Sunday, November 12, 2006

Interesting Article on Debating Presuppositionalists

Gene Witmer is a philosopher at the University of Florida who has recently written a paper critiquing presuppositionalism. It appears that the paper is not a formal paper intended for publication in its current form, but rather is a preprint prepared for a "talk" to the Atheist, Agnostic and Freethinking Student Association at the University of Florida.

I have always had mixed feelings about taking presuppositionalism seriously. On the one hand, it appears that presuppositionalism is not taken seriously by the majority of Christian philosophers, as evidenced by the conspicuous absence of any articles defending the transcendental argument for God's existence in respected journals like Faith and Philosophy. On the other hand, there are many Christian apologists who use a presuppositionalist approach in debates with atheists, so a hard-hitting critique of presuppositionalism is a useful resource for atheist debaters.

While I think the overall quality of the essay is good, I did notice at least two problems.

1) Witmer quotes Paul Copan on the relationship between atheism and morality, in a way that implies that Copan is a presuppositionalist. I'm 95% confident that Copan is not a presuppositionalist, so in that sense the article is a bit misleading. On the other hand, it would not be too difficult to find similar quotations from bona fide presuppositionalists, so Witmer's general points still stand.

2) Witmer lambasts Barker's debate performance against Manata as "terrible," but he never really gave specific reasons to justify that rating of Barker's performance. In fact, he didn't discuss Barker's arguments at all! I haven't seen or heard that debate, so it is possible that Barker's performance was "terrible." Since Witmer doesn't give details, however, it is impossible assess Witmer's reasons for that assessment.

17 comments:

Hallq said...

If you're interested in criticisms of Barker's performance, I suggest James Lazarus' write up.

Dan Doel said...

Much as it pains me to say it, Barker didn't do a particularly good job in that debate. I think some people let the fact that Manata's arguments are nonsense color their view, and make them think that Dan did better than he actually did. The fact that one's arguments are too silly to ever convince anyone doesn't necessarily mean that they did a poor job on the debating part, or that their opponent did a good job pointing out said silliness.

Hallq said...

Right on.

Jim Lazarus said...

I've posted some comments about this post, that can be read here:

http://consolatione.blogspot.com/2006/11/should-we-take-presuppositionalism.html

Paul Manata has likewise written some comments on this post, found here:

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2006/11/should-presuppositionalism-be-taken.html

- Jim

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Jim wrote: "the fact that it [presuppositionalism] is not taken seriously by them [Christian theologians], or hand-waved away, is no good argument for the idea that we shouldn't take the argument seriously."

This point is not of obvious relevance to my post, however. True, I did mention the lack of peer-reviewed defenses of presuppositionalist approaches to apologetics (such as in the Christian journal Faith and Philosophy). But I mentioned this as an example in a negative sense, i.e., whatever reasons there may be for taking presuppositionalism seriously, one of those reasons is not the respect it gets from the majority of Christian philosophers of religion. That is very different from arguing, "Presuppositionalism generally (or the transcendental argument for God's existence specifically) isn't taken seriously by most Christian philosophers; therefore, it shouldn't be taken seriously."

With that said, I'm certainly not locked into the position that presuppositionalism should never be taken seriously. If there are big changes in five years, as Jim suggests there might be, then we might indeed need to take it seriously in the near future. I consider this to be an empirical issue and will wait to see what happens. The key point, I think, is that theists have proposed such a variety of arguments for theism that critics of such arguments can hardly be criticized for focusing on more widely accepted theistic arguments.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Paul Manata wrote: "So, don't take us seriously, please. Ignoring us only helps us, and since we're theists, we need all the help we can get!"

Cute. :) But the sort of examples you provide aren't what I was talking about. I should clarify that when I was talking about "taking seriously" the presuppositionalist approach to apologetics, I was primarily talking about the idea of publishing a peer-reviewed, academic article critiquing presuppositionalism. (In fact, much of the content of my original post came from a private email to the Secular Web discussing the merits of publishing additional articles, like Witmer's, that critique presuppositional apologetics.) I don't fault Paul for not understanding this, since I did not make that point clear in my blog post.

The question of whether atheists should publish additional academic articles criticizing presuppositional apologetics is a separate question from how hard atheists should try to refute presuppositionalists, once they have decided to do so at all. Obviously, if you're going to debate a known presuppositionalist, you need to understand the apologetic method and come prepared with serious objections. If an atheist debater is unwilling to do that, they shouldn't be debating a presuppositionalist in the first place.

Daniel said...

