Tuesday, November 29, 2005

For Whom The Bell Tolls

And so the Liberals fall, and new campaigns begin in earnest.

I guess I'll have to make a trip into Seoul to the Canadian embassy.

And now, a joke.

A man enters a bar and orders a drink. The bar has a robot bartender.

The robot serves him a perfectly prepared cocktail, and then asks him, "What's your IQ?"

The man replies "150" and the robot proceeds to make conversation about global warming factors, quantum physics and spirituallity, biomimicry, environmental interconnectedness, string theory, nano-technology, and sexual proclivities.

The customer is very impressed and thinks, "This is really cool." He decides to test the robot. He walks out of the bar, turns around, and comes back in for another drink. Again, the robot serves him the perfectlty prepared drink and asks him, "What's your IQ?"

The man responds, "about a 100."

Immediately the robot starts talking, but this time, about football, NASCAR, baseball, supermodels, favorite fast foods, guns, and women's breasts.

Really impressed, the man leaves the bar and decides to give the robot one more test. He heads out and returns, the robot serves him and asks, "What's your IQ?"

The man replies, "Er, 50, I think."

And the robot says... real slowly... "So............... ya gonna vote for the Liberals again?"

Friday, November 25, 2005

Answering the Ready Answer

All right, here's part two of my discussion of presuppositional apologetics (PA).

Allow me to restate exactly what I am engaging with here. I am not attempting to refute Calvinist theology. I'm not talking about the existence of God, or the nature of original sin, or any of the TULIP points. I am only talking about one point in the PA philosophical interpretation of Calvinist theology: the presupposition (P) itself.

In the previous post, I did my best to faithfully explain the concept of the P as seen by PAers. This post will be slightly more interpretive; I will be saying things about Ps that I have not necassarily read about in the writings of PAers. However, I still think that PAers will agree with my interpretation.

Ps are propositional statements - the fundamental statements that inform and influence all other statements and beliefs we make and hold. They are, in a sense, mental rules.

I think you can compare them to basic arithmatic; relativistic physics may be ridiculously complicated, but it still rests on 1+1 = 2. Take a child's math textbook, and if you are smart enough, you can develop all sorts of crazy theorems. Whether you are a high school math student or a professor at MIT, everything you know still goes back to 1+1=2. That basic equation is the P of math. If your basic equation is somehow wrong, then everything after it will be wrong as well.

Perhaps an even better analogy than the math one - computer programming. Our Ps are the basic rules of our mental "programming." This analogy might fit in fairly well with Calvinist theology, but perhaps I'm wrong.

Ps, in general human knowledge, are our basic mental rules. They establish the patterns of all subsequent belief. They are rules such as "The Bible is God's word." We each hold a handful of these rules/statements, though the unbeliever denies them and covers them over with other Ps.

I would say presuppositionalism offers a particular view of human cognition - that our thought patterns can ultimately be reduced to a set of propositional statements. And, if it isn't obvious by now, I think this view is utterly, utterly wrong. First I'll offer some problems with this conception of Ps, then I'll offer an alternative view.

My first argument: that no finite set of presuppositions can account for the practically uncountable number of human perspectives.

To reiterate the PA narrative: everyone holds the Christian Ps somewhere inside them. Only those that have been regenerated by God will acknowledge them, however.

If all Christians truly share and acknowledge the same basic equations, the same basic programming rules, then why are there so many conflicting theologies even amongst those who hold to Biblical inerrancy?

Maybe there is a theological answer to this - that some people have been perfected more by Christ, and others will simply have more changing to do in heaven (I assume that Titus will object to my phrasing here, because I don't know the proper terms - but I think the idea is sound). In other words, perhaps some people still refuse to acknowledge certain Christian Ps.

So there is a choice to be made here. Either God regenerates all of one's Ps, or only some. Which implies that there is still a core set of Ps that hold primacy over other Ps. You know, the ones that are really important.

That still can't answer the problem, however. Let's say a core P is "The Bible is God's inspired and errant word." This is believed by huge numbers of people... and even among these people there is disagreement. Even ideas about salvation are fragmented - sometimes I don't think Calvinists and Evangelicals realize how radically different their ideas about salvation are.

