Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics

If you’ve participated in the so-called Great Debate in the West, wading through chat rooms and discussion forums hosting smug, sanctimonious Christians, on the one hand, and smug, chauvinistic new atheists on the other, you may have encountered the Christian ploy of arguing that Christianity, or at least theism, is the only viable worldview, all others being incoherent. Reason and morality presuppose God, and science, naturalism, and the secular way of life endure only by borrowing principles from the Christian’s worldview. This transcendental argument for Christian theism, called presuppositionalism, is comically misplaced. But it can spur the secularist to realize that the popular, exoteric formulation of the naturalist’s worldview, called liberal secular humanism, is indeed incoherent. If Christianity were to fall, it would likely take optimistic, progressive humanism down with it. The hunt should be on, then, for the content of the enlightened humanist’s esoteric beliefs.

The Paper Tiger of Presuppositionalism

Presuppositional apologetics is a totalitarian defense of Christianity which denies that there’s a neutral starting point of inquiry which could allow for Christians and non-Christians to build their opposing cases from the same pool of evidence and to evaluate their arguments without decisive bias. According to an evidentialist, by contrast, Christians and atheists can both turn with sufficient neutrality to the same world for evidence to support their respective positions, and the winning argument can be decided on empirical grounds. The rules of inference and evidence would be settled prior to evaluating the first-order arguments, so that Christians and atheistic naturalists will have agreed on what counts epistemically as a superior argument. But according to the presuppositionalist, we’re all locked within our presuppositions and so we can’t reason empathically or philosophically, by imagining an alternative viewpoint or improving your opponent’s counterargument in a cooperative effort to discover the truth in good-faith dialogue. Instead, according to Cornelius Van Til, the founder of this ruse, the Christian presupposes the Bible as a set of axioms, whereas the non-Christian presupposes some other grounds for first-order beliefs, such as scientific theories and the laws of logic, and the only question is which self-contained belief system is more coherent. Of course, Van Til says that Christianity is the only coherent belief system, and all others fall apart. The presuppositionalist, therefore, deconstructs, say, philosophical naturalism, showing its presuppositions are no threat to Christianity because those presuppositions serve as no preconditions for any coherent non-Christian belief system. Christianity triumphs by default, because there is no coherent alternative. As Van Til said, “the only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn't prove anything.” The non-Christian only appears to have an alternative, because she borrows principles from Christianity.

I call presuppositionalism “totalitarian” because it projects onto the non-Christian the Christian’s cultist mindset, according to which Christianity is effectively a self-reinforcing delusion. Van Til goes as far as to remind the flock of the alleged “noetic effects of sin,” which are that the non-Christian is in no position to recognize the truth, because she’s blinded by satanic pride. Thus, the Christian’s duty isn’t to persuade non-Christians of the truth, but only to prove Christianity in a way that will likely satisfy only Christians, because Christians alone have been liberated and mentally reconfigured by their faith in Christ. Psychologically, non-Christians are supposed to be lost in a fog of arrogance and ignorance, as though a sovereign God, whose control over his creation is absolute, would allow for even a speck of godless life, that is, for life that could proceed without divine sustenance at every level, including the epistemic one. Thus, the Christian god’s absolute control over every particle in the universe transfers to the presuppositional Christian’s smugness in presuming, in effect, that if the Christian is forced, by secular progress in the Age of Reason, to think like a terrified cultist, locked in her self-reinforcing delusion, so must everyone else. That is, God reigns over Creation and since we’re supposedly made in God’s image, we reign over our belief systems. But since God reigns over us too (instead of supplying us with freewill), God ensures that the only viable belief system is Christian theism, the self-sustainability of all others being illusory.

I say that presuppositional Christianity amounts to a ruse and a presumption rather than a respectable defense of the religion, because it’s a howler and an embarrassing excuse for the underlying cultist thought-mechanisms needed to protect what is now the stark anachronism of Christianity. To begin with, notice that the presuppositionalist is forced to turn to Christian scripture as her starting point, to avoid the familiar parody of her defense, which would allow members of other religions to reason in the same fashion, in which case presuppositionalism would entail theism, at best, or else would implode from the contradictions of entailing dozens of religions, all of which would be incompatible with each other. Far from being a shining advantage, though, the Bible is an albatross around the presuppositionalist’s neck. The Bible was written and edited by many human authors over a period of centuries, and each of those individuals had different interests to suit his peculiar historical circumstances. Thus, the Bible naturally contains hundreds of contradictions. (See McKinsey’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy.) Therefore, the Christian should be the last one to appeal to a coherence theory of truth. Any belief system built on the Bible, taken as an axiom set, will obviously be incoherent if the Bible itself is rife with contradictions. 

