Presuppositionalism Defended...

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Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Thu Feb 17, 2022 2:40 pm

Hey all...

I used to post regularly on ILP a number of years ago from a Reformed Christian philosophical position. A hallmark of contemporary Reformed philosophy (at least, on the popular level) is something called presuppositionalism.

...an apologetic method codified and promoted by Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til, presuppositionalism tries to take unique epistemological insights from the Reformed theological tradition and ply them in defense of the Christian worldview.

I've spent much of my adult life studying Van Til's unique epistemology and trying to work out its difficulties and bring clarity where needed. I've done this mostly by trying to model Van Til's thought along Selarsian lines - those interested in analytic philosophy will no doubt have heard of Wilfrid Sellars. Bringing Wittgenstein, Quine, and primarily Sellars, into dialogue with Van Til's theological system, has me optimistic about the future of presuppositionalism.

I post this here to feel out ya'll's attitudes towards presup (which, if like most people, will be a sort of casual scoffing and/or dismissal) but also to, hopefully, have meaningful critical and evaluative dialogue on the relevant issues involved. For example: if you reject presuppositionalism out of hand, what are some of the most convincing arguments for doing so?

I appreciate any convo. on the matter...
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Ierrellus » Thu Feb 17, 2022 2:46 pm

Please define presuppositionalism.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Thu Feb 17, 2022 2:57 pm

I intended this to be a sort of orienting description:

...an apologetic method codified and promoted by Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til, presuppositionalism tries to take unique epistemological insights from the Reformed theological tradition and ply them in defense of the Christian worldview.

I know this a little like defining an elephant as "a large animal", but given the complexities involved in the method, it'll be hard to get a picture of it through a mere definition, unless the definition were book-length. In short, however, consider the word "dog".

Dog, without wider linguistic context, is meaningless (presups usually use the jargon: unintelligible). It could be a furry animal. It could be a verb (ie: someone is being doggedly persistent..."Don't dog me, bro!")...it could be a man's name, or it could be a nonsense lyric used to keep time in a song. To make the word intelligible requires a wider linguistic context: "The dog is on the mat."

In the same way, Van Til argues that to know any one fact, including facts about our own internal mental states (our thoughts, beliefs, etc.), requires us to know the wider context of facts, without which, any single, particular fact will be unintelligible (meaningless). The punch line is that for Van Til, to know any one fact about the world, requires us to know every fact. And since no finite mind has access to every fact, we need an omniscient mind to reveal to us a "guidebook" and/or official "summary" view, which for Van TIl was the Christian scriptures. Without presupposing (on faith) the Christian scriptures, we can never find any meaning in any particular fact, or, that is to say: for Van Til, unless one self-consciously appeals to Christian Scripture (or the broader world and life view derived from it through necessary deductive inference), one will never be able to find meaning in any human experience.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby phyllo » Thu Feb 17, 2022 3:25 pm

But people were living fine prior to the Christian scriptures. And people live fine without any knowledge of those scriptures.

Therefore, the Christian scriptures seem to be unnecessary for life and meaning.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Thu Feb 17, 2022 3:54 pm

If Van Til is right, some form of special revelation from a deity must exist in order for us to have knowledge or meaning. If this is true, then mankind would have had access to some form of special revelation from the very start.

-----

Someone might think knowledge is irrelevant to life. For example, it seems an organism can live perfectly well by only having many true beliefs, regardless of whether or not it has any rational justification for any of those beliefs. So it would live out its existence without ever knowing anything but only having true beliefs about things. That may be acceptable for animals but given the curiosity in humans, we might prefer to seek good reasons to hold this or that belief rather than leaving it up to chance. We don't always know if we have a true belief, after all, and most of us don't want to find out the hard way that one of our vital beliefs was false.

So we'd like to have knowledge.

And I think it's uncontroversial to say we need "meaning" as well, or, in this context: broadly intelligible experience (else we wouldn't have psychological integrity. If one "I" experience is unrelated by the context of another "I" experience for us, we wont even be able to have first-person mental states). So we need intelligibility as well.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Ichthus77 » Thu Feb 17, 2022 3:57 pm

Fall semester ends 12/16/22. Apologies if I do not reply immediately.

