Presuppositionalism: The Cancer of Apologetics – Part I – General Epistemology

If, like me, you spend any time at all viewing religious debate on various YouTube channels, either as an atheist seeking to broaden one’s knowledge of apologetic arguments, or as a Christian either seeking to better counter the arguments of atheists or explore one’s own doubts, you have certainly run across the en vogue apologetic tactic, as I prefer to call it, of PRESUPPOSITIONALISM, otherwise known as the Transcendental Argument.

Though not originating with him, its primary modern proponent is Sye Ten Bruggencate (hereafter STB), who is so bold as to call his website Proof That God Exists.  Go ahead and play around with the site for a moment.  When you tire of pigeonholing and artificial manipulation of arguments, come on back here and we’ll discuss in depth this apologetic argument and its proponents’ methodologies.

To be perfectly straight with you, attempting to carry on a reasonable dialogue with a presuppositionalist is usually fruitless.  However, it’s far from pointless as it serves to expose the tactics and fallacies employed by the presuppositionalist to derail dialogue and deflect criticism of their position.  From this the reasonable observer can then evaluate the content of the conversation outside the emotional environment created by such dialogues and debates, and thereby decide for themselves the validity of those arguments.  In the same vein, a live debate with a presuppositionalist should be seen as a means to and end and not an end in and of itself.  Their typical debating style is not one of rational exchange but rather combative and desultory outburst, and the proponent of reason must be diligent to retain their own dialogue thread in the face of these tactics so that the rhetoric can be later combed through for actual premises and arguments that can then be evaluated.

My approach to this criticism of presuppositionalism will be as follows:

  1. General Epistemology
  2. Tenets of Presuppositionalism
  3. Evaluation of Presuppositional Tenets
  4. Rhetorical Tactics of Presuppositional Proponents
  5. Advice for Future Dialogue

PART I – General Epistemology

Now everyone relax.  I’m not going to provide the final answer to how we know anything at all.  However, in order to have a productive conversation with presuppositionalists regarding the existence of any god, veracity of any religious text, and so on, we have to have an agreeable epistemology we work from.  The main reason for that is that a favorite tactic among presups (as I’ll call them from now on, as I’m sick to death of typing that overlong word) is to attack their opponent’s epistemology without agreeing to apply a reasonable standard to their own arguments.  If I’m fortunate enough to have some presups read and attempt to critique this series, all argument starts here.  It also ends here if they are unwilling to agree to a common sense standard of knowledge that applies equally to both parties.

Addressing this issue in this manner, the written word, also subverts a common tactic of presups, which is to use the setting of definitions as the first ground of argument, before the actual topic (i.e.: Does God Exist? Is the Bible a Trustworthy Source of Truth? or whatever theological/philosophical topic has been chosen as the point of discussion) is ever addressed.  I’ve seen entire two hour conversations break down into epistemological sniping matches instigated by a presupper who started the argument before any such rules of dialogue were in place, and who followed that by subverting every attempt by their opponent to address the topic at hand  with an attack on their epistemology.

This explanation of mine will be very much a nutshell type of starting point – not being the actual topic at hand.  We know volumes upon volumes have been written on this topic alone.  While I look forward to any discussion, I refuse to get bogged down by the unreasonable in their defense of the indefensible.

So – how do we know what we know?

For the sake of discussing the Transcendental Argument as it relates to Christianity, from the basic question of the existence of any god to the very specific belief in fundamentalist Christianity, I would like to propose a “common sense” approach to the acquisition of knowledge, with the following rules of engagement:

  1. Each individual is limited in the acquisition of knowledge to that which he/she can acquire by the use of his/her senses or perception as they relate to him/her and the observable universe around him/her.
  2. Knowledge claimed by one proponent can only be judged valid if both the premises and the conclusions are such that any reasonable person can duplicate the conditions of the argument and is unable to reach any conclusion save the conclusion claimed by the proponent.
  3. That any claim regarding knowledge acquired or granted will be measured by the following basic laws of thought:
    1. The Law of Identity
    2. The Law of the Excluded Middle
    3. The Law of Non-Contradiction.
  4. That the Law of the Uniformity of Nature is a valid test of any argument.

Here is usually where one gets bogged down with presuppers, as their primary tactic is to avoid having their truth claims (which we’ll examine later) tested by rational inquiry by asserting an extreme form of solipsism on their opponent (brain in a vat.)  If you listen to a debate online and don’t catch this right away, just listen for the presupper to repeat the phrase, “How do you know that to be true?”

