Seminary Apologetics: Two Theoretical Problems with Presuppositionalism (26/30)

Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture, Seminary Apologetics: Two Theoretical Problems with Presuppositionalism.

At the theoretical level, we can imagine two ways of objecting to this approach of apologetics.

Problem #1
Presuppositionalism proves too much. According to presuppositionalism, unbelievers who do not profess the Christian worldview, do not have the preconditions for the meaningfulness of everything and therefore they don’t know anything. It would seem to prove that unbelievers can have no knowledge at all.

Response

“The charge is made, you see, that presuppositionalism implies that unbelievers can know nothing at all and can make no contribution to science and scholarship since belief in God is epistemologically indispensable according to the presuppositionalist. And it is right here, right at this crucial point in the analysis, that the notion of self-deception by the unbeliever enters the picture.

Van Til always taught that “the absolute contrast between the Christian and the non-Christian in the field of knowledge is said to be that of principle.” He draws “the distinction… between the regenerated consciousness which in principle sees the truth and the unregenerate consciousness which by its principle cannot see the truth.” If unbelievers were totally true to their espoused assumptions, then knowledge would indeed be impossible for them since they deny God. However the Christian can challenge the non-Christian approach to interpreting human experience “only if he shows the non-Christian that even in his virtual negation of God, he is still really presupposing God.” He puts the point succinctly in saying: “Anti-theism presupposes theism.” The intellectual achievements of the unbeliever, as explained in The Defense of the Faith, are possible only because he is “borrowing, without recognizing it, the Christian ideas of creation and providence.” The non-Christian thus “makes positive contributions to science in spite of his principles” – because he is inconsistent. Van Til replies directly to the charge that we are now considering with these words:

The first objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical question “Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they employ?” The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own method consistently…. The best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world…. Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own accomplishments” (The Defense of the Faith, p.120)

The sense of deity discussed by Calvin on the basis of Paul 5 doctrine in Romans 1 provides Van Til not only with an apologetical point of contact, but also with an account of how those who disclaim any belief in God can know much about most subjects (ibid., p.103).

The knowledge of God which every man has as the image of God and as surrounded by God’s clear revelation assures us, then, that all men are in contact with the truth. Not even sin in its most devastating expressions can remove this knowledge, for Van Til says “sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God” (ibid., p.173). It is this knowledge of God, of which Paul speaks in Romans 1, that Van Til identifies as the knowledge which all men have in common, contending that such common knowledge is the guarantee that every man can contribute to the progress of science, and that some measure of unity in that taskcan exist between believers and unbelievers” (ibid., pp. 173-174, 192).

Because he is convinced that self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness (ibid., p.257) the presuppositionalist can assert then, In the most important sense, “There are no atheists” (ibid., p. 173). Van Til clearly relies very heavily on Paul in making such a surprising claim.

The apostle Paul speaks of the natural man as actually possessing the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:19-21). The greatness of his sin lies precisely in the fact that “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God.” No man can escape knowing God. It is indelibly involved in his awareness of anything whatsoever…. We have at once to add Paul’s further instruction to the effect that all men, due to the sin within them, always and in all relationships seek to “suppress” this knowledge of God (Rom.1:18)…. Deep down in his mind every man knows that he is the creature of God and responsible to God. Every man, at bottom, knows that he is a covenant breaker. But every man acts and talks as though this were not so. It is the one point that cannot bear mentioning in his presence” (ibid., pp. 109, 111).

Van Til speaks of the unbeliever sinning against his “better knowledge” — that “it is of the greatest possible importance” to acknowledge that man knows God in some “original sense” (ibid., p.100; Christian Theory of Knowledge, p.46).

Now then, just because knowledge is a category of belief (viz., justified true belief), and because it can reduce unnecessary philosophical complications throughout this discussion, we could just as well speak of the unbeliever’s suppressed belief about God as we could speak of his suppressed knowledge of God. In fact, Van Til makes his point in just that way also in his writings.

To be sure, all men have faith. Unbelievers have faith as well as believers. But that is due to the fact that they too are creatures of God. Faith therefore always has content. It is against the content of faith as belief in God that man has become an unbeliever. As such he tries to suppress the content of his original faith…. And thus there is no foundation for man’s knowledge of himself or of the world at all…. When this faith turns into unbelief this unbelief cannot succeed in suppressing fully the original faith in God. Man as man is inherently and inescapably a believer in God. Thus he can contribute to true knowledge in the universe.

