I have recently been posting a series of basic studies for Christian parents at the TELOS site entitled Apologetics and Your Children. The posts are meant to encourage believers to take the matter of Truth seriously, and to use Apologetics as a framework in which to fit their evangelism and education of their kids.
A few weeks ago on the Telos Ministries Facebook page an atheist whom I shall call FF showed up with a challenge to the presuppositional apologetics (PA) I employ. This apologetic method uses a transcendental critique of opposing positions; what Cornelius Van Til referred to as non-Christian philosophies of life. Van Til wrote:
A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is…
It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence. Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. – A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 10, 11.
Thus, Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic is an all-or-nothing approach. As he says on the next page:
It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. So also it makes very little difference whether we begin with the notion of an absolute God or with the notion of an absolute Bible. The one is derived from the other. They are together involved in the Christian view of life. Hence we defend all or we defend none. – Ibid, 12
I belabor the point because PA is so often misrepresented and hence its thrust is bypassed. As we shall see, FF has not grasped the argument. (As I argue against him I want to be respectful of him as a person. I want FF to be saved by Christ and turn from his nihilistic point of view. I am not in this to just win an argument. Any seeming disrespect is certainly not intentional).
The assertion of PA is not that unbelievers do not know things. It is that they are unable to account for what they know using their unbelieving outlooks. And if they cannot account for the their arguments from within their own outlook, they should give it up and find one that does account for it. And Christian presuppositionalists claim that the only outlook or worldview which accounts for facts, values, logic, justice, beauty, etc. is the Christian worldview of the Bible.
Neutrality – Really?
The premise of neutrality is that a person believes that they have adopted a view of the world (metaphysics), and a view of how to know the world (epistemology), which is normative, and that any diversions from that “normative perspective” are wrong because they disagree with that perspective. The only outlook which does not need to give an account of itself is (conveniently) their own – because they are, of course, neutral.
Quite apart from the Christian perspective which I am coming from, such a view is quite obviously question-begging – as the history of philosophy abundantly proves. Atheists are not immune from bias, as any cursory reading of their work shows. The fact that most of them still hold to a form of logical positivism and hitch it up to philosophical naturalism seems more apparent to their detractors oftentimes than it does to them. How often, e.g. do we hear atheist evolutionists say they do not consider any other definition of science than naturalism “good science”? It does not matter to these people that the founders of science did not hold such a definition, and would therefore not be considered scientists if these people were right. The patent absurdity of saying Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Kelvin, Faraday, Maxwell etc. were not scientists because they were supernaturalists ought to silence such men. What is their real problem? It is clear enough. They hate God. So they define science their way (eliminating the luminaries above in the process) and then they can control the field. But science should not be defined by a philosophical agenda. Science should simply be a search for the Truth in the world amenable to scientific inquiry. That ought to be the definition. Just how the truth is to be known will depend on a person’s worldview. For the founders of modern science, the fact that God created the universe and gave us the ability to discover things in it gave them the intellectual mandate to do science (i.e. explore the world and discover truth). But naturalists discount this view. We must demand of them then that they give an adequate account of the possibility of science and the amenability of truth. We must ask them to give us the foundational tenets of their worldview. This is given merely to illustrate the naivete of believing one is neutral. No one is neutral.
From a Christian perspective of course, atheists are anti-theists (“Theist” here denoting a Christian-trinitarian theist). They have already decided that God does not exist; not because they have proved He doesn’t – but because they would prefer it if He didn’t. Now FF is a case in point. He thinks he is purely objective, and using that objectivity he ignores Christian scholarship and reads his atheists. By so doing he issues challenges to Christians, even though he misrepresents what they believe, gets their apologetic argument wrong, and asserts things about the naming of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark which he is unable to prove. He claims the presuppositional argument is “just plain fallacious” but when asked to describe it, comes up with this:
“Easiest example is the TAG argument. Taken to it’s bare minimum, it essentially goes as follows:
‘Reality/existence has a fundamental nature, therefore God exists.”
Does that sound anything remotely like Van Til’s argument above? I certainly wouldn’t want to be lumbered with defending that, so I shall have to disappoint FF and use the proper argument. That argument is that the Christian-biblical God must be presupposed for us to give a rational account of facts.
I know this may sound strange to some readers, but it must be remembered that God is the Creator and He has stamped the marks of His existence in His world, and has given to us a verbal revelation to instruct us in our interpretation of it.
Quite obviously, this claim will not be accepted by those who remain outside of Christ, and I do not expect FF to accept it. But when atheists like him are pressed to give a reason for their use of logic, values, science, and the like from their own unbelieving world and life philosophy, they cannot. They simply evade these most basic of questions. But again, if a person can’t account for the facts of reality he employs from his espoused worldview, he must be asked to change to a worldview which can account for them. That worldview, I have asserted, is the Christian one. In fact, the Christian worldview even accounts for why unbelievers prefer incoherent worldviews rather than bowing their knees to Christ.
FF says I am biased and he is right. I am a Christian who believes the Bible, and who has been saved by God’s grace through faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I have a bias, and I am prepared to defend it. Being biased in the direction of the truth is both right and rational. FF rejects my bias. I only wish he would recognize his own and stop treating it as normative. If it is normative then his “unbiased” position will land us all in the soup sooner rather than later!
