Chat with a Skeptic

I received an email the other day from an atheist whose name I am choosing not to reveal (for reasons I will get to shortly). The email read like a late-night infomercial, complete with a reference to a website, youtube channel, and book for sale. In addition, there came a challenge to debate us over the existence of God. My response was to suggest this individual visit us in our chat channel first so that we could get to know each other, before agreeing to a formal debate. This individual took me up on the offer and paid us a visit. I was not present at the time, but a number of CH staff were there and interacted with this person.

After reading through a transcript of the conversation, and subsequently listening to a youtube video where this individual comments on their interaction with us, I decided it was important to respond. The reason it is important it because this person has decided that God does not exist, that apologists are wasting this person’s time (their own words), and that it is fine if you want to believe in God, but don’t try to prove it because it can’t be done. This is a common theme we hear at CH – people telling Christians it is acceptable (to them) if we say we “merely” believe what we believe, but please don’t try to prove it, because then these anti-apologists have to waste their time responding. I guess they feel it is a duty or something. Considering it is our call to obey God rather than man, we must heed his call for all Christians (not just those who are “officially” involved in apologetics) to offer a reason for the hope that is with in them, and that includes countering criticisms against Christianity. Thus the response.

Now, as to my decision to keep this person anonymous. In researching this individual, what I found was a person desperately trying to make money off the growth of Christian apologetics on the web and in print. The person trumpeted their ability to dissect Christianity and all beliefs in gods (which is not a unique claim), but did so in such an over-the-top, commercially-oriented way, that it was obvious to me and the rest of CH what the true motivation of this person was. So on the one hand I am compelled to respond to their complaints against Christianity, but I am also compelled to do whatever I can to ensure I don’t direct traffic to this person’s site or youtube channel. Thus the anonymity. I may change my mind on this later – or I may not. Regardless, here is my response.

This person offered two major complaints against Christianity and the Presuppositional/Covenantal method. First, there is no empirical proof for the existence of God. Second, the Presupp method is circular in that it claims the Bible is true merely because the Bible says it is true. While both of these complaints have been addressed over and over and over again, both on this site and in the work of other Presuppers, I think it is worth addressing them again.

 

The question of empirical proof.

On the one hand, there is plenty of empirical evidence for the existence of God. It is everywhere. Every single object we see/hear/smell/touch/taste, every single event that happens, every single fact we claim to know … all of them are empirical evidence for the existence of God. Scripture makes it clear that God is the creator and sustainer of all that has been created, and that he has revealed himself to us so clearly through his creation that we have no excuse (no “apologetic”) available to us if we dare claim he does not exist.

But in another sense, there is no empirical evidence for God. What do I mean by this? I mean that we cannot directly see God (the way we see a box of crackers in the pantry), or touch him (the way we touch that box when we pull it out of the pantry), or hear him (the way we hear the crackers shuffle around in their box), or smell him (the way we smell the jam we spread on those crackers), or taste him (the way we taste those crackers once we finally eat them). What am I saying? I am saying God is immaterial – he is spirit. He is not sensed in the same way we sense the material world around us, as he is not a material being.

But wait, you say – God has indeed made himself known in a material way. Didn’t he walk and talk with Adam and Eve? Didn’t he appear in a burning bush? Didn’t he write the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone? Didn’t God appear in a material form in the very person of Jesus? Yes, he certainly did make himself known in a material way – in the past. Although God is spirit, he has shown himself through the material world, in an empirical manner, many, many times. This is recorded in the Bible (as our atheist friend has pointed out). So what’s the problem? Why doesn’t God still do this? Quite simply, because he now speaks to us through his word, the Bible.

It is at this point that many atheists cry foul. After all, if God is able to appear in an empirical manner through the material world in the past, why doesn’t he do it now? Why doesn’t he do it anytime an atheist challenges him to do so? Why doesn’t he just show up so that everyone believes?

It’s pretty simple, actually. The problem is not lack of evidence (recall my first comment about the abundance of empirical evidence for God), the problem is moral in nature. The problem is sin. The same Bible that tells us of all the times God appeared in a “special” way, also tells us that God has revealed himself through his creation to the extent that all mankind does, in fact, know that he exists (even our atheist friend). The same Bible that tells us of the miraculous events that happened at the hand of God tells us that God now speaks to us, in a special way, through his word.

