Posts Tagged ‘Michael Butler’

(As some of you know, Michael Butler provided a famous response to the so-called “Fristianity” objection. Unfortunately, many contemporaries seem to gloss over his response, or fail to understand the value of it. I encountered this so-often I decided to “weaponize” his response, so to speak. What follows, then, is my attempt at presenting a “Butlerian” styled response to the Fristianity objection, and flesh out a resulting implication).

“Fristianity” as an objection to presuppositionalism, arose in the late 90’s, although similar objections were being tossed around as far back as the 80’s. Even earlier objections of the same type were addressed by Bahnsen and Van Til from the very outset. For a brief, authoritative, rundown of the development of the objection, see David Byron’s recollections here. For our purposes, the “Fristianity” objection will be thought of as the positing of a hypothetically possible worldview that provides a counter-example to the presuppositionalist’s claim that Christianity is exclusively able to account for the preconditions of intelligibility. Philosopher Sean Choi says this:

“Fristianity has come to mean what it does precisely because in the course of offering a possible defeater to TAG, Fristianity was defined as a possible worldview that includes a quadrinitarian God.  Voila!” ~ pg. 264 “Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith” edited by Norman Geisler and Chad Meister. (Emphasis, mine).

In the above citation, Choi posits that Fristianity is possible by definition, but that’s the very thing presuppositionalists contest!

Consider the following:

1.  If Christianity is true, then it is exclusive (all non-Christian worldviews are false and fail to account for the preconditions of intelligibility).

2.  Christianity is false.

3.  From 2, then Christianity may not be exclusive.

Conclusion:  The Fristian worldview might account for the preconditions of intelligibility.

———————————

As we can see, the conclusion only follows if premise 2 is true.

Fristian arguments must include a negation premise to operate, and this is something no Christian would be willing to grant, unless doing so hypothetically.  But there’s no reason to do so in this situation. Once this is realized, the Fristian must shift his efforts and try to demonstrate that Christianity, even if true, is not exclusive. He must attack premise 1.

Suppose he looks to Scripture and is able to demonstrate (exegetically) that Christianity is not exclusive?  Well, if he can demonstrate that, then the “Fristian” illustration becomes superfluous.  Consider the following:

1.  If Christianity is true, then it is *not* exclusive.

2.  Since Christianity is not exclusive, then some other worldview might provide the preconditions of intelligible experience.

3.  Fristianity is another worldview.

Conclusion:  Fristianity might provide the preconditions of intelligible experience.

If 1 is proven, then hypothetically-possible non-Christian worldviews need no longer be posited as it’s been proven (in principle) that they’re possible. There’d no longer be any need for positing “Fristianity” as a defeater for presuppositionalism. The entire illustration would be superfluous.

Anyway, it’s highly doubtful the “Fristian” advocates will be able to build a strong exegetical case that Christianity is not exclusive.  While it’s beyond the scope of this article to prove (from the text) that Christianity *is* exclusive, a few well-known verses should suffice:

Isaiah 44 – “I am the first and I am the last.  Apart from me, there is no God!”

John 14 – “I am the way the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Acts 4 – “…there is none other name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”

Galatians 1 – “…if any man preach any other Gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

There are other relevant passages as well.  It seems the Fristian would have to perform exegetical gymnastics to overcome the traditional understanding that Christianity is exclusively true. On top of direct exegetical arguments, Van Til, building on the doctrine of God’s Aseity, offers a theological argument for the exclusivity of Christianity.

If the traditional understanding of the relevant Scriptural passages holds, and if Van Til’s theological argument for exclusivity holds, then it seems the presuppositionalist is rationally justified in rejecting Fristianity, even if we’re not immediately able to suggest how it fails. This is, after all, the situation we usually find ourselves in as presuppositional apologists. We may not be Islamic scholars, for example, but we know that if Christianity is true, Islam will fail to provide the preconditions of intelligible experience somehow or other. Fristianity is no better off.

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There’s a problem rife among presuppositional apologists.  Much of our most frequently used jargon is ambiguous and ill-defined.  In this post, I’d like to specifically focus on the word “worldview”, contrast it with the phrase “conceptual scheme”, and highlight why the distinction is important for presuppositionalists to keep in mind.

To begin, consider philosopher Andrew Cortens’ statement about conceptual schemes:

…if we plan to make use of such ill-defined technical terms as ‘conceptual scheme’, ‘ontological framework’, and the like, we had better be prepared to give a clear account of such notions.  Many relativists run into serious trouble on this score; rarely do they provide a satisfactory explanation of just what sort of thing a conceptual scheme is.  I have argued elsewhere that even if the notion of a conceptual scheme is taken for granted, the view that existence is always relative to a conceptual scheme has the absurd consequence that we can never explicitly state the content of a sentence that has existential implications.  Whether or not my argument was successful, many will agree that there are legitimate worries about the intelligibility of relativism about truth or existence. ~ From William Alston’s “Realism & Antirealism” pg. 46.