Jeff,

You can download the debate here:
http://ia310107.us.archive.org/2/items/atheism_theism_debate/manatabarkerdebate.mp3

Regarding (1), you may indeed be right about Copan's views on PS. However, he certainly argues like one:
here and here

Regarding (2), you did not seem to catch on p.6-7 that Prof. Witmer directly deals with one of Barker's biggest mistakes:
One can try to foist upon
one's opponent certain commitments that they don't actually have, or that they can easily avoid, anyway. A nice example of this is found in the Manata/Barker debate I mentioned earlier. Manata pointed out that Barker makes this claim:
The only way to know anything is through scientific methods.
Manata points out that if this is true, then we can ask how it applies to itself. Do we know this claim? If so, then we must know it through scientific methods. Yet it's hard to see how that can be right. If we don't know it, then it seems that by his own lights, his view is incoherent. This is a good criticism. What should Barker do in response? Simple: He should drop that sweeping claim about how we can know things. It's naive and implausible besides leading to such internal incoherence.


Dan Barker did not address the foundation for human dignity and value, he denied that logic is metaphysically ultimate, etc. There were some good reasons for Prof. Witmer to say that he did a poor job.

Daniel said...

Jeff,

Sorry that first link seems too long. The Manata-Barker debate is available at this webpage under this .mp3 link at the moment.

I would also recommend listening to Prof. Witmer's interview with Pastor Gene Cook on UnchainedRadio last week. I have made that file available here.

Best regards,
D

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Daniel: thanks.

John W. Loftus said...

I always find it interesting when one claims someone won a particular debate. A debate is not much different than an athletic contest, or a pool tournament. Just because someone thinks a person won doesn't say anything about the issues themselves. See here, and here.

the metaphysician said...

Allow me to offer a theistic perspective on this issue (of whether presuppositionalists should be taken seriously).

I believe that if they really want to be "taken seriously" by intellectually sophisticated nonbelievers and atheists, presuppositionalists need to get serious themselves and more of their leading voices actually need to earn Ph.Ds (preferably in philosophy). Seriously.

I can literally count on the fingers of ONE hand (and have some to spare!) the Christians who are both presuppositionalists and have gone on to earn a Ph.D in philosophy so as to be better equipped to think on the issues germane to various aspects of presuppositionalism, e.g. "the transcendental argument for the existence of God" (TAG). It would be nice if the day would come where I actually needed the fingers of TWO hands to count the number of said presuppositionalists.

Some presuppositionalists might say that the very nature of presuppositionalism--with its emphasis on the antithesis of biblical Christianity and secularism--precludes a presuppositionalist from going to secular graduate programs and earning such degrees. Perhaps that is correct. And perhaps that (fact about "antithesis") also explains the fact why even Greg Bahnsen--who managed to finish a secular Ph.D program at USC--never chose to publish defenses of presuppositionalism in secular journals SUBSEQUENT to completing his Ph.D.

I refute that idea thus: Hogwash. Maybe the world is not yet ready for a full-blown defense of the entire Christian worldview using a presuppositional, (Christian-)theistic transcendental argument. But I can't believe that no academic philosophy journals, especially one with an emphasis in philosophy of religion (e.g. Faith & Philosophy, Philo, Philosophia Christi, Religious Studies), wouldn't publish a solid, well-written and rigorous presuppositional "internal critique" of some non-Christian worldview.

In an age where similar, quasi-presuppositional arguments like Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism" and Reppert's "argument from reason" (to name but two examples) ARE being taken seriously and getting published in various peer-reviewed philosophy journals, there is no longer a good excuse for why a similar type of thing can't happen with a more mainline presuppositional argument.

Having made the case for why more presuppositionalists should earn Ph.Ds (in philosophy), let me say this: going through such a program definitely tends to dull one's presuppositional edge. Especially if one gets trained in a department that is strongly "analytic" in its orientation, one develops the technical skills necessary for properly assessing the presuppositionalist's TAG itself (as it has been usually formulated since Bahnsen). And--speaking for myself as a former "hardcore vantilian presuppositionalist"--when one turns one's critical eye on that argument itself, one might end up seeing it for what it is: a loose metaphor (or an illustrative example) posing as a successful theistic transcendental argument, and not the promised argument itself.

In short, what presuppositionalism needs is more rigor and less sloganizing (and navel gazing). Please, let's actually try to improve upon Bahnsen, not simply to treat him as an end-all-and-be-all of things presuppositional.

the metaphysician said...

I just re-read my last comment and I think it came out sounding rather harsh and disparaging against presuppositionalists (and presuppositionalism) of the vantilian stripe. Despite its tone, I was trying to be helpful. I guess I was just wenting my frustration over the fact that there aren't more presupp'ers who are willing to do for their apologetic view what Christians like WL Craig, JP Moreland, Gary Habermas, etc. are willing to do for classical apologetics.

On a brighter note, the deplorable situation I mentioned in my last post is being addressed by men like Greg Welty and James Anderson. I consider them (along with David Byron, whereever he may be these days) as being the future stars of presuppositionalism who might actually go beyond Bahnsen.