Of course, the atheist will deny they know God exists. They will also deny that the Bible is the word of God. They’re atheists, after all. But yet for some reason they appeal to the Bible as if to say “but look, God has done this in the past, why won’t he do it NOW??”

The problem here for those atheists who take this approach is their inability to level an internal critique. Since we are doing worldview apologetics here (that is what Presuppers do, after all), we set our worldview against the atheist’s for the sake of argument. For the atheist to appeal to one part of the Bible (examples of miracles) for the sake of argument, but be unwilling to appeal to the same Bible for the explanation of why those miracles no longer occur, is to fail to perform an internal critique. To accept miracles (for the sake of argument) but deny the nature of the Bible is to place one foot in the Christian worldview while keeping the other in the atheist’s worldview. That is, it is not to perform an internal critique at all. It is fallacious as worldview apologetics go.

While there is much more to say on this (and much more has already been said), I will leave it to our atheist friend to read what has been written so far.

 

The question of circularity.

The charge of circularity has to be the most commonly leveled charge, and is also the most commonly addressed complaint. I’ll keep it short, since so much has already been written on this topic.

Yes, the Presupp method relies on circular reasoning. However, it does not rely on circular reasoning which is logically fallacious. Any argument for the truth of one’s basic beliefs/ultimate authority/etc is necessarily, in the nature of the case, circular. Why? Because one must always employ their ultimate – their “transcendental” – while arguing for anything at all, including arguing for one’s transcendental. That is the reason such an argument must proceed indirectly and from the impossibility of the contrary. The only sound way to argue for the truth of one’s ultimate commitment, while employing it, is to show that any denial of that commitment leads to absurdity.

This is where our atheist friend completely misses the boat and assumes that Presuppers make a basic mistake as if they haven’t thought through the implications of “admitting” one’s method is circular.

Our friend claims that Presuppers are circular and that this is effectively the death-blow to their method. Our friend also claims that Presuppers know this. I wonder if our friend finds it a bit odd that Presuppers (even those with graduate degrees in Philosophy) are willing to claim that this method is circular while at the same time claiming it isn’t a problem? Perhaps these Presuppers have studied philosophy a bit longer than our friend, are aware of how the history of Philosophy is rife with discussions about this very topic, and therefore might have a good reason (whether they are right or not) to hold to the position they hold. Perhaps our atheist friend is a bit too hasty to blow off this method due to their lack of understanding of some of the most basic (and difficult) questions of Philosophy.

The correct “transcendental” – whatever it is – must, in the nature of the case, be accepted on authority. One must accept it on faith while employing it. If one could prove it without accepting it, then it would no longer be one’s transcendental. However, one can step into a defunct worldview (as our atheist friend lives in, for instance) for the sake of argument, and show that – in principle – it cannot account for the myriad of things being assumed in order to hold a discussion over God’s existence in the first place. The only way to ultimately “underwrite” those assumptions is to appeal to Christian Theism. As Van Til has said – Anti-Theism Presupposes Theism (Christian Theism, specifically).

 

I don’t expect our atheist friend to simply accept what we have said. After all, they are a skeptic. However, I encourage our friend to break out of the mold of most skeptics, and start questioning everything, and not just the existence of God. I have found that skeptics generally aren’t skeptical enough, and our friend is no exception.

BK


8 Comments

Ben

BK,

I don’t see what you hope to gain by employing circular reasoning. Although I winced at the skeptic’s behavior as you described it, nevertheless I must agree with him that circular reasoning is completely unhelpful. If Van Tilians with graduate degrees in philosophy (James Anderson? Others?) affirm that circular reasoning is helpful, well, that should embarrass them severely.

Suppose I want to reason towards some proposition p, and I construct an argument for p—with p as a premise! What is the use of such an argument? Is it supposed to be convincing to me? To others? Is it just supposed to give me more confidence in p? What exactly do you see as the role of a circular argument? For myself, I can find nothing of use in it.

