my second section I will try to find a notion with which both my sceptical reader and I can agree in a shared mutual advantage. Then I will deduce implications from that starting point, and from there draw further deductions; to see if I can rule out option branches without cheating.

Meanwhile, I know some sceptics have seen the unclear (and often circularly argued) results of Presuppositionalist views; or have heard that if Christianity (or some other theism) is true, it cannot be discovered by reasoning but merely asserted. You will not, however, hear that from me! I hope I have shown why I do not consider either of those factors to be good grounds for concluding beforehand that these types of issues cannot be satisfactorily resolved by logical analysis (and I will touch on this point occasionally throughout the rest of my book, in one fashion or another).

The question of assertions vs. reasoned conclusions, however, does (as a matter of historical fact) involve the question of religious faith; a topic that has been perennially misunderstood throughout human history, including among Christians. These misunderstandings have been, and still are, propagated by strong factions among believers and unbelievers alike; and since these misunderstandings can often bring a useful dialogue (much moreso a process of shared discovery) to a crashing halt before either side can even begin making their case, I had better try to resolve this issue.

Series 104: One Brief History of the Reason/Faith Dichotomy.]