Apologetics to the Glory of God

Ben Wallis on Van Tilian Presuppositionalism (Updated)

UPDATE: Ben Wallis has edited his post to reflect his take on my concerns. See here – http://benwallis.blogspot.com/2012/02/reasonable-doubtcasters-on-van-tilian.html?showComment=1330427431782#c5897980217578008803


I like Ben Wallis, and he takes some really interesting angles in philosophical discussions, but I fear we often talk past one another.

Perhaps I am missing something in Ben’s most recent post, but his comments there appear less than fair. You may read the post in its entirety here – http://benwallis.blogspot.com/2012/02/reasonable-doubtcasters-on-van-tilian.html.

In that post, Wallis praises the recent work of the Reasonable Doubts podcast that pertains to presuppositional apologetics. Essentially, the hosts there appealed to Michael Martin’s TANG, Mitch LeBlanc’s commentary on that argument, and texts of Scripture where God allegedly contradicts his own morality. There is not much there to be overly concerned about, but I will save such assertions until after I have addressed the content of the podcasts at length, whether in the form of podcasts, posts, or debate. I am currently waiting on a response from Justin and Jeremy as to whether or not we can work something out to help both sides in this discussion.

Wallis summarizes the aforementioned podcasts as follows:

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.

Now, it appears as though Wallis is suggesting that non-Christians not only can, but should rely upon transcendental argumentation in order to justify their presuppositions. Perhaps he is using different words to describe this move, but that is what I am getting from his first point. If Wallis does intend to make this claim, it will be interesting indeed to see how he fleshes it out in practice. Offering “non-religious” transcendental arguments in response to skepticism is nothing new. But maybe I have misunderstood Wallis.

Then, Wallis goes on to make the same assertion that he has made many times before that presuppositionalists do not offer, “any solution to the philosophical problems.” Obviously I would disagree, and I do not know what difficulty Wallis is having understanding the presuppositional response to philosophical difficulties. (That is not a shot, that is a question regarding particulars of what Wallis is saying.) For example, Wallis raised the question of the eschaton in his discussion with Brian Knapp on Goodness Over God, to which Knapp responded by upping the ante and addressing the potential difficulty of miracles. I can only hope that Wallis would not repeat such objections once they have been answered, or at any rate would acknowledge that answers have been provided, whether he finds them sufficient or not. (And if not, why not?) Perhaps Wallis is referring to the objections raised by the recent Reasonable Doubts podcast though, and since I have not responded to that internal critique yet, I will let this sit where it is.

What I want to address is the addition of a third point of contention with presuppositional apologetics offered by Wallis.

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 don’t typically offer any valid or cogent argument for their central views, namely the truth of Christianity or the existence of God. Instead, they most often rely on a rhetorical strategy for use in debates, dialogs, etc., aimed at making non-presuppositionalism look silly.

While I have come across my fair share of presuppositionalists who do not make what is readily discernible as a valid or cogent argument for their central views, I find that this is equally true of all positions, whether presuppositionalist, evidentialist, theistic, or atheistic. However, this is not typically the case. Rather, it is typically the case that those on the receiving end of a presuppositional apologetic misunderstand the nature of a transcendental argument which is, long before it is Van Tilian, a particular type of argument proposed by various philosophers throughout the history of Western philosophy including such great thinkers as Aristotle, Kant, Strawson, and Grayling (none of which are, to my knowledge, Christians). As James Anderson rightfully, but perhaps somewhat uninterestingly (were it not for general ignorance of transcendental arguments) notes, transcendental arguments are a family of arguments. There is no one “right” way of stating a transcendental argument, much less the so-called “Transcendental Argument for God.” Further, I do not know where Wallis gets his oft-mentioned notion that presuppositionalists are merely out to make “non-presuppositionalism look silly,” but it is not pertinent to the current discussion, and I will move on.

What is troubling about the comments above is the example Wallis subsequently provides when he writes, “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.” After quoting a portion of Bahnsen’s opening statement (to be quoted from another source momentarily), Wallis goes on to write, “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 criticising 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.

But Bahnsen clearly did make an argument for the existence of God, whether one accepts that argument or not, and so I am afraid I must disagree with Wallis. Here is the relevant quote from Bahnsen’s Opening Statement in his debate with Gordon Stein, followed by a brief explanation of it by Knapp:

“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.” (source)

In this statement Bahnsen not only calls out the specific “form” of argument he plans on using, he also explains how he intends on defending the transcendental premise, by appealing to the “impossibility of the contrary”. And then, in Bahnsen’s second opening statement, he lays out his justification for claiming that the non-existence of God is (logically) impossible

“Dr. Stein proposes an atheist world view. I propose a Christian theistic world view. There are other proposals out there that may want their evening to debate as well. I’m maintaining that the proof of the Christian world view is that the denial of it leads to irrationality. That is, without the Christian God, you cannot prove anything.” (source – emphasis mine)

Bahnsen then proceeds through the remainder of the debate to give examples of how a denial of Christianity leads to absurdity, specifically in the areas of logic, morality and induction. You may not agree that the examples he gave were compelling, but to say he never presented an argument is a clear demonstration of a failure to understand just what a TA is and how it operates.

