Presuppositionalism in Practice

Discussion in 'Apologetical Methods' started by Brian Bosse, Jul 7, 2009.

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  1. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello PB,

    If you do any searches on this site for my posts, you will find that at times I have been critical of both Clarkian and Van Tillian presuppositionalism. My criticisms mainly lie in areas of both camps tending to claim more for their method and argument than is warranted, and not being entirely accurate in their criticisms of other apologetic methods. Because of some of the strong rhetoric that can occur in these discussions one might get the impression that I am against presuppositional apologetics. This would be a mistake. Below is a link to my recreation of a formal debate I participated in a number of years ago. I specifically set out to use an argument that I learned from Greg Bahnsen, and was my attempt to honor the Van Tillian approach. (Still, I am partial to Clark. :eek:) Although, it may not be a good illustration of the apologetic method, it is an illustration of the method, nonetheless. Perhaps, someone might find it useful. Observations and criticisms are welcome.

    Does God Exist?



    Edited to Add: Thanks to Brian Eschen for pointing out a number of typos. They have been fixed. :handshake:
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2009
  2. steven-nemes

    steven-nemes Puritan Board Sophomore

    The feller's rebuttal to your opening statement was pretty weak. You could tell he just didn't "get it" at all.
  3. brianeschen

    brianeschen Puritan Board Junior

    Thanks for sharing. That was a good read. It is unfortunate that the atheist abandoned the debate. It would have been interesting to see how it concluded.
  4. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    Thanks for the read. Not surprisingly, the atheist didn't know what was going on, even when you made the case pretty obvious.

    One thing that people, myself especially included, can do wrong is to attempt to make too many points and consequently be too superficial in each of the points. The atheist did that throughout the debate, trying to cover all sorts of topics. As a result he did not give significant time to your actual arguments.

    For kicks, I want to go through his points that he made very quickly against your TAG:

    1. You do not know what a world without God looks like; therefore you cannot say that uniformity in this world points to God.

    This is an example of hyper-empiricism. He is basically saying that you can't know something unless you have experienced it yourself, as if it's impossible to describe or predict anything we haven't ourselves explicitly experienced.

    2. God cannot be axiomatic because people do not agree on it.

    Never heard of that definition of axiom before.

    3. Christianity seems to be more dogmatic than the "freethinking" Greeks and can therefore not be the basis of scientific inquiry.

    Petitio principii.

    4. TAG proves only God, not Christianity.

    I think this objection was actually legit given Brian's presentation, but then again Brian did not really respond to it. Once the distinction between autonomy and revelation is made clear, this objection falls to the ground.

    5. "Reason and the logical empirical analysis upon which science is based are mere abstracts not physical entities; they exist merely as the by-processes of the operation of the human mind."

    I think he means to say that they're not external to the human mind, in which case all thought has been subjectivized. Skepticism then ensues.

    6. "The origins of science are based upon a myriad of repetitive occurrences from which we deduced that reality is not chaotic or completely random in nature. But that given the same circumstances similar reactions will follow. "

    He simply did not understand the argument. One cannot learn uniformity (a concept about the future) by observing the past. (Much less can one deduce it!)

    Then he started trying to say that nature is not actually uniform, because each day is different, etc.

    It's actually sad to witness. I feel bad for the unbelievers who simply don't understand what Christianity is.
  5. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Gents,

    Thank you all for your comments.

    I agree. The next section of the debate was a cross-examination phase that allowed three questions from each participant followed by answers, rebuttals, and rebuttals to the rebuttals. This is typically where the debate becomes really refined. After the rebuttal period there would be closing arguments.

    I think this is a very good observation, Ben. The reality is that in a debate with word limits you need to get real specific and focused. For some reason this is hard for people to do. Incidentally, a great exercise for clarity and focus is to write out an argument, and then once this is finished go back and force yourself to cut out 50% of the words. It's not uncommon for me to have a first draft of an opening statement that is 3 times the length of the allowable word limits. The benefit I derive both in my own clarity of thought and clarity in communication by being forced to get within the word limits is tremendous.

    I, too, agree this is a legitimate objection. However, I do not agree that the your distinction between autonomy and revelation is the answer. (Ben, before you start defending yourself read this paragraph and the next two to get the full point.) The TAG argument is simply that the Christian God is the necessary ontological foundation for reality. (Note: This point is independent of anyone's personal commitments whether they are autonomous or not.) To illustrate this claim I used the argument that the atheist does not have the ontological foundation to account for the assumption that nature is uniform, whereas the Christian worldview has such a foundation in the Triune God. At this point in my demonstration the atheist he says, "Fine, but how is this any different from some other worldview that posits something that can account for uniformity? You have not proved that the Christian God is necessary. You have only showed that at the point of uniformity the Christian worldview 'works' while my worldview 'fails.'"

