December 10, 2012 § 3 Comments
A discussion with an agnostic:
First: I’m agnostic. I don’t find any theism particularly convincing, but I also don’t see any real evidence against the existence of some sort of God-like force, so I’m content here. But just color me atheist for the purposes of this discussion.
Anyway, science and logic can only answer how the universe functions. For example, neuroscience attempts to explain how our minds function, while physics does the same with how the laws of the universe function (though even the laws of the universe are just our own interpretations of phenomena), Etc.
However, they do not even come close to answering why things happen really, such as why the universe exists at all. This is one of the fundamental reasons why religion is so pervasive and alluring for some. We all want to know why we are here and how, and it is easy to fall into a belief system even if there is no actual evidence for it.
Now, it could very well be that non-existence is impossible, so sheer existence simply spontaneously appeared (a la the big bang, or whatever universe may have theoretically come before it). But the universe is ordered, rather than chaotic. Certain laws do govern everything, even if we can never truly know them. And to me, it would seem awfully strange for a spontaneous universe––which would have no real reason or advantage at all to be ordered––is, well, ordered. In fact, it would be remarkably easier for everything to simply be in chaos. Einstein shared this view, and he had a “profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence.”
Furthermore, an infinite regress into the past of causal events is impossible. So there had to have been at some time an unmoved-mover––something completely independent of determinism––that began our little universe (or, again, whatever came before it). This isn’t an argument for God, but it is an argument that, for me at least, there’s more to our existence than meets the eye. At the very least it’s evidence that there must be something that does not adhere to our universe’s laws.
But this is all speculative. Still, I personally find it laughable to think that we are even close to understanding our universe, or even ourselves. Nothing is set in stone. Even the theory of gravity seems to be rupturing with holes. These dark matter hypotheses? No more than a dubious theory to make up for the holes and for what we don’t understand. And once again: we have not even a drop of understanding of WHY our universe exists at all in the way it is, let alone ourselves.
So after over two thousand years of philosophizing and empirical studies, it seems the only thing we can really say we know is the good ol’ Socrates’ axiom (which assumes the cogito):
“The only thing I know is that I know nothing at all.”
I’m content with that.
Our knowledge and understanding is indeed limited. I appreciate you sharing your perspective, and I think many are in the same place you are, resisting outright atheism because the universe begs for certain explanations that are incompatible with atheism or naturalism. I don’t think I could be content with that. 🙂
It’s tempting though, to think that agnosticism is a kind of non-position. The conclusions you describe and a conviction to keep a distance from certain theistic conclusions is actually a commitment to a certain agnostic position in its own right, which is also a belief system. The claims of atheists seem ignorant of the obvious, and the claims of theists seem to claim too much knowledge. As a Christian, I obviously believe that a certain amount of knowledge of God is possible, and even the strictest agnostic who says God is unknowable admits a minimal amount of knowledge of God when he claims to know that God is unknowable. Complete knowledge of God is impossible for any finite human mind, but I think we can all agree that some knowledge is possible. Even Socrates’ axiom “the only thing I know is that I know nothing at all” is a declaration of limited knowledge.
Reason is the thing that we all champion that gets us to whatever conclusions we have. You’re right about your observations of the laws of logic that beg for some explanation beyond what we can see and prove. Reason is one of those ultimate commitments that we are forced to assume. When we do, even reason becomes suspect, because we can’t defend reason without using reason, so this reasoning becomes circular.
Turns out that ALL reasoning about ultimate origins or ultimate authority or ultimate commitment is ultimately circular. I don’t think most people think about this, but at its most basic level, ANY belief or principal, from atheism to theism and everything in between, is ultimately taken on faith. We presuppose reason, logic, morality, and other unprovable principals when we do anything.