But even that fails to the previous very reasonable ground rules.  For instance, if we’re to examine the aforementioned and overused STB assertion, “You could just be a brain in a vat,” it still fails to the basic concepts of perception.  Because regardless of what could be, we only have our basic natural senses of perception to work from, so that such conceptual speculations are rendered irrelevant.  None of us have the faculty to examine extreme possibilities that would require knowledge beyond that which we are commonly able to perceive.  After all, if I’m really just a “brain in a vat,” whatever input my brain receives within that vat operates under consistent rules by which all interactions operate, so we can conduct arguments based on such rules of engagement without devolving into meaningless mental flagellation, which in any case is engaged in by presuppers as a deflection and not a means to determining the best possible conclusions for the argument at hand.

If we were to ignore such basic ground rules, and the common linguistic bricks (words and their common use definitions) upon which our dialogue is built, then there is no point in discussion at all.  Now, that is usually the point at which a presupper defecates on the chessboard and declares victory, as if confounding their opponents ability to communicate rationally with them is some sort of victory.

In other words, I’m not interested in navel-gazing.  Let’s talk about reasonably perceived reality.  At the point that we’re ready to do that, we’ll be ready to examine the basic claims of Presuppositionalism/The Transcendental Argument, which we’ll get to in Part II.


5 thoughts on “Presuppositionalism: The Cancer of Apologetics – Part I – General Epistemology

    • I hesitate to entertain a clear presuppositionalist inanity, but what the heck.

      Do proceed to describe an alternate means of acquiring knowledge that does not somehow depend on the interface with an individual’s observational faculties.

      • Intuition. Intuitive knowledge is knowledge acquired without direct observation.
        All worldviews have givens – propositions that are unverifiable by observation, which determine how one deals with the phenomena of sensation.

        If it is true that all knowledge about the objective world is emperical in nature – we could never know that it were true, because the statement in question is not itself known as the result of – emperical testing and experience. If all knowledge must be emperical in nature, then the uniformity of nature cannot be known to be true.
        All natural science is then scuttled and so is all argumentation and reasoning as propositions, laws of logic etc are not emperical entities which can be discovered by one of the five senses.

      • freddyfly: Sorry it took so long to respond. Busy and all:

        Givens within worldviews, while sometimes not verifiable per se (take the 22 postulates of Geometry) yet all are still defined and agreed upon as a result of individual and societally confirmed observation.

        Intuition will lead you to belief, but not necessarily to knowledge. If you intuit that between any two given points, there is exactly one line that contains both of them, you can intuitively believe that it is true. It does not yet equal knowledge because such an idea must still be considered and tested. Only when a reasoned attempt to consider the belief has been undertaken, especially to mathematically disprove the belief, can one then call it knowledge, as it is something that is evident without proof in the field of mathematics, to the point that use of such a postulate proves out in more complex results without fail.

        It is still observationally acquired knowledge, even though it is taken as a given.

        And of course you’re simply wrong in the end – because every considered idea is in the context of the the observable universe. Even those things asserted by theists that cannot be seen are defined in contrast to the observable universe. You have only those senses, in that even those things that we intuit are defined, considered, and decided upon by the very use of our own perceptive and inter-relational faculties.

        Even the laws of logic are only defined and understood by natural perception. There is no discussion, there is nothing, outside of our perception. Even when you postulate knowledge acquired by intuition, still you must define it in terms that others can perceive using our natural faculties. There is no alternative.

  1. Excellent article! Just offering an idea here: when addressing the “could you be wrong about everything you claim to know” rhetorical non-argument, my suggestion is to respond by answering a question with a question: have you ever told a lie? If the presuppositionalist doesn’t answer the question, ask them why they’re refusing to answering, point out that their answer fits with their own and simply refuse to answer their question until they answer yours. When they finally admit that they have in fact lied before, point out that by their own absolutist “logic” they’ve abandoned truth and therefore you have no reason to believe them. This answers their “question” that leads to the scripted answer that one acknowledging that he/she is not omniscient somehow means one has abandoned knowledge. They can’t have it both ways: either the possibility of being wrong doesn’t mean that one actually is wrong, much less shown to actually be wrong, or their own admission they have lied means they must be a liar at all times and in all situations.

    As you pointed out, presuppositionalism is purely a rhetorical tactic. Presuppositionalists tend to dominate the conversation, ask all the questions, refuse to answer any question poised to them, refuse to accept any answer given to them, pretend only they get to make presuppositions and to equivocate on commonly accepted definitions such as applying absurd, incoherent absolutist language to simple, well-defined concepts such as “reasoning” and “knowledge.” It seems to me the best way to deal with such folks is to be polite but also to refuse to play along with their script.

    The basic answer I give is I know that I exist, I know that reality exists and I know that my senses are generally reliable for successfully navigating the reality that I experience. I therefore can justify my reasoning. Sure these are based on presuppositions, but they’re simple, straight-forward presuppositions that the presuppositionalist if free to challenge if they wish – but if so, what is their testable hypotheses that any one of these presuppositions is false?

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