How Should I Be A Sceptic -- presuppositionalism vs. progression to a worldview

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

Now I will examine another set of tactics, similar (in ends if not in means) to those of the negative agnostics. I will do this, not only to (at least partially) justify myself to some of my brethren, but also because (thanks to those same brethren) a sceptic might think she had grounds we have chosen, for dismissing my attempt before I have even begun. [Footnote: please keep in mind that my goal throughout this chapter, as is often the case throughout this section of chapters, is to see whether a particular stance or set of stances properly prevents me from trying with any good hope to reach conclusions that can be legitimately shared by opponents and myself, on metaphysical topics. 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 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 I distinguish them as Scriptural Presuppositionalists and Theological Presuppositionalists.

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. [Note: see first comment below for extended footnote.] Again, these people do this very largely out of loyalty to, and love for, God.

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; mainly 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.

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. [Note: see second comment below for a footnote here.]

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). [Note: see third comment below for a footnote here.]

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. [Note: see fourth comment below for a footnote here.]

But, if the proponent insists on trying to make a safely certain deductive argument from this process, it can only offer a very backhanded sort of ‘help’.

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 does not accomplish the end for which the gun is intended.

The (circular) 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.

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. [Note: see fifth comment below for a footnote here.]

I agree that some presupposition (or limited set of presuppositions) must be proposed, upon which the rest of the argument can then be built. Therefore, near the beginning of my second section I will try to find a notion with which both my sceptical reader and I can positively 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 to some real and useful degree 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 drastically misunderstood for several centuries. 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.

[Next week: but isn't a faith/reason dichotomy necessary for believing religious claims?!]


Jason Pratt said…
Whoops, forgot to add in the extended footnotes here in the comments until early Saturday afternoon. My bad.

.......[first extended footnote starts here]

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 this current chapter, concerning Presuppositionalistic methodologies, does not depend on accepting or rejecting this-or-that type of inerrancy or inspiration; though frequently an acceptance of this-or-that type of inerrancy or inspiration will depend upon such methodologies.
Jason Pratt said…
....... [second extended footnote starts here]

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, for instance. The Immanuel prophecy from Isaiah chapters 7 and 8 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.
Jason Pratt said…
....... [third extended footnote here]

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. (And 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. I'll be making this same point later in my main text.)
Jason Pratt said…
....... [fourth extended footnote here]

Another way of attempting a deductive argument along this path--at least in effect, if not in form--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.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[fifth extended footnote here]

There is a difference between weeding out atheists and weeding out atheism. A deductive argument to a conclusion of theism, by being a deductive argument, will certainly weed out alternate proposals; but not necessarily weed out the people who propose them. My point is that a system-check duel, of itself, does not invite or facilitate a shared experience of discovery. The Great Commission is a call for all people to accept a banner; not a call to destroy the infidel. (Ironically, the popular perception is usually that 'inductive' arguments are more tolerant and 'deductive' arguments more hostile.)

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