"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Presuppositionalism: Fideism built on skepticism

The problem underlying presuppositionalism is primarily philosophical, that is, the root of presuppositionalism's error lies in the domain of philosophy. Presuppositionalism is a form of fideism that is based on philosophical skepticism, a skepticism that can be traced back through Kant to Descartes. Presuppositionalists generally believe that theological assumptions or presuppositions are loaded into the epistemological foundation of every 'worldview' [i.e. philosophy]. Since they also believe that every worldview built on false presuppositions is a false worldview, and that Christianity is the only true religion, therefore, they conclude that only the worldview (i.e. philosophy) built on Christian presuppositions is true or reliable.

The error is located in the very first premise, i.e. in the notion that theological assumptions or presuppositions lie behind every claim or position or theory or philosophy. Why do they think that? In order to understand why, we need to consider a distinction made by Aristotle. Aristotle pointed out that for humans, the order of being and the order of knowing are not the same, but are opposite. We are animals. As animals, we start (in the order of knowing) with sense knowledge, with what is closest to the senses. Gradually we penetrate more deeply into the being of things, with greater abstractive power. Eventually, if we think deeply and carefully enough, we may arrive at the idea of being qua being, and even Being per se. But the order of Being is exactly the opposite from the order of [human] knowing. Everything comes ultimately from God; He is thus first in the order of being. What is most proximate to the senses is not first in the order of being, just as accidents are not prior (in the order of being) to substances. God is first in the order of being, but last in the order of natural [human] knowing.

Now, fast-forward to Descartes. Descartes tosses out all sense knowledge, and tries to start with an epistemically certain foundation, the cogito. But what about that evil demon? Descartes has to deal with the evil demon possibility by immediately positing a good God. So God comes in right away (epistemologically). For Descartes, in order to know anything about the world, one has to make a theological assumption. That is early presuppositionalism. For Descartes, the order of knowing is made the same as the order of being. (This is no accident, because Descartes in his philosophical anthropology is guilty of what Maritain calls "angelism", disregarding our humanity, and 'raising' us to the status of angels, where in fact the order of being and the order of knowing is much more aligned.) Presuppositionalists (for the same reason as Descartes) mistake the order of being (or the order of authority) for the order of knowing. They think that the order of knowing must be the same as the order of being (or the order of authority), when in fact it is our materiality that requires the two orders to be the opposite.

For the Calvinists, reason is fallen; it is totally depraved. Therefore, reason must build on no other foundation than the Scriptures. Calvinist presuppositionalists replaced Descartes's positing of a good God with the presupposition of the truth and authority of God's Word (i.e. the Bible), or with Christianity. Their claim that Christianity (or the Bible) must be presupposed as the foundation for all other knowledge, is itself based (not on the Bible, ironically) on Cartesian skepticism regarding the reliability of our senses and reason and intellect.

I have had Calvinistic presuppositionalists tell me the following:

"You cannot even call the experience of your senses knowledge without making theological assumptions."

Notice the [Cartesian] skepticism presupposed in that claim. Here was my response to a fellow who made that claim to me:


"This is fideism built on [philosophical] skepticism. The problem with this position is that if one cannot trust one's senses without first making theological assumptions, then one has no non-arbitrary grounds to trust one's reason without making theological assumptions. Then since one cannot trust one's senses and reason, one has no way of knowing which theological assumptions to make, whether such assumptions are true, and therefore whether such assumptions actually shore up one's senses and reason. One cannot appeal to Scripture (or anything else in the world) to acquire these theological assumptions, because one cannot trust one's senses to perceive Scripture or one's reason to interpret Scripture. Therefore, once one digs a skeptical hole, there is no boot-strapping one's way out of it, apart from a purely fideistic leap, [or from reversing the process by which one dug the skeptical hole]. Fideistic leaps can go in any direction (e.g. Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Gaia, Elvis, atheism, polytheism, pantheism, etc.). Fideism is the great equalizer. Given fideism, no leap is any better or worse than any other leap. The evaluative faculty (i.e. reason) has been stripped away by skepticism."


