On Presuppositionalist Apologetics
by Ben Sackenheim
Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
April 8, 2019
Many readers may not even be familiar with this term, but you will need to know it because if you are involved in the messy business of counterapologetics for long, you will eventually encounter it. Presuppositionalism is a drastically different method of apologetics from what has traditionally been practiced in the past 100, and even 15 years at time of this writing. But you had better learn how to deal with it, because it is going to turn up at some point, and if you have not studied it, you will likely not know how to handle it when it does.
So what is it? Presuppositional apologetics in Christianity is an apologetical method that presupposes the Christian god, and the Bible as his infallible word as the foundation for all other knowledge, and that without such a foundation, no one would be able to know anything. They use knowledge to mean absolute certainty, and they contend that without presupposing the Bible is true, one literally could not know anything including that one is not the only mind that exists or that one is not living in a simulated reality (two philosophical problems that are known formally as hard solipsism, and the Brain in a Vat problem, respectively). They further presuppose that everyone already has knowledge of the Christian god, and merely profess to disbelieve by suppressing the knowledge of god that they already have. They do not offer arguments and evidence to persuade people of god because that would be making man the judge instead of having god as the judge in their view.
Why is it as effective as it has been? It is a novel approach, much like a new chess opening such as Grob’s attack. It is effective not because it is logically valid, but because it is such a bizarre way to argue that those unfamiliar with it will not know how to counter it, just like how a pet opening in chess may surprise even an experienced player, but a sophisticated chess engine can show that even an opening that has won games is fundamentally broken or losing when the opponent plays correctly.
Presuppositionalism derives this novelty and surprise by exploiting what is unexplored territory for the vast majority of people: the foundations of logic itself. I would wager to say 99% of people live their entire lives making inferences, inductions, and deductions from an intuitive understanding of the Logical Absolutes, to include the Law of Identity, which states that A is equal to A, that something is what it is and it isn’t what it is not. Indeed, what a trivial thing to say. It is so trivial that practically no one would question why A is equal to A, and so when asked how one knows this to be the case, most people would have only a blank stare as a response. Presuppositionalists know this and try to paint a narrative that only theirs provides a foundation for having absolute certainty. “I have a foundation for knowledge where you can’t even know that you’re not a brain in a vat.” The Brain in a Vat Problem and the Problem of Hard Solipsism have long plagued philosophers for centuries. There is no known solution to these problems – they represent the limits of our knowledge, and philosophers are honest about this. Thus, someone claiming to be able to solve these problems would appear to have an advantage, though it doesn’t mean that they actually can solve these problems.
Before we can get into these problems and the reasons why philosophers can’t solve them, it is important to understand the motivation behind presuppositionalism. You are under no obligation to argue with a presuppositionalist, as their method is not about having an honest conversation. If you have to defend your position by calling into question the basic axioms of logic itself, you have gone horribly wrong somewhere. It is an interesting thought experiment to contemplate the foundations of logic, but then to use this as an argument for a patently absurd conclusion is dishonest in the extreme, especially when both parties in the argument already accept the laws of logic as being true in the first place. They are not trying to convince you or have a real dialogue; they are trying to shut down the dialogue and silence all legitimate criticism against their position, and they do so by calling into question something that almost everybody doesn’t know how to defend, so that they are met with a blank stare from which they will declare victory. I have spent much more time than I probably should arguing with presuppositionalists, and I know the conversation will never be resolved, because no matter what their opponent says, they can always respond “how do you know that?/Are you absolutely certain about that?/How do you know your reasoning is valid?” I have these conversations out of pure masochistic interest to examine and pick apart their arguments, even though I will never convince them of anything. What follows is what I have learned from such interactions.
Their enterprise is constructed from several pillars, but the one I wish to examine first is the idea that everyone actually knows that the Christian god exists, and those who profess to be non-believers are merely suppressing knowledge that they already have, in their own wickedness. They see this as a strength, but they do not realize that to everyone who does not believe, they have essentially proven their worldview to be false before we even examine everything else. I can’t prove to another person that I do or don’t believe in x, y, or z. But I can prove it to myself as I am the only one in a position to know what I do believe, what I do know, and conversely what I do not believe and do not know. When someone tells me that I know something that I do not know, they have shown to me that they are either lying or they are mistaken. Having dealt with this, it justifies the idea that I can know their worldview is false, and I could just stop and go on about my day. Everything else is just the icing on the cake, strategies for showing to others why their worldview is problematic, incorrect, and even dishonest.
The next thing to consider would be the way that they define knowledge as absolute certainty. People are free to use whatever definition they want for whatever word they want, and it is never wrong, it can only fail to reflect the most common usage. This is because words are merely tools to communicate ideas, and so the dictionary is not an authority on what a word means; there are no authorities on what a word means because words themselves don’t have meanings. We have meanings when we use words to convey them, according to a mutually agreed upon understanding. I beg the reader’s indulgence in this pedantry pageant, but it is necessary. The definition most commonly used by philosophers for “knowledge” is “justified, true belief.” This is also the definition that I use. Therefore in order to know something, there have to be true things in order to know, that it would be possible to believe those things, and that one has a justification for believing those things. Notice that none of these three require absolute certainty. Now a presupper reading this might be tempted to ask how I know that there are true things. However this is covered because “there are true things” must itself be a true thing, since if it were not true that there were true things, that would also have to be a true thing. In order for this not to be the case, logic itself would have to not be valid… this is where presuppositional apologetics leads. In order for them to have any case at all, it would have to be within the realm of possibility that logic were not valid. Let that sink in for a moment. Now of course presuppositional apologists do in fact accept the laws of logic as being true and valid. They just contend that they alone can justify it, where the rest of us have no foundation for believing logic is valid. But if they accept logic is valid for reasons that they think are justified, and we accept logic without having a good justification, it shouldn’t matter. So long as they accept logic, they should accept our conclusion that there are true things in this case, especially that they believe that god existing is a true thing, and they claim that we professing non-believers also know this to be true. I will deal with how one justifies logic more later on.
