Strawmen Built on Fideism

Posted: November 14, 2014 in Apologetic Articles, On the Classical Arguments
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A Catholic has launched a typical criticism of Presuppositional apologetic methodology.1

See the article here: “Presuppositionalism: Fideism built on skepticism”.

The author of the essay claims to be a convert from Presbyterianism, not to mention, one with a PhD in philosophy from Saint Lewis University.  With that sort of background, I’m immediately curious why he didn’t interact with the primary presuppositionalist literature (Bahnsen, Frame, Oliphint, Anderson, or even Van Til himself), choosing instead to survey a handful of discussions he’s had with presuppositionalists of unknown pedigree.

While I don’t expect outsiders to know enough about the presuppositionalist community to get a feel for the circle of accepted orthodoxy on the subject, I do expect someone with the author’s background to (at least) interact with some of the relevant material.  To the author’s credit, he doesn’t flaunt his having been a Presbyterian as a proof of expertise on the subject (a good thing since he makes inaccurate claims).2

Instead of correcting all the little misunderstandings, I’d like to highlight three points the author raises, and briefly address them.

1.  Presuppositionalists are Cartesians. 

On a normal day, if someone accuses me of being a Cartesian, I simply shrug it off.  At least they’re not calling me a democrat, right?  There’s worse things I might be accused of.

But what does it mean to say we’re Cartesians?

1. Well, it might mean Van Tillians are disciples of Descartes.  Given all the criticism of Descartes presuppositionalists offer, however, that doesn’t seem likely.  Further, most people who consider the origins of Presuppositionalism trace it back to Kuyper, who was influenced by Kant (if by anyone).3

2. It might mean that, like Descartes, presuppositionalists sometimes use skeptical arguments.  If that’s what is meant, then – guilty as charged.  I’d only note that a large number of contemporary philosophers (e.g. Mackie, Putnam, DeRose, Warfield, Robert Stern, Alston, etc. etc.) would be surprised to find they’re “Cartesians”.  Calling a presuppositionalist “Cartesian” simply because he plays around with skeptical arguments, is needlessly pejorative and a novel way of slicing up the pie, especially since it would require most contemporary epistemologists to be classified as Cartesians.

3. It might mean that, like Descartes, Presuppositionalists appeal to a method of radical doubt as a way to discover some indubitable philosophical foundation from which to build a worldview.  In other words, we might be being accused of “Cartesianism” because we follow the same epistemological method as Descartes.  But anyone who knows about Presuppositionalism knows that we follow a completely different epistemological method – one that might be better called “transcendental” or “revelational”.

4.  What I suspect the author of the article had in mind is that Presuppositionalists are Cartesians, because, like Descartes, we posit God “right away” in our epistemology.  If this is all that’s required to make one a Cartesian, then everyone from Augustine and Anselm to Calvin and the Apostle Paul (*Edit* – and even God Himself, as my friend Cliff Peterson points out. See Genesis 1) are “Cartesians”…so we’re in good company.4

This leads to the second point though:

2.  Presuppers mix up the “order of being” and the “order of knowing”.

From the article:

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?

Well, no one can offer us a single proposition (or belief, or whatever object they consider as a truth-bearer) that is true acontextually.  Acontextuality is required for “brute” factuality.  For example, consider the following proposition:

“I exist”.

Can this be known without reference to other propositions (ie: outside of a contextual relationship with other propositions)?  Well, we’d have to first know what an “I” is.  We’d have to know something about what it means to “exist”.  And let’s not forget, we have to know something about the relationship between subjects and their predicates.  So, “I exist” is not a proposition that is true in a void, without reference to other true propositions.  It is not a “brute” fact.

The author of the article implies that empirical sense data is free of theological or philosophical presuppositions.  In other words, it is data known “acontextually”.  But let’s consider a sense datum:

“I am being appeared to redly”.

Here, as in the case of “I exist”, we can already see the proposition necessarily includes many other propositions about the nature of an “I”, as well as the relationship between subjects and their predicates.

Even if all we had is an experience of red here, an experience of roundness there, a sensation of temporal sameness over there, as well as the taste of sweetness – it would take a handful of “presuppositions” (I dare say: theological assumptions) to get to the proposition:

“I am now eating an apple.”