Rather than admitting any of this, the presuppositionalist will subscribe to inerrantism, to the view that, appearances notwithstanding, the Bible has no factual errors, atrocious moral principles, or contradictions. The inerrantist preserves the fragile illusion that her belief isn’t preposterous, by appealing to hermeneutic strategies which treat the Bible as a work of poetic literature, thus authorizing potentially an infinite variety of interpretations of her axioms. Any apparent contradiction can be reconciled by citing passages from other parts of the Bible as so-called “contexts,” which can soften the literal meaning of the statements in question, thus allowing for a harmonious interpretation of them. The stretch of asserting that a New Testament text, for example, can provide context for anything said in the Pentateuch, given that the former was written centuries after the latter is relaxed by the assumptions that God is the Bible’s sole author and the human writers and editors were only God’s mouthpieces and puppets. The inerrantist thus mistakes the creative freedom of writing or interpreting counterfactual or subjective poetry, for the miracle of having a perfectly-complete life manual. Thus, the inerrantist doesn’t understand that the price of rendering the Bible unfalsifiable, by permitting infinite interpretations of the text’s meanings, is that doing so turns the Bible into a work of fiction comparable to any other poetic epic. The cost of ensuring the Bible’s coherence, by enabling any interpretation that can appear to preserve the text’s harmony is that the inerrantist surrenders the likelihood of there being an objective correspondence between the text and outer reality. The Bible becomes a security blanket; its job is just to reassure the believer, making her feel better in any conceivable situation because the passages of any large, complex text can be infinitely rearranged to provide just the life lesson the reader would want.

Another problem with presuppositionalism derives from a discovery made by philosophers of religion: the Christian’s general conception of God is self-contradictory. The Problem of Evil, for example, shows that theism makes no sense. If God is supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, there should be no evil in the world, so one of those divine attributes must go. The theist then says God has an unknown reason for allowing evil, or for creating freewill which creates evil, but this retreat to mystery doesn’t resolve the problem, because a mystical, incomprehensible god isn’t the same as the god conceived of as having those three attributes. The exoteric idea of the deity we do understand, because we’ve childishly personified the unknown origin of the universe, is still self-contradictory, a matter which is easily explained by the naturalist. That trio of personal attributes, knowledge, power, and morality originally evolved to solve different problems for imperfect organisms. The evolution was largely accidental, which means there are bound to be conflicts between the faculties responsible for learning or remembering, for exercising power, and for fulfilling moral imperatives. For example, one obvious conflict is between accumulating power and fulfilling morality, since as has been clear since at least Machiavelli, acting morally requires a conscience which restrains the exercise of power. Pursuing power for itself must be amoral, which is why the political realist assumes national leaders are interested in empowering their societies and therefore lay aside moral principles. Thus, if we ramp these three attributes up to the limit case, in considering the so-called perfect person, God, we merely imagine a figure in whom the internal, psychological conflicts become all the more glaring.

Yet another source of the ironic incoherence of this defense of Christianity is that the presuppositionalist shows she can be neutral enough, after all, when she attempts to deconstruct the non-Christian’s belief system. That deconstruction must be shown to be internal to the rival set of beliefs. That is, the presuppositionalist’s point can’t be that naturalism conflicts merely with Christianity, since everyone already acknowledges as much. No, the presuppositionalist must set aside Christianity and examine the interrelations of naturalistic beliefs, to show that they contradict each other. For the sake of argument, she lays aside Christianity and of course she doesn’t end up agreeing with naturalism while she’s attempting to deconstruct it. So what ideology is explicit in her mindset at that time? None, because she’s attempting to be neutral and objective. Of course, her exercise is flawed, because she presupposes Christianity in the back of her mind, so she’s looking for contradictions in the non-Christian worldview and expecting to find them. Nonetheless, she’s transported her mind from Christianity to naturalism without embracing the latter, which shows that cognitive neutrality is possible. All that genuine objectivity would require is indifference to the subject matter, in which case the critic could be open-minded in examining whether a belief system can withstand scrutiny. To say that such open-mindedness is impossible is to deny an obvious part of human experience. In any case, the more the presuppositionalist immerses herself in an opposing worldview without assenting to it, the more neutral she herself must be in practice as she attempts to demonstrate its incoherence. She thereby demonstrates instead the incoherence of presuppositional apologetics, since she approximates the very mindset of relative neutrality that’s supposed to be impossible.

