How Presup *Really* Works…

Posted: September 27, 2021 in General Presup Issues

There’s so much confusion in the presuppositionalist community at the moment. The internet, while an invaluable tool, has created an academic anarchy where few lay-level presuppositionalists recognize authority figures and end up sticking dogmatically to bad philosophy. This has lead to a skewing of the Van Tillian project. I’m not complaining. It is what it is. But it’s something we have to deal with. I’ve tried dealing with it by construing the entire project in the simplest – though most accurate – way I could imagine. Which leads to today’s post.

Consider the following, simple, modus ponens:

1 – If there is human intelligibility, then Christianity is true.

2 – There is human intelligibility.

Conclusion: Christianity is true.

This is the most basic, simple, expression of presuppositionalism. The “transcendental” stuff is all contained in premise 1. That’s the “transcendental premise” which does the heavy lifting. Notice, also, I have not talked about God or the Bible. Often, presups will say “We presuppose God” or “We presuppose the Bible” … both are partially true, but lead to misunderstanding. If we *only* presuppose God, for example, then we have to “build up” to Christianity in some block-house way. Same if we only presuppose the Bible. Rather, Van Til would have us presuppose the entire Christian worldview. We’re defending an entire worldview, not single parts and pieces of it. The Christian worldview assumes the existence of God as well as His authoritative revelation in Scripture. For us to successfully account for human intelligibility, we need all of it, at the outset.

Also note: the form of the argument here is modus ponens. Dr. Bahnsen liked to construe it as a modus tollens. Far more often, however, the argument isn’t presented as a syllogism at all. It’s informally presented – and rightly so. It wasn’t designed to be an argument in the “Classical” apologetics sense. Unbelievers and Presups alike tend to get confused on this point. We do *not* put TAG (transcendental argument for God) in the same category of arguments as the Kalam or the Ontological argument (for example). We should not think of TAG as being just one more fancy, philosophical, argument for God. That’s not its purpose, as we’ll see.

Every unbeliever, when presented with the above argument, will follow up by asking us what the argument is for premise 1.

Here, we ought to note that if someone needs an additional argument for every premise offered, then any argument offered for premise 1 will, itself, require more argument. And those arguments will require more argument. And so on ad infinitum.

Also, at this point, the unbeliever may suggest that the only reason to accept premise 1 is if we already believe the conclusion to the argument (“Christianity is true”) is true. So they’ll accuse the presuppositional method of being “circular” at this point. We ought to counter that *why* someone believes premise 1 is irrelevant to the validity of the argument and the argument, as presented, is simply not “circular” in any fallacious way. Why we believe premise 1 is as irrelevant to the argument as what color shirt we may be wearing while we type out the argument.

Still, the unbeliever will object, we ought to have some reason to expect our opponent to accept a controversial premise. And it’s here, on this point, where the TAG argument does its work. Premise 1, rather than being a fatal blow to the unbelievers and definitively proving the existence of God with an argument, is, rather, meant to be a launching-off point for discussion. To do presuppositionalism properly requires the apologist to coax the unbeliever into a hypothetical discussion about premise 1 to tease out the underlying worldview considerations.

So let’s analyze premise 1:

If we find an unbeliever willing to engage in conversation and willing to reason with us, as presuppositionalists, then what we usually find when they’re presented with premise 1 is a desire to launch into agnosticism as a way to defeat the argument. This agnosticism comes in 3 levels.

1rst Agnostic Attempt:

The first thing they usually try to do is suggest that they simply don’t care about the truth-value of premise 1. They’ll either explicitly say this or more covertly, engage in rhetoric that amounts to the same thing. If they can disregard premise 1 because they “have no rational reason to accept it”, then they’re essentially saying they need not reason about which worldview provides for the preconditions of human intelligibility. When they attempt this form of agnosticism, they’re removing themselves from debate all together. This, for presuppers, amounts to us having “silenced the foolish talk of unbelief”, since – while they can and usually do continue talking – they have formally declared all of their own reasoning to be invalid. They can live life this way. They can tip-toe through the daisies of life without ever thinking about the difficult questions, but they cannot offer serious intellectual criticisms of Christianity, nor can they offer any serious counter-claims to Christian doctrines.

2nd Agnostic Attempt:

The smarter unbelievers usually realize this. They don’t want to invalidate themselves intellectually, so they’ll try a second agnostic argument. They’ll suggest that *some* non-Christian worldview may successfully account for the preconditions of intelligibility, even if they don’t know what it is. But this move is like trying to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. To offer this sort of objection requires them to rely on human intelligibility – they must use language, believe in meaningful communication, entailment relationships, the reliability of their memory, reliability of their sense perceptions, laws of logic, and so on. So they’re having to rely on human intelligibility, without any consistent way, on hand, to account for it. In which case, they’re not actually defeating premise 1. They’re just arbitrarily rejecting it. If that’s all they intend to do, then, really, they’re back in the situation of “Agnostic Attempt 1” and have effectively removed themselves from the discussion.

3rd Agnostic Attempt:

The final agnostic move they’ll try to make is to suggest that *multiple* worldviews might successfully account for human intelligibility – but this, if true, would land them in total skepticism since there’d be no ready way to discover which view of the world were true…in which case, they have, once again, reduced themselves back to Agnostic Attempt 1 and have again, removed themselves from the debate.

The only way to successfully defeat premise 1 is by doing what Van Til foresaw. The unbeliever must present some definitive counter to the Christian worldview – a non-Christian worldview that successfully accounts for the preconditions of human intelligibility.

…getting the unbeliever to this point, then showing him how his system self-destructs (under the weight of its own, internal, logic) is what presuppositionalism is all about. It’s not a strong-arm attempt to force someone to directly accept the existence of God through a savvy deductive argument. Rather, TAG is a backdoor or “indirect” method of getting the unbeliever to realize the futility of his own thinking.

  1. SLIMJIM says:

    Going to share this in our next Presup round up on Oct 1


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