While there are many things that theists see as evidence for God—many of which you described—theists can’t empirically prove God and ultimately accept His existence on faith. What sets apart theism from athiesm, both taken on faith and ultimately circular, is that when theism is presupposed, it provides logical answers for reason, logic, natural laws, morality, origins, etc. God, at least the one described in the Bible, provides a logical basis for what we have to assume when we assume He does not exist. Many insist on rejecting what can’t be logically proven. The problem is, that’s everything, so rejecting anything that requires faith is impossible. The choice to accept Christian theism on faith, however, leads to answers to the why questions you mentioned. I think the biggest obstacle is not really the truth claims within Christianity, but the initial step of faith INTO Christianity.
Why the God of Christianity over other forms of theism? That’s a separate discussion, and usually a later discussion. What I hope you can see first is that ANY belief—even what many call non-belief—is acquired by faith. When we place faith in the existence of an infinite Creator God, the universe actually begins to make sense.
“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
Christian apologetics has four distinct methods or approaches. I’ve outlined my understanding of these four schools of thought, including some of their popular adherents. I think that most apologists use more than one method but seem to favor one over the rest.
Classical apologetics was the earliest approach to defending Christian faith. It begins by using various theistic arguments (i.e. cosmological, teleological, ontological and moral arguments) to establish the existence of God. Once theism is established, the next step is to present various evidences (i.e. fulfilled prophesy, resurrection, historical reliability of Scripture) to set apart Christianity from other forms of theism. Classical, or traditional, apologists include St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, and more recently, C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, and William Lane Craig.
Evidentialist apologetics is similar to classical in its value of logic and reason, but puts more emphasis on empirical evidence. Evidentialism uses available facts and data as a starting point to argue, mostly inductively, for Christianity. An extreme form of evidentialism forwarded by W.K. Clifford called epistemological evidentialism, says that “it is wrong, everywhere, always, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Since there is no way to produce sufficient evidence to prove that it’s wrong to believe something without evidence, the maxim is unreasonable and self-defeating. Most evidentialists, including Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaffer, B. B. Warfield, John Warwick Montgomery, and Clark Pinnock, don’t go to that extreme.
Reformed apologetics is a little more heady, but worth understanding. Based on some of the work of John Calvin and pioneered mainly in the 19th century by theologian Cornelius van Til, reformed apologetics is often called Presuppositionalism. Because the natural man is corrupt and can’t truly be relied upon to use knowledge and reason perfectly, presuppositionalism starts with presupposing the truth of Christianity. One important truth is that God, who created us in His image, is the transcendental source of our knowledge, and this alone makes sense of our use of knowledge and reason. Since this method begins with the assumption that God is real and the Bible is true and seeks to prove the same, it’s seen as circular. But since every argument about ultimate authority (including human reason) is circular because it ultimately appeals to itself, reformed apologists admit this from the start, but then seek to show that only the God of the Bible makes sense of our use of reason and knowledge in the first place. Some contemporary reformed apologists are Gordon Clark, Alvin Plantinga, John Frame and Greg Bahnsen. This approach doesn’t disallow the use of reason to appeal to facts, but acknowledges that we need to first presuppose Christian theology to explain any kind of human experience.
Fideism is an approach to apologetics that at first glance seems to combat the very idea of apologetics. Fideists advocate the use of faith apart from reason. (The word literally means “faith-ism” in Latin). Like the other methods, Fideism comes in different forms, and has been associated, by others moreso than by themselves, to Blaise Pascal, Johann Georg Hamann, Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Most of these philosophers agree that everything we experience must ultimately taken on faith anyway. “Faith alone” is a Biblical principal for salvation, and it’s acceptable to believe based solely on faith. But I think the other camps agree that the exclusion of God-given reason is not what the Bible means, particularly when doing apologetics, but that reason be placed in the proper framework.
I would agree with Emmaus Apologetics professor Mark Stevenson when he advocates an “eclectic approach” to apologetics in light of the different methods. Much depends on the specific argument and who you are talking with. Think of these modes of apologetics and the various arguments within them as tools. We all have our favorite tools—I favor reformed/presuppositional approach using the transcendental argument. But it’s best to have many tools available depending on the job to be done.
