The New Presuppositionalists

I have noticed as of late that there is an increase in discussion amongst atheists about the subject of presuppositions. I think this is just great. After all, one of the most difficult tasks in debate (formal or otherwise) with unbelievers is getting them to understand the role that presuppositions play in their thinking. We've talked about this here at Choosing Hats in great detail, both in posts and in our Bible Study on Bahnsen's "Always Ready". This is the good news.

The bad news is that I do not believe that these same atheists understand how completely foundational these very presuppositions are to their reasoning process. Despite their concurrence that such things exist, and their commentary about the role they play, the atheists that I have read or listened to fall prey to the same thing many Christians do - assuming the very presuppositions they are defending, without the realization they are doing so.

Presuppositions exist at many levels, but it is the foundational ones (those which are most basic) that I am interested in highlighting here. It is just the nature of these particular presuppositions that makes them impossible to step outside of while evaluating them. For the Christian, the most basic of all presuppositions is the existence of God. That means that logically speaking it is not possible for a Christian to evaluate anything at all without ultimately presupposing God, including the belief that God exists. This is, after all, the very source of the complaint of circularity against those presuppositionalists who employ TAG.

The unbeliever has their basic presuppositions, too. One of the most basic is the belief that they are able to reason without a foundational appeal to the God of the Bible. It isn't that they necessarily deny God's existence directly as part of their reasoning process, but rather it is the fact that they presume to even question whether God exists at all. Doing so implies that they believe it is possible to know at least one thing (whether or not God exists) without ultimately relying upon God to answer that question.

Van Til uses the analogy of a telescope, where the telescope is God and the star is any fact that a person wishes to investigate. The epistemologically self-conscious Christian will always look through the telescope anytime they wish to investigate a "fact". The unbeliever on the other hand attempts to look directly at the star without the aid of the telescope, thinking they will be able to have an accurate view of the fact. The real problem is uncovered when the "star" in question is the existence of God.

The unbeliever assumes that there is no telescope that is required in order to determine whether there exists a telescope which is required to "see" any "fact". They attempt to look directly at the "fact" of the star in order to see whether or not there is a telescope which is required in order to see any facts at all. The problem is self-evident. If the Bible is true and such a God as this exists, the unbeliever is never going to conclude that such a God exists simply by looking directly at the "stars" (i.e. using un-aided human reason).

This is, to me, the clearest example of a foundational presupposition that no matter how hard they try, the atheist cannot *logically* "put aside" in order to question whether or not God exists.

-- BK

More on John Loftus and Control Beliefs

A recent post by Chris not only gained my interest as a contributor, but also the interest of the individual whose article Chris was commenting on. This led me to dig a bit deeper into the article referenced at to see what all the fuss was about. In doing so, I came across a rather interesting treatise by John Loftus on why it is unreasonable to be a Christian.

Due to the size of the article, and the limits I currently have on time (which I hope will be lifted once the new year comes around) I have determined to respond to just one paragraph from a single section that Loftus titles “Philosophical Reasons (1)” for not being a Christian. I chose the paragraph I did because it demonstrates a variety of problems that I find with his line of reasoning.

To provide some context for the paragraph I critique in a moment, consider what Loftus says early on in his article:

“Let me begin by talking about "control beliefs"—beliefs that control how one views the evidence. Everyone has them, especially in metaphysical belief systems where there isn't a mutually agreed upon scientific test to decide between alternatives. While we are largely unaware of them, they color how we see the world. Whether regarded as assumptions, presuppositions, or biases (depending on the context), they form the basis for the way we "see" things. As Alfred North Whitehead noted, "Some assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know that they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them."”

On the one hand, I am very excited to see Loftus speak about “control beliefs” or “presuppositions”, as there too many on both sides of the debate don’t realize they exist, and don’t realize the impact they have. Furthermore, I specifically like the term “control beliefs” as it makes the point so clear that these beliefs actually do control, to a great deal, the conclusions that we come to. On the other hand, I don’t think that Loftus notices that these very beliefs control his own argument against Christianity to the point that he engages in circular reasoning on more than one occasion.

Here then is the paragraph in question, broken into individual thoughts, and my comments on each:

“For instance, Christianity claims that God is a triune God, though no simultaneously orthodox and reasonable understanding of the Trinity seems possible.

As Loftus never tells us just what he believes is unreasonable about the Orthodox view of the Trinity, I am going to have to go out on a limb and guess that it is the claim that there is one God existing as three persons. If I am correct in my guess, then I am stymied as to what Loftus finds unreasonable about this. Unless he misunderstands the position (as some do) to mean that God is both 3 and 1 at the same time and in the same sense, I see no grounds at all for his charge of unreasonableness.

“Though Christians usually think of God as a free agent, God is not free to decide his own nature.

The question over what it means to be a “free agent” has been argued for a very, very long time. Christianity itself has different views, although I believe the Bible clearly presents a compatibilistic (i.e. non-libertarian) view of the will. What this means, in short, is that people are free just as long as they are not coerced in the choices they make. Furthermore, their choices are themselves ultimately determined by their nature. For instance, God cannot lie, as it is not within his nature to do so. Unregenerate man cannot help but sin, because it is his nature to do so.