Even among Calvinists there is disagreement; witness the catfight between Van Til and Clark at Westminster Theological Seminary. Both Calvinists, both PAers... and yet they had such a harsh disagreement that Clark left the school.

Having shared presuppositions does not mean you will elaborate similar theologies or philosophies. It also does not mean you will share behavioural traits.

So what do shared presuppositions amount to? Not a whole lot. For something that is supposed to explain why disagreements between believers and unbelievers take place, it sure is a weak tool.

A second problem with presuppositions - we already know that our cognitive processes cannot be reduced to a finite set of propositional statements. Our minds don't follow a set of rules - whether conscious or unconscious.

In the 1970s, some guy whose name I don't remember wrote about the difficulties the project of AI was having from a Heideggarian point of view. He talked about the assumption behind AI - that intelligence can be broken down into managible pieces and ultimatelty digitized. This has never worked, of course. Finite rules can only ever produce a finite set of patterns, and human behaviour is incredibly diverse and unpredictable.

A third problem. Presuppositionalism is a brand of coherantism, the idea that the truth of a statement can be judged by how well it coheres with a surrounding belief structure. If your system has ten propositions, and all ten cohere together, than they can be considered correct. If one proposition contradicts one of the other nine propositions, then there is something wrong with the system.

The obvious objection: you can have a set of ten non-contradictory, coherant statements that are all incorrect.

I know the PAer will respond that not only is their Christianity coherant, but that it rests upon the only rational foundation - a transcendent God. As I explained in the previous post on this subject, PAers say only a transcendent God can explain a rational, ordered universe such as ours.

However, as I have already pointed out, people who share the same presuppositions can come to radically different conclusions. In other words, there is no one single rational, ordered way to build upon one's Ps. Ps are indeterminate - they fail to account for the phenomonon that PAers are so concerned with.

Why are presuppositional apologetics so popular, if they are so vacuous? Allow me to speculate a little.

If you know anything about the history of the west, you probably know the standard narrative. Increasing secularization. Whether or not this narrative is accurate is a question for another time. That being said, it is very common to believe that the west as a whole is "moving away from God," as if God weren't omnipresent.

Atheism ceased to be a dangerous public position a long, long time ago. The narrative of Evolution has posed a serious challenge to the narrative of traditional Christianity. Government officials use less and less religious rhetoric. Scholars have questioned the authority and historiocity of the Bible.

Now... classical apologetics have been around for a long, long time. Augustine used them. Aquinas was an apologetics ninja. Heck, even John Calvin used them, though he didn't used P style apologetics (source: Baptist college prof).

Classical apologetics have fallen upon hard times, however. The clearest example - Scientific Young Earth Creationism has been repeatedly embarassed in both the public and academic realm over the last few generations. I could easily use the historical accuracy of the Bible here, as well.

Classical apologetics has continously run up against a brick wall when it comes to Evolution. While a cogent argument can be made against metaphysical naturalism, Evolution (understood properly) is as rock solid as any of the more mundane theories. Hence, SYECers finding themselves only on the fringes of science.

And some think... but the Bible is God's word. We know it's right. How could anyone disagree with us?

Ah-ha! They must be biased!

And they look for a way to justify that statement, and for a way to justify their own bias.

PAers often claim to have thought like postmodernists long before postmodernism ever became popular. That's because they have never read this post.

Presuppositional apologetics exist as a set of rhetorical tools that can be used to dismiss entirely adequate interpretations of empirical facts. PA is an empty conceptual game; it isn't so much a philosophy as it is a cheap debate tactic. Which, of course, is enough for many, many people.

By the way, I can't decided if "presuppositional apologetics" should be singular, or plural. PA "is," or PA "are?"

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What kind of humanist are you?

What a strange quiz result...


You are one of life’s enjoyers, determined to get the most you can out of your brief spell on Earth. Probably what first attracted you to atheism was the prospect of liberation from the Ten Commandments, few of which are compatible with a life of pleasure. You play hard and work quite hard, have a strong sense of loyalty and a relaxed but consistent approach to your philosophy.

You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept though you might for a friend. Something of a champagne humanist, you admire George Bernard Shaw for his cheerful agnosticism and pursuit of sensual rewards and your Hollywood hero is Marlon Brando, who was beautiful, irascible and aimed for goodness in his own tortured way.

Sometimes you might be tempted to allow your own pleasures to take precedence over your ethics. But everyone is striving for that elusive balance between the good and the happy life. You’d probably open another bottle and say there’s no contest.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


So, according to this little plan, I'm supposed to talk about presuppositional apologetics (hereafter known as PA). It's actually a pretty huge topic. To adequately address all it, I'd need to talk about both the history and the theology of Calvinists, especially the Reformed branch.

However, it isn't my purpose to engage with the whole range of PA issues. I will argue two things in this post, and two things only. First, I will argue that when discussing knowledge, our necassary starting point is man. We need to discuss how man gathers and organizes information - this is logically primary. It must even come before a discussion of how we discern true information from false information. Second, I will argue that PA is in fact born of a desire to explain a particular behaviour pattern - that is, people disagreeing with traditional apologetics. I will then argue that PA is hopelessly inadequate to explain that - or pretty much anything else.

First, though, a presentation of PA is in order. Everyone who isn't Titus might as well know what the heck I'm talking about. I should point out that I am not seeking to attack the primary statements of PA, but rather some of its secondary statements about the human thought process. My engagement with the primary arguments of PA will therefore be minimal.

PA is philosophically rooted in a particular stream of Christianity - Orthodox Presbyterians and Reformed Calvinists. Philosophically speaking, it is an attempt to apply the distinctive Calvinist TULIP doctrines to the task of apologetics. Total depravity is, for PA, the most important point. Humans are utterly incapable of choosing for God. Acts of sin are inescapable.

Contra much of Christianity, TULIPers believe man's intellect is also fallen. While we are perfectly capable of using logic and rationality to make particular types of true statements, our minds are incapable of accepting Christ as Lord; it is even impossible to show an unregenerate person the truth of Christianity, because their intellect is so fallen. People only ever come to God through an act of irresistable grace - and then the intellect is renewed, and they are able to understand and accept Christian truth statements.

So how does that apply to apologetics? Cornelius Van Til (here's a stash of essays by him and others) developed PA. I don't mean to suggest he is solely responsible; he was influenced by previous Calvinists and he worked concurrently with men like Gordon Clark. However, as I understand it, it is Van Til's style of PA that has had the most influence in contemporary apologetics. So when I say PA, it is Van Til's work that I am largely refering to.

It matters that I am refering to Van Til, because there is a dispute among Calvinists that is important here. Calvinists are big on the idea that unbelievers surpress the truth about God - but exactly what surpression mechanism do they use? Some Calvinist PAers believe that convincing proof is fully available to mankind, but our fallen minds are unable or unwilling to accept this proof. Unbelievers are, in a sense, ignorant. Other Calvinists - such as Van Til - believe that every human is infact already "aware" of God's truth, but surpress this information deep into our minds. We cover over our knowledge of the truth with other systems of thought and deny our covenant with God.

PA is the wellspring of that wonderful term some apologists (professional and lay) are so obsessed with this these days: "worldview." The idea is roughly thus: we all have a worldview, and this governs which statements we catagorize as true and false, and it establishes the bounds of possibility. It also provides our framework for interpreting isolated facts. Persons X and Y witness person A punch person B. X believes A is a gentle person, and so B must have provoked the assault. Y believes A is full of bottled up rage, and so B was probably just unlucky.

Our worldview is a web of presuppositions. As best as I can understand, a PA presupposition is a propositional statement, ie "the Bible is God's word" or "miracles do not happen." According to PAers, presuppositions act as our axioms for thought and we are incapable of questioning them. No one can be convinced their presuppositions are false, because it is those presuppositions that guide all their discernment.

It is the concept of the presupposition that I am primarily going to engage with, so I want to discussion the concept as clearly as possible. This is a quote from this essay:

"Everyone holds to presuppositions. No one does - or can operate from a vacuum. We simply do not think or behave "out of the blue." It is impossible to think and live as if we were aliens having just arrived in this world from a radically different universe, totally devoid of all knowledge of this world, absolutely objective and utterly un-predisposed to ideas about truth: People behave in terms of their basic world-and-life view which best implements their conceptions regarding truth.

Whether we are defending our moral behavior or rationally explaining something, we are working within the context of a particular, concrete way of looking at the world. This is our system of thought and behavior. This is our world-and life view. Our world-and-life view then is an important tool which organizes our way of looking at the world in terms of our specific presuppositions."

Here is the theological bent: our presuppositions reflect our spiritual state. If one is regenerate, then one's presuppositions will reflect God's truth.

As I understand it, the presuppositions of an unbeliever fall into a slightly different catagory. An unbeliever is - on some level - aware of the Christian presuppositions, and in fact makes use of these presuppositions on a constant basis through the very act of rational thought. However, either through rebellion or out of a desire to rebel, these truths are surpressed and other presuppositions are substituted.

(I'm sick of writing presupposition, so from now on, I'll just say "P.")

The consequence for apologetics: because facts are interpreted through our Ps, no amount of historical or scientific evidence will ever convince an unbeliever that the Bible is true. Any facts presented by the apologist will inevitably be interpreted in a different way, or outright dismissed. So, evidence must take a backseat to a discussion of worldviews.

The PAer must critique his opponents' presuppositions. This is perhaps the primary method: asking for an account of rationality and logic. The PAer will typically ask his debate opponent to explain how they account for the existance and nature of logic. How can we make any truthful statements at all? The PAer expects and often receives bafflement, and then offers their own explanation: Logic reflects the thinking of a transcendent God. There are a handful of other similar ideas in the PAer arsenal, but they are not relevant to my purposes here.

The PAer will argue that all human knowledge is necassarily rooted in Christian presuppositions. It is an interesting take on the scripture "the fear of the Lord is the begining of wisdom." This is a theological statement that is taken to have philosophical consequences; PAers take it to mean that all coherant thought, rationality and logic derives only from a transcendant God. The universe is only understandable because it is ordered, and it is only ordered because a transcendant God created it. In order to reason, you must assume the truth of Christian Ps - hence you must already be aware of them on some level.

So, the human through process must begin with God. Our P's must submit to God, because our P's are the foundation of our entire thought process. Only regenerate P's can adequately account for the efficacy of rationality and logic, because they acknowledge the source of rationality and logic.

So knowledge begins with God.

And that's enough for one post. I'll critique the idea of the presupposition in the next post.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On The Road Again

I was eating a snack during my break today, wondering if I should write a post about George Bataille's and Rich Mullins' mutual fascination with death. I haven't quite developed that line of thought enough, though. So I'll take jump back into explaining my new interest in theology.

I think it will help keep me on track if I present a bit of a plan. So here's a summary of some upcoming posts:

1. Explaining my method. I will use particular arguments and follow certain lines of thought that may seem superfluous or strange - unless you understand why I'm writing. I have a primary audience - people that know me. I'm not primarily writing for a general audience.

That matters because it explains my choice of topic for the first post: What is the necassary initial starting point in any discussion of reality? My answer will be man; that leads to an immediate disagreement with at least one of my friends, who is a devotee of presuppositional apologetics. Discussing presupper views will give me a platform for contrasting my own ideas, and nothing brings clarity like contrast. And if there's anything these topics could use a dose of, it is clarity.

2. Expanding my discussion of the personal centre. I'll explain more about the imago, discourses, dividing lines, and the ultimate concern.

3. Expanding my discussion of how we projection our personal centre. This will cover morality, a bit of politics, empathy, control, a proper account of presuppositions, and will have some overlap from the topics of (2).

4. Language and rationality. This would technically be a part of (3), but that post will be long enough anyways. I'll talk about how rationality must introduce divisions and separation , and how language cannot possibly have a 1:1 correlation with anything other than language. In other words, language can only ever describe language.

5. Argument for God as ultimate concern.

6. How (1) - (4) must necessarily shape our theology.