Cortens is a good Christian philosopher (though not a presuppositionalist) and is concerned with countering epistemological relativists who claim the world can be legitimately conceptualized differently for different people.

We’ve all heard it suggested that “what’s true for you may not be true for me”, right?  This sort of absurd rhetoric is supported by assertions of the possibility of a plurality of equally-valid conceptual schemes (here – we mean a class of concepts through which the actual world is conceived.  In Van Tillian jargon: a conceptual scheme is the lens through which you view the world.)

As presuppositionalists, we might agree with the conceptual-scheme pluralists who suggest the world can be “conceptualized” in different ways by many different people.  We know this because we spend the majority of our time as apologists dealing with false conceptual schemes.  Further, the Bible gives us hints about the psychological situation of unbelievers; their rebellion against God gives them emotional reasons to form incorrect beliefs about the relationship between different facts of their experience, which leads to the creation of an entire scheme of incorrect beliefs.

A brief illustration will help here.  Again, I’ll cite portions of Dr. Cortens’ article:

At noon, an ice cube measuring 2cm x 2cm x 2cm is placed on a table.  Slowly it melts, so that after an hour has passed, all that remains on the table is a small puddle of water.  One person – call him ‘A’ – describes the situation in the following words:  “At noon a single thing measuring 2 cm x 2cm x 2cm was placed on the table, namely, an ice cube.  Shortly afterward it began to shrink and eventually, sometime between noon and 1pm, it ceased to exist altogether.  Just as the ice cube began getting smaller, a new thing came into existence: a puddle of water.  Although it began as a very tiny puddle of water, its volume is now roughly equal to that of the ice cube at its largest.”  Another person, B, provides a strikingly different account of the facts.  “The one and only 2cm x 2cm x 2cm object that was placed on the table at noon still exists”, says B.  “It has merely ceased to be an ice cube.  Now it is merely a puddle of water.”  Doubtless we can think up still other descriptions of the situation that might be offered.  One can imagine, for example, someone insisting that two cubical objects of the same size were placed on the table at noon, one of them an ice cube that went out of existence shortly thereafter, the other a quantity of water that went right on existing but in a different state.  But I trust I have said enough to give you a feel for the various “versions” of the facts that might be offered in this situation. ~ pg. 43

However – as presuppositionalists, we most decidedly do *not* agree that all these conceptualizations of the world are equally correct.  In keeping with the ice cube illustration, we would say that only one conceptualization of the facts in that scenario is correct.  We believe there is only one correct way to conceptualize the world.

Most preusppositionalists, at this point would reply that it’s only the Christian *worldview* that rightly describes the world.  But this would be a little hasty.  Instead, I’d like to argue that we should say, rather, that it’s the Christian conceptual scheme that rightly construes the objects of our experience.

I got this idea from Dr. Bahnsen’s protege’, Michael Butler.

In lecture 23 of his introduction to presuppositional apologetics, Butler attempts to respond to one of the most biting criticisms of transcendental arguments.  In short:  the argument says that the transcendental argument can only ever provide us with conceptual necessity, never ontological necessity.  In other words – the non-Christian might grant that he has to think like a Christian (use the Christian conceptual scheme) for human experience to make sense, but that doesn’t prove Christianity is actually true.

In response, Butler suggests that this criticism misconstrues the Presuppositionalist.  We are not arguing for the necessity of mere conceptual scheme, rather, we are arguing for the necessity of a “worldview”.  Butler uses “worldview” here, to mean how the world *actually* is.  From Butler:

Before we abandon hope, there may be a way out of this problem.  The source of the present difficulty seems to be the way in which the TAG has been set up.  Given the context of this discussion, the tendency is to conflate the notion of the Christian worldview with the notion of a conceptual scheme.  This is where I think the problem really lies.  It’s viewing the Christian worldview as, really, a conceptual scheme.

Now, what is a conceptual scheme?  It’s some conception of our experience that comes in a systematic way.  So we think of the “Copernicum” conceptual scheme.  This is where we view the planets as objects we’re traveling with around the sun.  You can conceptualize it that way.  On the old theory, you conceptualize the relation of the Earth, planets, and sun, as very different.  The sun was going around the Earth. So we look today and see the same information our ancestors did, but we conceive of it differently.

All that to say is … this objection, I believe, conflates a worldview with a conceptual scheme.  But a conceptual scheme and a worldview are quite different.  We can conceptualize the world differently without necessarily changing the essential elements of our worldview.  Our worldviews commit us ontologically to things, where as conceptualization doesn’t necessarily commit us to foundational ontological commitments. ~ starting at 19:40 into lecture 23.

