Thursday, February 28, 2013

Getting to the point?

I wasn’t sure where Dr. Greg Bahnsen was going with his Presuppositional Procedure after reading the first few paragraphs. This vague outline does not seem to lend any insights that couldn't have been gleaned from Cornelius Van Til - making Bahnsen a non-value-added middleman.

Have a read:

The issue is not what the unbeliever can do intellectually, but whether he can give an account of it (epistemologically) within the worldview he has advocated or espoused. Because all autonomous perspectives take man’s interpretation of the world to be “original”-to be the primary ordering of particulars or “rationalizing” (making systematic sense out of) the brute facts, it puts man at the center of the knowing process-and pays the price for doing so by slipping in subjectivism and skepticism ultimately (when consistent and driven to the logical outcome of his presuppositions).

The phrase “slipping in subjectivism and skepticism” set off mental klaxon horns, since accusations of subjectivism and relativism are thrown about by true believers as if these were the vilest allegations that can be made. I get the feeling that some folks really need religion in order to provide certainty and order, but that’s a topic for another time.

Dr. Bahnsen immediately offers a solution to the heartbreak of subjectivism:

The only alternative-the Christian worldview-places the creative and providential activity of the Triune God “back of” all of man’s experiences and intellectual efforts, thereby solving the fundamental problems of epistemology which leave the unbelieving critic nowhere to stand. Only Christianity can account for or make sense of the intellectual accomplishments of the unbeliever. The critic of the faith has been secretly presupposing the truth of the faith even as he argues against it; his own arguments would be, upon analysis, meaningless unless they were wrong and Christian theism were true.

This might impress you, if it weren’t for the gaping absence of evidence that the doctor deftly avoids mentioning.

Bahnsen spends the rest of the essay singing the praises of Cornelius Van Til, which tends to raise the question of what Bahnsen adds to the field. I’m not sure I see anything notable, but there are other articles at the Grace Online Library - Presuppositionalism page that might shed some light on this obtuse apologetic approach.

The point of the essay is Bahnsen reminding us that Van Til says that the apologist should point out that the atheist world view has no basis for intelligibility without God, and that the Christian worldview (not a generic theistic one, but a specifically Christian one) does.

Is that even a point?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Parroting Bahnsen's words

This is the next installment in a brief, shallow commentary of a Presuppositional Procedure written by Dr. Greg Bahnsen. I’ve made previous comments here and here.

Bahnsen says:

The apologist explains how rationality, communication, meaning, science, morality, man’s redemption and renewal are quite understandable, meaningful, coherent, or intelligible within the Biblical worldview-within “the picture” of thinking God’s thoughts after Him.

He exhorts budding apologists to use the argument that without God, intelligibility, morality, etc are not possible. Notice that there’s still no argument that God exists, still no evidence, still no reason to think that such an entity is possible, plausible, likely or necessary in the universe that we inhabit. Yet Bahnsen presupposes that God exists AND is the source of “rationality, communication, meaning, science, morality, man’s redemption and renewal”. We look at his claim, and immediately see that the first five topics can be explained in natural terms by eighth-graders, and the last two are vague enough to need a better definition before the counter-apologist even bothers. “Redemption and renewal” sound like code-words to the emotionally needy, so I can see why he’d throw those in for their benefit.

In the same paragraph, he continues:

The apologist then engages in an internal critique of the unbeliever’s worldview to show that it is (1) arbitrary, and/or (2) inconsistent with itself, and/or (3) lacking the preconditions for the intelligibility of knowledge (language, logic, science, morality, redemption, etc.). Since that is the case, the unbeliever cannot “know” the things which he urges against Christianity-indeed, could not know anything at all and loses all claim to rationality.

We saw the exact phrase “preconditions for the intelligibility” in Pastor Stephen Feinstein’s attempt to debate Russell Glasser, so Bahnsen’s words appear to be the direct ancestor that inspired Feinstein to think he had a knock-down argument against the “atheist world view”.

Still, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - in the Bible that remotely makes any assertion that could be spun into support for such a bizarre set of claims as Bahnsen is instructing the apologist to make. It’s almost as if he’s setting them up for ridicule of the highest order. We get a peek into how he might have arrived at this:

Take anything about which the unbeliever is committed or concerned-anything which seems uncontroversial and agreed upon by the unbeliever and believer alike-and from that point display that it would be unintelligible or meaningless or incoherent if the unbeliever’s worldview, instead of the believer’s, were true. ... And the philosophical issues about which Van Til wrote we should broach to prove the unbeliever’s epistemology and discredit the unbeliever were extensive and varied.

