Reasonable Doubtcasters on Van Tilian presuppositionalism

The Reasonable Doubtcasters have produced two marvelous episodes critiquing Van Tilian presuppositionalism: episode one and episode two.

To be honest, since atheists on the internet (also in philosophy, IMO) tend to tout some very bad criticisms of theism, I wasn't holding my breath in this case. However I was extremely and pleasantly surprised at what I heard! I must say, the folks at Reasonable Doubts really came through. Although there are spots where I have minor quibbles, in sum they present quite nicely the presuppositionalist case, and zoom in on two of its most serious and immediate problems. In addition, the tone of the podcasts are humorous and friendly, and in each case makes for an extremely entertaining listen. I highly recommend them!

Recall that the general strategy of Van Tilian presuppositionalists is to raise a philosophical problem which they claim is unique to non-Christians, and complain that it is only solvable with Christian presuppositions. (This one-sentence summary of presuppositionalism will have to do for our purposes here.)

The folks at Reasonable Doubts identify two key flaws in this strategy: First, quoting Gene Witmer's lamentably little-known talk on the subject, they point out that presuppositionalists simply presuppose their most basic religious views, and that if this is an appropriate move for the presuppositionalist then the non-presuppositionalist can do the same with the philosophical positions, only without also presupposing anything religious. I would add that far from being a mere hypothetical exercise, indeed this is exactly what we should do in most contexts, as long as we're honest and humble about what we're doing. Second, presuppositionalists do not, in fact, offer any solution to the philosophical problems which they claim plague unbelievers. Rather, we're all in exactly the same proverbial boat, and no appeal to God has yet changed that. So their criticisms, to the extent we might want to take them as being effective, apply to themselves as much as unbelievers.

In addition to these two observations mentioned by the Reasonable Doubtcasters, I also like to stress a third important criticisms of Van Tilian presuppositionalism, which is that they often don't offer any valid or cogent argument for their central views, namely the truth of Christianity or the existence of God, instead relying on a rhetorical strategy for use in debates, dialogs, etc., aimed at making non-presuppositionalism look silly. You won't find, for instance, any clear-cut argument in Greg Bahnsen's debate with Gordon Stein. Instead he talks around his supposed argument, referring to it from time to time without actually stating it in clear terms. Especially consider the last segment of Bahnsen's opening statement:

When we go to look at the different world views that atheists and theists have, I suggest we can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary. The transcendental proof for God's existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist world view is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist world view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes. In that sense the atheist world view cannot account for our debate tonight.

Certainly that paragraph itself does not contain any argument for the existence of God, much less Christianity as a whole. Instead, Bahnsen devoted his opening statement to criticizing Stein's particular anti-religious views. So even if his critique was entirely justified (which is hardly the case, but let's assume for the sake of argument that Bahnsen was uniformly correct in that regard), it would not follow that Christianity is the one true religion, nor would even just the more modest claim that God exists. All Bahnsen did in his debate was employ the same strategy of criticism and ridicule of particular non-presuppositionalist positions.

This is a typical example of Van Tilian presuppositionalism in action. A similar example can be found in my debate with Jamin Hubner (I recommend the transcript of this rather than the audio, since I'm not really a great speaker).

On the other hand, some Van Tilians genuinely attempt to construct actual arguments for their beliefs. Sometimes these depart from the strategy mentioned above, as was the case for example in the recent paper "Lord of Non-Contradiction" by James Anderson and Greg Welty (2011, Philosophia Christi), and hence require their own responses. (However such arguments, to the extent that they depart from the Van Tilian strategy, cannot rightly be called Van Tilian.) In other cases the argument reflects a deeply Van Tilian apologetic, e.g. in my debate with Chris Bolt (again, I recommend the transcript over the audio), or Don Collett's brief argument based on Bas Van Fraassen's supervaluations.

Anyway, I was very pleased in all with the Reasonable Doubtcasters these past couple of weeks. Go check them out!

Also, feel free to read/listen to some of my own critiques of Van Tilian presuppositionalism in the links below:

Goodness Over God podcast with guests Sye Ten Bruggencate and Pastor Dustin Segers

more on Pastor Segers' argument

more on Sye Ten Bruggencate's criticisms

Goodness Over God podcast with guest Brian Knapp

Brian Knapp and the atheist's burden of proof

more on the atheist's burden of proof

response to Don Collett's argument

my debate with Jamin Hubner (I recommend the transcript rather than the audio)

my debate with Chris Bolt (I recommend the transcript rather than the audio)

more on my debate with Chris Bolt

inductive standards (last response to Chris Bolt)


Justin said…
Thanks for the review Ben!
Ben Wallis said…
Chris Bolt has responded to this post here. Although I don't think most of his criticisms hold up, he did draw attention to two errors on my part which I have corrected (by editing the original post). First, the debate between him and I should be classed among the examples where presuppositionalists provided a genuine argument, and not among the examples of non-argument. Second, I was too hasty in describing presuppositionalists as "typically" not providing arguments. Instead I can only say that this is often (but not always) the case.