Our brief rehearsal of presuppositional apologetics has brought us step by step to the realization that a crucial component in Van Til’s perspective, one that is necessarily contained in any credible account of its functioning, is the conviction that the non-Christian is self-deceived about God – that the one who does not believe in God actually does believe in God. The cogency of presuppositionalism is tied up with the intelligibility of this notion of self-deception. If we do not find our point of contact with the unbeliever in his suppressed knowledge of God and reason with him in such a way as to “distinguish carefully between the natural man’s own conception of himself and the Biblical conception of him” – that is, if we do not proceed on the firm premise that the unbeliever is engaged in self-deception of the most significant religious kind – then, according to Van Til, we “cannot challenge his most basic epistemological assumption” that his reasoning can indeed be autonomous. And immediately Van Til adds, “on this everything hinges.”

The concept of self-deception is critical to Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Everything hangs on it, according to him. If there should be something suspect or muddled about the notion of self-deception here, then the entire presuppositional system of thought is suspect and unacceptable as well. Its key argumentive thrust relies completely on the truth of the claim that unbelievers are suppressing what they believe about God the Creator. That is why I stated at the beginning that the self-deception as depicted in Romans 1 is religiously momentous and also why the unbeliever’s self-deception is a pivotal notion – a sine qua non truth – for the presuppositional method of defending the faith.

However, as I also wrote at the outset of this essay in reference to Romans 1, the notion of self-deception is philosophically enigmatic. It is more that just a bit odd, is it not, to say that someone believes what he does not believe! Indeed, it sounds downright self-contradictory. At just the crucial point where the presuppositionalist must make reference to clear and compelling considerations in order to give a justifying and credible account of the very heart of this apologetical method, he seems to take an unsure step into philosophical perplexity. It hardly seems to the critics of presuppositionalism that its account of itself explains the unclear in terms of the clear. It appears rather to move from the unclear to the even more unclear. For now the obvious question, if not challenge, will arise: what could it mean for an unbeliever to simultaneously be a believer? Is the notion of self-deception at all coherent?

The quite enigmatic character of his conception of the unbeliever as self-deceived is confessed very plainly in Van Til’s writings, where he admits that the problem of the unbeliever’s knowledge “has always been a difficult point…, often the one great source of confusion on the question of faith and its relation to reason.” Van Til insists that we must do justice to the twin facts that every unbeliever knows God, and yet, that the natural man does not know God. If we do not stress these two points, following Romanist and Arminian apologists, then we will necessarily allow for a compromising apologetic. Van Til was aware of the counter charge that was likely to be made.

It is ambiguous or meaningless, says the Arminian, to talk about the natural man as knowing God and yet not truly knowing God. Knowing is knowing. A man either knows or he does not know. He may know less or more, but if he does not “truly” know, he knows not at all…. In reply to this the Calvinist insists that… the natural man does not know God. But to be thus without knowledge, without living, loving, true knowledge of God, he must be one who knows God in the sense of having the sense of deity (Romans 1).

As we can see, Van Til was appropriately sensitive to the charge of self-contradiction. Accordingly he wanted to draw some kind of distinction which would indicate that he, with Paul, was not taking away with one assertion what he gives in another. Thus he qualified his statements. “Non-Christians know after a fashion, as Paul tells us in Romans.” Elsewhere he writes that “there is a sense in which all men have faith and all men know God. All contribute to science.” Therefore he taught “there are two senses to the word ‘knowledge’ used in Scripture.”

A common way in which Van Til denominates those two senses, and the difference between them, is by saying that unbelievers know God but “not according to the truth,” or they do not “truly” know him, or they do not have “true knowledge.” How is this to be construed? Unbelievers presuppose (and hence believe) the truth of God and of Christianity “while they verbally reject it.” The non-Christian “acts and talks as though this were not so,” for he cannot bear the mentioning of his knowledge of God. Why not? Van Til says all sinners “have an ax to grind and do not want to keep God in remembrance. They keep under the knowledge of God that is within them. That is they try as best they can to keep under this knowledge for fear they should look into the face of their judge.” Being troubled in conscience, the unbeliever must make an effort “to hide the facts from himself,” somewhat like a cancer victim who, in distress, keeps the awareness of the truth at a distance from himself. Some students of presuppositionalism have made, I think, the hasty error of conceiving of this situation as a simple matter of lying. The unbeliever, it is thought, knows God, but simply says that he does not know God. However, Van Til did not take this artificial and simplistic route. He recognized that the unbeliever’s situation is epistemologically strange and hard to describe accurately (unlike the lying scenario). On the one hand, Van Til portrayed the unbeliever as holding this knowledge of God “subconsciously.” The non-Christian is said to borrow Christian ideas “without recognizing it.” ”He knows deep down in his heart” or “deep down in his mind,” so that the natural man’s knowledge of God is taken as “beneath the threshold of his working consciousness.” And yet on the other hand Van Til wanted to contend unequivocally for the sinful guilt of men who suppress the knowledge of God. Thus they are also portrayed by him as somehow conscious of what they are doing. Knowing that it cannot successfully be done, says Van Til, the unbeliever pursues the impossible dream of moral and epistemological autonomy, seeking to suppress what he knows about God. Van Til writes, “He knows he is a ‘liar’ all the time,” and accordingly his denying of the truth is a self-conscious act. And yet in saying this, Van Til immediately felt the need to place a qualification on his claim. Notice that the word ‘liar’ in the preceding quotation is placed conspicuously in quotes. Van Til wants to say it with some measure of reservation. Elsewhere he explained that the unbeliever’s hostility is not “wholly self-conscious.” To his qualitative distinction (knowledge/true knowledge), and to his spatial distinction (knowing/knowing deep down), he now adds a quantitative distinction (wholly self-conscious/partially self-conscious).