Another presuppositionalist claimed that "all positions start with equally unprovable assumptions and suppositions." Such a claim is a form of skepticism. It entails (though it itself could not acknowledge this) that nothing can be known at all. It entails that positions cannot even be tested on the grounds of coherence, since even the principles of logic are just assumptions and suppositions.

Presuppositionalism is especially attractive to those who either deny that philosophical knowledge is possible, and/or are ignorant of the possibility of philosophical knowledge. I've heard presuppositionalists say something like this: "Since every position starts with mere assumptions and presuppositions, you might as well build on the foundation of the Word of God." Other times they say that starting with any other foundation is idolatry, for it puts something other than God at the foundation. Notice there the mistake of failing to distinguish between the order of being and the order of knowing, and thus assuming that what comes first in the order of knowing is first in the order of being/authority. By claiming that they start with Scripture, presuppositionalists make themselves highly susceptible to being unaware of the presuppositions that they bring to Scripture. If you are explicitly claiming to start with Scripture, you cannot allow yourself to believe or recognize that you are actually starting with something that you are bringing to Scripture.

Often presuppositionalists mistakenly assume that what is highest in authority must be epistemologically foundational, as if the two are the same. That is why they insist you start with the Bible, not with sense knowledge and reasoning. (Of course, they are glossing over the problem of how we know that the Bible is the Word of God, and how we interpret the Bible, without presupposing the reliability of our sense knowledge and reason.) In actuality, the supreme authority of the Bible does not mean that all knowledge and reasoning must be built on the Bible. For example, we don't have to build our mathematics on the Bible (as some presuppositionalists claim). The supreme authority of the Bible means rather that we must strive to make all our knowledge in agreement with (i.e. compatible with) the teachings of the Bible.

Once sense knowledge and reason are knocked out (by skepticism), then the only kind of religious expression possible is some form of fideism. And that's precisely what presuppositionalism is. It is fideism, built on [Cartesian] skepticism. One way to show the problems with presuppositionalism to a presuppositionalist is to show its philosophical presuppositions, especially its skepticism. Presuppositionalists typically do not realize they have any presuppositions other than explicitly Christian ones. Presuppositionalism suffers from two irremediable contradictions: it starts with a presupposed foundation (e.g. Scripture) to which its own epistemic condition (e.g. skepticism) allows no access. (That is the first contradiction.) It then attempts to evaluate other 'worldviews' according to a standard found in its own (e.g. coherence), as if it were not fideistic (and thus relativistic) at its core. (That is the second contradiction.)

Presuppositionalists are typically highly suspicious of philosophy. See, for example,
here. But true philosophy does not undermine the gospel, because truth cannot contradict truth.

When I was in seminary (Covenant Theological Seminary), at one point I naively believed that all doctrinal disagreements between Bible-believing Christians could be resolved (in principle) by exegesis. That was one of the reasons I worked very hard at exegesis, and at graduation received the American Bible Society Award for excellence in the field of Biblical exegesis. But it was already very clear to me not only that exegesis and interpretation are two distinct arts, but also that interpretation depends in large part on philosophical assumptions that one brings to the interpretive process. That is one of the reasons that I decided to continue my graduate studies in philosophy. If we do not realize that we are even bringing philosophical presuppositions to the interpretive process, we will not be getting to the fundamental causes of our interpretive disagreements. The first step for the presuppositionalist is to begin to realize that he is bringing philosophical assumptions to the interpretive process. Only then will he realize that he needs some way of evaluating these assumptions. (Claiming to evaluate them by way of Scripture simply ignores the fact that he would be using these assumptions to interpret Scripture, so the evaluation would be question-begging, and thus worthless.)

Here's an example from the "Joint Federal Vision Statement" of the tacit presupposition that we initially bring no philosophical assumptions to the interpretive process:

"We deny that the Bible can be rightly understood by any hermeneutical grid not derived from the Scriptures themselves."

If that statement is true, then either there is a missing exception clause for the first hermeneutical grid one uses to interpret Scripture (in which case the statement is ad hoc), OR the Bible cannot be rightly understood. (This is not a pedantic criticism; it is precisely this kind of sloppiness that makes it hard for presuppositionalists to see the inconsistency in their own position.)