Corrections such as these are always welcome.

C.L. Bolt said…
Hey, thanks! :)

I noted the changes on my post.
Ben Wallis said…
(part I)

I'm sorry to see that some of my comments in this post have been misunderstood as some kind of no true scotsman fallacy. Namely, in the comments section of this blog post, James Anderson wrote:

I saw Ben’s post (via a pingback) and was very surprised by some of his claims. He basically argues:

1. The Van Tilian strategy is not to offer arguments.
2. Welty and Anderson offer an argument.
3. Therefore, Welty and Anderson depart from the Van Tilian strategy.

This is most certainly not what I intended to communicate. I don't think that's how it reads in my blog post, but lest there be any doubt let me disavow this argument immediately.

Notice also that I explicitly describe Anderson as "Van Tilian." There is no question of this in my mind.

I only want to distinguish his paper from what I take to be the typical Van Tilian approach. Indeed Anderson seemed to recognize himself that his argument was somewhat atypical when he made the following comment on his blog:

While we don't discuss Van Til or presuppositional apologetics in the paper, those so inclined will recognize this as a more robust exposition of a common presuppositionalist argument and they'll also appreciate (I hope) the concluding remarks.

In the comments section he adds that he hopes to "draw some more connections between the argument of the paper and Van Til's distinctive claims." In a later blog post he delivers on that promise, endeavoring to "show how its conclusions can be deployed in support of some of Van Til's most distinctive claims."

So it seems he recognizes that while his argument is consistent with Van Tilian apologetics, it's not exactly typical. It doesn't, for instance, argue for the Christian God uniquely, but rather characterizes God in the general terms of a "necessarily existent, personal, spiritual being" (p1). There is no mention of the unbeliever's suppression of the truth in unrighteousness, no explicit discussion of non-neutrality, etc. Neither is his argument aimed at tearing down opposing religious views, another ostensibly characteristic mark of Van Tilian apologetics.

In another point of difference, Anderson in his role as philosopher strives for modesty, whereas Van Tilianians in my experience tend to insist that their transcendental argumentation provides iron-clad certainty. The Van Tilian apologetic as I understand it decries the notion of a probably existing God, reasoned from our best judgment. Anderson, in contrast, writes (p21):

This argument hardly constitutes an incontrovertible proof of the existence of God. If a deductively valid argument that (i) has premises that appear to be true and (ii) is not vulnerable to obvious objections is a good argument, then we submit that this argument is a good argument.

Maybe it's just me, but that sort of epistemic modesty really seems atypical of Van Tilianism.

(cont. in part II below...)
Ben Wallis said…
(,,,cont. from above) (part II)

Again I should stress that none of this is contrary to Van Tilianism. Anderson apparently sees his argument as a kind of stepping stone to a genuinely Van Tilian apologetic. At least that's the impression I got. Perhaps I am mistaken, in which case he is welcome to correct me. (But hopefully he can at least see why I would get that impression.)

However I never intended to suggest that it was not Van Tilian simply because it offered an argument! That would indeed be rather silly, and I'm disappointed he would think me to have made such a grievous error. Rather, it struck me as departing from Van Tilianism by arguing for a generic conception of God, and by avoiding what I take to be the most characteristic marks of Van Tilianism---most notably the charge of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, but also stressing non-neutrality, and affirming certainty of his argument, all of which are missing from Anderson's paper.

That said, I don't claim to be an expert on Van Tilianism. I could very well be mistaken as to what is typical versus atypical of Van Tilian apologetics, and if so then as I mentioned previously I would welcome any corrections in that regard. However, given my own experience with Van Tilians, I don't think I'm wrong about this. More importantly, even if I were, it would have nothing to do with the no true scotsman fallacy.

Anyway, I hope that is sufficient clarification.

C.L. Bolt said…
A very helpful clarification. You will note what I wrote, "I could be very easily persuaded that Wallis is not saying what I ascribe to him here..."
James Anderson said…

Thanks for the helpful clarification. You're right to see some differences between me and other Van Tilians.

As I see it, Van Tilianism (for want of a better label) is a big tent. One doesn't have to agree with every claim of Van Til's to be "Van Tilian" or to endorse the major tenets of his apologetic. Van Tilianism is to Van Til as Calvinism is to Calvin, one might say. I've written elsewhere on what I take to be the core principles of Van Tilians presuppositionalism.
Anonymous said…
Hello Ben,

Just wondering what's the point of your post?
Anonymous said…
I always find the standard reply by "athiests" to PA apologists hilarious.

"Just becuase you just shredded by world to pices doesn't make yours true"
Reynold said…
Would you care to give examples of any atheist who said that one of you presuppers had actually "shredded" our "worldview to pieces"?
Anonymous said…
Reynold you are one of them.
Reynold said…
Quote then, please. And a link.
Reynold said…
Well, he refuses to provide any evidence that I had said that one of those circular spinning characters had "demolished" my "worldview".

When pressed, this was his reaction. Read on.

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