Again it must be borne in mind that when we say that fallen man knows God and suppresses that knowledge so that he, as it were, sins self-consciously, this too needs qualification. Taken as a generality and in view of the fact that all men were represented in Adam at the beginning of history, we must say that men sin against better knowledge and also self-consciously. But this is not to deny that when men are said to be without God in the world they are ignorant…. There is therefore a gradation of those who sin more and those who sin less, self-consciously.

One way or another, however, Van Til teaches that the natural man is “ethically responsible” for his suppressing of the truth. He states that “the Scriptures continue to hold man responsible for his blindness,” and he calls the result of the unbeliever’s self-deceptive effort “culpable ignorance.” The reason for his failure to recognize God as he should “lies exclusively in himself,” says Van Til; it is nothing less than “willful transgression” which accounts for his refusal. So again, Van Til has indicated how awkward it is to speak of the unbeliever as self-deceived. On the one hand, the unregenerate’s knowledge is considered sub-conscious, and he does not recognize his utilizing of it. And yet on the other hand, the unregenerate is portrayed as actively seeking to suppress it, and in some measure he consciously and willfully works to hide it from himself. Van Til runs his reader from pole to pole. On the one hand he does not want to say that the unbeliever is a bare liar, and yet on the other hand he does want to say that the unbeliever is fully culpable, just like any liar would be.

Given this short review of Van Til’s discussion of the apologetical situation, we have learned (1) that a recognition of the unbeliever’s self-deception is indispensable to presuppositional apologetics, and yet (2) that its recognition is fraught with obscurity. As long as the notion of self-deception appears uncertain, awkward, or unclear, the cogency of the presuppositional method will remain in the balance. We must say in conformity to Romans 1 that in some sense the non-Christian knows and does not know God. In some sense, he believes, but disbelieves in God. In some sense, he is unconscious of suppressing the truth and still responsibly conscious of doing so. So then, what might prove especially beneficial would be for us to give some sense to these apparent paradoxes. If we can do so, the philosophy of presuppositionalism will be noticeably advanced and more readily presentable to struggling defenders of the faith who need it so desperately.

(Bahnsen, The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in PA)

Self-deception can be analyzed without contradiction. You can account for someone believing something and not believing it. In any situation when we have self-deception…

1. S believes that p (God exists)

2. S is motivated to ignore, hide, deny (etc.) his belief that p (God exists), and

3. By misconstruing or rationalizing the evidence, S brings himself to believe falsely that “S does not believe that p (God exists).”
-S’s belief about S (himself).

In order to preserve something about his own self-conception, S engages in motivated rationalization of the evidence so that he relies in his theoretical and practical inferences on the proposition that he is not relying in his theoretical and practical inferences on p. He is morally culpable for this lie about himself because it is engaged intentionally, and yet he may not be aware of his intention since it has become habitual or, being self-covering, has become something he no longer thinks about (like falling asleep). S obscures his dreaded belief that p, as well as his intention to obscure it by rationalizing the evidence. Self-deception involves deception of the self, by the self, about the self, and for the sake of the self.

