The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 201)

[This is the start of Section Two, Reason and the First Person. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found [url=]here.]

[This series constitutes Chapter 14, “The Golden Presumption”.]

[Entry 1]

In geometry, as every high-school student is taught, all theorems and other geometric rules can be deduced from axioms. The axioms you use, determine the type of geometry you have. In Euclidian geometry (the kind normally taught in high-school), there are three axiomatic assumptions which cannot be proven, and upon which everything else depends. Points have no dimensions; lines consist of an infinite number of points in one dimension; and planes consist of an infinite number of lines in two dimensions. Solid-body or 3-D geometry extends the classically Euclidian axiom set to include a volumetric space with an infinite number of planes in three dimensions.

No one can prove any of this, but not to assume these axioms can lead to nonsense. [Footnote: Curiously, the chief axiom–that points must be presumed to exist yet also to have precisely zero [u]physical characteristics–might itself be considered nonsense in light of a naturalistic philosophy.] Nonsense does not necessarily follow by changing these axioms; that is how non-Euclidian geometries were developed. But the more basic and fundamentally necessary the assumption, the more likely that any alternate assumption will lead to nonsense.

The most basic and fundamentally necessary assumption should therefore be one that would be nonsense to deny. Such a key assumption (or presumption) will be the bedrock from which trustworthy deductions may be drawn about the rest of reality–it will be a reliable foundation, because to deny it leads precisely nowhere.

[Entry 2]

[Note: the following material is actually an extended footnote.]

This may be the best time to clarify how I will be, and have been, using ‘deduction’ and ‘induction’, as well as ‘abduction’.

An inductive argument would look like this: these are taxis; all these taxis are yellow; therefore we may reasonably expect all further taxis to be yellow.

An abductive argument is a special form of induction, and would look like this: hypothesizing that all taxis are yellow, how well does the data fit this hypothesis? The extent to which the data fits, counts as weight in favor of us reasonably expecting all taxis to be yellow.

A deductive argument would look like this: all taxis are (presumed or previously established to be) yellow; this is (presumed or previously established to be) a taxi; therefore, if these propositions are true, this taxi must be yellow.

Not all of my ‘deductive’ arguments will have precisely this form; but the underlying principle will be the same: I will be examining the implicative constraints either of necessary presumptions (which requires establishing them as being necessary, of course), or of previously established conclusions based on a running chain of such inferences, in order to discover what the constraints must necessarily entail.

A constraint (as the word implies) prevents some option(s) from being true; discovering the implications of a constraint therefore involves either tacitly or explicitly removing (or ‘deducting’) one or more options that might otherwise be proposed as following from a necessary presumption or a previously established (deductive) conclusion (now being used as an assumption for new inferences).

When the options that could be proposed also can be grouped into two mutually exclusive classes; and when the constraint necessarily removes one option group without necessarily removing the other; (and if the assumptions have been properly established) then the remaining option (or option group) should be considered to be true.

[Entry 3]

You should be able to understand immediately why theistic presuppositionalists want to put God in this spot. The language I must use to describe this ‘Golden Presumption’, is language that most properly applies to God–if He exists.

But I should be careful here. I am only talking about an assumption that is a tool for my purpose (‘To deduce characteristics of ultimate reality’); and I think even the presuppositionalists would deny that God should be considered a tool for my purposes! What seems to be the proper position due His dignity, becomes a position beneath His dignity (if He exists) once we put the position into practice. God is not a tool of metaphysics. I will not be using Him as such.

There are other problems with putting God into the Golden Presumption slot. As I argued briefly in the first section, it doesn’t help the sceptic. A requirement for God to be accepted to exist for purposes of argument, is not necessarily a bad thing; but it becomes mockery when the purpose of the exercise is to argue that a person (especially an atheist or agnostic) should accept God’s existence. A theist would not (or at least should not) stand for the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot: I see no good reason why a religious presuppositionalist, or anyone else, should accept that God does not exist based on an argument which proceeds by requiring God not to exist.

[Footnote: I suspect a large number of sceptics are sceptics precisely because, having been taught by certain theists that arguments are supposed to be built this way, they subsequently discovered this misapplied argument could be developed just as easily from the other direction. This misapplication does have some similarity to a properly abductive argument–but a properly abductive argument is not trying to deductively prove its hypothesis, which is how the problem of malignant circularity arises.]

