Understanding Presuppositionalism

Since it seems inescapable that this blog must contend with presuppositionalism, I thought it might be wise to get a clear idea of just what it is. That way, there can be no more accusations of misrepresentation and no more actual misrepresentations.

Because of the time involved, it doesn't seem fair to simply ask, "What is presuppositionalism?" and ask our detractors to go about explaining it. I thought I would state it as clearly as I can and, then, open myself up for correction. As I stated in my brief bio, my exposure to presuppositionalism was limited, so my explanation will, no doubt, be the same. I will not be so bold, then, to offer both my statement of it and my critiques in the same post. I will, however, intimate what seems to be a potential threat to the presuppositionalists' endeavor.

First, it seems to me that presuppositionalism must be rooted in reformed theology. Reformed theology refuses to compromise with "the world." It demands that this world is God's world. If, in fact, this world is God's world, then it makes no sense to abandon it and pretend that it is not. For this reason, John's "Outsider Test" is unacceptable to presuppositionalists. Why should they pretend the world is something that it is not--viz. the atheists' world?

The presuppositionalist does not look for "neutral ground" from which to reason, because if God is God, there is no "neutral ground." It is "his ground." So, if there is "common ground," it is anything but "neutral;" it, too, is God's ground, and it's "borrowed ground" at that for the atheist. In other words, in order for the atheist to even deny the existence of God, she must borrow from the Christian worldview to do so.

But why is the atheist borrowing from the Christian worldview? According to the presuppositionalists, only the Christian worldview can explain why reasoning is even possible. How, they ask, could rational dialogue exist if the universe began, expands, and exists by chance? How can chance account for immaterial, universal laws of logic?

How do immaterial laws of logic exist in an atheistic universe? If they are not physical, then where did they come from? If they are merely conventions, then how can their universality be the case? Are we willing to say that in some possible universes A could be both A and not-A?

The Christian answer appears relatively simple: universal laws of logic exist because God has imposed them on the universe. God did not simply declare them by divine fiat so that they are arbitrary, nor did God declare them reasonable because they were reasonable so that they are external to him. Instead, the laws of logic are simply how God thinks and has created the universe to exist. There is no problem understanding how the Christian worldview accounts for these universal, immaterial laws.

So now, the atheist must give an answer before the presuppositionalist allows the conversation to proceed. The presuppositionalist is unwilling to allow the atheist to borrow "God's ground" and then attempt to use it against that same God.

This is where the transcendental argument comes in. The presuppositionalist argues:

The existence of logic presupposes God's existence

Logic exists

Therefore, God exists

But, this is not the only way the argument works. Consider this argument:

The existence of logic presupposes God's existence

Logic does not exist

Therefore, God exists

This is still valid because the act of forming the argument is a work of logic. Making the logical argument proves that God exists.

Additionally, if God does not exist (according to the argument), then logic is unintelligible because logic presupposes God.

It can be extremely frustrating for the atheist to debate a presuppositionalist, because the argument is never allowed to move past the stage of justification. The atheist must justify her use of logic before the presuppositionalist allows her to level logic against his God.

A popular analogy is the image of a young child sitting on his father's lap slapping his face. The young child is able to connect his blows only as long as the father is supporting the child on his lap. If the father were to move the child's foundation, the child would not be able to land his blows.

The presuppositionalist seeks to remove the "lap" from underneath the atheist and demand that the atheist supply her own foundation on which to stand and "strike" the "Father." Until the atheist provides that ground, there can be no further discussion.

Similarly, morality is said to be unaccounted for in the atheists' worldview. If the atheist is to level charges of immorality against the Christian God, the atheist must give an account for what standard she is judging that God by. The Christian stands ready to explain his standard of morality--viz. it is the nature and commands of the Christian God. Unless the atheist can explain why her standard of good and evil should be adopted in the charges against the Christian God, then the presuppositionalist can simply reject that standard as arbitrary and deny the charges.

Essentially, the presuppositionalists' argument disallows any critique of God without forcing the critic to justify the standards by which she is criticizing. This simplifies the presuppositionalists' task tremendously. They do not have to answer the specific charges of the atheist (though many of them are capable of doing so), but rather simply challenge the ability of the atheist to level those charges.

In Greg Bahnsen's debates with Stein and Tabash, he was able to demonstrate each of these different foundational problems. With Stein, the argument centered around universal laws of logic. With Tabash, universal moral laws were the issue. When Stein stated that the laws of logic were conventional, Bahnsen stated that he could simply declare himself the winner of the debate and Stein would have no recourse, no "court of appeal." When Tabash complained that God allowed the Holocaust, Bahnsen simply stated that Tabash had no foundation for calling an act "evil" or "good." If the atheists' worldview was correct, then the Holocaust was simply an example of one "bag of biology" doing something to another "bag of biology." There was nothing "moral" about it.

