Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Richard Howe's Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism: Part 2 of 2

In his second point, Howe says, “He [Van Til] seems to think that unless the nonbeliever correctly links the elements of his knowledge of the world to the Creator of those elements, he has not understood any of those elements at all.” Once again, Howe’s paper would have at least been considered respectable had he fairly represented Van Til and Bahnsen. Being a student of presuppositional apologetics, I can say with absolute confidence that Howe has either, failed to interact with their materials, or he is deliberately misrepresenting them. This is unfortunate, but not surprising. What presuppositionalism says is not that the nonbeliever has no knowledge at all. Rather, it says that he does not know things, as he ought to know them and he ought to know them as being the objects of the creation of the one triune God. Howe criticizes Van Til’s epistemological approach but fails to lay out his method for how humans can and do know anything at all about reality.

Howe leaves me with the impression that what he fails to see, is not that presuppositionalism gets its ontological and epistemological wires crossed, but rather that presuppositionalism accuses classical apologetics of refusing to begin with basic presuppositions and instead, it proceeds to direct arguments that rest upon the very presuppositions it should first call into question. In other words, Classical Apologetics waits until it is too late in the game, if ever, to challenge the basic presuppositions of the non-Christian worldview. “A direct argument is possible between two people who share relevant assumptions.”[1] Howe conveniently ignores this very basic aspect of presuppositionalism, or so it seems. Howe then charges that the only difference between the theist and atheist is in terms of their degree of knowledge. But this is patently false. It is not just a matter of degree. Instead, it is more a matter of quality. The noetic effects of sin have had devastating epistemological consequences from which man cannot recover on his own. In addition, the knowledge that unbelievers do possess of the world around them is revelational in nature and is derived only as a product of God’s common grace. God has not left us entirely ignorant.

Howe argues that unbelievers need a map, his analogy for arguments and proofs, in order to know God exists while Van Til and Bahnsen argue that unbelievers already knows that God is there. “The knowledge that all men have of God because of natural revelation provides the framework or foundation for any other knowledge they are able to attain.”[2] I do not need a map in order to know that Atlanta exists. I knew Atlanta existed long before I ever saw a map of it. I don’t need a map of the universe in order to know that I am on this planet.

Howe then contends that just because man may be estranged from God, it does not follow that he is estranged from reality itself. Howe argues that this reality may serve as a reference point for the non-Christian to find God. I would contend that God is not lost to the non-believer and that is precisely the difference between us. The Psalmists said that even if he makes his bed in hell, God would be there. Additionally, I cannot help but wonder what Howe means when he says reality. Does he think that there is such a thing as reality that does not require human interpretation? Does Howe believe that brute facts exist? Can man’s interpretation of reality actually be neutral? There is no such thing as neutral reality. Brute facts are a myth. Every fact must be interpreted. If every fact must be interpreted, then that interpretation must take place as an act of the human mind. The mind is involved in interpretation. And if the mind is darkened by sin, blind, and ignorant, then how does that not skew one’s interpretation of reality? Does Howe think that it doesn’t? He seems to think precisely that.

The final point I want to address is Howe’s criticism of TAG. Howe argues that the argument from the impossibility of the contrary is not a logically valid way in which to demonstrate the truth of Christian theism. Howe points out that in “Standard categorical logic, while contraries cannot both be true, they can both be false.” Does Howe really think that Van Til or Bahnsen have the traditional square of opposition in mind in their argument for God? The problem with Howe’s analysis is that he understands Presuppositionalism to employ the “impossibility of the contrary” in a very technical sense. This may or may not be the case. Either way, I think Howe is seriously mistaken. Howe is correct when he says that contraries cannot both be true but they both could be false. For instance, one could say that WV will beat Marshall, and another could say that Marshall will beat WV. Both of these statements could be false but they cannot both be true. The game could end in a tie. This is what we mean by contraries. However, there is a problem with understanding Presuppositionalism in this way. A necessarily true proposition cannot possibly be false and so cannot have a contrary, because two propositions can only be contraries if they can both be false.[3] Hence, contraries only apply to contingent propositions.

If necessarily true statements cannot be false, then this begs the question, what is a necessarily true statement? A necessarily true statement is true by definition. All circles are round. All squares have four sides. These are necessarily true statements. What does Presuppositionalism mean when it says that Christian theism is true because of the impossibility of the contrary? “The presuppositional challenge to the unbeliever is guided by the premise that only the Christian worldview provides the philosophical preconditions necessary for man’s reasoning and knowledge in any field whatever…Any position contrary to Christian theism, therefore, must be seen as philosophically impossible.”[4] The impossibility of the contrary refers to the impossibility of making human experience intelligible, to include reasoning and doing philosophy. That human beings experience and that we reason are necessary truths. You cannot deny them without engaging in them. That God exists is also a necessary truth. You cannot deny Him without affirming Him. This is the crux of presuppositional apologetics. Therefore, Howe is simply mistaken in his accusation that presuppositionalism commits this logical blunder.

The final objection I wish to address is Howe’s assertion that Presuppositionalism only works if the laws of logic are antecedent to Christianity. Howe contends that if presuppositionalism argues that the truth of Christian theism must be presupposed in order for the laws of logic to be valid, then one cannot use the laws of logic to show Christianity to be true. This line of argument is based on Howe’s misunderstanding of how presuppositionalism traverses along the apologetic map. Presuppositionalism does not call upon the laws of logic to prove that Christian theism is true. Presuppositionalism calls upon Christian theism to explain why the laws of logic work the way they do. Secondly, presuppositionalism indeed calls upon and makes swift use of the laws of logic in its dismantling of the non-Christian worldview in all its appearances, reducing it to absurdity in all its renderings. Howe is attempting to place presuppositionalism in a simple dilemma. But it is a false dilemma. We take the one horn of the dilemma and respond that we do not rely on the laws of logic in order to establish the truth of Christian theism. Rather than the laws of logic being antecedent to Christian theism, presuppositionalism contends that God is antecedent to the laws of logic.

In summary then it seems to me that Howe does not quite understand the nature of Presuppositionalism. If he understood the nature of this approach, he would not have expected presuppositional apologists to assume they are mistaken for argument’s sake. While he never came out directly and made this request, the general tone and overall thrust of his criticism certainly carries that force. Presuppositional apologetics indeed argues that God is necessary in order for one to deny His existence. One cannot even begin to talk about the non-existence of God without presupposing the God that is necessary to the very experience they intend to drawn upon in order to deny Him. If the non-Christian worldview cannot demonstrate how it can make the connection between the general and the particular, it cannot even find the entrance ramp for philosophical discussion, let alone defend its truth claims. Classical apologists, like Richard Howe, ignore this critically important component of the apologetic discussion. Only Christian theism can make sense of the relationship between the general and the particular. Unless we presuppose the truth of Christian theism, human experience is wholly unintelligible.



[1]. Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburgm NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 485.
[2]. Ibid., 181.
[3]. Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen, and Kenneth McMahon, Introduction to Logic (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011), 177.
[4]. Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, 5-6.

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