To be charitable, I must assume you are not really using circular reasoning, or at least that you have an easy out from it. Indeed, I see Van Tilians—including yourself just now—argue roughly that since only Calvinist Christianity can “account for” stuff like induction, logic and morality, therefore we must accept Calvinist Christianity on pain of irrationality. This is not an obviously circular argument, but it’s not successful either.

Why not? Because it looks like you don’t have anything definite in mind when you talk about Christianity accounting for things. Until the Van Tilian explains what he means by that, the argument can’t get off the ground. And in those cases where he tries to do so, he invariably fails to justify the resulting premises. For instance, in my latest conversation with a Van Tilian, the fellow claimed that induction must be accounted for in the sense of having some true view of the world entail that it will continue to hold. But then, why should we think that Christianity is that true view? Perhaps this is where the circularity comes into play. But once you appeal to Christianity to justify Christianity, you have given up the ghost.

Meanwhile, I can find nothing problematic in my own views on induction, logic and morality. Worse yet, even if my personal views were shown to be false—and they might be, since I am only human—nevertheless I would not see any reason to prefer your views to other alternatives.

BK

Hey Ben!

Re: circular reasoning – it isn’t an issue of trying to gain something – it is an issue of realizing it is unavoidable. You cannot argue for your foundational beliefs without employing your foundational beliefs, else they wouldn’t be your “foundational beliefs”. This seems rather self-evident. And so yes, we really *are* using “circular reasoning” in a sense (as is anyone else who cares to argue for their foundational beliefs). The question becomes whether the circular reasoning in question (whether avoidable or not) is fallacious when employed *indirectly*.

Consider logic itself – a common example used to clarify what is meant by a foundational belief. If you were asked to provide a *reason* for why you believe logic is what it is and why you use it as you do, could you do so without employing it? No. Of course, the implication of my question (that if you can’t find a reason to use it, you shouldn’t) itself appeals to logic – but that’s just the point I am making here.

As to induction, the real challenge is offering a reason as to why you, Ben Wallis, believe that induction will continue to hold. Specifically, if *your* foundational beliefs are true, is there any reason to believe induction will hold in the future and in different locations? This is exactly what is meant by “account for”. Your foundational beliefs account for your belief that induction will hold, if those foundational beliefs (if true) offer a reason to believe induction will hold. This is the “definite” thing we have in mind when we use the phrase “account for” – my apologies if this hasn’t been made clear to you until now.

As to your views on induction, logic and morality – yes, I realize you find nothing problematic with them. That’s why we have the discussions we do, to try to help you see the problems you don’t presently see 😉

BK

C.L. Bolt

“Suppose I want to reason towards some proposition p, and I construct an argument for p—with p as a premise! What is the use of such an argument? Is it supposed to be convincing to me? To others? Is it just supposed to give me more confidence in p? What exactly do you see as the role of a circular argument? For myself, I can find nothing of use in it.”

“BOLT: You stated that in order to do what you want, you have to assume that induction holds. Is that correct?
WALLIS: Yes.
BOLT: Is that true with respect to the future?
WALLIS: I should think so, using induction.
BOLT: Okay, thank you.”

taco

That was one of my favorite parts of that debate.

Ben

BK,

Sure, I agree that we have beliefs which we might call “foundational” in the sense that if we tried to argue for them we would fail or be driven to arguing in a circle. But the lesson here is that trying to argue for those foundational beliefs is therefore hopeless. We must simply accept those beliefs, and be satisfied with that. The lesson is NOT that circular reasoning is acceptable in those cases.

But let’s return to your argument. You’re saying that, among views of the world, only Christianity accounts for induction in the sense that only Christianity gives us a reason to think induction will hold. But that’s easily shown false by considering any non-Christian view which contains induction holding as a foundational belief. My own view will do, for example. I do not attempt to argue for induction holding. Instead, I simply assume that induction will hold, and that’s part of what defines my view of the world, i.e. it’s one of my foundational beliefs. And since any proposition trivially implies itself, that gives me reason within the context of my own view to believe that induction holds.

BK

If the “lesson” here is that arguing for foundational beliefs is hopeless, then why do you argue for induction as a foundational belief?