Though, I know this is an oversimplification, I think it is the essence of presuppositional apologetics. First, they maintain that this world is God's world and refuse to adopt an atheistic worldview in order to prove that the Christian worldview is actually the case. Second, they demand that the atheist account for any standard by which they presume to judge the validity of their worldview. The fact that universal laws of logic and universal objective morality cannot be accounted for in the atheistic worldview together with the fact that universal laws of logic and universal objective morality exists, proves that the atheistic worldview is untenable. It is a worldview that is incapable of explaining the state of the world. Christianity, it is argued, perfectly explains the existence of these immaterial universals. The Christian worldview is, thereby, proven superior.

I welcome all forthcoming additions and corrections to what I have just presented.

Since this is an atheistic blog, however, I would be remiss if I did not offer at least one challenge to what I have said above.

What if someone could reasonably maintain that the laws of logic and moral laws may not be universal, but may still play a significant part in the world? Bahnsen, I feel, quickly dismissed this possibility. He seemed to believe that a non-universal moral law was not a moral law at all, and a conventional law of logic was no law of logic at all.

But are all relative judgments invalid?

Consider motion. Imagine sitting next to me in a bar when I suddenly begin screaming, "My Guiness is moving! Sweet Lola, save me, my Guiness is moving!" You look at my glass, however, and say, "Man, atheism is really rat poison to the intellect! Your Guiness isn't moving; it's perfectly still."

Is it both possible that my Guiness is moving and that my Guiness is not moving? Of course it is!

I could respond to your skepticism, "Isn't this continent drifting, the earth rotating and revolving, our solar system spinning in a pinwheel galaxy, and our galaxy speeding away from others in the universe? How can you say my Guiness isn't moving?!"

At the same time, you could have said, "Look EB, there is a spot on the bar next to your glass and we can tell by this ruler that your glass is neither moving towards that spot nor away from it. Your glass is stationary."

Both contradictory statements are correct, but are relative to specific spatio-temporal frameworks. From certain spatio-temporal frameworks, my Guiness is stationary; from others, it is moving. The "fact" of the motion of my Guiness is relative to the spatio-temporal framework that is adopted. There is no one, "true" spatio-temporal framework that truly determines whether something is "really" moving or not, there are only different frameworks from which to judge.

But though my Guiness' motion is relative, it is still "objective." You would certainly admit the validity of my statement that my Guiness is moving from any of the other spatio-temporal frameworks that I mentioned as justification. I would certainly admit the validity of your statement from the spatio-temporal framework that you mention. Both statements are correct, but are so relative to specific spatio-temporal frameworks.

Now, what if the same could be said of moral judgments? What if I could say objectively that it is morally wrong of P to D (I'm stealing all of this from Princeton's Gilbert Harman if you are wondering), but had to qualify my statement that it was morally wrong according to a specific moral framework? My judgment would be objective, but not universal.

If morality is not universal, though, must I accept everyone's moral judgments as equally valid? Of course not. For one thing, it is certainly possible that someone makes a moral judgment that does not fit the moral framework they use to justify it [Just like it would be possible for someone to say that something is stationary from a framework in which that judgment is inconsistent].

Secondly, acknowledging that a belief may be justified by reference to another moral framework does not mean that I have to abandon my own moral framework. For example, I believe that it is morally wrong to rape someone. If I were to happen upon a man trying to rape a woman, my moral framework demands that I do whatever action is permissible according to that framework to prevent that action from taking place. I may acknowledge that the action is permissible according to the rapist's moral framework, but that does not mean that I must ignore what is demanded by my own moral framework.

Moral relativism, then, does not necessarily lead to moral nihilism.

Anyone familiar with Foucault's work on power structures will know that, if he is correct, social ideas and morality are shaped by power. There is nothing called "madness" out in the world. One cannot catch "madness" in a bucket and paint it pink. It is an idea that must be defined. Originally, the church and the family were the primary power structures that made this definition. The church needed a way to distinguish between God's directions to his people through the Holy Spirit and the babblings of a madman. People that had certain heretical "visions" and "promptings" from God were considered "mad." Now, it is the physicians who define these kind of terms. Whatever the age, though, power is the driver behind these definitions.