August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments
Any conclusion about the origin of the universe that asserts “God” is of course a non-sequitur, since that would constitute a religious a priori assumption.
God is presupposed in Christian apologetics and this is circular, but so is every other argument, as the above statement shows. What does he presuppose? Is the ultimate presupposition reason? A defense of reason BY reason is circular also. Is knowledge the ultimate presupposition? Logic? Objective morality? Those all assume what is to be proven.
Design arguments and other evidentialist approaches will go so far but fail to make sense of ultimate presuppositions, the knowledge, reason, moral reasoning, reliability of the senses, and uniformity in nature we all assume before we even begin to make an argument. The God described in the Bible provides a basis for those assumptions.
I have to say, I’m not a fan of presuppositional apologetics. I just don’t see the point of arguing with someone who does not actually have any interest in argument, and whose views do not rely on either evidence or reason.
Why don’t you try presupposing that you have a million dollars in your checking account? When the salesman at the Ferrari dealership calls security to escort you out, just tell him that the validity of accounting is “the ultimate presupposition.”
I’m sorry if I sound harsh, and other contributors to the site might disagree with me, but personally I think presuppositional apologetics are useless, and I have no interest in arguing about them.
Maybe you don’t realize this, but you already make presuppositions about your deepest convictions. Fan or not, in that way you’re a presuppositionalist too. Ultimately it’s by faith that you adopt reason as your ultimate authority. If not, what evidence do you use to support the use of reason? Anyone making any kind of argument, including yours, starts with the assumption of reason. That does not mean reason (and evidence, but really we reason to evaluate evidence, so basically we’re talking about reason) doesn’t play an important part. If I presupposed a million dollars in my checking account, reasoning from the evidence of a balance far less than that would prove the presupposition wrong. But that isn’t an ultimate presupposition—something you CAN’T prove so you have to assume. You can, however, reason about other evidence and determine if your presupposition makes sense of what we can observe.
So your highest authority is human reason, and you don’t come to that by evidence. Christians presuppose God as their highest authority, and God cannot ultimate be proven, so we didn’t come to that by evidence either. The atheist’s faith in reason is the same as a theist’s faith in God. The Bible provides a basis for faith in reason: The God therein reasons, and made us in Him image. On atheism, all that exists is basically matter and motion. There is no reasonable basis for reason in that worldview. Everyone reasons because we’re made to use it and on faith assume it works, but Christianity can offer a rational basis for it.
Ok I’ll bite again. It should go without saying that neither of us is a logician, so there is a fairly good chance we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. I’ll give it my best shot though.
“So your highest authority is human reason, and you don’t come to that by evidence.”
Actually, I think we do come to believe in reason through evidence, and I don’t think reason is an authority: Modus ponens (for example) is not just something we take by faith, it is something that has been vindicated time and time again. I’m curious as to what exactly you think reason is. You seem to be under the impression that the laws of logic were handed down from on high, that they were gift-wrapped rather than discovered over time. I think the opposite is true, that we discovered through trial and error which rules of thought work and which don’t. This discovery is ongoing (see the Monte Hall problem, or the sunk cost fallacy). So I think reason isn’t so much an authority as it is a set of observations about which rules work and which ones don’t; it’s a construction. Do you see the difference between what you think I think, and what I really think?
“The atheist’s faith in reason is the same as a theist’s faith in God.”
I have to strongly disagree here. Belief in the effectiveness of reason can be justified by testing the system, but the same cannot be said for faith in God. It should work that way with Christianity. After all, you should be able to move mountains with your faith, but Christians never seem willing to actually test their beliefs.
“The Bible provides a basis for faith in reason: The God therein reasons, and made us in Him [sic] image. On atheism, all that exists is basically matter and motion…but Christianity can offer a rational basis for it.”
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but your argument seems to be:
1: God is a being capable of reason.
2: God created man in his image.
3: If God created man in his image, then man is also capable of reason.
4: Therefore, man is capable of reason.
