Bahnsen and Bare Possibility

Historically, when David Hume and Immanuel Kant exposed the invalidity of the theistic proofs, apologists generally balked at returning to revelation as the basis for their certainty of God’s existence. They elected, rather, to maintain status in the the blinded eyes of the “worldly wise” by attempting to prove Christianity’s credibility by means of arguments that hopefully pointed toward the probability of God’s existence and Scripture’s truth. They settled for a mere presumption (plus pragmatic assurance) in favor of a few salvaged items (i.e., “fundamentals”) from the Christian system. Refusing to presuppose the sovereign God revealed in the Bible as the source of all material or logical possibility, and hence failing effectively to challenge or internally criticize the very feasibility of knowledge, logic, factuality, interpretation, or predication as based on the boasted autonomy of “free-thinkers”, apologists found their defenses razed by those who (likewise) postulated that bare possibility was a principle more ultimate than God. … By appealing to probability, apologists saw Christianity relegated to the museum of of mere religious hypotheses (i.e.. “possibilities”) rather than embraced as the actual truth of God.

~Greg Bahnsen (Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended; ch 1, pg 5)

Enough said. Don’t you think?

RazorsKiss


15 Comments

Agreus

Hume’s criticism stands.

“There is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.”

~David Hume (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)

RazorsKiss

I can already tell… the comments on this are going to be fun. 🙂 Hume, first shot. Buckle your seatbelts.

G. Kyle Essary

Agreus,
Hume’s criticism may “stand,” but what does the criticism itself “stand” upon? It seems as though he justifies rejecting a priori arguments by accepting a priori the utility of reason, the functionality and reliability of cognition, and a whole host of other presuppositions, does he not? How can one stand upon a priori beliefs in order to deny a priori arguments?

Of course, Bahnsen might agree with portions of his statement. For instance, he might agree with a portion of what Hume says here, “Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction.” After all, what is Bahnsen’s Transcendental Argument but the impossibility of the contrary. Therefore, he might agree that Christian theism is demonstrable due to the impossibility of the contrary (or the fact that “the contrary implies a contradiction”).

Of course, the rest of the quote needs all sorts of clarification in order to be meaningful. What is “being” and “existence” according to a Humean worldview and can such a definition be internally justified?

Furthermore, what about those “beings” that cannot be conceived. We can undoubtedly have knowledge of God, for He has made Himself known, but can anyone suffering from the noetic effects of sin (which includes all of us) possibly hope to “conceive” of God in His fullness? Thus, doesn’t the fallenness of humanity render much of Hume’s argument void? There are aspects of the Creation that humanity cannot conceive of en toto, are there not? How much moreso Creation’s Creator?

Agreus

Mr. Essary,

“It seems as though he justifies rejecting a priori arguments by accepting a priori the utility of reason, the functionality and reliability of cognition, and a whole host of other presuppositions, does he not?”

Could you please precisely define what you mean by “justify” and also what do you mean when you say “stand upon a priori beliefs”?

“Of course, the rest of the quote needs all sorts of clarification in order to be meaningful. What is “being” and “existence” according to a Humean worldview and can such a definition be internally justified?”

The entire quote makes sense to me and my intention is not to defend the Humean worldview. Whether you imagine the Humean worldview to provide a coherent definition of “being” and “existence” does not address Hume’s criticism.

“Furthermore, what about those “beings” that cannot be conceived.”

What beings would those be?

C.L. Bolt

Philo, not Cleanthes, represents Hume’s position in the Dialogues, but I’m not really sure what the quote from “Hume” has to do with the Bahnsen quote anyway.

G. Kyle Essary

Agreus,
1. Remove “justify” from the question and it remains the same, “it seems as though he justifies rejects a priori arguments by accepting a priori the utility of reason…” It simply seems odd to me that he would make the argument that it is absurd to make a metaphysical demonstration based on a priori’s when his own argument relies upon many a priori presuppositions.

2. Please attempt to rephrase his argument in terms of your own existence and see if his argument works. If you are daring, try seeing how well his argument works on God. To assume that there is a possible world where God is non-existent is absurd for the powers to conceive of a “possible world” rely on rationality, cognitive function and a whole host of other a priori presuppositions that can only be grounded in God.

This is one area where Reformed and Catholics agree (while disagreeing on all sorts of details to get there). See this reason post by Edward Feser on God and Possible worlds that shows some of the absurdity of even asking the question: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/god-and-possible-worlds.html

Agreus

“it seems as though he justifies rejects a priori arguments by accepting a priori the utility of reason…”

He’s not rejecting a priori arguments, rather he is simply saying that it’s not possible to demonstrate God’s existence through pure reasoning.