In the case of morality, then, power will be the stabilizing (or destabilizing) force behind societal morality. Obviously, that does not mean that one must accept society's morality (both the Christians here and myself reject our current society's morality, but for drastically different reasons). For example, though most of current, American society opposes same-sex marriage, I adamantly support it. I do not have to accept the majority opinion even if I acknowledge that that opinion is justified by reference to a certain moral framework. I can exert my power (however limited it is) to try to change societal opinion. I can also point out that denying homosexual couples marriage is inconsistent with other, primary societal values like equal treatment under the law.

Just like one can make objective statements about motion even though the statements are relative to spatio-temporal frameworks, so I can make objective statements about morality that are relative to specific moral frameworks. So, contrary to Bahnsen's argument, I can be outraged by the Holocaust and not have a universal morality to do so. Does someone else have to agree with my outrage? Certainly not, but I will exert every power available to me via my moral framework (which excludes violence) to make others see things my way. Morality, like every idea (according to Foucault) is a power struggle.

[In giving this next argument, some of you might have a "revelation" about my identity. I ask that you, please, respect my anonymity in your comments]

As for the laws of logic, what if they are only seemingly universal, but are truly not so? In the atheistic worldview there are objects in the universe. The relationships between those objects, however, are "not" in the universe. Steven Pinker's work (expanding on Chomsky's) has shown that the brain has different grammatical "sections" inside it. One section holds information about nouns, another verbs, another conjunctions.

When I say that the universe contains objects, I have the idea of "nouns" in mind. Now, what if the brain has simply evolved in a way that it attempts to grammatically relate nouns to each other? The laws of logic rely on words like "and," "or," "not," "is," etc. These words do not name things that exist in the universe. The laws of logic are made up of these words, however. The law of non-contradiction could not exist, for example, if the concept of "not" didn't exist. The laws of logic give rules of how objects relate to one another. There would be no laws of logic were it not for our language that holds certain relational concepts.

If the laws of logic were simply the result of the way that the human brain has formed, this explains why they would certainly "seem" universal. Inasmuch as human brains are similar (and they are very much so), then the laws of logic would seem universal to everyone with a similarly functioning brain. We could not fathom a possible world in which those laws would not apply because we cannot imagine the world differently than our brains allow us to. We would read our thoughts about the relationships of objects into every world that we imagined. The laws of logic would seem to us universal even if they were not.

But this theory does more than just explain why laws of logic can seem universal. It also has powerful explanatory power in cases of so-called "madness." If the laws of logic are simply mental constructs about the relationships of objects, then this would explain why people with brain damage and "malfunctioning" brains are so consistently "illogical." These people constantly deny the laws of logic. They see the world very differently than the rest of us. If the brain is responsible for constructing relationships between objects, then, it would come as no surprise when people with damaged or "malfunctioning" brains did not construct these same relationships.

Imagine, for example, a world filled with people with a similar brain damage. The laws of logic would look very different in this world.

Also, this theory has powerful explanatory powers when it comes to the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that language is responsible for shaping worldviews. In countries with dramatically different languages, what is considered "logical" is very different. We have Eastern and Western logics that are extremely dissimilar. While the condition of the human brain would explain the similarities between different cultures, the languages of those cultures would explain these logical differences.

My point, here, is to demonstrate that while universal laws of logic may, in fact, be unjustifiable in an atheistic worldview (though many atheists have good reason to deny this), seemingly universal laws of logic are easily justifiable by the theory I explained above.

What I have attempted to give is a justification for atheistic morality and logic. I have attempted to sketch an answer to the two questions that have repeatedly come up on this blog--viz. "What is your standard of morality?" and "What is your standard of reason?"

I do not presume to speak for any atheist other than myself. I know, for a fact, that some of the Objectivists who visit here would adamantly oppose what I have laid out. John Loftus has also expressed reservation about adopting a more relativistic worldview.

I am not even saying that I have worked this out completely myself. This is a theory. I believe it is a theory with great explanatory power and one that takes seriously the idea of an "atheistic worldview."

Now, I know that many of the Christians here will want to jump in and begin to pick apart the second part of my post in which I have laid out a possible atheistic worldview, but I ask that you do not forget to help me in my understanding of presuppositionalism as I described it above.

Because of other obligations, I will not have time to respond to questions in the comment section of this post (I really didn't have time to write this post at all). After I have read and considered all of your comments, I will try to make time to write another post answering any objections.

Have fun! [I feel like I am releasing vultures over an elephant graveyard ;-) ]

John's note: Read the comments for this post and then to see more of exbeliever's arguments against TAG and presuppositionalism see here.