Beware! Presuppositionalists!

I see that Aron Ra is wrestling with a presuppositionalist. Presuppositionalists are incredibly obnoxious debaters, and right now, it’s the most common tactic creationists use to defend their nonsense, thanks to Answers in Genesis, which has been pushing it hard.

We agree that presuppositional apologetics is the ultimate biblical approach to apologetics. The common accusation that the presuppositionalist uses circular reasoning is actually true. In fact, everyone uses some degree of circular reasoning when defending his ultimate standard (though not everyone realizes this fact). Yet if used properly, this use of circular reasoning is not arbitrary and, therefore, not fallacious.

Presuppositionalism is basically a false equivalency. They argue that there is merely a difference in the foundation of the creationist and scientific views: the creationist builds on their presupposition that the Bible is true, while the scientist builds on the presupposition that the Bible is false and that atheism is true. It’s the first thing Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum” throws at attendees, with a display of a fossil with a paleontologist and a creationist each interpreting it in their own way. Here’s a set of bones, the paleontologist says; I think they were deposited 70 million years ago, and buried under river sediment. Here’s a set of bones, the creationist says; I think they were deposited in a great flood 4,000 years ago, and buried under the flood sediments. See? Same facts, just different interpretations.

That is, of course, nonsense. There are logical/philosophical arguments against presuppositionalism (there are good examples in the comments at Aron’s blog), but I guess I’m not a philosophical thinker in that same vein — they all seem to twisty and abstract for me, and I don’t really trust those kinds of rebuttals. Too often it feels like you can use philosophy to argue both sides of a position, and when you’re dealing with creationists, they’re mainly using philosophy badly with intent to obfuscate. I’d rather not use a tool I’m not strong in to battle with someone whose skill lies in abusing that same tool — it sounds like a formula for a very bad debate.

I have two arguments I use against them, arguments that are more comfortable for someone with an empirical sort of brain.

One is that they’re being dishonest. They have not presented the totality of the facts at hand, but are being extremely selective. Good science must encompass all that we know, not just the cherry-picked bits selected to avoid compromising your favorite hypothesis. That fossil is not just a set of bones; it’s part of an assemblage, which is part of a complex series of layers, which have compositions and arrangements with known mechanisms to produce them. We also have physical and chemical data about the composition of the mineralized bones, and about the ratios of isotopes in surrounding rocks. We know about the world-wide distribution of related fossils, we know the ecological context of that specimen, we understand the taphonomy of fossils. The presuppositionalist requirement demands that all data that contradicts the Biblical explanation be ignored, set aside with the excuse that legitimate data would not contradict the fable told in the book of Genesis.

The Biblical explanation is not an adequate alternative hypothesis. It fails any scientific test. If it were simply a completely parallel, independent explanation of the same set of observations, it would explain all of the shared observations, and would also open the door to predictions that would allow us to test differences.

My second argument is that their Biblical explanations are not actually foundational. Even the true believers do not operate as if the Bible were a truly sufficient source of answers for navigating the real world.

Foundational presuppositions ought to be much more fundamental than that the Bible is literally true. To me, the really basic assumptions are that I exist; that the world exists; that I can sense this world imperfectly; that there are other beings with whom I can communicate (imperfectly again) who are also trying to sense the nature of this world. From there we try to build a coherent model of that perceived world, using as much evidence as we can glean.

So the Bible and other ancient texts are part of that information, but only a very small part of the whole context, which includes trees and oceans and stars and mathematics and language and monkeys and physics and vacuums and biology. The presuppositionalist who says the total foundational premises of his view of the universe are determined entirely by one holy book is crippling their inputs — it’s like trying to read a book through a pinhole and refusing to ever turn a page. When you look at the totality of available information, you should quickly discover that the Bible is both insufficient and wrong…an observation that is most consistent with the authors of the book being limited and fallible human beings rather than an omniscient superman.

Now I suppose a confident presuppositionalist could assert that the whole of the great book of the universe is derivable from that one tiny pinpoint on one page that they claim is the entirety of their presuppositional foundation, and that they don’t need all that other stuff like science to establish their place on the universe. But they give the lie to that claim with everything they do. They could resolve every contradiction between the Bible and reality by simply saying that God made it so: he miraculously and intentionally created the world with an illusion of great age, conjured up the fossilized bones of creatures that never actually existed, and whisked away all the physical evidence of a global flood — he miraculously poofed everything into existence with attributes that are only ascribable to his ineffable will. It’s all just a big miracle!

But they don’t really believe that. If they did, they wouldn’t feel this pitiful need to reconcile the observations of science with their complete and perfect picture of how the universe came to be in 6 days 6000 years ago. They wouldn’t have to build museums with animatronic dinosaurs to twist about the words of paleontologists. They wouldn’t be making fancy videos with glitzy animations to convince people of their version of history. They wouldn’t be arguing about the evidence with scientists. The Creation “Museum” would just be a small chapel with a Bible on a stand, nothing more.

But it isn’t.