Here, Bahnsen exposes his reliance on theologian and presuppositional apologist Cornelius Van Til's work - specifically, as his student and critic John Frame relayed, that the “sovereignty of God” was an “epistemological, as well as a religious and metaphysical principle.” That God is required for intelligibility.

An undiscriminating apologist - Feinstein, for example - might take Bahnsen’s (Van Til’s) exact words and repeat them verbatim without giving any serious thought about how a real argument is supposed to support a claim. That appears to be what happens a lot, when all you have to do is claim “goddidit”.

More in a while.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presuppositional Procedure - some details

I found a Presuppositional Procedure written by Dr. Greg Bahnsen. Since I've now caught the “counter-presuppositionalist bug”, let me make a few comments on this brief essay.

The piece begins with the presumption that the non-believer holds certain beliefs:

The unbeliever says that he knows that miracles are impossible, that a personal almighty God does not exist, that ethical principles are not normative across cultural boundaries, etc. Or the unbeliever says that the believer cannot know that the Bible is God’s Word, or that Jehovah exists, or that Christ was His Son, etc.

This is meant, I suppose, as an example of possible attitudes that the non-believer may have, but Bahnsen then (rightly) encourages the apologist to find out exactly what those might be:

The Christian apologist must seek to uncover what this unbeliever’s personal convictions are regarding metaphysical and (coordinated with it) epistemological matters which are relevant: e.g., what is the nature of things which are real, how does the world operate, where did it come from, what is man’s place in the world, what is man’s nature, are there moral or epistemological norms which are not chosen by the individual, what are the criteria of truth, what are the proper methods of knowing, is certainty possible, etc.? Once the believer has a fairly good grasp of the general kind of worldview assumed (or explicitly advocated) by the unbeliever, we can suggest that it should be compared to the worldview of the Christian

There is an immediate problem with Bahnsen’s procedure so far, and it will probably manifest itself quickly, as it did in the Russell Glasser - Pastor Stephen Feinstein web debate on God. The main problem is that the non-believer credits logic, consistency and intelligibility to natural means, and the believer does not. The believer assumes that a supernatural agent is at work: God.

To be as direct as possible - using the Bahnsen Procedure, the believer assumes God exists without any proof, and that God can be invoked to answer any metaphysical or epistemological question. And yet, the absence of that God stands astride this whole charade like a colossus. It renders the entire presupp procedure inoperative IMHO.

There is a lot more in Bahnsen’s essay, but let me dwell on this point for a bit, and trim it down. It might be worth becoming familiar with, should the non-believer become subject to a line of questioning in the style of Bahnsen above. In general, the Bahnsen Procedure instructs the apologist to question the non-believer’s way of thinking about the world (...what is man’s nature, are there moral or epistemological norms..., what are the criteria of truth ... etc.), and to continue the questioning until they can declare the non-believer’s stance “arbitrary, and/or (2) inconsistent with itself, and/or (3) lacking the preconditions for ... intelligibility”. Here - as in Pastor Feinstein's performance - is where the believer can say that he has an answer (God) where the non-believer does not. The problem is that God has not been shown to exist.

I’ll leave it there until next time.

The Presuppositional Procedure

My introduction to the world of presuppositional apologetics was courtesy of the Russell Glasser - Pastor Stephen Feinstein web debate on God last summer, and the on-going series of analyses of Feinstein’s posts by Deacon Duncan at Evangelical Realism.

Deacon and several of his commenters pointed out the possible presuppositionalist “script” that PSF might be following, and one or more mentioned “Bahnsen” as a purveyor of this script. A little nip of The Google later, and voila! Dr. Greg Bahnsen - student of Cornelius Van Til - and a leading proponent of presupp until his death in 1995. One of the first hits I got on The Google was this ”Presuppositional Procedure by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.

That’s. Really. Its. Title., although the existence of an actual script seemed a bit far-fetched when I first heard it mentioned, it appears that I was wrong. Please read the “procedure” article - it outlines the general approach to follow when delivering a presuppositional argument.

The point of this line of argument seems to ignore the whole ”establishing God’s existence” thing, and to focus on conceptual or philosophical topics in order to paint the Christian worldview as the “only basis for rational thought. It presupposes that the Bible is divine revelation and attempts to expose flaws in other worldviews“. To repeat myself: a somewhat surprising aspect of “presupp” is that it attempts to provide no reason for accepting that the proposition “God” exists in reality. I suppose this feature appeals to the lazier apologists, as they’re absolved of thinking about the subject.