Whether or not Loftus agrees with me on the nature of the will, he is clearly arguing from within his own set of control beliefs (or beliefs derived from them) when he claims that God cannot be properly called a “free agent” as God is unable to determine his own nature. The Bible states otherwise, and for Loftus to argue that his set of control beliefs are more appropriate based on appealing to his own definition of “free agent” is ultimately begging the question.

“Though conceived of as a "spiritual" being that created matter, no known "point of contact" between spirit and matter can be found.”

This is nothing more than an argument from personal conviction. The inability to identify the metaphysical mechanics behind how the material and immaterial interact does not, in and of itself, lend credibility one way or another. It only appears to do so from within the set of control beliefs that one is relying upon. The control beliefs Loftus subscribes to has an “answer” to this issue, but so do Christians, namely that God is ultimately behind any and all interaction of not only the material realm, but the immaterial as well.

The most that this objection can do for Loftus is further convince him that his set of control beliefs are correct, when already viewed from within his set of control beliefs. It doesn’t do anything to the Christian who has their own answer as well.

“Though Christians take it as a brute fact that God never began to exist, if we apply Ockham's razor a simpler brute fact is to presume that nature itself never began to exist.

It is no more “simple” for Loftus to assume the universe has always existed than it is for a Christian to assume that God has always existed. For the Christian, the existence of God is the most basic and ultimate control belief, and so any other explanation is going to be more complex (i.e. it will introduce unnecessary entities). For Loftus, God is by no means the most basic control belief, and so any introduction of God into anything at all will always seem more complex than leaving him out of the picture entirely. Loftus appeals to a non-Christian set of control beliefs in framing his argument, and therefore ultimately begs the question at hand.

“God evidently never learned any new truths and cannot think, since thinking demands weighing temporal alternatives.”

It is true that God has never learned any new truths, as learning something “new” implies you did not know it prior to learning it. Given that God is omniscient, there was never a time he was in a position of needing to learn anything at all. I’m not really sure of the relevance of this to the discussion. It certainly isn’t a reason, even from within the control beliefs that Loftus subscribes to, to believe God does not exist.

As to God’s “thinking”, Loftus makes a general assertion as to what thinking demands, without apparently ever giving thought to what the Bible says about God’s own thoughts. Furthermore (and more importantly) he apparently does not consider what the Bible says about his own thinking process as an unregenerate individual. The very fact that Loftus believes he can accurately evaluate God against some standard external to God himself demonstrates quite clearly that Loftus is again framing his argument from a non-Christian set of control beliefs, and therefore (once again) begging the question at hand.

“This God is everywhere, yet could not even know what time it is since time is a function of placement and acceleration in the universe; or if timeless, this God cannot act in time.“

I will not address this particular item at this time and in this critique, as the question of the nature of time, what it means to be timeless, etc. is an extremely complex subject and is worthy of a separate discussion. However, lest Mr. Loftus think I am conceding this point, let me make it clear that I am not. I believe he is guilty of the same problem as seen above, arguing against something by appealing to a contrary set of control beliefs, and therefore begging the question.

I will address this item in a separate post as time permits.

“He evidently allows intense suffering in this world and does not follow the same moral code that he commands his believers to follow.”

How does God’s allowing of intense suffering in the world (which he most certainly does) make it unreasonable to believe in God? If Loftus is attempting to argue the Problem of Evil here, then he should spell it out in detail. A passing allusion to a common argument against God, especially one which has been refuted time and time again, is insufficient.

As to God following the same code he has given to all mankind (not simply his believers), why is this an issue for Loftus? Rather than argue whether God does or does not follow this code, or whether he should follow it if he does not, I would like to know why it would be a problem if he did not? How would this make it any less reasonable to accept the existence of God as a control belief?

“And so on.”

Loftus seems to imply here that there are even more “reasons” to accept his set of control beliefs over those of the Christian, yet he doesn’t share them with us. I certainly appreciate the fact that we all must stop writing at some point and move on to other priorities, but “and so on” is a mere statement of opinion - it doesn’t give us anything to evaluate, and so it adds nothing of any substance to this discussion.

I have no doubt that I make my own set of assumptions about Mr. Loftus in this critique, given that I know very little about him, and have read very little of his writings. I hope that he will feel free to correct any misrepresentations I may have made, and that he will also feel free to interact with those of us here at Choosing Hats.

-- BK

John Loftus On Control Beliefs

Recently I found this article - written by John Loftus. Due to my current very limited access to the Internet I only have the time and means to make a few brief comments concerning the “control beliefs” Loftus “adopts” as described in his article. It is my contention that those who reject the Christian worldview are horribly inconsistent with what they state with regard to their own would-be epistemological systems and that this is especially evident in the case of John Loftus.

At the core of the “argument” Loftus makes is a discussion of “control beliefs” which he defines as “beliefs that control how one views the evidence”. As Loftus further describes these beliefs a recognition that these are essentially the same things as presuppositions arises. Thus, there is occasion to congratulate Loftus on his recognition of the importance of presuppositions before moving on to critique what he sets forth as his own control beliefs.