Knowledge, Morality, and the Incoherence of Secular Humanism

So while presuppositional apologetics should be dismissed as a clumsy rationalization of Christian thought control, I do think it’s worthwhile to conduct a transcendental exploration of the primary atheistic worldview, to see whether the exoteric understanding of it is indeed incoherent. I’ve already shown elsewhere that this is so in the case of naturalism, because the science contradicts the optimistic philosophical view of the upshot of empirical discoveries. But let’s consider the specifics of naturalism that are supposed to entail Christian theism, to see whether they instead have some other surprising implications. These specifics include deductive logic, induction, and morality.

The presuppositionalist’s point about deductive logic is that this logic presupposes absolute, necessary connections between thoughts which are useful only if there’s a personal guarantor of them in nature, a guarantor who presumably loves humans and equips us with the ability to reason, which thus puts us in touch with reality, helping us survive. No such theology need be assumed, though, for us to profit from logic. Instead, rationality in general can be understood on pragmatic, methodologically naturalistic grounds. Like math, deductive logic abstracts from all particulars, distilling only the most general patterns we’ve encountered. Thus, we can justify logical thinking on experiential grounds. Granted, the laws of deductive logic are defined as being necessary rather than probabilistic, but they’re only logically necessary, not metaphysically so, and thus we needn’t assume the metaphysical potential of being is limited by what we can conceive. Deduction is assumed to be necessary for the purposes of human thought, but that means only that we can’t conceive of contrary rules of inference. (At least, we can conceive of none that would make any sense to us, since we can easily conceive of or at least state the negations of deductive laws, for example.) And just because our inferences are deductively valid, meaning they’re reliable and they conform to the laws that set out the limits of what we can conceive to be useful ways of thinking, doesn’t mean the argument is sound. The premises must still be true, which is a matter of empirical chance or choice of definitions. In any case, it turns out that some ways of thinking are more useful than others. By trial and error, which in this case consists of millions of years of natural selection, the genes “learned” to compel their hosts to assume, for example, that something is what it is and that it can’t be both itself and something else. There’s no need to assume that human logic is absolutely supreme for us to be justified in thinking logically for our limited purposes.

The same holds for induction. The presuppositionalist will say there’s no reason to assume effects will always follow their causes unless God holds the world together. Once again, though, we can posit causes and effects pragmatically, in this case holding natural laws to be probabilistic, not absolutely necessary in all possible universes. The pragmatic aspect of deduction is that we assume all things are what they are, because that concept of the persistence of properties has proven useful in the past, and we expect the future will operate like the past. Thus, deduction rests on induction, because we define the key terms of the elementary laws of deductive logic with reference to our experience: we understand “being,” “is,” and “not” in terms of the most general patterns of things we’ve actually encountered. In any case, appealing to a deity as the guarantor of logic and causality hardly helps, since however loyal that deity may be to us, he still has the power to change his mind, whereas if mindless natural forces and developments are responsible for logic and induction, they become all the more trustworthy for there being no chance of a nonexistent deity’s having a second thought on the matter.