A snarky aside: Pastor Feinstein seems to be the target demographic that presupp is intended to appeal to - he knew some five-dollar words; he seemed capable of using them in a grammatically correct way; he didn’t appear to notice that much of what he wrote didn’t make sense when read at the paragraph or post level; and he completely failed to do either of the two things that would have won him the debate: 1) establish the existence of God, or 2) establish that "atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible" - as he had explicitly stated in his opening post. Oh - and he was able to retain his unwarranted sense of self-importance while delivering it. Win!

I won’t be able to restrain myself from diving into Van Til, Bahnsen and presuppositionalism a bit more. In the meantime, let me read up and attempt to “make sense” of this.

I know how to party!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why the First Cause argument doesn't work

My previous post - “Show me the Money” - implies that I think direct evidence is required to remove all doubt on the existence of something that has been claimed. To address the other channel by which a claim can be agreed upon, let me discuss “rational” argument using the example of the Argument from First Cause . Of course, people "debating” the existence of God - or any other supernatural contrivance - will generally not have a rational argument in the sense that I use it here, but it is worth treating it as if they do.

The arguments for the existence of God often share some common characteristics:

1) They rely on ignorance. This is not meant to demean anyone - we are all ignorant about the vast number of topics there are to have knowledge of, let alone those things that we don't know can be known. The First Cause argument relies on ignorance of the cause of the universe, and can be dumbed down to “we can’t explain existence, therefore my preferred explanation applies”. The fact that we can’t explain existence does not trouble me personally, so it could be that the ability to remain untroubled by this is one of the personality traits that make non-belief so easy for me. Personal trivia aside, assume that no one knows what caused the universe. What would motivate someone to think that our absence of knowledge can only lead us to a conclusion that “God” is responsible? Not only does the assumption that something other than what can be observed must be the cause **complicate** the explanation instead of simplify it, it then is made worse by slapping on all sorts of other characteristics that magically parallel the proponent’s personal beliefs and (most often) their chosen religion. That same approach also ignores all other explanations - supernatural and natural. More than that, we really have an argument from ignorance, a false choice, a bare (unsupported) assertion, some circularity and a violation of Occam’s Razor - all in one argument.

2) Having just mentioned the False Choice fallacy, let’s discuss it next. Assuming (as we are) that no one knows what caused the universe, the possible explanation should not be limited by a personal preference. For instance, why not Zeus? Why not David Berkowitz’s neighbor’s dog Sam? Why not a cosmic joke? Why not a quantum fluctuation? The cold reality is that the universe is as it is, and none of our personal preferences or biases are relevant in the grand scheme of things. We may someday understand where our observable universe came from. We may never understand it. That we might like it to be a certain way - for instance with an omnipotent father figure in charge - will not and can not have any bearing on reality. So the potential explanations for the question “what caused the universe” are logically open to anything that is not logically impossible. It is not logically impossible that a God exists, but it is extremely more improbable than a purely natural explanation. No matter how improbable the universe may truly be, the existence of a system beyond the universe, in which a God can exist in order to create and be in charge, is enormously more unlikely. All purely natural explanations are thus more likely.

3) The Bare Assertion Fallacy is an “arbitrary dogmatic statement which the speaker expects the listener to accept as valid”. No evidence or rational argument is offered, that’s just the way it is because I said so.

Obviously, you can reject this without further discussion. They’re just expecting you to accept them as an authority. Unless you have reason to, this is a non-starter.

4) Circular Reasoning is a direct outcome of Bare Assertion. In fact, the two are joined at the hip. You can’t assume in a premise, what you’re trying to arrive at as a conclusion.

’Nuff said.

5) Since I already smuggled Occam's Razor into the discussion of False Choice, let me give it a slightly better treatment. Using the example that Dr. William Lane Craig often uses - that the complexity of the universe is too great to be explained by natural means - let’s examine how God might be a more likely (probable) conclusion. As we know, “...among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected”. This is just a matter of probability. If you have a one-in-six chance of rolling a six using a single die, than adding a second die lowers the probability that a single throw will produce a six. There is one way to roll a six using one die - or 16.67% probability. Two dice produce 5 ways out of 36 in which to roll a six - or 13.89%. This is over-simplistic, but makes the point. To really put an exclamation point on it, you can argue that God is a die that is more complicated than the universe, thus requiring more faces, thus lowering the odds of rolling that six even further.

Summary: Arguments about God don't prove anything. More generally, arguments between people, and organized debates don’t prove anything - they just attempt to persuade the participants or audience to change their opinions. After all is said and done, we’re still stuck with the fact that the universe does not care about our opinions.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Show Me The Money

Doug claims he has a one hundred dollar bill in his pocket. What is my reaction? It may be a number of things, but if we characterize it along the “interest axis”, then I might be anywhere from wholly disinterested to obsessively interested. If I sincerely don’t care, then the fact of Doug having or not having a $100 bill in his pocket means nothing to me, although it may mean quite a lot to Doug. You might characterize me as apathetic with regards to Doug’s claim. I believe it can be known whether Doug has $100 in his pocket, but I don’t care.