Opps! I’ve been very out of pocket since Monday… So, much catching up today! :smiley:

[Entry 4]

There is at least one more problem with putting God into the Golden Presumption slot: He never quite makes it there. Even presuppositionalists tacitly assume one more key position, prior to their construction of an argument based on God’s required existence: they presume that they (and their audience) can think.

They may deny they are presuming this before presuming God’s existence, of course; and I grant that they deny it out of reverence and prudence. They don’t want to claim they are putting themselves before God, and I think this is an entirely proper attitude. Nevertheless, they are humans, not God themselves (most Western theists would agree with me at least on that). They have to start from where they are.

Let me put it another way. I do not perceive that I am God. I am a human being. I want to discover whether God exists, and I want to help other people discover whether He exists. I will build an argument to help them and/or me. (This argument could even be as ‘fundamentalistic’ as “The Jewish and Christian Scriptures are all God’s direct verbal revelation to us.”) But in doing so, I am flatly presuming that I (and you) can think.

It doesn’t matter whether my goal is to argue against God, or to argue to God, or to simply argue about God (in order to discover whichever way the argument may lead). It doesn’t even matter whether I am using metaphysical argument or basing it ‘purely on Scripture’. I am arguing; that means I am working from a necessary presumption (even if it is an unstated one). The presumption is that I, and you (my reader), can think.

(I am not yet considering any particular details as to what this presumption must entail. I’ll get to that later.)

Already, then, I have an interesting candidate for the Golden Presumption: your and my own sentience. It is a presumption a sceptic and believer may both accept (regardless of relative belief and scepticism on whatever topic). It is a presumption that underlies every argument we make, and can be easily seen to underlie every argument–if we bother to look for it. A religious presuppositionalist will have to work very hard to convince a sceptic (or anyone else) that the sceptic actually presumes God’s existence (as such) every time the sceptic begins constructing any argument! But that is the type of characteristic necessary for the Golden Presumption: it should be a presumption that underlies every possible argument, whoever develops the argument.

[Entry 5]

What happens if I deny this proposed presumption–that you and I can think? I am not sure it is even possible to do so. Technically, it is possible for me to utter the sounds (or my fingers to peck out the words) which correspond in English to “I cannot think”; but for those sounds to correspond in reality to the general meaning they hold for someone who understands the English language, would entail (it is a tautology) that I cannot in fact think. This would mean that I (as myself) would quite literally have ‘no reason’ for saying the words even as a groundless presumption: no understanding of what they imply as ‘language’, no consciousness of their meaning as such.

That being the case, how could I be ‘denying’ or ‘asserting’ anything by this event? It would not be ‘me’ ‘doing’ it–my body would be reacting in some fashion to environmental conditions of some sort to produce the effect, or perhaps some other real sentience would be using my body as a puppet.

[Footnote: This latter position wouldn’t necessarily deny the presumption in an absolute sense; the “I” would be some other thinker pretending to be me. This is why fictional characters and entities can still be treated as making arguments–behind their (fictional!) efforts is a real thinker somewhere.]

For ‘me’ (myself) to ‘deny’ that I can think, requires that ‘I’ have ‘some idea’ of what ‘a denial that I can think’ ‘means’ and then ‘actively’ deny it: in short, such a denial requires that I can actually think! This would be necessary, even if I never bothered to take the position any further than the asserted denial “I cannot think.”

[Entry 6]

I am loath even to speculate for the sake of argument that such a proposition (“I cannot think”) could be granted. Setting up, as a (much more the) chief presumption, a proposition which in fact we don’t believe (and notice that you and I would be both denying this speculative proposition merely by ‘speculating’ about it!), runs the terrible risk of accepting a nonsensical position as viable from the outset–leading to folly which must grow more profound (and more subtle and subsequently harder to detect as such) as positions are developed further and further (‘for sake of argument’) from it.

However, in case you, the reader, have missed my point here (or perhaps you think I have made a mistake), I can make the same point by ignoring the question of whether such a position (“I cannot think”) makes any kind of sense to propose.