This analysis of self-deception in terms of iterated beliefs, corrigible disavowals, motivated rationalization of evidence, and self-covering intentions is adequate to explain the common illustrations of self-deception which we encounter. Recall the example about Mrs. Jones. The principal calls her to say that her son Johnny (her pride and joy, her only child) has been caught stealing lunch money out of students’ desks. The evidence is plain that Johnny is a thief, and this is the third time she has received such a call from the school. She has also noticed money missing out of her own purse at home, and Johnny has been coming home with expensive items from the store. Mrs. Jones shows the affective symptoms of believing the proposition that Johnny is a thief. She tries to avoid situations where she is likely to be reminded of his dishonesty. She moves to a new neighborhood, transferring Johnny into a new school, and refusing to put a phone in her new home. She keeps an unusually attentive eye on her boy, but will not admit that she does so, etc. Yet on the other hand, since nobody in the Jones family has ever stooped to dishonesty, and Johnny is her one reason left for living in the cruel world, she persuades herself that Johnny could not have done the dishonest deeds reported by the principal. She forgets the past evidence and supplies “more credible” explanations of present evidence (e.g., money is missing from her purse because she is so careless or forgetful). She goes out of her way to express confidence in her son to others, makes a show of giving him mature responsibilities, and tries to do only what one who believed in Johnny’s virtue would do. She avers that she has a fine boy who is a joy to her, a regular paragon of virtue. Nevertheless, she flies off the handle at him over trifling matters (in a way unlike the way she related to him prior to the principal’s phone calls). She astonishes and embarrasses others by seizing on every oblique innuendo to defend Johnny’s honesty. When neighbors get curious over her missing cash and Johnny’s new acquisitions, Mrs. Jones fidgets, blushes, looks away, answers in halting fashion or changes the subject. She treats the evidence broached in an unusual and distorted way, all the while apparently satisfying herself that her interpretations are quite plausible.

In this situation we find it very natural to express the view that Mrs. Jones is self-deceived. The affective symptoms justify us in attributing to her the belief that Johnny is a thief. Because she cannot stand that thought with its attendant psychic discomfort, she is motivated to hide this information from herself and direct her attention to the evidence in odd ways. She dissents from believing her son is dishonest. She claims the school officials had a vendetta against Johnny and were framing the poor boy. She leans on implausible interpretations of facts, ignores the best and most obvious indicators, and brings herself to believe that she does not believe in Johnny’s dishonesty. (She is not the mother of a crook!) She fools herself about her awareness of the truth. The symptoms of this false second-order belief are nearly identical with believing that it is not the case that Johnny is a thief. She conceives of herself as trusting this untrustworthy son, and while guarding herself against his untrustworthiness she enthusiastically affirms her belief in him to others. She meets all the criteria of self-deception as proposed above, and we are able to describe what she is doing without resorting to paradox.

In this situation we find it very natural to express the view that Mrs. Jones is self-deceived. The affective symptoms justify us in attributing to her the belief that Johnny is a thief. Because she cannot stand that thought with its attendant psychic discomfort, she is motivated to hide this information from herself and direct her attention to the evidence in odd ways. She dissents from believing her son is dishonest. She claims the school officials had a vendetta against Johnny and were framing the poor boy. She leans on implausible interpretations of facts, ignores the best and most obvious indicators, and brings herself to believe that she does not believe in Johnny’s dishonesty. (She is not the mother of a crook!) She fools herself about her awareness of the truth. The symptoms of this false second-order belief are nearly identical with believing that it is not the case that Johnny is a thief. She conceives of herself as trusting this untrustworthy son, and while guarding herself against his untrustworthiness she enthusiastically affirms her belief in him to others. She meets all the criteria of self-deception as proposed above, and we are able to describe what she is doing without resorting to paradox.

The analysis of self-deception offered here not only is adequate to account for mundane and well-known cases of self-deception, but more importantly, it is adequate to explain Paul’s description in Romans 1 of men who know (believe) that God exists and yet suppress that belief unrighteously. The analysis thus strengthens, defends and advances the cause of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic.

All men know and hence believe that God exists. The revelational evidence is so plain that nobody can avoid holding the conviction that God exists, even though they may never explicitly assent to this belief. We are justified in ascribing such a belief to men on the basis of their observed behavior in reasoning (e.g., relying on the uniformity of nature), in morals (e.g., holding to ethical absolutes in some fashion), and in emotion (e.g., fearing death). Nevertheless, all men are motivated in unrighteousness and by fear of judgment to ignore, hide, and disavow any belief in the living and true God (either through atheism or false religiosity). By misconstruing and rationalizing the relevant, inescapable evidence around them (“suppressing it”), men bring themselves to believe about themselves that they do not believe in God, even though that second-order belief is false. Sinners can purposely engage in this kind of activity, for they also deceive themselves about their motivation in handling the evidence as they do and about their real intentions, which are not noble or rational at all. Thereby they “go to sleep” (as it were), forgetting their God. Because the evidence is clear, and because the suppression of the truth is intentional, we can properly conclude that all men are “without excuse” and bear full responsibility for their sins of mind, speech, and conduct.

Given the elaboration of self-deception offered here, we can better appreciate what Paul says in Romans 1, namely, that “knowing God,” all men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” And we can assert non-paradoxically that unbelievers culpably deceive themselves about their Maker.

(Bahnsen, The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in PA)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s