“To assume that there is a possible world where God is non-existent is absurd for the powers to conceive of a “possible world” rely on rationality, cognitive function and a whole host of other a priori presuppositions that can only be grounded in God.”

Such is your assertion, though that is not an argument in itself. Unfortunately, I’m going to have sporadic access to the Internet for the next month as I am traveling, and so I may or may not be able to respond to your comments in a timely manner.

C.L. Bolt

Agreus,

Sent you an email. Enjoy your trip.

G. Kyle Essary

Agreus,
Have a good trip. I just returned from a vacation which (thankfully) didn’t afford me the opportunity to go online. Sometimes that’s a blessing.

You say, “he is simply saying that it’s not possible to demonstrate God’s existence through pure reasoning.” Actually, he is attempting to show that the phrase “necessary existence” has no meaning, which is what he concludes in the following paragraph of the Dialogues.

Whereas you accuse me of bald assertion, Hume’s argument falls to this very same criticism. His argument stands or falls on the premise “Whatever we can conceive as existent we can also conceive as non-existent.”

But what are his arguments to support this assertion? He offers none here. I could be wrong, but this is how it plays out in my mind:

Hume: “The words necessary existence have no meaning” (End of Dialogue 189)

Me: Why would Hume think this is true?

Hume: Because “whatever we conceive as existent we can also conceive as non-existent…and [I] am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it” (189)

Me: So Hume can’t conceive of anything as being necessarily existent and therefore nothing is necessarily existent? I’m afraid it’s going to take a whole lot more than that to prove such a crucial point to his argument. What does he offer to support such a claim?

Hume: (nothing)

Agreus

Kyle,

According to Hume, necessary existence is unintelligible simply because necessity is applicable to logic and not existence. Something is logically necessary if its denial would result in a logical contradiction. The most obvious case would be the law of non-contradiction. If we deny the law of non-contradiction, then this results in a logical contradiction. Therefore the law of non-contradiction is a logical necessity (by definition). There is no such necessity found when we deny the existence of objects.

Here is a question I’d like to pose to you though… How is it possible to know if an object’s non-existence will result in a logical contradiction?

G. Kyle Essary

Agreus,
Thanks for the exchange.

First, I’m so glad that you agree that logic is necessarily existent. So many people today disagree and the absurdities that arise from this position are legion. Obviously, I would side with Bahnsen above and suggest that since only by presupposing the Christian God can we make sense of the necessary existence of logic, therefore the Christian God must exist…i.e. if logic, then God. That only brings us back to discussions that you’ve had more than once on this site though, and I look forward to your debate with Chris concerning this very topic.

“How is it possible to know if an object’s non-existence will result in a logical contradiction?”

That’s a good question, but before we go there can you argue why I should believe that we can conceive of anything as non-existent? An interesting paper on this topic can be found here.

Since Hume’s statement stands or falls (and he agrees) on the suggestion that “whatever we conceive as existent we can also conceive as non-existent,” I think it would be good if you discussed how you would support this statement further before we move forward.

Agreus

Kyle,

“Thanks for the exchange.”

The pleasure is all mine. I enjoy these discussions immensely.

“First, I’m so glad that you agree that logic is necessarily existent.”

Logic is necessary as it cannot be negated and logic exists, however I never stated that logic is necessarily existent. Saying x is true is not the same as saying x exists. I’m not sure what you mean by necessary existence, but my suspicion is that it revolves around this confusion. It is necessarily true that it cannot be raining and not raining, but that tells us nothing about what actually exists and the necessity of the existence of logic. To find out if it is actually raining, we look for evidence of rain.

“..only by presupposing the Christian God can we make sense of the necessary existence of logic”

Why must one presuppose the existence of the Christian God? I’m not sure what you mean by “necessary existence of logic”. Logic is necessary, however I’m not sure what you mean by “necessary existence”.

“…why I should believe that we can conceive of anything as non-existent?”

Well, perhaps we should see if it’s possible to conceive of something as non-existent by performing a thought experiment. We both agree that it’s possible to conceive of something, so let’s conceive of someone standing at your front door. Now let’s ask the question as to whether or not that person actually exists, i.e. is there someone actually standing at your front door? We could stop here and say that by even questioning the existence of something we have to consider the non-existence of what we are questioning the existence of, however I’d like to take things a bit further by asking the following:

1) Given that there is a conception of a person at the front door, would you get up and go to the door if:

A) There is some evidence of the existence of the person, i.e. doorbell ringing, knock at the door, footsteps, etc.

