Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mailbag: Presuppositional Apologetics and Muslims

Hi Randy,

I know that neither of us are presuppositionalists but I was hoping you wouldn't mind answering a question for me.  I've heard presuppositional apologists tell atheists they are importing the Christian worldview to get their moral values and duties.  Would there be any reason that a Muslim could not say the same thing?  Why would it have to be a Christian worldview the atheist is helping himself to and not an Islamic one?

Thanks Randy!


Hi Larry, thanks for the question! You’re right that I’m no presuppositionalist, but I am sympathetic to some of the basic reasoning. So it might surprise some people who know me to hear that I do think God is a necessary precondition for knowledge, since I think God is a necessary precondition for all else that exists! Specifically, for objective moral values and duties, William Lane Craig essentially uses this same reasoning in his moral argument. He first argues that God grounds objective moral values (without God, they would not be around), and objective moral values do exist, therefore, God exists.

Now we ask if Muslims could do precisely the same thing? If the presuppositionalist is right, then no. We could not grant the presuppositionalist his claim that Christianity is needed to make sense of the world and still grant the Muslim his claim. The presuppositional argument precludes Islam being true. However, this is most likely not what you mean, since your last sentence of the question indicates you’d want some reason that we should prefer Christianity over Islam.

And this is why many, perhaps the vast majority of, popular level presentations of presuppositional apologetics don’t go anywhere. More than once, I’ve read a “refutation” of a world religion that basically read something like: Christianity is true; X world religion is incompatible with Christianity; therefore, X world religion has been refuted, and the article’s author metaphorically walked off triumphantly, like some major intellectual exercise had just taken place.

Now, to be fair, some presuppositionalists will in fact try to offer reasons to think the competing worldview is wrong (say, by pointing out an internal incoherence). But they will rarely, if ever, engage in any reasons why Christianity is preferred. I once watched an entire DVD set on apologetics where it was just assertion after assertion. While I fundamentally agreed with most of the assertions, they just didn’t give anyone any reason to believe it. I could go on and on with criticisms, but I don’t like the so-called “method wars,” so I’ll just sum up my answer: the Muslim would be able to make the same claim unless or until one or both of the following occurred: there were reasons given to support Christianity over Islam; Islam was shown to be false (by internal incoherence or something). But notice even the latter move doesn’t necessitate Christianity’s truth. I hope that at least helps!


Monday, July 21, 2014

What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It?

From time to time I will encounter questions from perplexed Christians, challenges from skeptics, and arguments against God from atheists. I will see these things, and a majority of them suffer from a problem with their epistemology. Now this blog post I am aiming at both laymen and “veterans” to these apologetic and philosophical debates, so I need to explain what epistemology is. Epistemology is just the study of knowledge, hence this blog’s title. We want to know what we can know, and why. Most of the issues people have within Christianity have to do with a faulty notion (or perhaps faulty notions) in what constitutes knowledge. What follows are just some observations about knowledge, and while this list is not meant to be exhaustive, I do hope it will be a help to some people.

1.     In order to know something, you must be certain about it.

This is a popular-level misconception. It states precisely what it looks like: you might believe or think or wish for something to be true, but you don’t really know it to be true unless you are completely certain about it. Why is this a problem? Well, aside from the fact that it’s not quite clear what people mean by “certain,” there is another major problem: it just seems that we all take ourselves to know things of which we would not say we are certain. For skeptics, it seems they would say that we know particular truths of science about how the early universe came about (in any case, I’ve never met anyone who asserts this above criterion for knowledge and who also insists that science does not really know anything about the early universe). Yet very few scientists, if any, insist that these truths are “certain.” It is at least possible, they will admit, that they are wrong in some way.[1] For “regular” people, think about this: do you know your own name? Sure, you might think. I’ve seen my birth certificate. But are you 100% certain your birth certificate hasn’t been faked, or replaced, or altered, or is completely accurate? And besides, even if your birth certificate established certainty, are you really willing to say you didn’t know your own name prior to viewing that birth certificate? That seems crazy. Check that. That is crazy.

