The Great Big Arguments #1b: Presuppositional, SyeTenB Style

Sample argument:
The proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything. You must borrow from the Christian worldview, and a God who makes universal, immaterial, unchanging laws possible, in order to prove anything. By what standard can you know anything without God?

Answer by SmartLX:
This is the Transcendental Argument for God in a form made popular by Sye Ten Bruggencate and his fellows. The argument above is paraphrased from his automated, supposedly God-proving website. (Just click through the obviously desired responses to get to the meat.) I’ve already addressed the TAG here, but this version has a different emphasis and it warrants another look.

Presuppositionalist apologists work from two main presuppositions, both of which follow from a basic assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God:
– crediting all the universe’s unchanging laws, including logic and truth itself, to God (Jeremiah 33:25 among others), and
– the idea that all non-believers are actually believers in denial (Romans 1:18-20, with added derogation in verses 21 and 22).
The practical approach to witnessing is to deprive subjects of any basis for knowledge or reason except God while pleading for them to repent, in the hope that their supposed secret belief will reassert itself. For examples, look up any video or recording of Bruggencate, who proudly never does anything else.

Engaging this argument invariably boils down to arguing over one’s own ideas about truth and reason. If I say I look for evidence for truth claims, I’ll be asked how I know the evidence isn’t faked or imaginary. If I rattle off tests, I’ll be asked how I know they’re reliable, and so on. If I point out something crazy or immoral in the Bible, I’ll be asked by what standard I can judge it. It often goes nowhere in the end, with the believer thinking he’s “won” and the non-believer not only continuing not to believe but thinking a lot less of the believer.

There are different positions people can take, of course, but my approach to objective morality applies pretty well here too:
– If there are absolute laws of logic, morality, etc. then we probably don’t know what they are. Just because the God character in the Bible says certain things are absolute doesn’t mean those are the ones. (If you’re a presuppositionalist trawling this piece for absolutist statements to pounce on, that last sentence qualifies for one, and yes, I think some absolutes do exist. Just because I don’t know why they exist doesn’t mean a god set them up – see below.)
– Most or all of what we say that we know might be wrong, because we’re fallible people. However many things are testable, repeatable and consistent enough that we can be confident that they’re true, and behave as if we know them. Known absolutes are not necessary. A believer, by contrast, thinks he or she really does know some crucial things for certain, but might be wrong all the same.
– That laws (may) exist which are universal, immaterial and unchanging does not mean a particular book’s idea of a universal, immaterial and unchanging God created them. One simpler explanation is that, like God Himself is meant to be, the laws themselves are eternal and had no beginning.

I should also mention the circular reasoning inherent in the presuppositional approach. God exists, which is revealed to us in the Bible, which God apparently wrote because the Bible says he did. It’s no more complicated than that, and Bruggencate has admitted as much. It doesn’t concern him, firstly because he argues that everyone else does the same thing and secondly because if God is somewhere in the circle then it’s “just” or “virtuous” circular reasoning. I’ll let that speak for itself.

I’ve said before that much emphasis is placed on spreading the Word and very little on making it stick. The presupposition that there are no real atheists goes a long way towards explaining this, so I suspect it’s quite widespread. Further, Bruggencate and others regularly give it as a reason why this argument will Save(tm) professed non-believers. There are no statistics to suggest that any significant number of atheists or others are “renewing” their faith as a result of this argument, but measurable results don’t seem to matter. The apologists make their money from reassured believers regardless, so what’s the difference if they’re dead wrong about us atheists?

9 thoughts on “The Great Big Arguments #1b: Presuppositional, SyeTenB Style”

  1. It’s occurred to me that this guy was using this exact approach, and I responded without knowing how firmly in this category his challenge was. Perhaps he was ahead of the curve.

    Anyway, I’m still quite content with what I wrote there, so you might find it relevant.

    1. Actually, it’s not that we believe the bible is true because it says it’s true. As a born again believer, the Holy Spirit bears witness to us of the truth of the Gospel and the bible as the Word of God.

      Your idea that you can absolutely know something implies that truth exists. The reason why this is a dilemma for the atheist is that truths are moral by nature. If you violate the truth, then you are committing an offense against righteousness. Now, if there is no God, then there is no truth because it would just be a misinterpretation of reality and that’s it. But you know when people purposely lie, we take offense at that because it’s dishonest and wrong. It’s a moral violation of the truth.

      Without God, there is no moral violations. It’s all just chemical interactions and physical movements.

      That’s why you cannot argue that truth exists and claim to be an atheist at the same time. Truth implies morality.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Thanks JSC, it’s always good to get the perspective of an insider to the kind of thinking under discussion.

        When you say your source for the authenticity of the Bible is the Holy Spirit itself, that puts the claim in the category of a personal experience. It can’t convince anyone who doesn’t trust what you say implicitly or else has also heard from the Holy Spirit, so its only use is to keep you reassured and signal to others that this is probably not a position you can be reasoned out of.

        Your characterisation of truth appears to be based on a conflation of the word “right” with the word “righteous”. A lie is wrong, which is to say incorrect, and therefore not right as in correct, but this is not to say it is not righteous (i.e. morally right) because it may have nothing to do with morality, or else be told for moral purposes. Generally speaking it is clearer to speak of fact than truth, since the former is far more narrowly defined than the latter.

        All this is moot because the argument it all leads up to is an argument from consequences. Without God everything may well boil down to physics and chemistry, but this is not untrue merely because you find it distasteful and do not wish it to be true. If we are mere manifestations of physical laws upon matter and energy, we can pretend we’re something else or we can come to terms with it.