So let me simply brutely propose it, and ignore the issues surrounding the cogency of the event of the proposal: I cannot think. Very well. What happens if I attempt to deduce (or otherwise infer) further positions from this proposition? Well, if I really cannot think, then ‘I’ cannot actually be ‘deducing’ any further positions from that proposition. If I can deduce (or in any way otherwise infer) further propositions, then I am denying the truth of my denial (“I cannot think”) and implicitly affirming the truth of its opposite (“I can think”).

So even if I brutely propose that I cannot think, ‘I’ can only ‘go anywhere’ from that point by refuting my own first presumption. The proposal that “I cannot think” quite literally leads nowhere beyond the sheer proposal–unless I cheat. At the very best, I would require a 6=16 paradigm to use this position: I must really not be capable of thought (per presumption), but I must also really be capable of thought (per my use of that counter-presumption as grounds for further argument).

If I could possibly deny the proposition “I can think” and mean anything accurate (or even coherently useful) by it, then that proposition would admittedly be excluded from contention as The Golden Presumption. But it turns out that I cannot possibly mean anything even useful by denying it, and it may even be impossible for me to deny it at all (depending on what we mean by ‘deny’).

[Entry 7]

Furthermore–and this is very important–I have not therefore ‘proved’ that “I can think” is a true proposition. It may still in technical fact be true that I cannot think; I simply would have no way to tell. This satisfies another criteria of The Golden Presumption: if it could be logically ‘proven’, then it would not be the most basic, irreducible presumption for any argument.

So the denial of my reasoning capability quite literally would be unreasonable.

[Footnote: I do not mean unreasonable in the sense of being logically invalid–a presumption cannot be logically invalid, although invalid logic may be produced while using it. I mean something more primary, and I will be discussing its implications soon.]

But perhaps I could find something else I must presume before I presume that I can think; then that presumption would be The Golden Presumption–or at least “I can think” would not be.

This question can be answered the moment I consider it: as I have shown, if ‘presuming’ does not entail some kind of ‘thinking’, then at best there is no way to tell; and to deny that ‘presuming’ requires ‘thinking’ leads to absurdity–or at the very best it calls into question the validity of any argument as an argumentative claim (by introducing a presumptive denial that undercuts all intellectual relevance to the study of an argument and its claims [see next footnote]), including arguments leading to or based on the position that presumptions don’t require thinking.

[Footnote: If I am not rational, then ‘I’ am not actually ‘arguing’; if you are not rational, then why am I presenting an ‘argument’ to you for you to judge? The exercise requires that I presume from the outset that you and I have the ability ‘to reason’–whatever that means, which I will be discussing soon in later chapters.]

This being the case, it would be nonsense for me to suggest ‘presuming’ something other than your and my reasoning capability to be logically prior in an argument.

[Entry 8]

“But,” you may say, “there are conditions or states or anyway facts which must first be true before you or I can think!” I agree: to give perhaps the most basic such condition, I must ‘exist’. But this priority is not formal priority; it is causal (or effectual or factual) priority. These are two different types of priority.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Let us say that I change my hypothesized Golden Presumption to “I exist”: by this I would be claiming that the first presumption I make (either tacitly or explicitly) in any argument is “I exist”.

But to mean anything by this proposition, much more to do anything with this proposition, requires that I have also presumed my ability to think. ‘Understanding’ what “I exist” ‘means’ (even in any incomplete way) requires that I also accept that I think. Stating “I exist; therefore X”, also requires that I accept that I think before I make the argument.

Am I presuming both contentions (“I exist” and “I can think”) with equally presumptive force? Both presumptions are certainly necessary for me to make an argument; but only one of them is inextricably connected with the entire notion of ‘a formal argument’: the “I can think”.

Catching up a bit from Sunday…

[Entry 9]

The tissue-paper next to my computer may exist, but my tissue-paper cannot argue because it cannot think. [See footnote below.] The formal argument is an abstract tool, which we use to discover properties of things. Granted, something must exist for arguments to exist; but the Golden Presumption shall be the first tool of the argumentation process (itself a tool). Thus the Golden Presumption must be uniquely related to the process of argumentation itself. ‘Existence’ is certainly related to argumentation, but it is not uniquely related to argumentation.