    This is a fair objection. There are other non-Christian worldviews that can account for uniformity - like Islam. So, I have not proved that the Christian God is necessary. However, to address the atheist's objection, I would use a different problem to illustrate the failure of this new competing worldview. I would argue that the Christian God would provide the necessary ontological foundation at a point where Islam fails (like the problem of the one and the many). This would add support to my claim that the Christian God is ontologically necessary. The more I do this against various competing worldviews the more it becomes inductively clear that only the Christian God provides the necessary ontological foundation. This is the answer to the atheist's objection - not some argument about revelation, autonomy and theonomy. The ultimate principle TAG is based on is in the words of Bahnsen, "Ontology preceeds epistemology."

    On last point regarding this is to point out that Bahnsen received a similar objection from an audience member in the Gordon Stein debate. It is interesting to note that Bahnsen's response was not to argue the distinction between autonomy and revelation and that all non-Christian worldviews are autonomous and fail. Rather, he argued the point much like I did above. Here is a link to the transcription of this debate: Does God Exist?. You can find the relevant question on page 38. It is the first question in segment four.

    I would say it this way, "You cannot justify the assumption of uniformity by assuming uniformity." Hume and Russell pointed out that any attempt to justify induction by drawing conclusions from the past is to use induction. In other words, the charge is one of begging the question. Interestingly enough, though, there are philosophers who argue it is legitimate to assume induction in justifying induction.

    Again, Gentlemen, thank you for your comments.


  6. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    It truly is amazing how much clearer we can be just by giving more time to what we write, not just in a debate but in general. Seeing as clarity and persuasiveness is so important in debate, its importance is amplified.

    I agree with this defense of TAG. (When that comes up in my experience, I plan on saying, "Oh, are you planning to convert to Islam?")

    However, what I forgot to say above is that when you do not make the distinction between autonomy and theonomy/revelation clear, the unbeliever can just posit an amorphous deism. And then he can continue to modify it as you continue to give arguments against his specific defense -- in which case you'll have to prove the Bible's authority in a piecemeal method. But if you establish the distinction between autonomy and theonomy, then you cut off that safety valve, because in that case he runs into problems with man's perspective such that he has no authority to interpret reality, etc.

    This is a huge topic to discuss, however, so for now, suffice it to say that without making clear the distinction between autonomy and theonomy, the unbeliever is allowed to posit whatever fanciful things he might want to, such that he can mimic Christianity without having a specific revealed text; and if he can do that, then he can counter any argument thrown at him by the presuppositional apologist.

    Did he really say that? I thought he always stressed that they are a "package deal." From some notes I took on part of his lecture series, "The Philosophy of Christianity," he opposed both philosophical dogmatism (that metaphysics precedes epistemology) and philosophical methodism (that epistemology precedes metaphysics).

    The easy-to-remember argument that Clark used is that no matter what someone might say to you, you can ask him, "How do you know?" Clark presumed this to mean that epistemology is ultimate, therefore, in all philosophical pursuits. Van Til (and Bahnsen) responded that you must also ask, "What do you know?", therefore showing that epistemology and metaphysics cannot be so sharply separated.
  7. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    And also showing that they forgot that what we know is a given--epistemology just seeks to account for it (this is the fatal flaw in post-enlightenment epistemologies).

    But enough on that.

    I would caution you here to not to back your opponent into an ontological corner. It may be tempting to do so, but doing so may damage whatever hope you had of convincing him. Don't drive him to consistency, because then he might become consistent and go insane.

    "Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." ~G. K. Chesterton

    I wouldn't quote a papist like Chesterton except that he's so quotable (and often so right). Not trying to accuse you of violence here, just pointing out that hitting more softly may be called for if you are really trying to convince.
  8. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Gents,

    That is funny. :rofl:

    If this is really what the unbeliever is doing, then (1) it is obvious to everyone (including himself) that he does not have an answer, and (2) the more and more things look like Christianity, the more and more it shows Christianity to be true. You are dealing with a person and his worldview. If he begins making up worldviews to try and overcome your argument, that is ok. By doing so he conceeds that his worldview does not work. Simply point this out to him. Your work is done.