Ben: “And since any proposition trivially implies itself, that gives me reason within the context of my own view to believe that induction holds.”

That’s an argument (albeit a hopeless one, according to you) for your belief that induction will hold – a foundational belief to you.

Let’s talk more about accounting for induction. I said the following:

“Specifically, if *your* foundational beliefs are true, is there any reason to believe induction will hold in the future and in different locations?”

I’m not suggesting we appeal to the mere “truth” of a given foundational belief as a reason to believe it is “true” – that’s not at all what I am saying, as such a trivial appeal is fallacious. What I am suggesting is that you ask yourself the question “what is it about this foundational belief that, if true, would give me reason to believe it is true?”. In the case of induction – “what is it about the inductive reasoning process that, if true, would lead me to believe that the inductive reasoning process is a valid approach to reasoning about the world around me?”

Furthermore, you cannot look at a given foundational belief (induction, in your example) in a vacuum. That is, while you can only discuss one foundational belief at a time, you absolutely must discuss all foundational beliefs (i.e. your “presuppositions” or your “worldview”) as a whole. Foundational beliefs must not be inconsistent with one another, nor can any one of them be held to arbitrarily. If either of these cases were true, the foundation crumbles.

BK

Ben

BK: “If the ‘lesson’ here is that arguing for foundational beliefs is hopeless, then why do you argue for induction as a foundational belief?”

I don’t! I’m simply telling you that it is one of mine, and that I am satisfied with it. In other words, you seem to have misconstrued me, because you write:

BK: “That’s an argument (albeit a hopeless one, according to you) for your belief that induction will hold – a foundational belief to you.”

But, again, I’m not arguing that induction holds, or that we should take induction holding as a foundational belief. Rather, I’m saying that given the truth of my foundational beliefs it follows trivially that induction holds.

Apparently, though, that’s not what you’re after. For you write:

BK: “What I am suggesting is that you ask yourself the question ‘what is it about this foundational belief that, if true, would give me reason to believe it is true?'”

There is no such reason. Indeed, none of us have any reason to think induction will continue to hold. And that’s okay—we don’t need a reason. It is enough that we have no reason to deny that it will continue to hold.

So on the intended interpretation of your argument, it’s true that my view fails to give me a reason to think induction holds. But then it’s also true that your view fails to give you a reason to think induction holds.

BK

Hmm … perhaps I misunderstood you, Ben.

But, again, I’m not arguing that induction holds, or that we should take induction holding as a foundational belief. Rather, I’m saying that given the truth of my foundational beliefs it follows trivially that induction holds.

Are you contrasting the objective truth of whether or not induction holds, with the subjective belief that it does, based on other subjective (foundational) beliefs you hold to? I’m really not trying to misrepresent you here – I want to be sure what you are saying.

Or are you saying something else?

If you are saying the foundational believe “induction holds” leads trivially to the conclusion that “induction holds”, then you are offering a conclusion that matches the initial belief. You are, though inadvertently, offering a (circular) argument for this foundational belief, especially when you use the phraseology “that gives me reason …”.

Anyway, I don’t want to get too hung up on this, because there is a much bigger issue to deal with.

You say …

… none of us have any reason to think induction will continue to hold.

and

… we have no reason to deny that it will continue to hold

So, what I hear you saying (hopefully I am getting this right) is that you neither have a reason to believe it will hold, nor do you have a reason to believe it will not hold. That is, you have no reason to hold to one belief or the other.

Oddly, then, you say this …

It is enough that we have no reason to deny that it will continue to hold. (emphasis mine).

But you also have no reason to deny that it will not continue to hold. So how can it be “enough” to say you have no reason to deny that it will continue to hold. It isn’t enough – because there is nothing, based on your foundational beliefs, to lend weight in one direction or the other. You are making an arbitrary choice, and then saying “it is enough” to hold to that choice, when you have no reason to hold to that choice.

Now to the “we” part.

it’s also true that your view fails to give you a reason to think induction holds

Do you even know what my view is? I mean, I can see you arguing that just because my view offers a reason to believe induction holds, it doesn’t mean my view is true, or that it is exclusively true. But saying my view doesn’t offer any reason to believe induction holds really seems to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of my view.

BK


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