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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby phyllo » Thu Feb 17, 2022 4:02 pm

Knowledge comes from making observations about the world.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Thu Feb 17, 2022 4:10 pm

An interesting argument against that position might be something like this...

Consider the following two *types* of knowledge:

"I know O" (knowledge of acquaintance, eg: I know Karate. I know Emily. I know the painting.)

and

"I know that P" (propositional knowledge).

To have observational knowledge of the world requires the first type - knowledge of acquaintance. Yet it seems like all knowledge of acquaintance presupposes propositional knowledge. For example, to know Emily is to know *that* Emily has blonde hair (among many other things). So, right off the bat, we're having to deal with a matrix or web of contextualizing beliefs in order for any particular observation to be intelligible.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby phyllo » Thu Feb 17, 2022 4:32 pm

The brain makes things intelligible.

It doesn't require any revelation.

You could say that god created brains. But that's not revelation. Nor is it restricted to one particular god.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Thu Feb 17, 2022 4:42 pm

Hmm...

What about the following sentence:

"Widgets are oogles better than whatsits, but whatsits are only doogles better than wingadings."

...without a dictionary, I'm not sure your brain is going to be able to make that intelligible.
But that just is to say, you'll have to appeal to some objective measure.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby phyllo » Thu Feb 17, 2022 5:06 pm

The objective measure is the world. It's not some divine revelation.

If you have never seen snow or a pineapple or a futon, then you will not know what it is if someone just says the word. But once it is shown or explained, then you will be able to comprehend it. Shown or explained by another person, not god. Personal experience would be better, of course.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Thu Feb 17, 2022 5:24 pm

Well, I think I've gotten you to go from:

"...the brain does it..."

to something broader:

"...we need something like society and the brain interacting."

But if society is, broadly-speaking, the final court of appeal, then there's no way to arbitrate between different societies. We'll be stuck with societal subjectivity. (And if we reflect on why it is there cannot be a final court of appeal to arbitrate between two societies we might realize the same logic will hold for why there cannot be a final court of appeal between any two individuals either - which would lead to total skepticism).

So, to avoid total skepticism, it looks like we need a way to arbitrate between societies...an objective measure and/or norm that applies to all men. A cosmic dictionary, if you will.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby phyllo » Thu Feb 17, 2022 5:48 pm

Well, I think I've gotten you to go from:

"...the brain does it..."

to something broader:

"...we need something like society and the brain interacting."
You brought up language and that's used to interact with other members of society. If there was nobody around then the brain would still make the world intelligible. It would still have knowledge.
But if society is, broadly-speaking, the final court of appeal, then there's no way to arbitrate between different societies. We'll be stuck with societal subjectivity. (And if we reflect on why it is there cannot be a final court of appeal to arbitrate between two societies we might realize the same logic will hold for why there cannot be a final court of appeal between any two individuals either - which would lead to total skepticism).

So, to avoid total skepticism, it looks like we need a way to arbitrate between societies...an objective measure and/or norm that applies to all men. A cosmic dictionary, if you will.
If you go to a country where they speak another language, then you learn the words that they use. You understand that two different words can represent the same thing in the world. You don't need one common language. The physical reality is what is already in common.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby felix dakat » Thu Feb 17, 2022 5:49 pm

Van Til says “ using the language of the one and many question we contend that in God the one and many are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity and diversity in God is no more fundamental than unity. The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another. The son and the spirit are ontologically on a par with the father. It is a well-known fact that all heresies in the history of the church have in some form or other taught subordinationism. Similarly we believe all heresies in apologetic methodology spring from some form of subordinationism”. The Defense of the Faith

So what do you think? Is the rest of the world lost because we are not Calvinists?
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Fri Feb 18, 2022 1:56 am

Phyllo...

It's not my intent in this thread to actually use the presup method with you or to convince you of it. I'm kind of looking for criticisms or insights. I don't consider your counter position (ie: the brain just does it somehow) to be a tenable or serious philosophical position. You'll have a lot of footwork to do to make it work, beginning with answering questions like the ones I raised a few posts back about how observational knowledge can precede propositional knowledge.