But let’s consider the potential for esoteric and exoteric aspects of rationality. So we have the most general rules for thinking (deduction) and reliable ways of sorting experience (induction, which posits causal relations). The result, we expect, is knowledge, but what is the purpose of knowledge? If you read a critical thinking or logic textbook, you’ll likely find reference there to reliability, utility, power, and so forth, these being advantages of knowledge. We think logically, because doing so is the best way to understand reality, and understanding will in turn empower us to take control of our life, to improve our situation and our environment. Capitalism and democracy are enterprises which put this humanistic faith into practice, on the assumption that two heads are better than one (when each head is sane and logical). Democracy thus maximizes the chance of making wise decisions as to who is to represent the population in political matters, by giving each member of society the right to decide issues indirectly by voting. The democratically elected leaders are then expected to wisely manage the nation’s affairs and improve the people’s quality of life. Likewise, capitalism maximizes the chance of making mutually beneficial business deals, by allowing private interests to compete, which assumes that each individual is motivated to calculate what’s in her best interest. The result is that producers earn profit, thus incentivizing more production, while consumers can buy what they want at a fair price.

Yet is this humanistic faith in the proliferation of knowledge wise? Conservatives from Plato to Leo Strauss thought not. They argue that it’s in the social interest to guard against the democratization of knowledge, because rationality is dangerous. Thus, women and minorities (slaves) should be kept ignorant, they imply, while only an aristocratic class of powerful males should be entrusted with high education that teaches them what reality is like. There is, though, just as little reason to credit the myth of the philosopher-king as there is to credit the central myth of theism. Both myths are undermined by the palpable fact that power corrupts. If knowledge empowers, and only a minority is permitted to learn the truth, that minority will become corrupt and decadent, which will destabilize society instead of safeguarding it; so much for any pragmatic merit of conservatism. Nevertheless, there is reason to fear modern individualism, the faith that all individuals deserve equal rights because each is inherently capable of being rational and thus of acquiring happiness through knowledge.

The downfall of this secular faith is precisely in that last step: “happiness through knowledge.” Humanism thus presumes that the real world is a pleasant place in which to live, since rationality is, at best, only the messenger; reliable ways of thinking will merely present us with reality, allowing us to predict what will happen and to understand what’s really going on. Yet if the real universe is horrifically inhuman, as it is in fact, our alleged right to know the truth amounts to a curse, not a blessing. The rise of mental disorders in postindustrial societies, like depression and anxiety attests to the fact that to be worthy vessels of naturalistic knowledge, we must prove our existential mettle; we must become authentic persons who have the humility and the stomach to resign ourselves to a cruel fate. Happiness isn’t on the cards for enlightened animals. To think rationally is of course to become incredulous towards any mere myth, such as the myths of deities, divine revelation, personal immortality, justice in the afterlife, an objective purpose of life, and so on. Apathy and jadedness, nihilism and terror are thus more likely ours to inherit, not anything like contentedness with our fate.

Far from being self-sustaining, democracy and capitalism collapse unless those systems are externally regulated, as we’ve witnessed. Democracy allows demagogues to exploit our irrational tendencies and thereby to enthrall large portions of the population, creating a tyranny of the brainwashed majority. Standards of education erode, especially when democracy is combined with capitalism, until eventually the voters prove themselves unworthy of the right to self-determination or to vote. Capitalism in turn tends to concentrate power, minimizing competition in the creation of monopolies or oligopolies, which are inevitably run by relatively sociopathic oligarchs who abuse their power, capturing the democratic and legislative processes to codify their privileges. Thus, the promises of democracy and of capitalism are betrayed by internal conflicts within each of those systems. The right to vote makes sense for a person, when “person” is defined according to the unrealistic ideal of a rational agent, because in that case a demagogue could gain no foothold. Likewise, capitalistic competition makes sense if the race is fair and meritocratic, but because the race’s winner gains the power to distort all future races, to rig the whole society in favour of the upper class, it turns out that unleashing individual selfishness may not improve the general welfare, after all. Instead, we’re left with the boom-and-bust cycle; the outsourcing of costs to neo-colonies such as in South America, Africa, and the Middle East, which eventually blows back to the richer countries; and the dysfunction of democracy.

But the main point here is that these internal contradictions reflect a larger one within the humanistic faith in happiness through knowledge. If naturalism assumes that faith, this non-Christian belief system is indeed incoherent. And again, this is no mere academic issue, because the incoherence shows up in practice as the self-destructive trajectories of democracy and capitalism. The key internal conflict is between the exoteric and esoteric ideas of humanism. The former is optimistic and certain to disappoint, since knowledge sustains not happiness but horror, while the latter entails the sobering doctrines of existentialism and cosmicism.

