Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Presuppositonal Postmortem

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I dislike presuppositonal apologetics. I’m not a fan of apologetics of any sort, but presuppositionalists (here on referred to as Presups) really raise my ire. Generally, arguing with a Presup amounts to being bombarded by a slew of ill-informed questions and having any answer given deliberately misinterpreted to fit into the presuppositional script. For the most part, a cogent argument is never given (and with good reason).

Last week, Eric Hovind sent some of his students over to Pharyngula to test their mettle. As you can imagine, it started off poorly as a half dozen or so students ramped up their presuppositional scripts. Questions flew and were rightly mocked. Answers given were misinterpreted time and again.
Yet amidst this chaos, I found one Presup who actually attempted to form an argument. Prompted by criticism and questioning, a student going by the moniker Onlybygrace posted this:

“Evolution and chemical processes can’t account for universal, unchanging, absolute laws of logic. God can. He created them. There can’t be a reason for logic without Him.”

 Now, it’s not exactly an argument, but it comes close that I Think we can work with it and see how it fares. First, we’ll break this down into its assumed premises

1)      The laws of logic are absolute, universal, and unchanging
2)      The laws of logic are not axiomatic
3)      Material explanations are insufficient to ‘account’ for the laws of logic
4)      God is sufficient to ‘account’ for the laws of logic

So, are any of these premises self-evident? If not, can they be supported? Let’s take a look.

Premise 1: The laws of logic are absolute, universal, and unchanging

 Typically, we grant that the first is true within the context of human knowledge and conversation (that is, for the sake of investigation and communication, humans tend to agree that the laws of logic are the same for all humans and do not change), but that is not what is being claimed. If it were, then 3 becomes either decidedly wrong (the laws of logic are an agreement between humans to play by the same rules) or a not-so-stealthy attempt to insert an immaterial entity (the mind) into the mix.

Rather, the claim that the laws of logic are absolute, universal, and unchanging is given to mean that even in the absence of humans, the laws of logic would remain. This may be true, but it is by and large unsupported. How would one even go about supporting this? Any attempt to do so by necessity presumes the existence of at least one human (the one making such an attempt) and thus falls short of its mark.

Certainly, the Presup thinks xe has an out for this, but we’ll deal with that shortly. Right now I want to take things a step further along this line:

Without humans, the laws of logic would not exist.

The laws of logic, like scientific laws, are not dictates of how things must act; they are human cognitive constructs describing observations. In the absence of humans, we would make no such constructs.

But, wait, the Presup might say sputteringly, even though those constructs might not exist, the things they describe still would. This I tentatively concede. In the absence of an observer, the material properties described would persist. But therein lies the rub. They are material properties and this contradicts premise 3.

(At this point, I suspect further objections from the presuppostionalist, but as the ones I’ve heard amount to further unsupported assertions, I won’t go down that rabbit hole here)

To sum up: While premise 1 might be accepted as self-evident within the context of human thought, it is not necessarily so in the broader context intended. Further, to the degree that the broader premise 1 can be supported, it undermines premise 3

Premise 2: The laws of logic are not axiomatic

Premise 2 is closely related to Premise 1. In fact, I rather think that they should not be separate, but apparently the Presups feel otherwise. So, to be fair, I will allow this position until it becomes ridiculous.

What do I mean when I use the word axiomatic? I mean that the proposition in question, in this case the laws of logic, do not require an explanation because either a) the proposition is self-evident; or b) all parties accept it as true.

So, according to either of those criteria, are the laws of logic not axiomatic? Let’s look at condition b first.  I accept the laws of logic as true, as do (I assume) the Presups. In fact, given that any exchange of this sort is dependent upon accepting the laws of logic are true, we must conclude they are axiomatic in this sense.

What about condition a? Are the laws of logic self-evident? To determine this, we must decide whether their negation creates a contradiction.  According to conventional wisdom, denying the laws of logic does indeed create a contradiction. In fact, this is, after a fashion, precisely what premise 1 was arguing.  If we accept premise 1, as the Presups want, then the laws of logic are axiomatic and we must reject premise 2.  I said from the outset that I did not think premise 1 and premise 2 should be separate and we have reached the reason why. They are the negation of each other. Accepting one requires the rejection of the other.

Presups assert that the laws of logic are self-evident and require an explanation.  Typically, though, this is never stated so baldly, for reasons that should be clear from this analysis.   If these sentiments were made clearer, even the Presups might notice that they’ve shot themselves in the foot.

What I want to know though is why. If the laws of logic are self-evident, why do they require an explanation? Any answer more coherent than “because” has not been offered.

To sum up: Accepting Premise 2 require rejecting Premise 1 and vice versa. The Presups provides no support for their desired separation of the two.

Premise 3: Material explanations are insufficient to ‘account’ for the laws of logic

Premise 3 only comes into play after the validity of Premise 2 is established. Since this hasn’t been done, we could stop right here without a worry. For the sake of relative completeness, we’ll go ahead and examine it here and see how things hold up.

It is immediately clear that Premise 3 is not self-evident; there is nothing contradictory in its negation. Since this is the case, the Presups must provide support for this assertion, and that is a weighty task.

As we have already seen in our discussion of Premise 1, there are material explanations that ‘account’ for the laws of logic. Others have provided alternate explanations. The Presups have the unenviable task of showing all these explanations wrong and showing that there are no possible material explanations as yet unknown that might work.  They have, to date, failed to do so.

Then, there is the dubious usage of word account. Those familiar with presuppostional arguments frequently note the uneven application of accounting between Premise 3 and Premise 4. The standard required for a material explanation to account for something is much higher than when a god is called to task.

To sum up: Premise 3 is unsupported.

Premise 4: God is sufficient to ‘account’ for the laws of logic

At this point, the argument is a dud. Premise 4 could be entirely valid and it still would not redeem the conclusion. As it stands, though, Premise 4 is a mess as well. It is obviously not self evident and it has absolutely zero support.  In fact, without serious attention to what several terms mean, it is not even worth considering. In addition to the previously mentioned uneven application of ‘account’, God remains as ill-defined as ever and no real explanation is given for the mechanism by which it ‘accounts’ for anything.

The Presups would argue this with me. I won’t drag this on further by discussing their contentions here because they essentially amount to repeating “Uh-huh” ad nauseum.

To sum up: Premise 4 is an unsupported mess.

The End and the Out: Question-begging and motives revealed

Having now examined all 4 of the premises in the presuppostional argument, it seems clear that it fails miserably. It is nothing more than a heap of unsupported assertions that appear to contradict each other. This should be the end of the discussion.

Unfortunately, it is not.  As I stated earlier, the Presups have an out for dealing with all these objections: revelation.

How do they know that the laws of logic are absolute, universal, and unchanging? Revelation
How do they know that the laws of logic still require an explanation? Revelation

You get the idea. When it comes to the point that they can’t actually support a premise, it becomes a direct revelation from god. How convenient.

Just one problem: The point of this exercise was, ostensibly, to prove the existence of god. Calling on god to support the premises is begging the question.

Then again, it never was about convincing us. It’s about justifying a persecution complex or reaffirming a belief. It’s a more intensive form of standing in front of a mirror repeatedly shouting “I’m right!”  It is, to be honest, about as close as an apologist can come to admitting defeat without saying the words.

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