Unicorns and Presuppositionalists

I have often heard it that I am just as beholden to my presuppositions as anyone else is to theirs. A particular brand of Christian thought called “presuppositional apologetics” supposes that you just have to accept certain foundational ideas (presuppositions) and then build from there. You may have heard some of the big names in presuppositional apologetics without ever having heard the term. RC Sproul is certainly the most famous living example, and he is a very influential figure (I find this unfortunate). Most recently, I heard a presuppositional-style argument crop up in the discussion of one of Peter Enns‘ Facebook posts. The suggestion there was that the belief that the Bible is not infallible is just as binding to one person as the belief that it is infallible is binding to someone else.

Presuppositionalism is weird and involves lots of intentional circular reasoning. Fortunately, its critiques dissolve fairly quickly under examination. Let’s suppose that your friend is trying to convince you that unicorns exist. You say no, but he tells you that you’re just too committed to the idea that unicorns don’t exist. Well, if you wanted to say affirmatively that unicorns don’t exist, you’d face a pretty big problem. In order to prove they don’t exist, you would need to see everything in the universe, and then you’d need to see that there are, in fact, no unicorns. Bear in mind that you would have to see everywhere all at once, because unicorns are sneaky and could be hiding wherever you aren’t looking. Having done that, you could say to your friends that you have proven that unicorns don’t exist.

"RC the Unicorn" or "Charlie the Presuppositionalist"

Charlie the Presuppositional Apologist

That’s a bit impractical. I certainly do not have an all-seeing machine to confirm the non-existence of unicorns. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. Why, then, do I not believe in unicorns if I cannot disprove them?

The answer is simple: I have no reason to believe in unicorns. I’ve never seen one, never seen a picture of one (though the image to the right is fairly convincing), nor have I known anyone who has credibly suggested that they exist. If some evidence came along to suggest the existence of unicorns, I might start considering it a possibility. Until then, unicorns exist in a category along with other things that I have no reason to believe exist, like goblins, elves, and meaningful political alternatives in America’s two-party system.

So let’s make a big distinction here which highlights the philosophical mistake presuppositionalists make. For any belief — we’ll call this belief “B” — the statement “B is false” is dramatically different from the statement “I have no reason to believe B.” Proving B is false is often a difficult if not impossible task.

With that in mind, when someone says to me that I am a slave to my presuppositions about the Bible, such as that it is not infallible, they are making this mistake: I have not asserted anything about the Bible, whereas they have. I am not saying, “The Bible is not infallible!” I just don’t have any reason to believe it just yet.

Functionally, these are about the same. I truly do believe that the Bible is not infallible, but that’s not something I can assert with 100% confidence, nor do I need to. There has to be some reason for me to accept the claim before I ever need to believe it. The presuppositionalist may say it is a revealed truth. Alright, why should I believe that? I’m not asserting that I have proven it is false, I just see no reason to accept it.

This is the distortion inherent to presuppositionalists’ defenses of their system of thought. Although it may sound like something of an abstract point, getting past this ideological hurdle could be key in allowing many people to examine the nature of their beliefs. Honestly, so many beliefs slip in under the radar under the guise of something you just have to accept unquestioningly, thanks in large part to the philosophical sleight of hand presuppositionalists rely on to support their views. The lack of belief in an infallible Bible is not a presupposition as some apologists claim in excusing themselves; it is the lack of a presupposition.

Also, now you have the image of a man with a unicorn head stuck in your brain. Be sure to send it to your friends so that you can have others to share your misery.

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About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Philosophy of Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Unicorns and Presuppositionalists

  1. braudcj says:

    Would you agree that the lack of a reason to believe something only counts as a positive reason not to believe it in the case there should be certain evidence given a beliefs truth that is absent?

    • I don’t think so. A positive reason not to believe in it would be something akin to this. Let B stand for “All swans are white.” Then you find a black swan. The black swan is a positive reason not to believe B.

