How to Know If You Are Presuppositionalist or a Classicalist

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Do you believe it is valid to reason to God from evidence and reason?
If you answered yes, then you are a Classicalist. If no, then you might be a Presuppositionalist.

The Details:

This is a short Q&A, followed by some objections and a response.

Q: How do you know that reason is valid to begin with?

A: There is an earlier question to ask: Why do we have these concepts of “reason” and “knowledge” and “validity” in the first place? From what facts do these arise?

Q: Agreed, because on the answer to those questions everything else depends.  Seems to me that any answer to validate our reason depends on the existence of God. Is there a non-theistic starting place to justify our innate understanding of knowledge and reason?

A: I believe it is illogical to affirm that knowledge and reason and the universe itself exist while denying that there is a God. I think we agree there. This is because of the order of being—things had to have a cause, and there had to be a first cause that itself had no cause. The order of being is what we are talking about.

That said, what we do when we reason about there being a first cause is this: We reason from the fact that we have knowledge and there is a world to the fact (by way of inference) that there is a God.

We have to be careful not to mix up the order of being and the order of knowing. The order of knowing is: We are aware of the universe, and we infer that the effect had a cause.

As an illustration of this distinction, consider the following:

There are at least two ways to answer the question “Why do you think Grandpa is sick?” One way is to answer about the cause: I think he got sick because he has been working late nights and he got worn out. A different way to answer the question is: I think he is sick because I keep hearing him sneeze. The first “why” refers to what triggered the event. The second “why” refers to what triggers and justifies my knowledge of the situation.

If we would keep in mind the distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing, we would realize that our knowledge of God is triggered and justified by prior knowledge. We actually have that knowledge before we have knowledge of God.

Granted, we would find ourselves in a contradiction if we were to claim that we have knowledge of things in the world yet also claim that there is no God. The Presuppositionalists are right that this is logically indefensible. Thus, their transcendental argument for God (TAG) is correct. It is correct as long as it is granted that the argument is an inference from knowledge we actually have.

It is a syllogism based on what we know:

(We know) there is a world.
(We know) if there is a world, then there is a creator.
(We know) there is a creator.

This syllogism respects the distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing.

Notice that the syllogism only works if we do grant for our premises that we have knowledge. To refuse to grant that premise would be to arbitrarily speculate a viewpoint of skepticism: the view that knowledge is not possible.

Skepticism is a self-refuting claim. The best a skeptic can do in consistency would be to remain quiet.

All claims must be justified. That includes claims about the status of knowledge. We are no more justified in arbitrarily claiming something is doubtful than in arbitrarily claiming it is certain. Either way, we are obligated to offer a rationale for a claim we make.

The skeptic’s error is that he arbitrarily claims that things are doubtful when they manifestly are not. All the information we have points to there being a world that exists. No information points in any other way. There is every reason to accept this evidence and no reason to reject it.

Concepts such as “reason,” “knowledge,” and “validity” themselves depend on the fact of there being a universe and it being something that our consciousness is able to grasp. To ask “How do you know reason is valid?” is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept: You are using the terms “valid” and “know” and “reason” as if you had already accepted that these refer to something, but you are at the same time seeking to question whether they refer to anything. Well, do they or don’t they?

The prerequisite of asking for validation of an idea is that both parties must agree implicitly on the meaning of validation. Validation means: showing the facts of reality on which a claim rests.

The one who cannot already affirm that reality is real or that the universe exists (and that we are conscious of it) is in no position to ask for validation of any idea, because he has denied the standard of appeal.

That is the error of the Presuppositionalist: He denies the standard of appeal, which is observation. He seeks to validate his beliefs not by reference to observation and then inference, but by reference to a syllogism for which he refuses to provide the premises.

It amounts to the confusion of the order of being and the order of knowingand a confusion about the nature of knowledge as such.

On the basis of the above, it is no stretch to say that the Presuppositionalist, being a form of a skeptic, literally does not know the first thing about the method of knowledge. He does not know the first thing about Epistemology. He is caught in a contradiction of the most embarrassing sort: the fallacy of begging the question (petitio principii).

Until it is acknowledged that observation is the ground of validation, there is nothing to talk about; there is no meeting of the minds. And this is the state of the discussion between Classicalists such as myself and Presuppositionalists: Persuasion is actually impossible, because one side is rejecting everything that is known—every foundation from which a persuasive case could be made.

Recommended Resources:

RC Sproul explains the logical discrepancies within the Presuppositional Apologetic (12 minute video)

Classical Apologetics, by RC Sproul (book)

How I Got from Alpha to Omega—A Rundown on this Month’s Presuppositionalism Discussions

Revelation and Responsibility

Reason and Faith in the Gospels: A Scriptural Guide


Answering an Objection:

Presuppositionalists may sometimes respond to the preceding by asking:

“Aren’t you also begging the question by setting up observation and reason as your standard? How do you justify your choice to base your claims to knowledge on observation and reason? Isn’t this equally arbitrary?”