Finally, this criterion for knowledge is self-refuting. Some statement is self-refuting when you can take the statement as true, but its truth will mean that the statement turns out to be false. So, if I write, “I cannot write any words in English on purpose” on purpose, then, if we take the sentence to be true, it turns out to be false (since I did, in fact, write those words deliberately in English).[2] So if we say “in order for a statement to be true, one must know it for certain,” we can ask ourselves, “Are we certain that in order for a statement to be true, one must know it for certain?” If the answer is “yes,” then we must investigate and ask ourselves how we know for certain that the certainty criterion is true. I don’t even know how that might be accomplished; it seems like there really still would be room for at least some doubt, no matter how small (after all, this whole article is predicated on the fact that this premise is at least disputable). If we say “no,” that we do not really know this certainty criterion for certain, then we don’t know that the certainty criterion is true at all. And if we don’t know it’s true, then we might think or believe or wish it to be true, but we don’t really know it is. In that case, it can be safely ignored, because it carries no more opinion than that of a psychological state, instead of a piece of knowledge. In that case, it seems that if we take the statement as true, we at least have reason to think that no one knows it is true, if not flat-out false. In any case, it’s at least self-defeating, if not self-refuting, to insist that one must be certain of something. In the next post, we will deal with some other problems in ways of knowing, and maybe even some applications to apologetics and theology.

[1] In fact, in a way, this is what can make something scientific (though not always): it is falsifiable, and always open to revision. It’s exactly why we can have scientific revolutions, because these things are not certain. Despite this, scientists do say they know particular facts, even if they are not certain.

[2] If I did not write those words in English deliberately then, aside from being a huge coincidence, the sentence has no meaning, and thus conveys no truth to us.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mailbag: Hard Agnosticism

Hi Randy,

Just wanted to get your take on the issue of hard-agnosticism (I think that's the right term here) with regard to the existence of God & the afterlife.  Reason I ask is because I was watching a TV show here in the UK last Sunday where Murray Walker, a famous British F1 motor-racing commentator, was asked in a an interview whether he was fatalistic about life after recently beating cancer, and he answered:

"Where we came from & where we're going to, I don't know, & nobody knows. I don't know anybody who's been there & come back & can tell us what it was like."

In response to the interviewer noting to him that maybe people of faith might have more certainty about the answer to that question, he said, "People who have faith have more certainty about where they think they might be going but they don't know.... they dont know, any more than I do."

Just wondered how you'd respond to that sort of argument? There'd seem to be a couple of ways to rebutt him but one mistake he seems to make - & I'm not sure if you'd agree or not - is that he seems to assume there's only one way of getting knowledge of the afterlife; that is, he thinks knowledge can only come by going to heaven & coming back. But maybe there are other ways of proving (maybe not 100% proof) man has a soul that lives on after death & that would be using philosophical arguments. Maybe it'd be similar to answering people who say stuff like, "Nobody knows whether God exists or not since nobody has seen Him."   The argument would seme to overlook that maybe God's existence can be proved in other ways; namely, one might use classical theistic arguments like the Kalam, Teleological or Moral Arguments to get to a creator God.  Your thoughts?

God Bless

James, London, England


I find your question very interesting because it touches on the cultural and “man on the street” type of attitude that many in the UK (and continental Europe, and even in North America) have toward religious belief. Hard agnosticism is the term for the view that not only does someone not know whether there is a God, but that it is not possible to be known. I think your assessment of his comments might be correct: it definitely is plausible that we can construct philosophical arguments. But not just for an immaterial soul, but also for the merits of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” In that case, what we have here may not be certainty, but it would qualify as a justified, true belief that Christianity is true. If we have that belief, and if Christianity teaches some kind of eternal state afterlife for the soul (which orthodox Christianity does teach), then, by extension, one has justification for her belief that she will spend eternity with God, or, if by some strange reason she accepts Christianity as true but refuses to side with God, eternity without God in punishment.

However, perhaps his real issue is contained in the interviewer’s question and his answer. The interviewer asked if those who had faith had “more certainty” about religious belief in the afterlife. Walker responded, according to your question, with the comment about people having certainty about what they think, but that they do not actually know. Now I think it would be naïve of us to assume he had the idea of a justified, true belief in the use of the word “know.” Instead, context invites us to believe that he conceives of knowledge in terms of certainty. Now there are several ways of cashing out the term “certainty” (e.g., Cartesian certainty, where the fact in question cannot logically be doubted; rational certainty, where the fact in question cannot rationally be doubted; legal certainty, where the fact in question lies beyond a reasonable doubt; colloquial certainty, where one relies on a strong sense of belief, such as memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, etc.), but regardless of which he means, none of these succeeds as an account of knowledge. Perhaps the problem of hard agnosticism would collapse into a soft agnosticism if only people had a better grasp of what constitutes knowledge!