I think it’s fair to expound on Butler’s view here by remembering a hard-learned truth of Van Tillian thought.  In our infamous disagreements with the disciples of Gordon Clark, Van Tillians make it clear that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge is of a different type.  What we, as creatures, know, we know derivatively.  The objects of God’s knowledge, however, are made what they are by virtue of His knowing them.  In many cases, God’s knowledge of an object is creative (ie: when God thinks of a material object, and if He so wills, the object will become a material reality).1

Keeping this in mind, and in light of Butler’s discussion above, I suggest we think of a “worldview” as God’s conceptual scheme.  It is how God conceptualizes (and thus, creates) everything that has been created.

To determine which human conceptual scheme is correct then, requires us to figure out which conceptual scheme conceptualizes the world in the same way God conceptualizes the world.  We must figure out which conceptual scheme correctly construes the Christian worldview.  In Van Tillian jargon, we must:  “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

In sticking with the ice cube illustration:  we must determine if God thinks of the ice cube as an object that transforms into a new object (a puddle), or if He thinks of it as a class of water molecules that change form over time, etc. etc.

Figuring this out will provide us with the necessary “norm” by which we can measure the correctness of any given conceptual scheme.


1. Van Til’s writings hint at this. Consider the following: “God must be taken as the prerequisite of the possibility and actuality of relationship between man’s various concepts and propositions of knowledge. Man’s system of knowledge must therefore be an analogical replica of the system of knowledge which belongs to God.” ~ Defense of the Faith, pg. 138.

Also, see pg. 228 of Dr. Bahnsen’s “Van Til’s Apologetic” for commentary on the difference between human acts of knowing and God’s act of knowing.

Also, see John Frame: “To say God is incomprehensible is to say that our knowledge is never equivalent to God’s own knowledge, that we never know Him precisely as He Knows Himself” (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 21).

From time to time, those opposed to the Presuppositional apologetic method will offer (as attempted defeaters) secular transcendental arguments which, if successful, will (supposedly) overcome skeptical challenges offered by the Van Tillian.And by extension, it would be demonstrated that the Christian worldview is no longer the necessary precondition of knowledge; this other argument would suffice in its place.

In their seminary course on Transcendental Arguments, both Dr. Bahnsen and Michael Butler comment on this sort of thing and what our attitude towards secular TA’s should be:

Michael Butler:  We see that contemporary transcendental arguments are fundamentally different in nature from Cornelius Van Til’s “worldview” transcendental argument.  They’re two different birds all together.  Formally they share some aspects; they both try to show transcendentals.  And even in the way they go about doing it, there’s some analogy (reductio ad absurdum).  But their scope is different and the manner in which they are argued is different as well.  Van Til argues that worldviews are the only way in which transcendental arguments work.  Contemporary proponents say that only particular transcendental arguments are the things we can use.  ~ @ 16:30 of lecture 11.

He continues later:

I want to say [to these secular TA proponents] “big deal”.  You’ve shown we need the concept of causation.  Ok.  I can agree with that.  We could disagree about the particulars of (say) P.F. Strawson’s arguments, and say “well, he didn’t really do a good job.”  But even if he had a good argument, big deal.  What is the worldview in which you can account for causation?  Ok, we need causation, but what is the worldview in which causation can be accounted for?  We need a transcendental argument for these transcendentals.  What worldview makes all these types of particular transcendentals coherent?  How does our belief in the necessity of the external world or the continued existence of non-observed objects…how do you tie these things together?  Is there just one, one, one, here and there’s no connection?….They don’t consider what the necessary preconditions are for arguing  transcendentally; so they come into it with certain assumptions and are never able to justify them or tie their transcendentals together. ~ 17:30

Then Dr. Bahnsen (in the back of the class) chimes in with the following:

Even if you have a micro transcendental argument for one little element of our thinking, that’s just a stone in a bottomless ocean falling through the water.  Who cares?  You’ve got to be able to tie these together.  You need to have logic and an external world and a mind connected to the external world… a worldview that is transcendentally necessary which makes these smaller transcendental arguments worthwhile…What Mike is telling you is that even if you have causation, if you don’t have a mind in touch with reality that can think causally, then you can’t give an account of how we’re successful in thinking anyway. So we have Van Til here saying, it’s a rock in a bottomless ocean. Yeah it’s a rock, but without a hard place, you have no place to put it!   ~ @ 19:53

While, admittedly, this line of thought doesn’t address any specific secular transcendental argument, it lays out the approach Presuppositionalists should have towards those offering them as defeaters of the methodology.  We agree that various preconditions (causation, other minds, the ubiquity of mostly-true beliefs, etc.) are necessary concepts for intelligible human experience, but unless the TAG-skeptic can offer us an entire worldview in which these preconditions are accounted for, he really hasn’t touched Presuppositionalism.

It’s our job as presuppositionalists to criticize what’s being offered in terms of its global scope to see if, in the end, it has a coherent place in light of the rest of the TAG-skeptic’s belief system.


1. See this article for example, where the author alludes to a transcendental argument by Donald Davidson as a way to avoid Sye Ten Bruggencate’s apologetic: http://absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/how-to-justify-your-reasoning-using-your-reasoning/