    In my thinking, this is not about whether or not our argument provides the "required" proof for Christianity. That isn't even important. Once he conceeds that his worldview has failed where yours has succeeded, then you have given objective justification for your commitment, and have objectively shown his commitments to be ill founded. At this point, share the gospel with him. There really is nothing left for you to do in terms of argument. You have fulfilled the charge - even if the he does not think so. If God grants your interaction to be a means of grace towards the unbeliever and he turns to God, then you have been His chosen vessel to reap the harvest. If God chooses to harden the unbeliever's heart's through this interaction, then you have been His chosen vessel to heap greater judgment upon him. If God chooses to begin to soften the heart of the unbeliever, then you watered. All of the glory belongs to God.

    Yes, he really did say that, but let me explain what he meant by this. When Bahnsen said, "Ontology (metaphysics) preceeds epistemology," he was making this statement from the particular persepective of the TAG argument. Here is the key conditional statement within TAG...

    P: If the Christian God does not exist, then there is no knowledge.

    Now, the contrapositive of this statement is...

    P': If there is knowledge, then the Christian God exists.

    P' says that our being able to know anything (epistemology) is dependent upon the existence of the Christian God (ontology). In this sense (which is the sense Bahnsen was using when he made the statement), ontology is logically prior to (preceeds) epistemology. Taken in this sense, I believe both Clark and Van Til would accept Bahnsen's statement.

    My guess is that Bahnsen was speaking in a different context than what was said above. Ontology and Metaphysics are distinctions we have made. Perhaps, Clark might argue that to "to make judgements as to what is real" requires knowing? Perhaps, someone else might argue that to know requires a knower? Frankly, I am ignorant of the debate, but at first blush the "package deal" concept sounds good to me. But once again, this is a different context than what was said above.

    I love the quote, Philip. I agree that we are not there to bludgeon our opponent. This is a problem I have with many presuppositionalists (including myself at times). Hammering the other guy with your argument is NOT what God has called us to. I will start another thread explaining what I think real apologetics is about. (It is not about classical, evidential or presuppositional methods.) God seems to favor other means of bringing people to repentance than some hard logical argument. Although, there is a legitimate element where these logical arguments do strengthen the faith of the believer. Again, thanks for the quote.


  9. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    I would differ with your conclusion. If the unbeliever basically finds out that he is allowed to use an amorphous deism to counter any claim the apologist offers, then he is providing a legitimate reductio ad absurdum of the entire presuppositional apologetic.

    Gotcha. :up: This is in a different context, as you noted.


    Hammering the opponent can in some circumstances be the right thing to do. When Jesus was dealing with the Pharisees in Matthew 22, He got them in a corner. "No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions" (v. 46).

    For the record, I believe that the circumstances which allow the curmudgeoning are public arenas. As I've said elsewhere, deeper intellectual apologetics very rarely converts the person arguing against Christianity, for the person who thinks he has an arsenal of arguments is often entrapped in moral rebellion. But if people see unbelief silenced as they watch two separate debaters, and if they see the unbeliever's arguments soundly thrashed (not with arrogance, though), then that will win them over more easily than the apologist's withholding good "nail in the coffin" arguments.
  10. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Ben,

    Ben, I think you are forgetting the arena (context) of a presuppositional apologetic argument. The arena for TAG is at least two people with their respective worldviews - not one person trying to provide an objective argument for his worldview. If you stand alone claiming you have a proof for the existence of God, then people can throw whatever they want at you to disprove you. This makes you the one under the microscope - not them! This is not TAG. Here is a distinction that I am willing to make between TAG and other apologetic methods. (As far as I know, this distinction is original with me.) Other apologetic methods stand alone to prove the existence of God. That is to say, they are the ones under the microscope - they are the ones in the docket. TAG is done explicitly within the context of competing worldview(s) where the unbeliever is under the microscope - he, too, is in the docket. If his worldview fails, then who cares if he gropes for something else? His groping is obvious for what it is. Let the guy counter with an alternative worldview - he has just conceeded that his worldview fails. In the words of Van Til himself, "It is never about winning...It is about exposing their inconsistency. God does everything else."

    If someone is "more easily converted" because they saw "unbelief silenced...soundly thrashed..." with a "nail in the coffin argument," then I would have serious doubts about their conversion. The idea that the big smackdown more easily converts someone feels way wrong. Sure, the world is impressed with the big smackdown. But God does not do things the way the world would do them. When I read 1 Corinthians 1, it is the foolish things of the world that God has chosen to confound the wise. The foolishness of the preaching of the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation - not some debator with a polished argument and polished rheotric. The world loves the aggressive, powerful and dominating. I suspect God tends to primarily use the gentle, weak and humble as means of grace.