To answer this objection, I want to acknowledge a point on which Classicalists and Presuppositionalists agree:

There can be no way to set up a deductive syllogism “proving” that the standard of knowledge is valid. If we were to attempt such a thing, the syllogism would require premises. But how do we know that the premises are themselves true? We would be caught in a regress.

The Presuppositionalist attempts to solve this problem by saying that there is a standard that grounds all other knowledge, and that standard is “the existence of God” or the standard is the proposition “The Bible alone is the word of God.” This being presupposed, we are then said to be justified in upholding all truths that logically follow—we are justified in affirming all the things God says are true.

Here is where the Classical and Presuppositional viewpoints diverge:

The Classicalist will point out that, even in the above, the Presuppositionalist has revealed his true allegiance to logic as the standard of truth, inasmuch as he has treated logic as the standard for understand what God has and has not said. If God has said something is true, then God has not said the opposite. We are not free to make the claim “God said it and he didn’t say it.” Even for the Presuppositionalist, the tool of thinking (the “organon” in Aristotle’s words) is logic.

The Classicalist answers the accusation of question-begging as follows:

It is true that no one “proves” the method of observation and reason. As you have pointed out, we must avoid the regress involved in “proving” the standard itself by means of a deductive argument.

For something to function as a standard, it must be the kind of thing not established by means of a deduction, but something that is immediately available to us.

Our position is that sensory evidence is just such a thing. We have no justification in believing anything other than that which has presented itself to us as being the case; and the only things that present themselves to us as being the case are those things that we see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. These things are incorrigible. They are not to be doubted, because to doubt them would be to reject the only material which nature presents to us as grounds for knowledge.

To disbelieve the proposition “I am seeing something,” is to reject the thing that is, in favor of something that isn’t. There can be no more basic thought than that “Something exists, and I am aware of it.” To doubt this, is to doubt everything, for no reason at all.

Among the fundamental axioms are “existence” and “consciousness.” These are things that cannot be argued against, because in any attempt to argue against them they have to be affirmed. We know these axioms directly and all the time, by our observation of any concrete thing in the world. We do not create a syllogism to show that they are true. We simply know that they are true. This is the way a standard works. It is the kind of thing that is known but not proved.

In all that I have said above, I have made arguments that these known things are in fact the axioms. I have not been arguing that they are true; I have been arguing that these things, which you already know to be true by the act of opening your eyes, have the status of axioms within our hierarchy of knowledge. The axioms are known without syllogism. So you cannot argue that they are true; all you can do is point. It is only on the basis of these axioms that we go on to syllogize.

Before I move on, let me give some background on the laws of logic. When we create logical arguments, we implicitly operate off of the premise that “no contradictions exist.” That is one form of stating the basic laws of logic. These laws are really a single fact, but they can be expressed in various ways, including Aristotle’s three well known formulations:

  • Everything is what it is (A is A, or “identity”).
  • A thing cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time and in the same respect.
  • A thing either is or isn’t, but never both of these at the same time.

The understanding of these basic laws of logic is implicit in all deductive reasoning. These laws are not something to be proved. They are the means by which other things are proved.

Now, the Presuppositionalist may ask, why are you justified in affirming these laws of logic? Isn’t your affirmation of these laws arbitrary? Did they come to you by your senses?

Yes they did.

These laws are nothing other than an affirmation of that which comes to us by the senses. To see that a door is open is at the same time to see that the door is not “not open.” This same kind of pattern holds true of all observations that we make. Logic is not a different principle than observation; logic is simply the commitment that, when we think about our observations, we will make sure we are thinking about our observations.

To be logical is to consciously decide to continue holding in our thoughts that which we have already observed to be true. That’s all it is.

Take an example:

Suppose we have observed that rain causes the ground to become wet. Then we observe that the ground is not wet right now. We do not have to add any premises such as “logic is true” before we know that it is not raining. We know the correct inference by reference only to our commitment to the original two premises (that rain causes the ground to become wet, and that the ground is not wet right now). We are simply upholding the two facts that we have observed—we are upholding them at the same time and noticing that a third fact can be expressed as a relationship of the other two.

Logic is the method of committing to affirming the observed facts. That is all it is. For this reason, we do not “prove” that logic is the method of proof. To do so would be a regress. Logic simply is the method of proof.

All that I have said above is a “validation” or “explanation” of what is meant by the idea that “logic is the method of proof.” I have shown what the terms mean, and I have shown the facts of reality that give rise to this usage. I have justified my thinking. But I have not “proved” that “logic is the method of proof.”

The Presuppositionalist objection to the Classical position is, in fact absurd. When the Presuppositionalist accuses the Classicalist of begging the question, he is appealing to logic as the standard and asking “Why don’t you be more logical?” But the whole point at issue is whether logic is the standard. In even asking the question, the Presuppositionalist has conceded the case.

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