      On the contrary, let us suppose C stands for “There are black swans.” We go and look for black swans all over, but we don’t find any. We don’t assert positively that there in fact no black swans, even though the necessary evidence is lacking. In fact, C is better stated, “There are no black swans,” and our investigations are in effort to disprove it.

      We could delve into falsification at this point, but that would be a very long tangent.

    • Just checking, did I understand your question properly? I am also curious what you had in mind in asking.

      • braudcj says:

        I’m not a presuppositionalist so I don’t have any intentions to defend that. I was just wanting to consider the notion that the absence of a good reason to believe in somethings existence implies its non-existence. My thinking was that we would be left with uncertainty until we considered 1) the kind of evidence we should expect given the things existence, 2) our capabilities in finding that evidence, and 3) any prior reasons we might have against the things existence. Using the black swans, if we were to hear a claim “there are black swans”, we would need to consider what sort of evidence we’d be looking for and probably expect something like seeing them or finding naturally black feathers lying around other swans. If we were to check one, lets say out of 13, places on earth were such a thing might exist and not find any, then we could not then declare their non-existence with any significant certainty on the basis of an absence of evidence. If we were to check all 13 places and find no black feathers or evidence of the sort, then we could conclude that black swans probably do not exist even if we can’t be absolutely certain. So for your rejection of unicorns, I think it was implicit (and true) that we should expect to have some kind of reason for believing in them that is absent and within our area of investigation.

      • Will you would be hard pressed to come up with an exhaustive list of places potentially containing black swans. However, if you could demonstrate through the absence of something that you have shown the negation of a necessary condition, you could justify asserting positively that a proposition is false. I think you could do this with any of the doomsday cults’ predictions.

  2. Ken Nichols says:

    Well, as one who actually believes that unicorns (or something very similar to what we now identify as a unicorn) did at one time exist, I found your article interesting. I can’t prove they did exist – there doesn’t seem to be any fossil record at this time, but nobody can say unequivocally that they didn’t exist, either (perhaps we just haven’t been looking in the right places). It’s an unknown, so it’s up to each person whether they CHOOSE to believe it or not. And nobody should get their panties in a twist if another person has the opposite view as them as neither is provable.

    I think the same can be said for the veracity of the written text of the Bible. Nobody can PROVE it’s 100% correct and nobody can prove it’s not (mistranslation and misinterpretation aside). You CHOOSE to believe one or the other and go from there. I think our obsession with having to KNOW something with 100% certainty is what gets us into so much trouble. The only thing we have to know is the same thing that Paul said, “Christ and Him crucified.”. The rest is up for debate.

    • Ken, I do not believe that choice has a significant role to play in faith, at least insofar as a choice is otherwise unfounded. You are essentially echoing the argument which I have just debunked in the post. I don’t mean to be rude as I say this. It’s just I simply don’t accept what you’re saying, largely for the reasons stated above.

      • Ken Nichols says:

        Chris, I honestly don’t understand what you mean. Are you saying we DON’T make a choice of what we believe? Seems to me we all choose what we believe, regardless of whether it is correct or not. I’m saying we don’t know for certainty if our choices are correct with the one exception of our belief in Christ, which I personally believe is confirmed in a subjective way by the Spirit within (which of course, can’t really be proven either — at least not to anyone else). Still, in the end, we do CHOOSE what we believe, don’t we?

        Maybe I’m just not deep enough to understand your thought process here.

      • Well, let’s stick to the unicorn example, since it’s less contentious. There is no evidence suggesting their existence. The only things I am aware of are mistranslations and mistaken identities, such as of a rhino. Given the complete lack of evidence, I just don’t concern myself with unicorns and their supposed prior existence. My choice to believe it or not does not come into play until well after I consider the reasons to believe.

  3. Anzaholyman says:

    Reblogged this on Anzaholyman's Blog and commented:
    Some good thoughts here.

  4. Redrum says:

    RC Sproul a presuppositional apologist? Come on dude, do your homework.

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