Loftus writes that according to his view everyone should approach both religion in general and Christianity specifically from the “default position” of skepticism. Whether Loftus here refers to skepticism with respect to religion only or to skepticism in a broader sense is unclear. If it is with respect to religion only, the question should be raised as to why religious skepticism rather than a broader form such as global skepticism is to be our starting point. Global skepticism is a much more appropriate position for those who reject Christianity, but we will assume that Loftus is referring to religious skepticism. How Loftus determines that religious skepticism is a default position escapes me, but aside from this the assertion appears to contradict some of his later claims regarding sociological factors allegedly determining religious belief. Of course, Christians will reject the idea that religious skepticism is a default position anyway, resting instead upon the biblical truth that everyone knows the Christian God, even Mr. Loftus. Perhaps such a statement will make non-Christians cringe. Afterall, the Christian belief that everyone starts from the knowledge of God (rather than skepticism) seems far too convenient for Christians to claim. However, this belief does not differ on the surface from the claim made by Loftus that religious skepticism is a default position as far as convenience is concerned. To assume that skepticism is a default position is to beg the question against Christianity. Loftus has merely asserted that religious skepticism is a default position but has not shown it, runs into problems when this assertion is coupled with the “Sociological Reasons” section of his article, and assumes his own position of non-Christianity from the start while being unwilling to permit Christians to assume their own position. Nevertheless more problems appear even if what Loftus has so far presented is accepted as true.

Loftus submits that anyone “who subsequently moves away from that default position [of skepticism] has the burden of proof, for to accept a religious set of beliefs is to accept a positive truth claim”. We shall concede the point that those who are not religious skeptics certainly carry a burden of proof, but if Loftus means to imply that the religious skeptic has no burden of proof then he is mistaken. One cannot simply assert the negation of religious truth claims without reason and expect to carry any intellectual credibility. Certainly Loftus should concede as much as he proceeds to offer justification for his position in his article as well as elsewhere. There is much more to be said on this subject, but more time will not be given to it here.

Loftus claims to derive two more control beliefs from his supposed default position of religious skepticism. The first of these is that there “is a strong probability that every event is a natural one to be explained by natural forces alone”. Loftus never explains in his article how this second control belief is derived from the supposition of religious skepticism, and the rejection of religious claims does not necessarily lead to accepting naturalism. Now Loftus may point out that he only claims a strong probability for naturalism, but this does not follow either and even if it did Loftus does not explain how.

The third control belief Loftus claims for himself is that the “scientific method is the most reliable (and probably the only) guide we have for determining the truth about the world”. Again we should ask how one derives this control belief from the premise of religious skepticism. It sounds nice, and it surely is a popular mantra in our unthinking “scientific” culture, but the idea that rejecting religion leaves one with science and vice versa is the result of one of the most absurd false dichotomies plaguing the philosophy of religion today. For some odd reason many atheists think they have a sort of monopoly on all of “science” and Christians are entitled to not a shred of it. This seems to be the case regardless of how truly ignorant the unbeliever may be of the field of science. Loftus refers to “the” scientific method, as though there is only one resulting from a rejection of religious truth claims. This could actually be rather humorous given the history of the philosophy of science. There is really no way to know, at least as far as this part of the article is concerned, what philosophy Loftus follows when it comes to science and the scientific method. What the scientific method is simply is not as clear as the average high school science textbook would make it out to be. Philosophical concerns await the scientist at every turn, though the scientist often wants to have as little as possible to do with them.

Nothing is given to substantiate the claim that the scientific method is the most reliable guide to truth apart from the religious skepticism from which this claim is supposedly derived. How one is to derive a specific view of scientific method from the rejection of religious truth claims is, again, totally unclear. However, the same lack of justification exists when it comes to an explanation of how the reliability and sufficiency of the scientific method are derived from the rejection of religious truth claims. Further, let’s assume for a moment that Loftus is correct and the scientific method (whatever that is in his view) is the only reliable guide to truth; how would we ever know? That is, we must assume that the scientific method is a reliable guide to truth in order to find that the scientific method is the only reliable guide to truth. The assumption is not based upon anything other than blind faith. Of course we are unable to get even this far, as the very statement “[the] scientific method is the most reliable (and probably the only) guide we have for determining the truth about the world” is not itself scientifically testable. It is impossible to scientifically justify science. Science rests upon a great number of assumptions found outside of the scientific realm. In addition to the aforementioned problems, this control belief is unable to account for much that Loftus desires to appeal to in the various disciplines he lists as titles and proceeds to utilize in his failed explanation for why he is not a Christian.

Supposedly Loftus requires sufficient evidence or reasons to justify truth claims, but throughout his article Loftus makes plenty of assertions without such justification. The control beliefs he lists as being his own are arbitrary, self-frustrating, unable to account for what he writes, and do not appear to be logically connected to one another as he claims. Loftus claims that his control beliefs bias him “against dogma and superstition” but one must conclude that his control beliefs are little more than unbelieving, unsubstantiated dogma themselves.