Line 3 seems very shaky to me: the God of the Bible has many qualities that are not given to humans: omniscience /omnipotence /omnibenevolence, the presence of a mind without a physical brain, invisibility, the ability to turn bread or wine into various parts of your body with an incantation…but I digress. I think you’re being a bit greedy in your interpretation of man being created “in God’s image.” If I asked ten people what that meant, I would get ten different answers, and I doubt more than one or two of them would be similar to your take concerning reason. I don’t think you can get to reason through the Bible, and I certainly don’t think the better way to establish the legitimacy of reason is through the Bible. I think you’re presupposing reason and the Bible separately, and if that’s the case then your line about presupposing the Bible to establish reason is bunk, and you’re just presupposing too many things.
Thanks for the reply! When you justify reason by saying it’s been vindicated time and time again, you are saying that since it has worked a certain way in the past it will always work the same way in the future. This is the “uniformity in nature we all assume before we even begin to make an argument” I mentioned in my first comment. This uniformity is valid at all times and in all known places of the universe, which is why we can make predictions and inferences and do science at all. Most say “That’s just the way it always works,” but that’s no way to explain it.
Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, admits the principal of induction has no foundation in observation/sense experience. He rightly argues that it is ultimately circular reasoning. The principal of uniformity is not a scientific law but an act of faith that you use to undergird scientific law—we presuppose it in order to act on it.
The Bible provides a basis for uniformity in nature: God established the regularity of the earth’s rotation (Gen. 1:14-19; Jer. 33:20), seasons (Gen. 8:22, Psalm 74:17) planting/harvest cycle (Jer. 5:24, Mark 5:26-29) and is responsible for the whole natural order (Col. 1:16-17, Eph. 1:11, Heb. 1:3). We take this for granted, but there is no logical reason for our base assumptions on Atheism.
Thanks for clarifying your view, but I think you are still assuming something so basic that it’s hard for you to see how it is ultimately circular. You say that reason is “discovered”, and that’s true in that we just assume a way of thinking that conclusions follow from the premises. We “discover” ourselves thinking in a way that best makes sense of reality. But it still is valid to ask why, at the foundation of all this, there is a requirement for reason to work that must be assumed. It makes sense that we think in a way that seeks conclusions from the premises because that is the way God’s mind works. If you assume there is no God, then you have to look in vain for an alternative, or really just stop your critical thinking short of analyzing your ultimate principals.
I call human reason the atheist’s ultimate authority because that seems to be what he relies upon to give him answers above all else. We make something our authority if we follow it. If you can think of something else that might be your ultimate authority, please offer it up. It would have to be something that you don’t get to by use of reason. 🙂
Regarding the “omniscience /omnipotence /omnibenevolence” of God, I’m sure you are aware that “omni” means “all.” These divine attributes are only exclusively held by God in their perfect state. In knowledge, God is perfect, but we are limited. In power, God is perfect, but we are limited. In charity, God is perfectly good; we recognize His moral law, an obligation to do good, but are not perfect in that regard either. We have even these characteristics found in an infinite Creator, just in a finite degree.
And we may presuppose reason and the truth of the Bible separately, that’s not a problem. The problem is trying to explain the use of reason without the Bible.
July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
Presuppositional apologetics acknowledges that its arguments (and ultimately every argument) are circular. At its most basic and foundational level, every belief is taken on faith. Starting with this fact, here’s how a defense of Christianity might move on to account for the “preconditions of intelligibility” while exposing that contrary worldviews cannot, and then lead into an evangelistic opportunity.
Skeptic: Any argument for the truth of Christianity is a circular argument. Instead of appealing to reason, you are appealing to your own conclusion as your premise. You are saying the Bible is true because the Bible is true.
Believer: Arguing for the existence of God is a circular argument, that much is true. But any argument for ultimate commitment is circular.
Skeptic: But I argue using reason.