Philosophical ignorance or error is another stumbling block to unity. What is more, it typically leads to debates that do not address the fundamental points of disagreement that divide us. So I pray that this post might be helpful in showing what is wrong with presuppositionalism, in order that this stumbling block might be removed from the path toward unity.

13 comments:

Joyful Catholics said...

Since when did faith and reason become antonyms to folks? Even when I was an Evangelical, opposed to the Tradtional, stodgy Catholic Church, strict Calvinism left me cringing and made me wince. It seemed so stultified and harsh, something that never appealed to my somewhat incomplete logic. Now that I'm Catholic...well, I admire and love the "both and" of our Catholic faith. We are not 'dung heaps' covered with snow, but made IN GOD'S IMAGE...with a nature that needs redemption, but with minds and reason that for all intents and purposes are gifts by God to "seek" and FIND.

Great blog/post. Thanks.

Thos said...

Bryan,

Phew. That was hard reading, but I'm thankful that I was able (at least mostly) to follow you through to the end. Do you it would be effective to post this in "Philosophy for Dummies" language? I'm not asking you to, I'm really asking if it would be beneficial. Perhaps that would only dilute your points and leave you vulnerable to unfair ad hominem (?) attacks.

Is the fear or confusion naturally attendant to leaving presuppositions behind another stumbling block? One could easily, I would guess, fall into agnosticism by mistake.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Grifman said...

I'm always reminded of the time I saw one of those church signs that said:

"Christ came to take away my sins, not my mind."

T. Chris said...

Where does Nicholas Wolsterstorff stand on this issue? I've read _Reason within the Bounds of Religion_. His concept of "control beliefs" seems similar to presuppostions. Maybe I'm reading him wrong.

Thanks.

Acolyte4236 said...

Bryan,

I think this is a very uncharitable reading of presupp and it turns on a number of confusions based on uninformed representatives.

There are various forms of presupp, Clark, Van Til, Frame, etc. At best most of your criticisms would only touch Clark's position.

For example, the material about Descartes is mistaken. Skepticism is a mere tool to uncover necessary preconditions for presupps, much in the way Kant emplpoyed it.

Presupps employ transcendental reasoning in order to justify their presoppositions, which is why their position is not obviously fideistic.

Moreover, better presups actually distinguish between the order of knowing and the order of being. Here you have misdiagnosed the problem, for the problem with Reformed presupp via its major representatives such as Van Til lies not with a conflation between the orders of knowing and being, but elsewhere, specifically in the conflation of nature and grace, specifically in anthropology, if it were to lie anywhere.

Presupps think that unbelievers know God in an attenuated sense. God is first in the order of knowing ONLY in terms of what ultimately jsutifies and makes possible our knowledge claims. God is not first in knowing in so far as God is immediately and fully present to everyone. People fail to be fully epistemically self concious.

I'd recommend reading Bahnsen's book on the topic as it is still the most comprehensive and sophisticated presentation of Dutch Reformed presoppositionalism.

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Chris,

Wolterstorff confronts the modernistic view of reason which holds that if you cannot give an argument for x, then you are not rational for believing x. Wolterstorff responds by turning to the Platonic tradition's notion of innate ideas (or positing a pipeline directly from every human mind to the throne of God). Wolterstorff's mistake is to accept that modernistic view of reason in the first place. Our rationality is not limited to what we can articulate.

I'm not challenging the idea of "control beliefs". If you read my post, you'll see that I talk about an "order of authority". That is very much along the lines of Wolterstorff's "control beliefs".

I'm focused (in my post) on that form of presuppositionalism that requires the Bible to be the beginning of all knowing, i.e. first in the order of knowing. I'm not saying that Scripture isn't first in the order of authority. It is precisely the distinction between first in the order of knowing and first in the order of authority that presuppositionalism (of the sort I'm criticizing) conflates.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium unitatis said...

Acolyte4236,

Thanks for your comment. I agree that there are different forms of presuppositionalism. I have read Van Til and Bahnsen. I was myself, for a while (about 14 years ago), a 'Bahsenite' presuppositionalist; I used to debate others by using Bahnsen's transcendental method. So, I'm not unfamiliar with it. What particularly in my claims about Descrates do you think is mistaken?

