Occasionally one hears classical apologists (especially those of a Thomist persuasion) claim that presuppositionalists are guilty of “confusing ontology and epistemology” or “confusing the order of being and the order of knowing.” R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, and Steven Cowan are among those who have leveled this charge.1 In this post, I want to explain why I think the objection itself is confused.
- R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 1984), 229-230; Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker Book House, 1991), 17-18; Richard G. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism” (2006); Steven B. Cowan, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, eds., In Defense of the Bible (B&H Academic, 2013), 432. ↩
May has been the month of interviews, mainly because I put them all off until the end of the spring semester! Here are a couple more, for your viewing pleasure:
While you’re at it, check out the channels of the two hosts:
The Gospel Truth (Marlon Wilson)
The Christian Worldview Project (Jordan Ravanes)
An interview with Eli Ayala on presuppositional apologetics and related topics:
Also check out the interview Eli conducted with my colleague Mike Kruger a couple of weeks ago:
- Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)
- Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)
- Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions)
- Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)
- Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)
- Reforming Apologetics (Worldview)
Summary of Chapter 6
In this chapter, Dr. Fesko turns his attention to Van Til’s advocacy of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter, TAG). Fesko’s main concern is not that TAG is a bad argument in itself, but rather that many Van Tilians treat it as the be-all and end-all of Reformed apologetics, to the exclusion of other apologetic arguments (i.e., more traditional theistic arguments and historical evidential arguments). He writes:
This chapter argues that the TAG is a useful tool within the apologist’s toolbox but is neither a silver-bullet argument nor the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics. … The degree to which apologists employ the TAG apart from the book of nature is inversely proportional to the degree to which they depart from the historic Reformed faith. (p. 137)
This chapter’s thesis, therefore, is that the TAG can be a useful argument but not at the expense of the book of nature. Christians can employ the connection between the innate and acquired natural knowledge of God in the defense of the faith. (p. 137)
Dr. Fesko’s approach in the chapter is to review TAG’s origins in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to expose its “idealist elements,” and to raise some concerns about the use of TAG in Van Tilian apologetics.
Origin of Transcendental Arguments
The use of transcendental arguments can be traced to Kant’s attempt to refute idealism (specifically, skepticism about the existence of a mind-independent material world). The basic aim of a transcendental argument is to refute a skeptical position by showing that the skeptic has to presuppose the very thing he professes to doubt. Drawing from Robert Stern’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fesko writes:
Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)
Fesko immediately connects TAG with the “historic worldview theory” (HWT) critiqued in the preceding chapter. James Orr advocated HWT and also employed a transcendental method (so Robert Knudsen argues), with the consequence that Orr repudiated proofs or evidential arguments for the existence of God. Gordon Clark followed Orr in these convictions. Van Til, despite acknowledging the legitimacy of evidence, “sounds very much like Orr” at points.
Fesko notes that Van Til’s disciples have debated among themselves the extent to which evidential arguments are appropriate in apologetics. Greg Bahnsen appeared to repudiate them altogether, while John Frame and Thom Notaro have defended their use and their compatibility with Van Til’s method. Even so, Fesko remarks, “there is a tendency to discount or diminish the use of evidence among some of those who employ the TAG” (p. 141).
The problem of induction may be viewed as a particular instance of a more general epistemological problem. Is there any rational order to the facts of the world, and, if so, how can we have epistemic access to that rational order? How can the multifarious facts of experience be rationally connected, so as to give us genuine knowledge of the world and its operations?
Hume’s answer, in effect, is that such knowledge is impossible. Given his starting point, his answer is correct. Kant considered this a philosophical scandal, even though he agreed with Hume that all factual knowledge of the world must come through sense experience. Kant’s innovative response to Hume’s skepticism was his “Copernican revolution” in epistemology: although we cannot know the world as it is in itself, we can know the world as it appears to us, because our minds impose rational order on the data of experience. Kant called his theory “transcendental idealism,” but we might just as well call it anthropocentric antirealism, for, on Kant’s view, the world of experience—the world we take ourselves to inhabit—isn’t a mind-independent reality, but rather a construction of the active human mind.
Kant’s system, while ingenious in its own way, fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the problems raised by Hume. Not only is it internally inconsistent (Kant couldn’t avoid making some positive claims about the unknowable noumenal world), but, like all forms of antirealism, it is haunted by the specter of epistemological relativism. If the world is a construction of the human mind, which human mind is doing the constructing? How can I be sure that the rational order I impose upon my experience is the same for everyone? Kant was the champion of intellectual autonomy—human reason must serve as the supreme judge—yet the existence of seven billion minds on earth implies seven billion independent and competing authorities.
One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.
So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:
- If Knowledge Then God (2005) — a paper in which I summarize Van Til’s transcendental argument (actually multiple versions of it) and contrast it with the theistic arguments of Alvin Plantinga.
- The Theistic Preconditions of Knowledge (2006) — an argument that human knowledge presupposes the existence of God.
- Presuppositionalism and Frame’s Epistemology (2009) — an essay on John Frame’s distinctive contributions to epistemology and apologetics, in which I sketch out (in the final section) a triperspectival presuppositional critique of naturalism.
- The Lord of Non-Contradiction (2011) — an article (co-authored with Greg Welty) which argues for the existence of God from the laws of logic.
- In Defense of the Argument for God from Logic (2013) — our responses to several critiques of the argument in the previous article.
- Antitheism Presupposes Theism (2011) — a defense of Van Til’s provocative claim, which extends the argument for God from logic into an argument for God from any belief stance (including agnosticism).
- Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism (2016) — the outline of an argument to the effect that atheism cannot account for objective rationality.
In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.
Atheism and Amoralism
On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:
[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.
Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):
The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.
You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:
Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.
In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.
So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.
Having been recently promoted to associate professor, I was invited to give a short lecture at our Fall convocation service last week. The audio of the lecture (“The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide”) is now available on iTunes U.
On a closely related note, check out these good thoughts by my colleague Mike Kruger on the current state of public debate over moral issues.
A correspondent asked me if I could address an objection he had encountered to the argument for God from logic. Here’s the objection as he quoted it, with my comments interspersed:
The authors equivocate when they make the leap to claim that the laws of logic are thoughts. The propositions themselves are certainly thoughts, but how can the truths that the propositions bear be thoughts?
I’m pleased that the objector concedes that “propositions … are certainly thoughts” because that’s a crucial step in the argument! However, the latter part of the question reflects a confusion. In our paper, we adopted the conventional definition of propositions as primary truth-bearers. But this doesn’t mean that propositions bear truths (as though truths were something other than propositions). Rather, it means that propositions are things that can bear the property of truth; they’re things that can be true. Given this definition, truths just are propositions; specifically, they are true propositions.