    Ben, one of the biggest sins within the presuppositional camp is intellectual pride. (In a private coorespondence with you, I confessed my own guilt.) Many in this camp exalt in the big smackdown. In Pushing the Antithesis edited by Gary DeMar you will find right before the introduction a transcript of one particular section of the Bahnsen/Stein debate. It is the section where Bahnsen really nails Gordon Stein. This section of the debate had nothing to do with the gospel or exalting God. It was simply Bahnsen in a moment of rheotical brilliance (he was brilliant) nailing a much less able orator over a philosophical point. Why is this exalted at the front of the book? I think you know why. It is wrong and sinful. Don't buy into the idea that the smackdown is more God glorifying or effective. This is the world's idea - not God's.


  11. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior


    1. My point is that the entire presuppositional method -- i.e. pitting whole worldviews in toto against each other and attempting to show how the unbeliever's doesn't account for some fact of reality -- can be discarded as ridiculous if the unbeliever realizes that he has a silver-bullet argument given anything you put forth. "No matter what this guy says, I can just say I believe in a God like it!" It's not that he actually holds to this worldview, but rather that he'll think that your method must be wrong.

    2. The thrashing etc. that I am referring to is not a "you got served," mocking, scornful, "throw him to the lions" type of thing. Rather, I am merely saying that an apologist, in a public arena, should not be afraid to use his best arguments. This can be done perfectly in a way that is "gentle, weak and humble as means of grace." I am day by day, by the grace of God, attempting to crush the sin in me that likes the man-glorifying "smackdown" mentality that you described. Please realize that I am not advocating that.
  12. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Ben,

    I was once in a formal debate on the Internet Infidel's website with their administrator (Does God Exist?). I was "trying out" a modified Modal Ontological argument. My opponent argued the way you suggested. In the end, I conceded that my Modal Ontological argument failed in the after discussion section of the debate. I pointed out to them that I could not eliminate the quadrinity worldview - or ones like it. The context of the debate was such that this was all that was needed. His commitments (or mine for that matter) were not in question. The debate was all about the argument - whether it worked or not. So, I think I understand your point.

    With that said, it is not clear to me that you understood my point. My point is this: TAG is not a method like that above. TAG is not a method where you are putting forth some idealized proof for the existence of God. Only when you go away from how TAG is actually done towards some idealized proof for the existence of God do you end up in the waters you described above. If you end up in those waters, then you are claiming more for you argument than you have the right to claim. Do you see this?

    This is a little different than what I understood you to be saying. My mistake. Thank you for clarifying. In addition to what you said, I would add that we are under obligation to always bring our best arguments no matter the arena. Just keep in mind that "best" is not a univocal term. The "best" argument is not necessarily a "curmudgeoning" (to use your word) - even in the public arena. Your goal is not to impress the audience with your rhetoric and strong argument - at least it should not be that. Your goal is to give an answer for the hope that is in you, and leave the rest to God. In the end, the best argument is what God judges to be the best. I suspect His estimation will be different than the world's estimation.

    I get that you are not into the smackdown. There was a time when I was into this. I still fight this tendency of my flesh. It is sinful on my part.


  13. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    I understand that TAG is basically critiquing the unbeliever's worldview, attempting to show that it can't support some obvious part of reality (e.g. uniformity), and then showing how Christianity does. I was saying that this entire method -- in which each person holds to a presupposition from the outset and is allowed to hold to it so long as it is logically consistent to do so, and arguing from their commitments (rather than towards) -- would be put to disrepute as soon as the unbeliever realized that all the apologist's attempted critiques could be shot down as arbitrary. If the unbeliever realizes that there exists a presupposition that is different from Christianity but can transform to sustain itself against any critique, then he'd probably think that there's not much to this presupposition game anyway.

    Hence the importance of showing that such an amorphous "worldview" is actually not a presupposition at all.
  14. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    My main problem with the TAG here in terms of debate is that no presupposition is ever held in isolation (which is why I often speak in terms of sets of presuppositions). The other problem I have is that rather than directly engaging your Christian worldview, the unbeliever is more likely to try a presuppositional argument against Christianity than to actually believe himself beaten. In this case, the winner would not be the person who can prove himself right, but whoever can destroy the other's worldview the best.