[Footnote: A vitalist would say the basic units of the tissue are alive, but non-sentient, and therefore the tissue does not think. A naturalistic atheist, along with most supernaturalistic theists, would say neither the tissue as such nor any part of it ‘thinks’, and neither does the specific system the tissue is part of, whether or not that system is part of a subsystem. Most pantheists would either say the tissue does not exist, or the tissue taken as itself does not think even if the Absolute Total–of which the tissue is a proportionate part–does think. But even if there are pantheists who claim the tissue shares all total properties of the sentient Independent Fact–and there may be pantheists of this type–the mere existence of the tissue-paper would not of itself provide an inextricable connection to an argument [u]as an argument.]

Perhaps I can illustrate it more clearly this way: if I say “I cannot think”, I must of course exist to say it, but I (as ‘myself’) cannot be presenting the statement either as a flat assertion or as a presumption for argumentation without cheating and smuggling in my ability to think. My subsequent ‘argument’ could just as easily be something which only appears to be an argument; my mere ‘existence’ doesn’t help my ‘argument’ as an ‘argument’. Thus the presumption of my ability to think is more important to my argument (as an ‘argument’), than the presumption that I exist.

[Entry 10; next to last for this series]

One more illustration of the same point: I could claim “I am, therefore I think” or “I think, therefore I am”. But unless I was presuming preparatory to the rest of the argument that I can think, the first claim would not get off the ground as an argument. “I think, therefore I am” turns out to be an implicit part of the argument form, even for “I am, therefore I think”.

Now, the formal requirements of an argument as an argument, are not necessarily the same as causal requirements. It still is true that I must exist ‘before’ (causally, and even sequentially) I argue; and also true that my existence is a necessary presumption for argumentation, even if not uniquely related to argumentation as such. So if I tried to deduce (or otherwise infer) my existence, I would be engaging in hidden circularity again. Yet if I think, I may deduce (or otherwise infer) causal priors to my thinking which are not themselves presumptions I must necessarily hold (even tacitly) in order to make an argument.

Therefore, it is entirely possible and proper to reach deductions about causal necessities even if the Golden Presumption is not itself considered to be the ultimate causal necessity. (Notice I am claiming the Golden Presumption is “I (and you) can think”, not that “Reason exists” which is more general. I will be refining this claim further as I continue.) This means that if I deduce God’s existence and character from the necessary presumption that I can think, I am not thereby ‘putting myself ahead of God’, nor presuming myself to be more important than God, nor requiring that God is not the most necessary Fact of reality. The formal necessary presumption of an argument is not the same category type as the causal origin(s) of the argument. The relationship between Ground to Consequent is not necessarily the same as the relationship of Cause to Effect. We use our recognition of formal ground/consequent relationships to discover the existence and relationships of cause/effects: including (where possible) the causes of our own ability to reason.

[Entry 11; finale for this series of entries]

This is a legitimate exercise. At the very least, atheists should accept and understand this; because they are not in the least reluctant to attempt many types of logical explanations about how we reason and how our sentience came into being, while still tacitly requiring as a necessary presumption (for formal purposes) that they themselves can in fact reason. Nor is this necessarily the same as ‘proving we can reason’ (although of course particular atheists may accidentally attempt this just like anyone else); that would be a logical fallacy, because the proposition to be proved (that we can reason) requires as a necessary presumption the proposition to be proved (that we can reason).

So, as long as we (be we theists, atheists, pantheists, whomever) don’t produce what amounts to an argument that we can reason (which is circular and thus must fail); and as long as we don’t produce what amounts to an argument (or requirement) that we cannot reason (which is self-refuting); then we may legitimately attempt to deduce propositions from the presumption “We can reason”. And those propositions and conclusions may be about conditions or situations or entities, which are themselves causally (not formally) prior to any reasoning ability we in fact have.

But what does it mean ‘to think’ or ‘to reason’? What basic requirements does our thinking entail, which we may safely use as characteristics upon which to draw deductions? What effect(s) may we commonly agree on, as taking place when we ‘think’? I will have to establish this before I go any further.

Next up: a necessary characteristic of ‘reasoning’

Note: while working up the summary for the index page this morning, I realized I needed to correct and redraft portions of entry 10. So if you notice some differences, that’s why. :slight_smile: