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?"

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