Shall we turn to morality? The presuppositionalist’s point about morality would be that naturalistic morality is illusory, as is the normativity needed for naturalistic knowledge. There are no objective facts of right or wrong, for the naturalist who assumes that everything is ultimately material and physical. Instead, there are really just a series of meaningless events, made up of brute particles combined by impersonal forces. Thus, there’s no objective reason to be moral, for the naturalist, and the epistemic standards of rationality are likewise illusory. So morality and normativity require a deity, a personal foundation of being, and the nature of that deity determines the proper content of moral principles.

There are numerous problems with that argument, which I’ll run through briefly before turning to the deeper questions about natural right and wrong. First, it doesn’t matter if everything is “ultimately” material and meaningless, because other properties can emerge from the physical interaction of particles, and those properties needn’t be illusory. For example, just because everything in nature is ultimately made of very small things, doesn’t mean everything that exists is very small. Instead, many small things get together to create large things, such as organisms and planets, and their larger sizes aren’t illusory—unless everything in human experience is illusory, compared to what exists at the microphysical level, which turns “illusory” into a weasel word. That’s the fallacy of composition. So if relations between small things can create largeness, perhaps certain meaningless facts can combine to create right and wrong, among other meanings and values. Second, there’s no need for morality or for normativity to be objective rather than subjective. Again, we can be pragmatic instead of absolutist about values. Just because the Christian has fallen victim to a totalitarian cult and to a self-reinforcing delusion, doesn’t mean she should succeed in projecting that ugliness onto the non-Christian world; just because she wants values to be absolute and eternal and to be grounded in a sovereign tyrant who reigns over the entire universe, doesn’t mean the rest of us should want the meaning of our life dictated as though we were machines in need of an instruction manual. We decide what’s right and wrong, because we’re clearly the only people around. Third, monotheism doesn’t entail the rosy, family-values morality with which the compromised Christian is typically taken. This is because God’s extreme concentration of power would inevitably corrupt him, and so the deity should be the last person to whom we should listen when attempting to figure out how we ought to live.

But how ought naturalists to live? What is the meaning of life if there is no God or if sentient, clever animals are the only real gods? Here again, exoteric and esoteric solutions differ, and the former indeed have only the superficial appearance of being coherent. The exoteric answer is trumpeted by the mass media: Be happy! Do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else! Consume to please yourself, start a family, go on vacation, work hard, be vigilant liberals and rapacious capitalists. So humanistic morality once again touts hedonism or utilitarianism as the best answer to the question of what we should ultimately value. We ought to be happy in the sense of being content and satisfied, according to this popular version of secular wisdom. And once again, this answer is fatally flawed. We can be happy in the secular world only if we attend to the illusions and distractions featured in the pop cultural infotainments. If instead we reflect on natural reality, we’re bound to be depressed or anxious; hence there’s a need for an esoteric, underground solution to the problem. If the herd of unenlightened humans is to be written off, their delusion-dependent happiness turning them into the equivalent of pliable cattle to be exploited by the predatorial upper class, that leaves the enlightened few with a special problem of what to do with themselves. What is the meaning of life for those too disgusted to be content, who know too much to be at ease with themselves or with our collective reversions to bestial blundering?

I’ve addressed that question elsewhere, but the point I want to make here is that while the presuppositionalist ends up being wrong about the incoherence of non-Christian worldviews, she’s not entirely wrong. The popular form of naturalism, for example, does indeed implode upon examination, as the early existentialist and postmodern philosophers have been pointing out for the minority that’s bothered to read them. Defective answers to life’s deepest questions have been proffered to the bulk of secularists, rather like how revolting scraps are offered up to dogs as dog food. Dogs and the vulgar masses can’t tell the difference; at least, they’re forced to settle for scraps because they see no need and haven’t the wherewithal to hunt for anything else. Presuppositionalism is a defect within a defect, a hopelessly flawed argument befitting a sadly-deranged mindset. But in so far as this defense of Christianity prompts us to examine the preconditions of knowledge and morality, we’re led along a dangerous path to questioning the conventions that establish the acclaimed way of life of the liberal secular humanist.

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