Two Steps Removed From Truth

A quick thought I don’t have time to expand on right now:

So called “presuppositional” apologists make the centerpiece of their paradigm the doctrine of “autonomous thought” – that is, human thought that doesn’t acknowledge its dependence on the Christian God. This argument effectively traps everyone inside their own heads, leading to endless arguments about thought. Not about arguments about the objects of thought, but about thought itself. What makes thought possible? How do we know our thoughts are true? How can we find unstoppable “impossibility of the contrary” arguments againts the thought of unbelievers, no matter what form they take? Thought, thought, thought, thought. Thoughts about thought. That’s what matters to presuppositionalists.

Well, it occurs to me that what really matters is what is actually the case, not what we happen to think is the case. Ontology precedes epistemology. We do not ground what is or is not the case on the structure of our minds – this is the quintessential Modern problem from Descartes to Kant to Van Til to your average Reformed joe on the street who thinks it’s just “obvious” that everyone who disagrees with him is “unbiblical.” The egocentric predicament isn’t just about psychology; it’s about biblical hermeneutics, the cultural mandate, church polity, and everything else, too.

But if ontology is the foundation of epistemology, then, as a friend of mine has expressed it, we need to recognize the fundamental fact that “the mind is made to know Being.” Now, says the presuppositionalist, what we really do say is that we have to start our thinking with “the self-contained ontological Trinity. So we don’t rest ontology on epistemology, but epistemology on ontology.” I’m not sure that’s true. As I said, the whole presuppositionalist enterprise is obsessed with what it calls “autonomous thinking,” and expends immense efforts to avoid it and refute it in others. The point of thinking in this account is not for the mind to come into contact with and grasp an external object (God, truth), but to satisfactorily explain how thinking itself works – hence all the rhetoric about “predication.”

Of course, we do have to think about ontology in order to carry out all of this that I’m talking about. My whole post is a series of thoughts. But that’s precisely my point: thought about what? Thought about what is, not thought about myself thinking about what is. The starting point for our thinking should be ontology, not epistemology. Thought about reality, not thought about ourselves thinking about reality. Why remove the quest for truth two steps from what we are seeking?

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5 Responses to Two Steps Removed From Truth

  1. That’s good stuff, Tim. I appreciate what presups say on evidence…no problem with that. But I was starting to see the whole ontology/epistemology reworking a few weeks ago. I had gotten it wrong for so long. I made ontology subordinate to epistemology in my own outlook on life.

  2. I wouldn’t say that presupp. is a search for truth. It is an apologetic defense – rhetoric in response to critical rejection of Christianity. I think the presupp. method would be great if it was actually true – if it actually worked. But it doesn’t. Our minds are wired to figure out ‘what is the case’ evidentially when in ‘search for truth.’ If the holy spirit put back into the operation the sensus divinitatus and thereby grants to us warratned Christian belief, then great. But that is not how ‘I’ by my own good works, can honestly and boldly, in fear and trembling, come to terms with what is and is not the case. I am willing to ask if Christian Belief is not the case. The presuppotionalist has built a system to protect himself from such an inquiry – presupp is for cowards.

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Jacob: ironically, I ran across the critique of Descartes that he put the cart before the horse by resting ontology on epistemology about 12 years ago, long before I ever looked at presuppositionalism as a possibly serious intellectual option. I remember thinking at the time that that was a good point, but throughout my own several years of trying to be a Van Tillian, I somehow just forgot all about that point. Ah well, we live and learn. At least sometimes.

    Michael, I don’t know that I’d say presup is for “cowards,” but I do agree that it is a form of purely defensive apologetic rhetoric. Essentially I view it as an attempt to construct an intellectually sophisticated-looking ghetto as a reaction to several centuries of all out assault on faith by “Reason.” The problem is precisely that by doing this, presup concedes all the essential points to the unbelievers and just retreats into a fortress of purely self-referential thought that is unaccountable to the actual world of human – and Christian – experience.

    This may be readily seen by looking at John Frame’s criticisms of how Van Til superficially treats the Church Fathers in order to make them into “syncretizers” with “pagan thought.” Frame shows (albeit in a way that needs to be greatly expanded) that at least on a few of the Fathers, Van Til’s program results simply in distortion of their thought. He also points out the fact that becomes obvious upon extensive dealings with presups, that most of them are not truly scholars, but only intellectuals. Most of them don’t have the discipline or the interest that it takes to really seriously study other views and try to do them justice.

    The apologetic necessity of destroying the endless succession of “bogeymen” attacking the Fortress leads to careless generalizations, sloppy use of terms, and the substitution of a purely rhetorical assumption of superior fidelity to “Truth” for an actual demonstration of such that can stand up to really serious outside inquiry. So it’s not that presup is for “cowards,” per se, but for those who are too scandalized by “the world” to actually substantively engage it. I don’t think this is done on purpose, but out of a deep-rooted, and usually unconscious, sense of having lost the war a long time ago and not having any real resources to move on. Still, I do think that if most presups would apply their skeptical methods to their own beliefs, and cease all the self-aggrandizing talk of being “more consistently” Reformed than others and so forth, certain truths about the superficialities of their views would begin to become evident to them.

  4. I agree. I find it interesting that even Frame lost interest in trying to wrestle with skepticism. You would think that DKG would be the beginning. Rather, at the end of the book he superficially tipped his hat to the new reformed epistemology and then that was pretty much it. Years ago he told me explicitly that he was not paying that much attention to apologetics or Chrisitian philosophy and moving on to strictly theological studies. However, Plantinga has been highly successful over the last few decades, and atheist phiolosphers had been willing to take some steps back and to a degree conceed his successful defense in his Trilogy. But as far as I can tell, the new reformed epistemology is fizzling as well, perhaps due to its reliance on conceptual analysis in analytic epistemology.

  5. The Scylding says:

    You are expressing what I think is the key problem with the whole presupposionalist exercise, namely the sefl-referencing and the retreat into the “intelectual” fortress. Of course, I think this is a greater temptation for the Reformed than for say us Lutherans (having been Reformed myself) – our temptations are different (pietism?).

    But your mention of Descartes and horses brought to mind a horrible pun I came across in my first year Physics class, where a professor said, while discussing historical theories – “Well, lets’ not put Descartes before the course…” :)

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