Believer: So do I, but reason is your ultimate commitment. Your defense of reason by reason is circular. You and I both hold to circular arguments in supporting our ultimate commitments. The difference is that Christianity provides a basis for the reason we both use in the argument. The eternal and all-knowing God described in the Bible is a God of reason, who created man in His image. We can reason because God endowed us with it and invites us to use it. But without appealing to God, you can’t account for your use of reason.
Skeptic: I can account for reason by the fact that there is knowledge.
Believer: If the universe is basically matter in motion, how can your worldview account for knowledge? If knowledge is your ultimate commitment, your ultimate authority, then your use of knowledge to explain knowledge is still circular. What can knowledge appeal to? God has a mind and we’re made in His image, according to the Bible. Christians can actually make sense of knowledge.
Skeptic: I don’t have to explain why there is knowledge and reason. There are plenty of phenomenon left for us to discover, but it will be discovered through science, not religion.
Believer: In order to do science, we presuppose predictability and uniformity in nature. Why do you assume that you can expect certain results from experiments based on what happened in the past? There’s no scientific basis for uniformity that other than past experience of uniformity, but the Bible explains uniformity and predictability (for example, see Genesis 8:22).
Skeptic: That is simply a bad explanation. Science is and always has been the right way to figure out the universe.
Believer: When you talk about good and bad and the right and wrong way to do something, you are presupposing universal and objective moral absolutes that determine good and bad, and right and wrong. Moral sensibilities can’t be accounted for on any belief system that excludes a moral law giver. All that can be said is that rightness is justified on the virtue of rightness. (or “Be good because it’s good to be good.”) The God of the Bible is a moral Being, and “good” is a part of His very nature. His moral law is written on the hearts of His creation (Romans 2:15), and He offers a solution for our falling short of the requirements of the law in the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.
July 15, 2012 § 12 Comments
Long before I understood that there were distinctions in the approaches to apologetics defined by ridiculously long words, I always thought the best approach was what is known as presuppositionalism. At least I found presuppositionalism more comfortable than evidentialism. But now I’m pretty certain that while there are differences in the way people argue for Christianity, the difference is in the method, not the thinking behind it.
DEFINING THE -ISMS
First, let’s define the two approaches:
Presuppositional apologetics pre-supposes the existence of God and the truth of Scripture as the only rational basis for making sense of the universe. Presuppositionalism starts with the fundamentals of Christianity and works from there to expose the flaws in secular world views and justify Christianity. Well-known advocates of this approach include Reformed apologists C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and most notably, Cornelius Van Til.
Evidential (or “classical”) apologetics starts with the factual evidence that believers and non-believers can agree on. Evidentialism seeks to come to theistic conclusions from the starting point of what we can observe about the universe. Prominent evidentialists include Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig.
I am pro-pressupositionalism (to make a ridiculously long term longer) for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that I can’t help but presuppose certain things in defending Christianity. I guess I presuppose presuppositionalism. The reason I don’t think there is much of a difference between the way people think about presuppositionalism or evidentialism is because presuppositionalists use evidence too, and evidentialists also have presuppositions. In fact, everyone presupposes certain basic beliefs. Cognitively, the two camps are both bound to basic and elementary assumptions when talking about God.
What are the basic and elementary assumptions we start with? In transcendental arguments, these are the things known as preconditions of intelligibility, the stuff we need to think and reason and argue and do science in the first place. They include the laws of logic (if A then B), uniformity in nature (water always freezes at 32 degrees F), moral sensibilities (certain things are right and wrong), basic reliability of our senses (we can generally trust our observation), and some expand the list to math, music and other phenomenon. These are first principals that we can’t explain or prove by anything greater or more foundational, but we all take them for granted. We call them “self-evident” and accept them without question. By what we see in Scripture about the nature and character of God, however, Christianity provides a basis for these things.