OK, I'm done venting. :)

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Regarding the alleged lack of pubication on the transcendental argument, perhaps this is evident in Faith and Philosophy. Faith and Philosophy is very light on arguments for the existence of God overall. Skimming through their online archive I cannot find anything on the moral argument, teleological argument, or aesthetic argument.

But the TAG gets comparitively heavy rotation lately in the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. The articles below argue for and analyze various versions of the transcendental argument for God. These are fairly recent and this is one of the major journals in the field.

Sami Pihlström, ‘Pragmatic and Transcendental Arguments for Theism: A Critical Examination’,
International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 51 (3) (June 2002): 195–214.

D. P. Baker, ‘Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: A Transcendental Apologetic?’, International
Journal for Philosophy of Religion
47 (2000): 155–174.

D. P. Baker 'Morality, structure, transcendence and theism: A response to Melissa Lane's reading of Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self', International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 54 (2003): 33-48

Baker has also published the following article in Explorations in contemporary continental philosophy of Religion: ‘Imago Dei: Towards a Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God’, in Baker D.P.
and Maxwell, P. (eds.)(Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2003)

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Metaphysician -- excellent posts. Thanks!

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Bilbo -- I've obtained copies of the articles you cite. After quickly skimming them, I'm not sure they are relevant to the issue at hand. I've never questioned the validity of transcendental reasoning as such; what is at issue is (among other things) whether the so-called "Transcendental Argument for God's existence" (TAG) has been defended in any peer-reviewed journals of philosophy. I don't think your assessment of Faith and Philosophy is correct: I just read a defense of the moral argument by C. Stephen Layman in a recent issue. I have seen discussions of versions of cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, arguments from miracles, the argument from the Bible, and the (atheistic) argument from evil. I don't make any claims regarding the frequency of such content, however.

In any case, I find it interesting that such defenses are not only missing from Faith and Philosophy but also from Philosophia Christi. Don't presuppositionalists self-identify as evangelicals?

Regarding the articles you cited,
Pihlström appears to discuss a transcendental version of the moral argument, not TAG. More important, his article does not provide an optistimic endorsement of the argument he does discuss. He writes, "We have at any rate come very close to the thesis that theism cannot be rationally demonstrated or even defended to an unbeliever or skeptic at all. Insofar as any arguments, pragmatic or transcendental or both, can be given, their relevant audience will already have to be committed to theism."

Along the same lines, Baker's paper on Taylor also doesn't appear to provide a defense of TAG, but it does seem to end on a down note. Here's an excerpt, taken from the conclusion:

"I have tried in this paper to show that an investigation into Taylor’s moral realism in Sources could lead to a reading of that work as a transcendental argument for a theistic moral account of our moral phenomenology. I have also tried to show that there are several difficulties that beset this reading and which make this specific account of a transcendental apologetic strongly problematic. However, many of the problems are specific to the context of Sources, and it is not impossible that the difficulties with more general applicability could be somehow negated or circumvented."

Baker's paper probably goes the farthest of the three journal articles, in the sense that it tentatively reaches an optimistic conclusion regarding the argument it does discuss. Again, however, that argument is not TAG.

The Baker chapter discusses Merleau-Ponty's transcendental argument, an argument that does conclude Christian theism (or even just theism) is true. Rather, that argument concludes that we are "essentially embodied agents." Thus, this argument is clearly a distinct argument from TAG.

Indeed, in what might perhaps be a slight against proponents of TAG, Baker then discusses how that argument is distinct from TAG, without ever acknowledging the source of TAG in a footnote! He writes:

"It must at this point be stressed that the argument I am discussing here is distinct from the claim made by some Christian philosophers that logic, science, and morality presuppose the truth of the Christian world view, which argument is also sometimes called the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God, or TAG."

Baker then proceeds to devote an entire section of his paper to discussing problems with TAG. Baker apparently does not wish to rule out the possibility that the difficulties with TAG can be overcome, for he says that there "is hope for transcendental arguments as a whole" and that "there may also be hope here for the difficulties specific to the TAG."

So out of the 4 references you provided, only 1 actually discusses TAG. While that 1 article leaves open the possibility that there is hope for TAG, the article does not appear to solve the problems it raises. So we're still lacking a defense of TAG in a peer-reviewed journal of philosophy. Or did I miss something when I skimmed through those articles?

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Jeff: I don't think your assessment of Faith and Philosophy is correct: I just read a defense of the moral argument by C. Stephen Layman in a recent issue.

Bilbo: Notice I said I skimmed their online archive. What's the citation for the Layman article?

Jeff: I have seen discussions of versions of cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, arguments from miracles, the argument from the Bible, and the (atheistic) argument from evil.