Knapp appears to agree with my earlier observation that many misunderstand the nature of a transcendental argument, and hence raise the objection that there was no argument at all. But there certainly was an argument!

What concerns me more is the next claim from Wallis that, “Similar examples can be found in my debates with Chris Bolt and Jamin Hubner (I recommend the transcripts of these rather than the audio versions, since I’m not really a great speaker).” I listened to the Hubner vs. Wallis debate only once, and I was cycling in heavy traffic, so I did not catch much of it at all and will not comment on it. However, I would argue that I am rather familiar with my own debate against Wallis, and someone would have to skip virtually everything I said in order to think that I never made an argument in that debate. Again, perhaps I have misunderstood Wallis, but I do not think so.

Wallis pauses to tip his hat toward James Anderson:

I should mention, however, that every great once in a while Van Tilians genuinely attempt to construct actual arguments for their beliefs. These arguments generally 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

It is more than every great once in a while! Again, the examples of the Bahnsen vs. Stein and Bolt vs. Wallis debates were not good examples of what Wallis is hoping to show, and so Wallis has not really substantiated his assertions about the supposed lack of presuppositionalist argumentation. To be fair, Anderson obviously demonstrates that he does possess a knack for situating old Van Tilian thought into the often much clearer context of analytic theology and philosophy with the result that he pushes the Van Tilian approach to apologetics forward especially with respect to pragmatic usefulness and academic acceptability. Why, though, does Wallis see an argument in Anderson but not in my own debate presentation when I quoted one of Anderson’s formulations of the transcendental argument as a summary of what I had been arguing up to that point? I do not pretend to know the answer to that question, but if Anderson made an argument, then I did too, and I will add that (contrary to Wallis) it was perfectly valid, whether or not it was sound.

Finally, Wallis writes, “However such arguments, to the extent that they depart from the Van Tilian strategy, cannot rightly be called Van Tilian.”

In rarer cases the argument reflects a deeply Van Tilian apologetic, e.g. in Don Collett’s brief argument based on Bas Van Fraassen’s supervaluations. However this is very much the exception, and not the rule.”

Again, unless I have misunderstood Wallis, I have some real qualms with what he is asserting, for Wallis appears to be resting upon the No True Scotsman Fallacy. Consider the person who asserts that Scottish people are selfish. None are generous at all with their money. But then someone mentions the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Surely he was generous. The reply is that Carnegie is no true Scotsman. No true Scotsman is generous!

Likewise, the Van Tilian apologetic contains no argument. But then Anderson with Greg Welty publish a paper called ‘The Lord of Non-Contradiction’ in Philosophia Christi. The paper contains what sure looks like an argument. The argument even sounds a lot like some of the things that Van Til might have said. The reply is that the argument departs from the Van Tilian strategy. No true Van Tilian apologetic contains an argument! I could be very easily persuaded that Wallis is not saying what I ascribe to him here, but he is not very clear about what he means when he mentions, “the extent that they depart from the Van Tilian strategy.” Doesn’t the strategy of Van Tilians determine the Van Tilian strategy?

Ben is generally a nice guy, and a good thinker. I hope he has not given in to the temptation to dismiss Van Tilian apologetics with the bold, unsubstantiated assertion that no argument is found therein.


2 responses to “Ben Wallis on Van Tilian Presuppositionalism (Updated)”

  1. James Anderson Avatar

    Thanks for this, Chris.

    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.

    But no one familiar with Van Til’s statements on apologetic methodology should accept 1 (see http://www.vantil.info/articles/vtfem.html#AIII2 for some documentation).

    I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to find myself on the receiving end of the No True Scotsman fallacy, since I lived most of my life in Scotland and married a Scottish gal, but I wasn’t born in Scotland to Scottish parents. 🙂

  2. Ben Avatar

    Prof. Anderson,

    If you wish, I offer a more detailed explanation of my position in the comments section of the post in question. The short version is this: I appreciate your concern, but the argument you mention is definitely NOT what I had in mind. I am aware that you are a Van Tilian, and that Van Tilians can and do offer arguments.


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