Felix...

Van Til was a Calvinist and held to a typically Reformed view of salvation - a view which has faith in the work of Christ as the core tenet, not correct epistemology.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Pedro I Rengel » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:00 am

This holds that context is arbitrary. It could be this, it could be that. But what is one instance of arbitrary context?

Dictionaries don't determine definitions. They attempt to convey them. All the words obviously existed before anyone set out to explicitly define them.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:06 am

Here's a thought experiment for you:

If you place an ice-cube on a tray at room temperature, how do we describe what happens to it?

Was it one object (the cube) that transformed into a second object (a puddle)?
Or was it one object that changed form?
Or were there multiple different objects, coming into and going out of existence with every passing second?

...how we make sense of any state of affairs depends on what scheme of concepts we bring with us to the experience.

Is there a fact of the matter about the ice-cube? Or is there no fact of the matter and we have to be agnostic about what happened to it?
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Pedro I Rengel » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:07 am

Whatever the case, a specific context brought you to the conclusion. It wasn't arbitrary.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Pedro I Rengel » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:08 am

A specific context also brought you to every context that brought you to the conclusion, and so on.

You would need to postulate an instance of an actually arbitrary context.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:09 am

I don't think anyone arbitrarily chooses their conceptual scheme.

...maybe an insane person?

Anyway, It's not a claim of presuppositionalism that people arbitrarily choose their conceptual schemes.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Pedro I Rengel » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:12 am

Here is how I follow what you propose:

All intellegibility requires context.

All context requires further context for the original intelligibility to be upheld.

All context is required for any intelligibility at all.

Underlying this, necessarily, is the idea that context, without knowledge of further context, is arbitrary unless the ultimate source of revelation is held to.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:17 am

That's close, but I'd still quibble with the word "arbitrary" there...

I think there are social and historical reasons why certain people-groups have certain conceptual schemes. But unless there's an objective rule to arbitrate between them all - or to even justify any particular one - we'll be left with complete skepticism.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Pedro I Rengel » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:19 am

Right, but other people aren't my concern, neither did I understand it to be yours at the outset.

My concern is what is required for intelligibility.

You seem to hold that absolute knowledge of all context or, in its stead, revelation from a source with knowldege of all context.

The reason you seem to hold this, other people's opinions notwithstanding, is that without that absolute record, any context is arbitrary.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby shotgun » Fri Feb 18, 2022 3:38 am

I don't know why you keep using the word arbitrary, but I'll let it slide.

Yes, the presup view is that even our own mental states - internal mental phenomena we consider ourselves to have privileged access to - require a network of concepts to make intelligible.

And this conceptual scheme needs to conceptualize every fact.

Consider the problem of meta-inductive skepticism:

We can only ever tentatively hold to any scientific theory since, any moment, some new fact, evidence, data, or argument might come to light that either overturns, or interprets what we thought we knew in an entirely new light.

Accordingly, if our conceptual scheme only extends over a small number of facts, we can never conceptualize any particular fact, or we can only do so tentatively.
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Re: Presuppositionalism Defended...

Postby Urwrongx1000 » Fri Feb 18, 2022 8:41 am

Most people, and it seems most on this forum, do *NOT* believe in an "objective" world where words refer to things or events in that world. These types believe that "everything is open to interpretation". So dog = cat, to them. Their minds are purely subjective. And furthermore, these types must be 'Dictated' to by an 'Authority'. Subjective "thinkers" like this represent the common man and woman, the common human. This transcends religious boundaries. Most Atheists/Agnostics are Subjectivists. Most Theists are subjectivists. So, in my opinion, "God" has little to do with it.

The Presupposition that God is required for 'Objective' meaning and Dictates though.... I don't know if that's what you're getting at?

There might be some truth in this rationale.


Higher intelligences that are capable of 'Objectivity' are certainly rare, at least. So you'd have to pinpoint these individuals concretely, and then link such Objective rationale to Spirituality.

Simply put, ask yourselves: "Why are some rare individuals so keenly and acutely aware of worldly or supernatural phenomena that most of humanity is not and cannot—and furthermore, what are those individuals' descriptions and accounts of Divinity?"
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