Because they know that their sacred text is not sufficient. They also know it is so thick with contradictions with the real world that they need to hire teams of desperate tap dancers and gimmicky prestidigitators to distract the rubes from noticing the failings, and they need to dissuade everyone from questioning their claims with threats of hell. I might be more sympathetic to their assertion of the sufficiency of their presuppositions if they didn’t have to swaddle them so thoroughly with all the trappings of charlatanry.

But Aron Ra’s wife was asking for a simple refutation of presuppositionalism. There isn’t one. I like to use the gritty complexity of everything, an everything that isn’t described anywhere in the Bible, to highlight the inadequacy of their premises, but it rarely has much effect, because every presuppositionalist I’ve ever meet refuses to look beyond the intentionally and entirely artificially limited boundaries of their predetermined worldview. I do think that ultimately it is only a confrontation with reality that can wake them up; otherwise, they’ll just sit there spinning in their snug little cocoon of circular logic.


  1. #1 Hans van den Bos
    June 29, 2012

    This is not a comment, but a question to PZ:
    I saw a video with yourself in a pub in Glasgow, where you told the crowd that you were busy to publish a book. Its now more than a year later, I think, and I can’t find it.
    Are you still busy with it?

  2. #2 NickMatzke
    June 29, 2012

    Yep. That’s presuppositionalism in a nutshell. Even they don’t buy it in their guts, but it’s useful to them as the ultimate backup position for why they’re right despite everything.

  3. #3 Bernie Dehler
    United States
    June 29, 2012

    RE: “But Aron Ra’s wife was asking for a simple refutation of presuppositionalism.”

    The answer is “abduction.” It is getting the best theory that best curve-fits all the data, not starting with a presupposition.

  4. #4 Art
    June 30, 2012

    Presuppositional apologetics only works to the extent that the assumptions made and points conceded before debate establishes that both naturalistic logic and reason do not apply and God is assumed to be both extant and central, if reality is to be coherent at all, are established before the debate begins. If those arguing for logic and reason assume that logic and reason don’t apply, and accept that the existence of God, and God’s logic, are the only system that work then they do indeed lose.

    If you start a debate by announcing that you reject your own reality and accept your opponents reality you naturally tend to lose a lot of arguments. This is a handy, and entirely inconsequential way for religion to win against logic and reason.

    Christian apologetics can’t win on the evidence, because they don’t have any. They can’t win by jiggering the rules of debate because logic is neutral. So they are left trying to win by arbitrarily setting the terms of debate.

  5. #5 Chris Clark
    June 30, 2012

    Couldn’t agree more; unfortunately, the final sentence points to the crux of the problem: Creationists refuse to confront reality. How many times have we all debated with someone whose justification for outrageous beliefs is simply, “I believe what I believe, period.” With that sort of willful ignorance, there can be no debate and no waking up, no matter how cogent, powerful, and persuasive our arguments might be.

  6. #6 Brian Vroman
    Grand Rapids, Minnesota
    July 1, 2012

    As I understand it, presuppositionalists do as others on the religous right have done in the past — that is, they employ the relativistic epistemology of postmodernism to argue for an absolutist, objective truth. The main point seems to be that everyone makes “presuppositions;” thus, on the one hand, all presuppositions are equal. Except that theirs is correct, and leads to knowledge of absolute, objective views of how things actually are. How are we to know this is indeed the case? I guess we just have to accept their particular presupposition on authority. Nice!

  7. #7 Mark Joseph
    July 1, 2012

    Best. Post. Ever.

  8. #8 Purple Library Guy
    July 3, 2012

    Hmmm . . . well, if presuppositionalism is basically as you summarized it above, I can think of one very simple refutation:
    It isn’t true. Many, perhaps even most, scientists do not in fact hold the presupposition ascribed to them. There are many biologists who are Christians or Moslems or Jews, and while most of them are not in fact Biblical literalists in the sense that they start from the assumption that Genesis e.g. is a description of literal historical events, at the same time they are in the main not actively hostile to the idea of events described in the bible turning out to be true.

    So while advocates of creationism are starting from the assumption of biblical creation and basing their conclusions on that assumption, evolutionist scientists are no doubt starting from some assumptions or other, but in most cases not from assumptions either that evolution is true or that creation is false, and certainly not that atheism is true or that the bible is false–they don’t even believe those latter things, much less rely on them to build their scientific beliefs.

    I mean, I’m an atheist myself, I kind of wish scientists all were, but they’re not. So presuppositionalism breaks down. IMO it works quite the other way–scientists do not start from anti-religious assumptions and thus find things like evolution in the evidence, rather they have some tendency to drift away from religion simply because thinking carefully about the real facts of the world tends to push one away from religion.

  9. #9 Jeff Walz
    Quincy, Ill.
    July 3, 2012

    “Presuppositionalism” sounds like the usual Creationist tactic of substituting a scientific-sounding word for what they’re really doing; in this case, it’s “Preconceivednotionism”: I’d think that the best way to debate one of these deluded creatures (they actually don’t “debate” anything, anyway; to “debate” something means that they would have to be LISTENING to what their opponent says, and none of them can afford to do that!) would be to say, “OK- you say the dinosaur’s bones were deposited 4,000 years ago in a massive flood; what is your evidence for that, other than, “The Bible says so”?

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    July 4, 2012

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