I didn't claim that presuppositionalism is "obviously fideistic"; I'm claiming that it is a form of fideism. Nothing about the fact that presuppositionalists use transcendental reasoning changes that. Fideistic Muslims, or fideistic Mormons, or fideistic Hindus could use transcendental reasoning, and their positions would still be a form of fideism.

for the problem with Reformed presupp via its major representatives such as Van Til lies not with a conflation between the orders of knowing and being, but elsewhere, specifically in the conflation of nature and grace, specifically in anthropology,

Feel free to specify this problem, and why you think it is the fundamental problem with presuppositionalism, and why you think it is more fundamental then the confusion of the order of knowing and the order of being.

Presupps think that unbelievers know God in an attenuated sense. God is first in the order of knowing ONLY in terms of what ultimately jsutifies and makes possible our knowledge claims. God is not first in knowing in so far as God is immediately and fully present to everyone. People fail to be fully epistemically self concious.

This paragraph shows the confusion that presuppositionalists have with the order of knowing and the order of being. (I'm not claiming that *you* are confused; but that the presuppositionalist position confuses the two orders.) What ultimately justifies and makes possible our knowledge claims is what is first in the order of being. Presuppositionalists can't have it both ways. If God is first in the order of knowing, then God is what is first known. If God is what ultimately justifies and makes possible our knowledge claims, then God is first in the order of being. Failure to understand the distinction between the order of knowing and the order of being is what makes presuppositionalists often claim that God is first in the order of knowing, i.e. that we must presuppose God in order to know anything.

I stand by everything I said. If anything I said is false, please feel free to refute it.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jared said...

Bryan,

Interesting post here. Im not too familiar with presuppositionalism, but I have been in the presence of those discussing the topic. I think what you have said makes sense, but since it is apparent there are different forms of presuppositionalism, would you consider all of them false. I think some presuppositionalists(ones I have had conversation with)may say you argued a good case *for* presuppositionalism. I only say this because what you said sounds somewhat similar to what I have heard from them.

Also, can you explain what the order of knowing and the order of being mean? I am not familiar with these concepts as I am only an acquaintance with Aristotle.

And, do you know of any Catholic schools that may provide a strong education in exegesis?

Thanks,
Jared

Principium Unitatis said...

Jared,

For the "order of knowing" / "order of being" distinction, see my comments in the combox here.

do you know of any Catholic schools that may provide a strong education in exegesis?

I do not; I simply haven't researched it.

but since it is apparent there are different forms of presuppositionalism, would you consider all of them false.

Well, if you have one in mind, perhaps you could describe it, and I'll evaluate it. If the position starts with presuppositions arrived at fideistically, it will fall under the criticisms I raise here.

I think some presuppositionalists(ones I have had conversation with)may say you argued a good case *for* presuppositionalism.

How so? I'd be interested to see that argument (one having "presuppositionalism is true" as its conclusion).

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jared said...

Bryan,

Thanks for responding. I don't really know how to put it in the form of an argument. From what I understand from these presuppositionalists, in arguing or debating a topic, it doesn't do any good to argue points which follow and build from a presupposition, but to identify the presupposition as soon as possible and then go at it at the neck using pure reason. This is done instead of arguing points with pure reason that are presupposed by something else. Its like a person who wants to get rid of a plant in his yard, and takes it up by the roots rather than cutting it down limb by limb to its base, only to see it grow back. This isn't the best analogy but its all I can think of right now.


In Christ,
Jared

Principium Unitatis said...

Jared,

If what you are talking about is getting at the fundamental points of disagreement, the ones that lie under and behind all the other disagreements, then I'm 100% in agreement with that approach. That's exactly what I've been trying to do here on this blog, viz-a-viz the Catholic-Protestant disagreements.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kevin said...

Here is a citation from Dr. William Lane Craig's book, Reasonable Faith, describing his epistemic starting point:

“I think that Dodwell and Plantinga are correct that, fundamentally, the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself… that such experiences provide one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it.”

How would a Thomist make sense of this? And, is this a form of presuppositionalism?

Thanks.

Principium Unitatis said...

Kevin,

Thanks for the note and question. I'm going to ask you to post your question at the following link:

http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/05/wilson-vs-hitchens-a-catholic-perspective/

I've written a more thorough post on the subject there. Thanks!

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan