Essay:On presuppositional apologetics

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This essay is a refutation of this post by a Christian apologist (Nathaniel Claiborne). Since I will quote from the passage repeatedly without thoroughly explaining each quote, might would be best to read the original passage first. (Quotes from Claiborne's post are in italics, the rest is my commentary.)

Claiborne opens his post with the declaration Being a Christian entails a commitment to the authority of God and His word. Before even getting an argument off the ground, a person has embedded in their thinking some personal authority. Whether or not this entity is recognized by the person in question as their ultimate authority is a different issue, but one has to possess some kind of ultimate authority. For the Christian this authority is God. There isn't much to be argued here, but this is an important point to remember as we discuss the rest of Claiborne's argument. What this essentially means (though Claiborne might not admit it) is that his epistemology, which he generalizes as Christian epistemology, is based upon the fundamental assumption that God exists. There is no evidence to support this claim, it is simply a presupposition.

Claiborne continues, When a Christian and an atheist (or any non-Christian) engage in argument, it will be these personal authorities that come into conflict. Or as Bahnsens says it, “Disagreements in world-view (the axis of metaphysics-epistemology-ethics) will finally reduce to an absolute antithesis in personal authority.” I won't argue with this, since it is pretty much correct. But let's not forget the paragraph above; keep in mind that the Christian authority is ultimately based upon an unprovable assumption.

Having made wild assumptions about the epistemic authority of atheism, Claiborne turns the discussion to morality. What emerged in the discussions on Hitchens was that all of the atheists that commented relied on majority opinion as the authority to authorize ethical principles. This is frankly ethnocentric and ignorant of both sociology and world history. For one, this makes ethics completely relative to one’s current time and location. It also eliminates the ability to ethically critique another culture’s majority opinion on a matter as being “wrong.” Let me be very clear about this: this majoritarian view is not repeat not characteristic of all atheists. Even if it were, however, that has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand. When determining the truth of a proposition, your own opinion of what you want to be true should have no relevance. For example, if I am debating whether the Earth is round or flat, the fact that I would rather have a flat Earth because it would make cartography easier means nothing. That is magical thinking. Now, if I were really mean, I could address the issue of racism, which Claiborne brings up as example of the supposed problems with atheist morality. But for the purpose of keeping this short I won't do that.

The post then moves to its inevitable conclusion: ...the beginning of any argument (logically, not necessarily linearly) is a personal authority not previously argued for. When the atheist and Christian have worked there way through all the twists and turns and find an impasse, it is at this clash of ultimate authorities. The question then becomes, “Whose ultimate authority is actually capable of making sense of reality?” and at that point the argument for the Christian at least, turns to an argument from the impossibility of the contrary (or at least one centering on the preconditions of intelligibility). In other words, for illustrative purposes, the atheist’s ultimate authority is presupposed and then demonstrated to be unable to make sense of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. This is wrong for the exact same reason the statement quoted in the paragraph above is wrong: just because you want a proposition to be true or it makes more sense to you personally, that has no affect on its validity. Also, recall that the Christian authority is based upon an assumption, whereas rationalists such as myself do not do so. Instead, I (I will not be so arrogant as to say "we") use the idea that hypotheses can be tested by experiment (warning: link to Eliezer Yudkowsky) as the foundation for rational epistemology.

Claiborne continues, Many times, the atheist will refuse to follow the line of argumentation that is starting (logically) with his own presuppositions, not because it is inherently illogical, but because he is dissatisfied with the end result. This is because he does actually know that God exists, even if he verbally refuses to admit it. By not following the logical conclusion of his own arguments, he condemns himself as either inconsistent, or as failing to actually believe what he claims to believe. In other words, Claiborne is saying that all atheists are really hiding their true beliefs from people for some insidious reason. Though there is often a disparity between what people say and what they believe, this is utterly absurd. Not everyone buys into circular presuppositional logic, and to assert that they secretly do is a bit ridiculous. As the many articles on this site show, people believe in all sorts of crazy things.

And finally: Either way, in the end, I still claim that every atheist knows that God exists, not because I’m clever and I think I know something, but because my ultimate authority makes that claim. Romans is very clear in the first chapter that all men know God exists and some will attempt to suppress the truth. This argument is so circular that it is making my head hurt. Claiborne ends the post by reducing the whole argument to a "God says so" claim with nothing to support it except a Bible quote.

To summarize: Claiborne points out that atheists and Christians are using different epistemologies. Ok, fine. Then he asserts that because the atheist's epistemology (which is a gross generalization and a strawman) does not explain morality as easily, it is inferior to the Christian one. This is not fine, for reasons I explained. Then he concludes that atheists really do believe in God because they must acknowledge the inferiority of their authority and because his authority (the Bible) says so. This is also not fine because his own argument is more circular than the one his is accusing atheists of making. Conclusion: presuppositional arguments are, well, presuppositional. But we knew that already.