So presuppositionalists and evidentialists basically think the same way as every other human being. The differences may show up in the way a person forms an argument. The evidentialist may argue for a divine Creator, pointing to complexity of life as evidence (everyone agrees that life is complex) and get pretty far. But in Christian apologetics, ultimately, we are talking about ultimate origins. Eventually, anyone basing an argument for God on empirical evidence will run out of ladder before they reach Him. If what Christians presuppose is left out of the argument, we are relying on ourselves to make any headway. Does it really make sense to argue for something (God) that isn’t the basis of the argument? The presuppositionalist approach starts with and vocalizes up front what we can’t prove about God and the Bible and shows that it alone makes sense of the world, while competing worldviews, who do not presuppose God and the truth of Scripture, fail to explain it.
Circular reasoning has often been seen as the bane of presuppositional apologetics. The fact is that presupposing the truth of Christianity in arguing for Christianity is circular—or begging the question. In most arguments this is considered a logical fallacy, and rightly so. But in arguments about ultimate cause, ultimate authority, ultimate moral principals—anything ultimate—circular reasoning is necessary. After all, what we happen to be claiming is that there is an ultimate Being. In such a case, there can be no more ultimate Being that can serve to support the proposition. If there were, we would not be arguing for an ultimate Being, but something less. The only fault with most circular arguments is that there exists more fundamental principals to appeal to, and the one making the argument fails to avail himself to them.
The truth is that EVERYONE ultimately uses circular reasoning, and that’s true because we all presuppose the same basic principals that relate to reasoning. Without God in the equation, what does an atheist use to defend reason? He reasons by virtue of reason. This is circular, and flawed because he fails to see anything bigger to appeal to. Christians can appeal to the Source of reason. But the atheist is appealing to the most ultimate thing he is willing to recognize, presupposing the reality of the laws of logic and reason at the base of everything. But he is in essence unknowingly “borrowing capital” from Christianity. The laws of logic state that conclusions should follow from the premises. But isn’t the premise that conclusions should follow from the premises assumed? Why does everyone assume this? Is it because we observe that conclusions always seem to follow from the premises? If so, why do we assume this will always be true? Because the Biblical God exists. Because we’re made in the image of a logically consistent God who does not change (Numbers 23:19) and who laid the foundation for uniformity in nature (Genesis 8:22), people can’t reason otherwise.
While a certain amount of circular reasoning is unavoidable, the avoidable and logically flawed type of circular reasoning is the kind that uses relatively small circles. When we start with presupposing the ultimate Cause and Creator as presented in the Bible—the biggest, outermost circle—we can make sense of everything else within it. Ultimately, we cannot empirically prove God. Blaise Pascal sums up the requirement to begin with faith, and the ultimate requirement of it:
“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
The word of God that we presuppose as Christians is, fittingly, full of exhortation to think and live with presuppositions, trusting first by faith in the fundamentals of Christianity. Proverbs 9:10 and 111:10 tells us that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When our starting point is worship of our Creator, a correct understanding of His creation will follow. The writer of Hebrews explains that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” (11:6).
The Gospel is central. Presuppositionalism seemed to be the mode of choice for Paul in presenting the Gospel to the Athenians (Acts 17) and his reminder to the Corinthians: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3ff). It’s no accident that 1 Peter 3:15, the banner of many apologists, puts UP FRONT what believers should presuppose: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Faith in Christ is not just prerequisite for salvation, but it should guide our thoughts and voice when we “give an answer.” Dr. Greg Bahnsen writes:
If we are to “cast down reasonings and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God,” said Paul, then we must “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5.) An ultimate commitment to Christ covers the entire range of human activity, including every aspect of intellectual endeavor. To reason in a way which does not recognize this is to transgress the first and great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with… all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). In light of this, our thoughts about apologetic method should be controlled by the word of Jesus Christ, not merely our apologetic conclusions. (Van Til’s Presuppositionalism by Dr. Greg Bahnsen http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/PA195.htm)
THE END, FROM THE BEGINNING
Maybe one keen advantage of presuppositionalism is that it points that out the fact that no matter how we defend our faith, we are presupposing the same basic principals. It’s honest. It isn’t Fideism—blind faith that sets aside reason. It incorporates reason into a framework that starts and ends with the authority of God, the biggest circular argument that actually makes sense of all the little circles.