    Finally, for the TAG's purpose (impossibility of the contrary) to be valid in a debate context, one would have to prove it.

    I reread your debate, Brian, to see just how it went and I have a couple critiques:

    First, the atheist went first. This is wrong because he is (naturally) taking the negative position rather than the affirmative. You, as the affirmative, must go first, otherwise there is no debate. He can't rebut your argument unless you've already made one. It's unfair both to you and him if you don't go first.

    Second, you didn't rebut his arguments in your first reply. I realize this is because you went second and so needed to establish your argument and the terms of the debate.

    Third, you did not present a counter-epistemology to his epistemology of empiricism. Even if you destroy his argument, you have to present the audience with an alternative.

    This critique is mostly based on my own experience with debate as a formal exercise, so it leaves the arguments themselves largely untouched. Your arguments can be rock-solid but still fail because they weren't presented correctly.
  15. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Philip,

    Thank you for the critique.

    I can see why this may bother you when people speak of "the presupposition." (I, too, do not like the phrase "the presupposition," but I do now what those who use it mean by it.) However, within the presuppositional apologetic method one assumes the Christian worldview which includes the complete network of presuppositions that make up this worldview. That is all brought to the table. Not only that, one grants the opponent's worldview along with all of its presuppositions. So, all presuppositions are on the table. The method just shows explicitly how some of the pressuppositions in the opponent's worldview are incompatible (like "There is no God," and "am empirically based epistemology is the way to provide truth.")

    In my practice of this apologetic method, I have never had an opponent "try a presuppositional argument against Christianity." Normally, they argue why the argument I presented against their position is not valid or sound. As such, Philip, I would judge this objection of yours to presuppositional apolgoetics to be not that serious, although I grant that some have put forth an argument called TANG.

    I am suspect of the idea concerning "burden of proof" you are assuming. The atheist certainly holds the positive position that "Atheism is true". Why should he not have the very same burden as the person who holds to the positive position "Theism is true"? In a discussion of worldviews, there is no default position. Everyone has an equal burden. The existence of God boils down to a discussion of worldviews.

    It was actually part of the written formal rules. Because my opponent went first he did not have the opportunity to rebutt my opening. As such, I was not allowed to enjoy the advantage of rebutting his opening statement in my opening statement. All rebuttals of the opponents position where to take place in the rebuttals. The opening arguments where simply positive arguments for the respective positions. Taking this back to the point above, this seems to be a rather fair way to do this - don't you think?

    You are right that I did not present a counter-epistemology.

    Yes, this is a good point. Again, thanks for the feedback.


    -----Added 7/13/2009 at 10:25:57 EST-----

    Hello Ben,

    Perhaps, but this conclusion by the unbeliever would be a physcological conclusion rather than a logical one. Your job as the apologist is to point this out to him. I liked your question, "So, you are planning to convert to X?" That is a great start to showing the problem he is facing.

    Two things regarding this: If you mean by this that it is logically impossible for someone to hold to a worldview like the quadrinity, you are mistaken. If by this you mean to simply say that the unbeliever facing you is in trouble if he is appealing to these worldviews that he actully is not committed to, then I agree you should point this out to him.

  16. Confessor

    Confessor Puritan Board Senior

    I do mean the latter. A person cannot argue for a specific presupposition if he is not actually willing to commit to it (this goes back to the whole "sincerity" issue in the Q&A thread).

    And this, I believe contributes to my second answer:

    That's a good distinction. It is surely a psychological problem rather than a logical one. The unbeliever thinks he has an argument, but only because he doesn't realize that everyone has presuppositions to which they are actually committed.
  17. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    Atheism is a negative, pure and simple, and cannot be anything but a negative. When debating the existence of God, the atheist is the plaintiff, and as such there has to be something for him to prosecute (in a litigation case, there is no "innocent until proven guilty").

    No, it gives him an advantage. In a value debate, the negative (which, oddly, is the side you are taking) has two burdens--disproving the affirmative and proving his own position. The affirmative does not necessarily have to prove his opponent categorically wrong, simply to rebut his objections.

    I do see this, and I suppose that one can prove that a set of presuppositions is inconsistent. It's just that, regardless of whether one can do it, there is still the burden of proof. One must demonstrate that Christianity and only Christianity is true. The TAG is inadequate to do this, for the reason that it is beyond the scope of any mortal to address all possible worldviews.

    However, given a different principle (if Christianity is true, then all other worldviews are false), the burden of disproof becomes a simple burden of proof.
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