Sunday, December 27, 2015

Did Greg Bahnsen Have An Argument?

We come now to the very last paragraph in his opening statement, and now it appears he's trying to get back on track to meeting the first of his confessional burdens. He makes the conclusion of his argument very clear: "The transcendental proof for God's existence is that without Him, it is impossible to prove anything." Now, this is an assertion which needs a defense. It's certainly not self-evidently true, and Bahnsen does not give us any reason why we should accept this claim as opposed to the claim that "without Geusha, it is impossible to prove anything." Does Bahnsen present an argument for his claim? No. Immediately he turns the spotlight back onto "the atheist world-view," claiming that it "is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic or morality." So, not only does Bahnsen not present an argument for his conclusion, he manages to lay another burden on his wagon. It's getting pretty heavy 'bout now. Has Bahnsen proven that his god exists? Not yet. Has Bahnsen proven that "the atheist world-view cannot account for our debate tonight"? No, not yet. He hasn't even presented an argument yet. He's simply asserted the very position he's called to prove, and he's added some more claims to his proof deficit. It seems that Bahnsen doesn't offer a proof here. Rather, we should call this the "Transcendental Poof of the existence of God," for it seems that Bahnsen presumes to have the power to say "poof!" and voilá, “God exists.” That is, Bahnsen's god exists because he wants his god to exist. Where's the argument?

It seems, in the case of his debate with Gordon Stein, Bahnsen fails to present an argument, just as Nick has indicated.

Dawson Bethric

These are the words of Dawson Bethric over at Incinerating Presuppositionalism. Dawson is interacting with Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein. Dawson labels this post, the meat of which you see above in a manner that leads one to believe this is his answer to Bahnsen’s TAG. TAG stands for transcendental argument for God. The idea is that TAG successfully refutes, not each and every other worldview as they come along opposing Christianity, but instead, TAG refutes the non-Christian approach before it can even get started. The argument is takes the form of a disjunction of a contradictory. A v ~A, ~~A, therefore A. Either Christian theism or not Christian theism, not not Christian theism, therefore, Christian theism. Now, the opponent will object and claim that the argument should not be construed as a disjunctive of a contradiction. Hence, the approach to TAG employs a false dilemma. [See Mike Butler’s paper on The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence] What the opponent then must do is show that there are other alternatives available, other paths we can take. But for the Christian, it is either Christ or not Christ. It isn’t either Christ or Baal, or Mohammed, or etc. This is the power of the TAG. It takes the exclusive claims of Christian theism seriously and applies them not only to philosophy but also employs them in reason and in apologetics. It is this that Dawson and every other critic of presuppositionalism must deal with.

Dawson conveniently ignores this argument structure, opting rather to criticize other forms of argumentation employed by presuppositionalism. For example, here Dawson thinks he has something when he mockingly changes modus ponens to Geusha. Bahnsen employs Modus Ponens and Modus Tollens to argue for God. The argument would be framed thus:

Human predication --> God
Human predication
/ God
Human predication --> God
/ ~Human predication

But there is perhaps a better way to frame the argument. After all, A presupposes B is not the same as A implies B.

Human predication presuppose God
/ Human predication * ~Human predication

This latter argument form demonstrates that in order for any truth value to be assigned to human predication or no human predication, God must be presupposed. The transcendental argument is saying that if there is no God, there is no truth value where human predication is concerned. All this is simply to point out that there is a difference in traditional arguments which trade on implication and transcendental arguments which trade on presupposition. Collect is helpful in summary: "However, if God's existence is a necessary condition for the both the truth or falsity of causality, then denying God's existence while results in a failure to predicate anything at all." [Don Collett: Van Til and Presuppositionalism Revisited. See also Strawson, An Introduction to Logical Theory]

Now, Dawson claims that Bahnsen has not made an argument. It is hard to imagine that anyone could listen to the Bahnsen-Stein debate or read Greg Bahnsen and conclude that he has not made an argument. Perhaps Dawson has picked up on Ayn Rand’s method of choosing not to actually engage with opposing views but rather to employ emotion-filled rhetoric in an attempt to counter his detractors. When you read Dawson, ask yourself if he is really dealing with the issues or if it sounds like he is talking to others, making short flashy statements designed to impress the less informed. I am not saying this is the case, but I am saying it is worthy analysis.

I want to turn now to an argument against TAG that Dawson makes elsewhere. And that argument is that TAG commits the fallacy of Petitio Principii, or Begging the Question. In his interaction with another presuppositionalist, Dawson makes the following criticism: “If on the one hand knowledge and logic presuppose the existence of the Christian god, then Premise 1A and Premise 2B contain elements which assume the truth of their respective Conclusions A and B (the existence of the Christian god, or the truth of Christian theism, which assumes the existence of the Christian god), and thus the two models of TAG which Chris has presented are by definition circular.”

Is Dawson’s criticism correct? Does the argument structure assume God in order to prove God? It is one thing for the presuppositionalist to presuppose God as he goes about arguing for God's existence, and quite another for his argument to be structured in that way. The difference is that the former is known as a pragmatic presupposition while the latter is known as a semantic presupposition. There is a clear distinction between the two. [See presupposition in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy] What TAG does is begin with human experience, in this instance, human predication, and from human experience it argues that God is the necessary precondition for the experience of human predication and in order to prove this to be the case, it shows that the contradiction of this view is impossible. What is being argued is that S' is a condition of the truth or falsity of S. This means that to show S false one must presuppose S' and to show that S is true, one must presuppose S'.

Now, Bahnsen would call it the impossibility of the contrary, but by contrary he means contradictory. Additionally, that this is an argument is, as Mike Butler puts it, beyond debate. Whether it is a good argument is a different matter. To answer Dawson’s charge of circularity, however, is not too difficult. As Craig admits, there is more to it than that. TAG is an epistemological transcendental argument. Characterizing it as having vicious circularity or begging the question simply means that one does not truly understand what TAG is doing.
I will structure the argument above a little differently:
If God did not exist, human predication would not be possible.
Human predication is possible.
Therefore, God exists.

What Dawson has done is confused a presupposition of an argument with a premise of an argument. This is just a different way of saying what I have already said about Dawson. Rather than criticizing the argument, he has drifted outside the argument to criticize the presupposition that lies outside the argument. One has to wonder if Dawson thinks that all arguments are free from presuppositions in back of them. If that is the case, then it is hard to imagine any argument surviving the accusation of circularity. And that seems to be something that Dawson has missed entirely. In fact, one does not have to look very far to recognize that Dawson bring his own presuppositions that serve to inform his own argumentation. Funny how that Tiger that has been let out of its cage is entirely indifferent toward the one that let him out. He will tare the man with the key apart just as quickly as he will the one that jeers his captivity. Dawson ends up being mauled by his own Tiger. And if that is not the case, then we are both faced with a toothless, classless pussycat.

In fact, I would say that Dawson Bethric's grasp of what Van Til was doing and Bahnsen after him, by employing a transcendental argument for is terribly confused. As Collet rightly points out in his excellent paper, Van Til and Transcendental Argument Revisited, Van Til was concerned to make sure that Christians employ the sort of apologetic argument that preserves the logically primitive and absolute character of God's existence. This can only be done by starting with the premise that God's existence is the necessary precondition for argument itself. That's right, God's existence is the necessary precondition for argumentation itself. What this means is that the concept of God should function as a logically primitive proposition rather than a logically derived one.

What Dawson never seems to deal with is the "man behind the curtain" of Presuppositional Apologetics. What does that mean? It means that Dawson does not interact much, if at all, with the doctrines of divine aseity and transcendence. If he did, perhaps he could connect those dots. What Dawson, and many, many others fail to understand is that one cannot truly understand Presuppositional Apologetics unless they understand why it exists and what it seeks to accomplish. Van Til's apologetic is designed to protect reformed doctrine and more precisely God's self-contained, independent, and transcendent nature. If this doctrine is correct, and surely it is, then no axiom can be more ultimate than God's existence. Hence, traditional approaches unwittingly argue for God's existence as a logically derivative status, elevating other principles to an unacceptable primitive status inconsistent with basic Christian doctrine.

Once again, Don Collett is helpful: "Indeed, one may go further and raise the question whether finite creatures can begin any argument without making assumptions of some sort or other. The real question is not whether initial assumptions can be avoided, but whether subsequent argument confirms their soundness."

We are just getting started in our review of Dawson Bethric’s blog “Incinerating Presuppositionalism.” I anticipate a few more posts over the next month or two. I am disappointed to find that Bethric's arguments so far have proven to be better rhetoric than they are arguments.

For an excellent response to the criticism of circularity, see James Anderson’s post here.

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