B) There is no evidence that there is actually a person at the front door.

2) What would a person’s life be like if they believed conceptions could not be non-existent?

I think your answers to these questions may address the “should” part of “Why should I believe that we can conceive of anything as non-existent?”

G. Kyle Essary

Agreus,
I think I’m understanding your position better, but just to be sure could you clarify a few things?

1. To be honest, my use of necessary existence there was a poor choice because I didn’t mean it in the way that Hume is arguing against. I hold that logic is contingent on the existence of God. I simply meant to deny it would entail and contradiction and it therefore exists by necessity, but not as though it were non-contingent in itself.

From your perspective though, in what way do you understand logic to “exist?” It seems to me that you must understand it as a brute fact of reality (it obviously transcends the physical world, since it bears upon the physical world metaphysically). If it is a brute fact, then I fail to see how it differs from something that is necessarily existent in the meaning of Hume, i.e. non-contingent. Or do you see logic as somehow “emergent?” If so, then I’d love to hear an explanation of this.

But maybe you deny the necessary existence of logic because you deny contingent existence as well? As Peter van Inwagen says in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under “Metaphysics” and I think make sense, “if ‘contingent being’ is a meaningful phrase—, then there would seem to be such an idea as the complement of that idea, the idea of a necessary being, the idea of a being of which it is false that it might not have existed.”

2. I’m not sure I follow your illustration about the person at my door. My question is can you conceive of something that is non-existent. I’m more interested in how it is possible to conceive of anything as non-existent. Whenever you conceive of someone standing at my door you are simply conceiving of a mishmash of existent things are you not? Even if nobody is at my door your conception is based on experience, logic and memory of existent things. Whether or not that particular situation entails is not my question, because it seems that Hume wants to suggest that whatever you can conceive of as existent you can also conceive of as non-existent. I can’t conceive of people or dogs or wallabies as non-existent because my conceiving of them at all requires their existence. I can conceive of them as dead or not in one location at a particular time, but I can’t conceive of them as non-existent (and that seems to be necessary for Hume’s argument to work, right?). I can conceive of the concept of a triangle, but I cannot conceive of the concept of a triangle as non-existent, because my conception of it requires its existence, or at least the existence of the things that make up that concept (i.e. a concept of a unicorn comes from combining existent horses and horns). Could you try fleshing this out some more so that I can get to a point where Hume’s argument even makes sense?

Agreus

Kyle,

“I hold that logic is contingent on the existence of God. I simply meant to deny it would entail and contradiction and it therefore exists by necessity, but not as though it were non-contingent in itself.”

According to you God is a logically necessary being. That means that God’s non-existence would entail a contradiction. That is a rather unusual claim because it would appear that you are defining God to exist. Can you show me how it is possible that we can define supernatural deities to exist?

“From your perspective though, in what way do you understand logic to “exist?” It seems to me that you must understand it as a brute fact of reality…”

I think logic is not only a brute fact, it is self-evident as you cannot deny logic without contradicting oneself. Logic is in fact a precondition for rationality and you must presuppose the truth of logic in order to demonstrate an internally coherent worldview.

” My question is can you conceive of something that is non-existent.”

Yes, where x represents the conception of “a person standing at your door”, I can conceive NOT x, even if I am aware of x. You might be confusing awareness with conception. You can conceive of the concept of a triangle, and you can conceive of the concept of the triangle’s non-existence. You however cannot be unaware of the concept of a triangle even though you can conceive of it’s non-existence. Your awareness of the triangle requires its existence on some level. The only thing that you could not conceive is something contradictory, i.e. a square circle, a married bachelor, etc.

Hume’s point was that a logically necessary being is meaningless because a logically necessary being is a being whose non-existence is inconceivable, i.e. contradictory. Hume suggests that if some specific thing can be conceived, its non-existence can also be conceived. That would render meaningless the notion of a logically necessary being.

G. Kyle Essary

Agreus,
I’m going to leave the first part of your comment to your debate with Chris, which is why I keep avoiding dealing with it directly. Maybe in the post-debate comments we can discuss it, but since I assume that’s one of the very things you will be discussing, there’s no point in hashing it out here.

As for the rest, it has been very helpful to see how you conceive of logic as a brute fact which must be presupposed. Are there other brute facts that you need to presuppose for your worldview? Existence? Objective morality? The existence of a multiverse vacuum state? Just wondering, because it’s interesting to hear other people discuss their perspective. Thanks for sharing yours.

I follow your distinction between awareness and conception, but I’m going to have to think about it some more in regards to Hume’s argument.


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