I just spent some time defending why knowledge need not have absolute certainty as a criterion for constituting knowledge. That being said, people are free to use whatever definitions they like, and if a presuppositionalist wishes to define knowledge as requiring absolute certainty, they are welcome to it. It just means that we are not talking about the same thing. But there is something more sinister going on here that often gets ignored. Presuppositionalists claim that god reveals things to them in such a way as to where they can be certain. But they miss the point that I can be absolutely certain about something, too. It just doesn’t guarantee in any way at all that what I am certain of is actually true. I have seen many debates involving presuppers, and I don’t recall this point being brought up. It is possible to be absolutely certain about something and still be completely wrong, so why should it matter to me whether or not they claim that they can know things with absolute certainty?
A Brain in a Vat
Almost every philosopher will tell you that it is impossible to know with absolute certainty that we are not living in a simulated reality, and there are even some philosophers who argue that we probably are in a simulated reality! Philosophers have gone on to show why it wouldn’t really matter if we were in a simulated reality. The fact of the matter is we have to deal with whatever reality we are presented, even if it is a simulation, until someone shows us a way to get out of the simulation. And even then, we would be faced with the same problem all over again, having to wonder if the reality we escaped into was also a simulation. As was just said, it doesn’t affect our lives in the slightest. From our perspective, the simulated reality is reality.
Presuppositionalists claim that if we cannot even know that we are not a brain in a vat, that we cannot know anything. The first thing to point out is that this is false; we can still know things that happen within the simulation if it is in fact one. Presumably, they fancy themselves able to know that they are not in fact brains in a vat, and that this information is revealed to them by an all-knowing god. In fact, they say that this is the only way they could know that they are not just a brain in a vat, if it were revealed to them by someone with perfect knowledge.
Dillahunty’s Dirty Water Filter
Matt Dillahunty, popular skepticism advocate a host of The Atheist Experience television show, counters this idea with an analogy of a dirty water filter. If you pour pristinely clean pure water through a dirty water filter, it doesn’t really matter how clean the water was when it went in, it is going to come out dirty. In the same way, even if it were true that there were an all knowing being with perfect knowledge, that wouldn’t change the fact that we do not have perfect knowledge, senses, or even cognitive faculties. If we did, there would be no presuppositional apologetics. So even if god imparts his perfect knowledge onto us, we still cannot fully trust our senses that we are in fact looking at perfect knowledge. It is not an issue with the software; it is an issue with the hardware. When a presuppositionalist asserts the Bible as the foundation for knowledge, and that it is the perfect infallible word of god, we can actually humor them by granting this to be true. It still remains the case that they have to rely on their own senses to know that the words in the Bible they are reading are actually there, and not just a hallucination.
Is God a Solipsist?
Everything up to this point has been showing why even an all knowing god couldn’t impart perfect knowledge with (justified) absolute certainty onto beings that themselves have cognitive flaws. Yet it turns out there is no reason to grant an apologist their assumption that god is all knowing. Not just because they merely define god as being all knowing without justifying how they know he is, but that there are reasons to think that it is in fact impossible for god to know everything, at least with absolute justified certainty. This would be the case if god couldn’t know that he is not a brain in a vat. It turns out this presents some very interesting ideas that apologists might not have considered.
Can god really know he isn’t in a simulated reality in which he is god? I contend no. If god is a conscious being, then that means there is a conscious experience of what it is like to be him, as that is what consciousness means. Presumably, god alone experiences what it is like to be him, and I think most religious people would agree with this. Yet if god is indeed all powerful, then it would be possible for him to upload that experience, complete with memories of having created the universe etc., onto another being, which would cause that person to be in a simulated reality in which he or she were god. That person would have no way of distinguishing between actually being god and merely being in a simulated such reality. And if this is the case, that god could do this to us, someone could have done this to god, and god would have no way of knowing. It is for this reason that the Brain in a Vat Problem functions very similarly to the mathematical operation of multiplying something by zero. (X)x0 = 0. Notice how it doesn’t matter what you put in the parentheses for X, it is always going to come out zero. So too for this.
Are there any valid objections to this line of reasoning? I have only seen two attempts ever given. The most common is the lazy way of just defining god as being all knowing. But this is question begging and circular. I just gave a reason for why god cannot in fact be all knowing, so to merely reassert that he is solves nothing. Remember, I can define god as a potato if I want to, but there is nothing about being able to define something in way x, y, or z that means one’s definition corresponds to anything that exists in reality. Define things however you like, as I said before, it doesn’t matter what you put into the parentheses. It isn’t the quality of X itself that creates or stops this problem. It is a characteristic of the operation itself of multiplying by zero, and the Brain in a Vat Problem is just something that goes along with consciousness, similarly.
The other objection that I have seen to this is that it isn’t possible for god to deceive someone since that goes against his nature. This is a rather creative way of trying to avoid the problem, but it is multiply problematic. It presupposes a Christian theological concept of god, that isn’t even necessarily Christian. Though modern Christian theologians often believe god can’t lie, the Bible does say otherwise. Exodus says that god hardens people’s hearts, Jesus says he speaks in parables to deliberately stop people on the outside from understanding, and 2 Thessalonians in context says:
…10and with every wicked deception directed against those who are perishing, because they refused the love of the truth that would have saved them. 11For this reason, God will send them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, 12in order that judgment will come upon all who have disbelieved the truth and delighted in wic