Bilbo: After looking through virtually every issue they have online, I stand by my statement. If I had to roughly estimate here, I'd say arguments for the existence of God comprise less than 5% of their articles.

Jeff: In any case, I find it interesting that such defenses are not only missing from Faith and Philosophy but also from Philosophia Christi. Don't presuppositionalists self-identify as evangelicals?

Bilbo: Where are you accessing archives for PC?

Jeff: Regarding the articles you cited, Pihlström appears to discuss a transcendental version of the moral argument, not TAG. More important, his article does not provide an optistimic endorsement of the argument he does discuss. He writes, "We have at any rate come very close to the thesis that theism cannot be rationally demonstrated or even defended to an unbeliever or skeptic at all. Insofar as any arguments, pragmatic or transcendental or both, can be given, their relevant audience will already have to be committed to theism."

Bilbo: Right, it won't convince skeptics in his opinion(its relativistic like the anti-evidentialism of Plantinga/Alston), however, I'd rate his assessment of it as positive as he seems to think it can serve as grounds for the believer and he says his version "might have a legitimate role to play in the philosophy of religion." That, to me, is somewhat optimistic.

As far as it being of a moral nature, right: "theism provides the 'best account' of the goods we find indispensable to our moral experience." Does that disqualify it as a TAG? What is necessary for an argument to be considered a TAG?

Jeff: Along the same lines, Baker's paper on Taylor also doesn't appear to provide a defense of TAG, but it does seem to end on a down note. Here's an excerpt, taken from the conclusion:

"I have tried in this paper to show that an investigation into Taylor’s moral realism in Sources could lead to a reading of that work as a transcendental argument for a theistic moral account of our moral phenomenology. I have also tried to show that there are several difficulties that beset this reading and which make this specific account of a transcendental apologetic strongly problematic. However, many of the problems are specific to the context of Sources, and it is not impossible that the difficulties with more general applicability could be somehow negated or circumvented."

Baker's paper probably goes the farthest of the three journal articles, in the sense that it tentatively reaches an optimistic conclusion regarding the argument it does discuss. Again, however, that argument is not TAG.

Bilbo: Here's the conclusion from Baker's "Morality, Structure, Transcendence, and Theism" (I don't have the other paper on hand and may be off base on that - I'll have to check tomorrow):

It is now possible to return to Lane’s overall critique. Contrary to what Lane has argued, I have shown that the Phenomenological argument succeeds in establishing claim i) that we must have a morality, and that the Transcendental argument succeeds in establishing claim (ii) that we must have a morality with a certain structure, such that particular values are connected to conceptions of the good, or ‘sources’. Claim (iii) that we must have a morality based on an incomparably higher good (hypergood),
is addressed by Taylor’s Historical argument, though this aspect of the Historical argument is not addressed by Lane, and I have not been able to do more in this paper than mention this particular outcome of the Historical argument. Finally, while there is more work to be done in this regard, I also have shown that the Historical and Best Account arguments, combined together as parts of an over-arching Transcendental argument show genuine prospects in establishing claim (iv) that we must understand the incomparably higher good on which our morality must be based in the terms of
(Christian) theism.


Jeff:
So out of the 4 references you provided, only 1 actually discusses TAG.

Bilbo: I'm not so sure about that. You'll have to define what a TAG is from your perspective then. Pihlstrom is weighing an argument that at least argues transcendentally for theism. This is the sort of thing I was taking to be a TAG. Baker seems to be arguing in at least one of the journal articles (the one I cite above) for a TAG. In the book article entitled Imago Dei, he concludes:

"In this sense, the modest Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God may well prove to have real power, in that it serves as a kind of transcendental inference to the best explanation. Certainly, if its difficulties could be overcome, the TAG offers an interesting approach to the questions of philosophy of religion. The prospect of an argument that shows the attributes of God through inescapable human experience can only be a stimulant for philosophy of religion.

Jeff: While that 1 article leaves open the possibility that there is hope for TAG, the article does not appear to solve the problems it raises. So we're still lacking a defense of TAG in a peer-reviewed journal of philosophy. Or did I miss something when I skimmed through those articles?

Bilbo: Yeah, I'm sure you missed a lot in skimming as I did. I have only skimmed them as well. Both Baker articles I reference above seem to be defenses of versions of the TAG. And so does the Pihlstrom one if we define a TAG as I have. You'll have to fill me in on what the official definition of a TAG is. I'm not a presupper, have not read alot of presuppositionalism, and I have to admit that alot of Christians look like they are arguing transcendentally to me -- Reppert and Plantinga both.

More later - bedtime for me.

Bilbo

beepbeepitsme said...

I presssupose the existence of X. X must be responsible for the existence of everything, because I have pressuposed that it is.