Two examples: If I have a bias towards by wife as a special woman apart from all other women, that is a good bias (although I do realize some like R. Dawkins will not necessarily agree). If I was biased against the Nazi extermination of Jews, gypsies and handicapped, I would think most would believe my bias was both right and rational – and a bias the other way irrational and evil. In the same way my bias for the God of Scripture is, I believe, both proper and rational. FF of course, is free to disagree. But it would be very naive of him to keep asserting his lack of all bias. Indeed he has already shown a bias in favor of atheistic authors and against Christian ones. Atheistic bias is always quick to show itself.
I would, therefore, prefer it if we could compare biases instead of pretending one of us doesn’t have any to compare.
The Charges – so far
Not only does FF charge the TAG argument (i.e. the transcendental argument for the existence of God) of presuppositonal apologetics (PA) as being “just plain fallacious”, he declares,
I will not, however, budge on my stance regarding the absolutely nonsensical idea of God somehow existing outside of existence. That has absolutely no meaning, it is completely incoherent and self-refuting, and thus I am fully justified in discarding it. If God exists it is necessarily part of reality, not apart from reality. Things that aren’t part of reality by definition do not exist.
He appears not to see that he is assuming his view of existence to be true without argument or proof. From his reading of atheist critics he gets this:
“the Mark story and say that Jesus isn’t really a member of the ‘Godhead’, but rather was ‘adopted’ by God after his death…Jesus never even got the name ‘Jesus’ until after his death according to the gospel of Mark”
He is yet to substantiate this claim from Mark.
Of the doctrine of the Trinity we get:
Either way, it makes little difference. I have been debating Christians for a while now † and not once have I ever heard a coherent description of the so-called ‘trinity’. I’ll point out that it is incoherent to speak of one being being three beings, only for them to then back-peddle and say that it isn’t that one being equals three beings, but rather that one being equals three persons, failing to realize that the word ‘person’ and the word ‘being’ are essentially synonyms.”
Because he assumes his own position to be normative from the get-go, I am stuck with the charge of reifying nature! Reification is the fallacy of ascribing living/divine properties to the natural world. Of course, no Christian believes any such nonsense. FF is dismissing the Creator – creature distinction (that God is both within and without the universe which He created and upholds), without even considering it.
Logic and What “Facts” Rely On
This brings me to my first real point, which is the issue of “fact.” FF is fond of the word. But what does he mean by it? In my worldview a fact is known as a fact if my interpretation of it matches the plan of the One who put it there. Further, my ability to ascertain factuality comes from my status as an image-bearer of the Creator. But what about the atheist? Surely he is not going to tell me that he knows facts by simply looking at them? He ought to know that no new found artifact (be it a pot-sherd, a dinosaur bone, a clay tablet, or a bloody knife) screams its own interpretation to us. These things have no voice. They must be interpreted. The question then is, how is one to interpret the data? Our interpretation of facts is affected, often substantially, by our worldview.
FF wants to rely on “the facts of logic.” Very good. I wish to be logical too. But we have to have a worldview which can account for and incorporate the laws of logic. For example, suppose a stone-cold killer reasoned that since we evolved from the inexorable deterministic flow of matter and we therefore have no intrinsic worth as people, that killing people was disposing of other worthless things, would he be illogical? No, but he would not have a foundation for using logic either. And if we told him he was wrong or evil, but his worldview had no place for such moral concepts, we could not use logic to convince him. We would quickly find that our reasoning would sound to him like mere opinionizing; and why would our opinion be better than his?
This demonstrates that a). logic can be misused within differing outlooks, and b). that many outlooks cannot give an account of the logic which they do use.
Take this little exchange:
FF: Does your TAG not try to attribute the laws of logic to God?
Me: Of course. What do you attribute them to?
FF: The laws of logic exist because we created them. Why would you think otherwise? Was Aristotle an alien?
Me: …I’m kind of betting your foundations to everything will be purely pragmatic though
FF (quoting me a little later) “Aristotle categorized the laws which were there.”
FF: No, Aristotle DESCRIBED the FACTS that were there. –
The dictionary defines categorize as:
1. to arrange in categories or classes; classify.
2. to describe by labeling or giving a name to; characterize
Aristotle didn’t categorize the laws of logic according to FF, he described them! This problem of defining terms reoccurs with FF. Nevertheless, he insists we “created” the laws of logic (I think he really means we categorized them), but that they are eternal.
So now we can get down to it. If logic is eternal and absolute (as FF agrees it is), whence logic? Since we are not eternal, we could not be the source of logic. The Christian reply is that since the laws of logic are laws of thought, the thought comes from the Triune God of Scripture, whose thought is perfectly rational. (This is given in the post God Behind Everything at the Telos website, which FF was directed to).
In responding to this it will not do for the atheist to simply assert that “logic is just there.” We know logic, as beauty and justice and number, is “there”, but we want to know the how and the why. As laws of thought logic requires a thinker. In the Biblical worldview there is an Eternal Thinker – God! God is the Source of logic, just as He is the Source of goodness and truth and love.
The bottom line is this: If a person wants to use logic to argue against the Christian worldview, he will need to supply a foundation for logic from his own worldview. If one is going to take a stand for logic, it makes no sense if one has no place for logic itself to stand! Before talking about what is and what is not logical, FF needs to show his basis for logic from an atheistic conception of life.
† Please note that I am aware that other believers have probably tried to set him straight on the doctrine of the Trinity, (and TAG for that matter), and that he is perhaps confusing what he chooses to believe with what is or is not coherent. I also take from this that FF likes to debate. I am not a debate junkie, and will only take a discussion as far as I think is profitable.