Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Presuppositions, Epistemology, and Atheism

Whenever I had questions I would email James Anderson for help. I figured many readers would benefit from my questions and Dr. Anderson's responses.

My first email:

James Anderson,

You are perhaps busy, but could you help answer a question concerning Presuppositional Epistemology. I have been debating some local Atheists in my area. I presented a formulation of the transcendental argument in regards to induction. This led to a discussion on epistemic justification. One of the atheists claimed that knowledge is circular and thus it is perfectly justified to make inductive inferences from experience. He continued to argue that in the case of the reliability of the five senses, they are established as such based on experience. Eventually the discussion centered on the five senses and Christian epistemology. I think this atheist must of read Vincent Cheung's article "The Fatal Maneuver" because his argumentation made me feel like I had to choose between Revelation or sensation. The atheist argued that Christians must presuppose the reliability of their five senses in order to read the Bible, and then they are able to argue from the scriptures that God is the precondition for the reliability of the senses, induction, knowledge or human experience in general. The atheist claimed  that this leaves Christians in two circles of justification. The Christian presupposes the reliability of the 5 senses and justifies this fact by Scripture, but the reading of Scripture is justified by the reliability of the 5 senses. The atheist claimed that Christians are guilty of circular reasoning  just as much as atheists are, the difference is that atheists just stick with one circle for justification, i.e. atheists just assume that the reliability of the senses or induction is justified by experience. The atheist concluded by saying that both atheists and Christians are no better off for accounting for the reliability of the senses or induction.  So my question is as a Presuppositionalist how should I respond to this claim that Christian's must establish the reliability of the senses before one can appeal to the scriptures, which is only accessible by the senses?

Dr. Anderson's reply:

What exactly does he [the atheist] mean by "knowledge is circular"?  If he means
something like the following...
1. We can justify P on the basis of Q .
2. We can justify Q on the basis of P.

...then I honestly don't know of any contemporary epistemologist who would support that idea.  For that's almost a textbook case of a vicious epistemic circularity.  Hume famously observed that justifying induction on the basis of experience is question-begging and I'm not aware of any epistemologist today who would try to justify induction empirically.  Does your atheist friend know of one? And he can't see that this is viciously circular?  One can establish X empirically only if one's senses are reliable; hence it begs the very point in question to try to establish empirically the reliability of one's senses. There's no vicious circularity here, for two reasons: (1) Christian theology holds that the existence of God can be known *a priori* via natural revelation (Calvin's "sensus divinitatis"); (2) the Christian isn't claiming that we can justify belief in the reliability of the senses by appealing to belief in God or to belief in the Bible.

The atheist completely misses the point here.  Everyone in the debate takes for granted that our senses are reliable and that we're justified in believing them to be reliable.  The real question is: Which worldview, theism or naturalism, can *account* for the reliability of our sense (and also our *a priori* knowledge that they are reliable)?

The same goes for induction.  Everyone (or nearly everyone!) in the debate takes for granted that inductive reasoning is generally reliable.  The real question is: Which worldview, theism or naturalism, can *account* for the general reliability of inductive reasoning?  In particular, which worldview can account for the inductive principle, i.e., the uniformity of nature in time and space? Theism can readily account for (a) the uniformity of nature and (b) our justified *a priori* belief in the uniformity of nature. Naturalism, not so much! No, this is confused.  The Christian doesn't justify the reliability of the senses by appealing to Scripture.  Rather, the Christian argues that the *biblical worldview* (i.e., the worldview reflected in Scripture) can account for the reliability of the sense whereas the *naturalist worldview* cannot.  That is to say, the Christian can offer a ready explanation for the reliability of his senses in terms of his worldview, whereas the atheist cannot do so.  To put the point another way: if the biblical worldview is true then the assumption that our senses are reliable is most likely justified, whereas if the naturalist worldview is true then that assumption is most likely not justified.

Again, the relevant question isn't "How do we prove that our sense are reliable?" but rather "Given that our senses are reliable, which worldview can best account for that fact?"You respond by pointing out that this is a red herring: neither the Christian nor the atheist needs to establish the reliability of the senses. That is a given in the debate.  What's at issue is which worldview (i.e., which view about the basic nature of reality, the origin of the universe, the origin and nature of human beings, the origin and nature of the human mind, etc.) can best *account* for the reliability of the senses?


Puritan Lad said...

I would add two more points:

1.) Presupposing the reliability of their five senses is not the same as justifying them as a basis for knowledge.

2.) Presupposing the reliability of their five senses cannot justify induction.

So, which way does this atheist wish to go? Does he want to presuppose the reliability of their five senses, or does he want to appeal to induction? (or does he want to refute Hume?) How does he justify either?

R.C. Dozier said...

Great points!

The atheist ends up in the irrational position of either skepticism and/or fideism. And this was the case with the atheist I was debating named James Stillwell (who goes by the name Open air atheist). In our discussion he ended up merely asserting both the reliability of sense perception and induction without justification; and he then deemed his position necessarily rational and worthy of appraisal.

R.C. Dozier said...

But to answer your question, he tried to fallaciously ground each by the other. That is to say sense perception is shown to be reliable by induction, and the latter is grounded by the former. He tried to make, what John Frame calls, a broad circle of justification but in the end, he was left in a fallaciously narrow circle.

De Ha said...

We KNOW our senses can be fooled. That's why we use logic, skepticism, experamentation and The Scientific Method to compensate for that. We have a lot of technology SPECIFICALLY designed to fool our senses. By saying "our god tells me that our senses are 100% relyable" you're basically denying the existance of TVs.