  2. Thank you for your response. When I say that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the fact that the bible is the word of God, it’s not any more of a personal experience than if you were to read a car manual produced by a manufacturer and follow the care instructions and see that the results are good. Even though you were not there to witness the manufacture of the car, you would trust the maker if their advice and explanations made sense as you “lived it out” by adhering to them. It’s the same with any other epistemological endeavor. Your “personal experience” (or if you are smart, the personal experience of others) shows you what is true and what is not.

    As Christians, there are certain things that we cannot have seen, but we trust that we have a manual that explains our origins and it fits philosophically with what we see in the world around us. When we cannot know for certain if an event took place either because we weren’t there or if it’s not something we’ve ever experienced personally, we can trust that the witness of the Holy Spirit will testify to the truth of it.

    As for my conflating truth with morality, I was not stating this at all. What I was saying is there is a dual nature of truth. It is both factual and moral. For example, if you were to misrepresent a fact because you lacked knowledge or because of some misunderstanding or misinterpretation on your part, most people would not be overly upset (depending on the stakes that the error was resting on). However, if you were to purposely misrepresent facts, there would be a moral outrage that you cannot account for in your purely materialist worldview. Honestly, who cares if rock dust misrepresents facts as long as it accomplishes the goal? Isn’t this what liars and Machiavellians tell themselves all the time? If the end result is beneficial for the organism, then who cares if truth is violated?

    I’ve never met a materialist that didn’t think lying was wrong, though you might be the first. Most agree that lying is wrong, though they have no basis for saying so in a materialist worldview. There really is no good or evil in chemicals. As Richard Dawkins puts it “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    No Materialist lives like this however. Most find that they cannot put up with rapists, murderers and thieves running about doing what chemical reactions do and just see it as a meaningless physical interactions. If this sort of inconsistency exists within the materialist worldview, shouldn’t that tell you that it’s false?

    1. Nice side step, but your answer fails to address how chemical and physical interactions in the form of rape and murder can be good or bad. If they can be good or bad, then moral absolutes or laws exist. Not because we agree, but by definition, if an action even has a moral aspect, absolutes must exist.

      However, if chemical and physical interactions are neither good or bad as Dawkins says, or if what we call good can become bad and vice versa depending on whims or whoever is in power, it makes the definitions of the words meaningless or reduced to mere opinion. Moral absolutes do not exist and no one should be upset when we are violated for any reason.

      You are on the horns of a dilemma which you cannot avoid no matter which side you choose.

      1. Really? In the other article I rather thought I’d taken the dilemma by the horns, so to speak.

        Firstly, if there are no moral absolutes and all morality is based on whims, then that’s the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a fallacy (and wishful thinking) to argue that moral absolutes exist because it’s bad or unthinkable if they don’t; sometimes bad things happen, or undesirable situations are the reality.

        Fortunately, while there is no good argument for moral absolutes here, objective morals/ethics work just fine. We are “violated” as you say when our personal safety, property or freedoms are threatened or attacked. These are universally valuable to each of us as human beings, so we have good reason to defend them and feel strongly when we lose them based on that personal value. Furthermore we can understand, empathise and want to side with fellow humans who are at similar risk or under similar attack. Principles like the minimisation of harm, the maximisation of material benefits and the proliferation of happiness can be set by universal (near-universal is good enough) consensus as objectives for any moral guidelines to serve. They’re not absolutes, but we can happily behave as if they are because we all share them.

        To make a larger point, the idea of moral absolutes is meant to resolve uncertainty about how we should act, but it does nothing of the sort. It merely concentrates all the uncertainty in the idea of the cosmic lawgiver, because if there isn’t one then it’s all so much smoke. You are required to dismiss that uncertainty to feel secure, which does work quite well but makes it difficult to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe in the lawgiver.

  3. Just, your logic doesn’t make sense to me. You write: [your answer fails to address how chemical and physical interactions in the form of rape and murder can be good or bad. If they can be good or bad, then moral absolutes or laws exist. Not because we agree, but by definition, if an action even has a moral aspect, absolutes must exist.]

    The very fact that something can be seen as both good and bad shows that there is no such thing as absolute morality. In pre-Columbian civilizations, sacrificing humans to appease the gods was standard fare. So was sacrificing children in Canaanite societies. Killing people against their will isn’t OK with you or me, but it that time it was appropriate as long as some divine critter wanted it. It’s OK to kill your daughter for having sex before marriage in the Pashtun region of Pakistan, but not in Appalachia.
    Killing someone against their will is killing someone against their will, but the morality of it depends on the society or culture doing the defining.

    Even the Abrahamic god has changed it’s tune on killing someone against their will over time…

  4. By nature if something is good or bad, it’s always thus and doesn’t change no matter the circumstances. That’s what makes it absolute. So if you can’t use the words properly, you should drop them from your vocabulary and just use something else like “useful” or “unuseful” to describe rape, murder and lies.

    I have to admit, I am thankful that you’re not in charge of legislation because you would be easily swayed to allow abhorrent behavior based on your whims, societal norms or the even the direction of the wind apparently. Because you are forced to defend the foolish position that no moral absolutes exist, you are reduced to saying things such as “you don’t like” being violated against your will by being killed, robbed or raped, but there’s nothing inherently wrong if someone does it to you. Interesting.

    Do you advertise this to criminals? That you find nothing morally wrong with their behavior, but you just don’t like it? If someone were to violate you or your family member, would you tell the judge that you didn’t like what they did, but there was nothing wrong with it so they should go free and unpunished? I’d like to see how far you’d carry your position pragmatically in the real world.

    Lastly, God has never changed His mind on murder, but if you have an example that you’d like to put forth that backs up your claim, please do so.

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