You can see the parallel to religious belief shaping up here, can’t you?

At the one end of the “interest axis”, I do not want nor need to know the answer of whether Doug has that bill in his pocket. No problem exists for me here, but it may be that Doug expected me to express some interest. I won't go into what Doug’s motivations are for this expectation - because I cannot know without some honest and heart-felt conversation with Doug. My absence of interest does not present a problem for me, with regards to Doug’s potential ownership of a $100 bill. But if Doug had a motive in claiming ownership of this bill, he might have some disappointment that I don't have the same interest as he does in sharing the view that Doug has $100 dollars in his pocket.

If I _am_ interested, then I might ask that Doug show the $100 bill to me. If he can show me the bill, then I know that he indeed has what he claims to have. However, if he doesn’t show me the bill, then what am I to think?


This is where people who believe in God are. They do not show the $100 bill to me, consequently, I am unable to be sure that the claimed $100 bill exists. As far as Doug and the money goes, I am equally justified in believing that there is no bill in Doug's pocket, as I am believing that there is, given that I have no bias towards Doug’s veracity. One major difference between Doug and a God-believer is that I know for a fact that $100 bills exist, and it is possible for Doug to obtain one. The God-believer, however, can make the claim that God exists, but they will not produce this God for my inspection. It may be possible for a person to demonstrate God’s existence in the way that Doug can produce a $100 bill for my inspection, but it has never been done. That implies that the probability that a God - in the sense that Christians claim - can be physically demonstrated to exist is very low. It may be possible that a deist conception of God exists, but the underlying assumption of deism is that the deist God does not interact with the world, thus a physical demonstration of its existence is highly unlikely. Similarly, the pantheist conception of God - that we and all of reality are part of God, is unlikely to be demonstrable, although it might be more likely than the other two conceptions.

Where does this all lead?

It leads us to demand that the God-believer show us the money. If Doug can show us the money, then so should they. If the God-believer claims that God can interact with the world, then it’s reasonable to expect that they can physically demonstrate it's existence.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Absolutes and uncertainty

I tried several times to add a comment to Deacon Duncan’s post “The Gypsy Curse” at Evangelical Realism this morning - but was thwarted by the iPad/JavaScript conspiracy. Or maybe he’s blocking me. :-).

Deacon is deconstructing Pastor Stephen Feinstein’s impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery (Russell’s characterization) from the Feinstein-Glasser debate last summer, and I can't wait for each week’s new installment.

Here’s what I wrote:

On a serious note, I have to ask about logic, and how much of it is axiom and how much of it is demonstrable **to a high degree of certainty**.

First, I assume most of what we learn is by exploration. A hot stove burns you, you learn not to touch it. From there we build up a library of rules of thumb that guide us through life. As society grows, people agree that some of these rules of thumb are universally valuable, and thoughtful people reverse engineer them into more formal statements.

It seems like a very few axioms are required (identity, non-contradiction), and that other components of our logic library can be exercised to a high degree of certainty (one error in a million, billion, or more).

Isn't the Pastor's (presuppositionalist's) line of attack here just based on a desire to have more absolutes in the world, as opposed to a willingness to accept uncertainty?


There are two trains of thought above that can be explored further. One, that some things require base assumptions (“axioms” or “presuppositions”, to use the debater’s parlance). Two, that the desire (or need?) for absolutes distinguishes the theist personality from the non-theist.

The second thought may have the broader implication, in that the need to have some (imagined or real) organization in one’s life - including clear answers to life’s burning questions - might be driving the attack on the first thought - “axioms”.

I don't know how long I’ve been able to deal with uncertainty - many decades, for sure. I don't have this burning need for an externally directed purpose (I’ve made my own), or an answer to the questions “where did everything come from” and “where will I go when I die”. We can talk about all of those for a lifetime, but it ceases being interesting to me when people act as if an absolute answer is *required*. I therefore tend to see this need for absolutes to be a common characteristic of the firm believer. Like it or not, I’m finding it harder to not be dismissive of this character trait.

As for absolute truths, such as axioms, I'm interested in how far down we can go before relying on mutually-agreed-upon axioms that we can’t “prove”.

Food for future thoughts.

Philosophy is fine

Philosophy is fine, but to have the full experience of being alive, of engaging in reality without distraction, one must shun imaginary concepts such as ghosts and Gods.