John Calvin (in book 1 of the Institutes) was right.  Before we know anything, we must first know God.  If Descartes agrees, then so much the better for him.

3.  Presuppositions then the Bible?  Or the Bible, then Presuppositions?

Their confusion about empriicism leads these Classicists to a common question (raised by Dr. Howe in his discussion with Oliphint, also raised by Adam Tucker in the essay already cited, etc.):

If presuppositionalists can’t know anything at all without their presuppositions, and if they claim to get their presuppositions from Scripture, then how can they know Scripture?  Don’t they first have to rely on their sense perceptions in order to mine their presuppositions out of Scripture to begin with?

In response (and building on the great Dr. Bahnsen), we presuppers offer the following illustration:

We can breathe, long before knowing how lungs work, right?

It would be a mistake for someone to suggest we must have proper anatomical theory before being able to breathe.

In more philosophical jargon – Presuppers are “externalists” in our theory of justification.  The world simply is how we Calvinists believe it to be; it has to be in order for us to even argue for it in the first place.  We trust our sense perceptions, even before reading the Bible and discovering why we’re justified in trusting them.

Many people are justified in trusting their sense perceptions, without realizing they’re justified.  Some people try to make up sinful philosophical narratives to try justifying them (without success).

That’s why we need to be presuppositionalists instead of classicists; the former challenges the fallen presumptions of tooth-gnashing intellects, the latter coddles their fallen presumptions.  If anyone is a “Fideist” it’s those who have blind faith in the reliability of their sense perceptions!

1. I say “typical” because his line of reasoning is not new by any means. First, Van Tillians (since the dawn of Van Tillianism) have been wrongfully accused of fideism. In response, we typically highlight that fideism is loosely understood as belief without argument, and since we provide transcendental arguments, it’s simply incorrect to call us fideists. That this charge keeps circulating (without, as in this Roman Catholic’s case, even considering the wealth of responses to the charge) is deplorable. Consider Dr. Bahnsen’s contrasting of Van Til with actual fideists:

“Consequently it is not at all surprising that Van Til has been unfailing in his opposition to fideism, apologetic mysticism, and the notion that belief cannot argue with unbelief. He is highly critical of those who saw no way of harmonizing the facts of the Christian religion with the “constitution and course of nature. They gave up the idea of a philosophical apologetics entirely, This FIDIESTIC attitude comes to expression frequently in the statement of the experiential proof of the truth of Christianity. People will say that they know that they are saved and that Christianity is true no matter what the philosophical or scientific evidence for or against it may be… But in thus seeking to withdraw from all intellectual argument, such fideists have virtually admitted the validity of the argument against Christianity. They will have to believe in their hearts what they have virtually allowed to be intellectually indefensible.” Source.

Secondly, the charge that Van Tillians get our philosophical order mixed up is an argument that often crops up among Classical apologists. Adam Tucker (of Ratio Christi) argues similarly in his critique of Presuppositionalism. In a further exchange with me on Facebook, he reiterated his accusation that we get the knowing mixed up with the being. Much of what I say in this article will also apply to his criticisms. 

2. For example, he says:

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

He links to an article by James Jordan – a presuppositionalist, sure, but certainly not a leader or innovator of presuppositional methodology. Further – Jordan isn’t suspicious of philosophy (as philosophy), rather, he follows Van Til, Bahnsen, and the others, in suggesting that it’s non-CHRISTIAN philosophy which needs to be critiqued. Dr. Bahnsen has preached entire sermons on this topic alone.  I’ve never heard a presuppositionalist suggest a different attitude towards philosophy. As a matter of fact, if anything, we’re usually accused of being TOO philosophical! (See Chris Bolt’s characterization of the presuppositionalist community). It’s simply false to say we are “typically” highly suspicious of philosophy.

3. See Muether’s excellent biography of Van Til. He spends the first few chapters laying out the historical pedigree of Van Til’s thought, explaining, in part, the theological milieu out of which Kuyper developed his “worldview” thinking.

4. It’s not my intent to get into a historical debate about how to interpret the work of these men.  Scripture’s teaching is all that matters at the end of the day. Still, for a defense of the Apostle Paul’s presuppositionalism, see this article for the relevant footnotes.


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