Greg Bahnsen’s Opening Statement

Greg Bahnsen’s Opening Statement in his debate with Edward Tabash:

“Tonight’s debate is kinda like going to a movie after it’s started. Say midway through the screening of the movie in order to understand and assess the conflict or the struggle that you’re presently seeing you have to catch up with the background the you haven’t seen. Which explains and actually develops what’s now going on presently on the screen and I think that’s true about tonight’s debate as well. You really can’t understand and evaluate what you see and hear up here until you look into the unspoken beliefs which are really the context of what’s going on.

There’s a crucial and a determinative intellectual background to tonight’s public conflict between the theist and the atheist, a background which involves radically different underlining philosophies about reality, knowledge, human value and conduct. On the one hand you have the view that says the world is at base matter and motion and over against that the view that says the material world is actually the creation and is controlled by a sovereign and all-knowing personal God. These different ultimate perspectives or world views are the context in terms of which each proponent reasons. What he takes to be relevant, what method and standards of reasoning he employs, how evidence is recognized, how it’s assessed and how it’s applied.

Mr. Tabash has a fundamental philosophy of life, an underlying world view which he brings his background baggage to the debate tonight. So do I. We each have as yet unspoken beliefs about the nature of reality, human experience, the possibility and methods of knowing, and how we should live our lives. And when all is said and done, these two opposing world views will guide and always be at work in our respective arguments or our appraisals of evidence. For example, atheists can be undaunted when Christians show the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, pointing to it and saying, “See there’s a miracle!” But you see, given the atheist’s naturalist presuppositions, he believes that someday or he can believe someday, scientific explanation of that event is theoretically possible, in which case than it’s not a miracle. On the other hand, theists are not dissuaded when atheists point to the evidence of natural disasters or children suffering in the world. For you see, giving their presuppositions God has a morally sufficient reason for ordaining such events, and thus they are not contrary to his goodness and his power given those presuppositions. In both cases the underlying world view is the controlling factor in the reasoning and the conflicting conclusions to which the proponents come and thus progress can be made in the atheist/theist debate, only if we recognize that we all have as it were coming into the movie midway and we must confront the philosophical background to our disagreements. Tonight’s debate comes down to a choice between the conflicting world views in terms of which we will be reasoning and arguing tonight.

Now I believe that the existence of the Christian God is an objective reality which is rationally provable. Please note four things though about what I just said: First of all, notice that I am defending Christian theism specifically; I don’t believe there is any unambiguous and coherent notion of theism in general. I’ll be defending the Christian version of theism. Secondly, our concern here tonight is with the question of the truth of atheism or of theism. Not with psychological motivations, not with subjective desires, or the social functions or the personal character of theist of atheist. The truth about God either way and the truth about devotees to theism or atheism, again either way, maybe happy or it may be sad, it may be useful or counterproductive, it may be corrupting or may be un-nobling, but regardless whatever the truth is, it remains the truth. Thirdly, remember that an argument need not be accepted by everyone for it to be nonetheless conclusive. We must obviously distinguish between proof and persuasion. Personal persuasion is subjectively qualified, proof is not. We say that something can exist, for instance, cancer, for which the doctor has proof. Something can exist even though a person is unpersuaded that he has cancer and even offers reasons, maybe avidly reasons against the possibility that he has cancer. We are dealing here with proof, not persuasion tonight. And fourthly, many hearers need to disabuse themselves of an old canard that goes something like this: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true. Or faith takes over where reason leaves off.” Faith is not something that stands over against reason, whether above reason or contrary to reason or however you wish to put it. Rather reasoning itself rest upon the presupposition of faith and collapses arbitrary without it. Now to make this point I have chosen to look not to what committed Christians have reasoned or said which you might feel is too easy and partisan on my behalf. But rather to have us consider what our hostile opponents have pointed out about a central problem in philosophy. We’ll look at an issue treated by David Hume, the eighteenth century Scottish skeptic, and also by Bertrand Russell, twentieth century English philosopher. Both of these men wrote in strong opposition to religious faith and especially to Christianity. The problem we’re going to look at for a few moments here is the problem of induction.

Among the expectations through which we encounter experience and encounter the world is the expectation that uniformity can be found between the diverse events, things, or experiences in the world. This expectation may in some cases be quite explicit and self-conscious but it need not be. For instance when we learned to drive a car or speak a foreign language we usually pay close attention to what is the regular function of certain parts of the car, or of the grammatical rules and ordinary word usages of the language. But we eventually come to do these things more automatically or more habitually and we no longer consciously think about the expected uniformity in our use of cars or our use of language. Our learning and reasoning tacitly assumes that the universe is such that uniformities are expected and exhibited in similar things even though they are separated by time and space – that the way things happen can be viewed as instances of general laws and what has occurred in the past is a reliable guide for predicting and thus adjusting to the future.

Now this can be described in an elaborate and abstract way, but not many of you are philosophy majors and would not want me to do that. The fact is each of us is very familiar with what I’m talking about from personal experience. We’re all quite acquainted with the process of moving from particular facts in our experience to general truths which are exhibited by those particular experiences. For instance, children don’t merely conclude from their pain that a particular case of flame is burning them, they usually project that fire in general, or if you will, all fire, any fire, will burn as well. From observed regularities or associations, we infer universal regularity even in the unobserved cases or yet future cases. In popular parlance we say we assume the uniformity of nature. The method of generalizing from observed cases to all cases of the same kind is called induction. The basic guiding principle here is that future cases will be like past cases – that similar things will behave similarly.

So for instance, if certain conditions and events bring about a certain effect today, the same factors will cause a similar effect later. I’ll give you a down-to-earth example: Why do we expect toothpaste to spurt from the tube when we squeeze it? You might call this the toothpaste proof of God’s existence, okay? We support that expectation in terms of two things: One, our past experience with toothpaste tubes, and two, the belief that nature is uniform – that the future is like the past. Without that second belief, we would not be able to learn from experience. We will not be able to use language, we will not be able to rely on memory, or advanced science. All of which involve observing similarities and projecting them into the future.

Moreover our belief about uniformity or the inductive principle is a very firmly entrenched belief. When scientists found that there were deviations in the expected orbit of Uranus they did not draw the conclusion, “Okay nature is not uniform after all, ” that just impelled them to start looking for another factor as yet unknown that was influencing the orbit of Uranus. They did not give up the inductive principle, but rather hypothesized the body which by the way we now know to be the planet Neptune. And so from toothpaste to the planets we believe in reason in terms of the inductive principle.

Now David Hume’s question was this, and I quote: ” What is the nature of that evidence which assures us of any real existence and matter-of-fact beyond the present testimony of our senses, or the records of our memory?” By what logical right, he was asking, do we claim to know that some empirical generalizations are true? What, asked Hume, are we warranted in asserting on the basis of our experiences? And he said to be very strict in his empiricism, “Only that in the past or in the cases so far observed such and such has been the case.”

But Hume said we have no basis for projecting that into the future. And I quote him again: “If you insist that the inferences made by a chain of reasoning I desire you to produce that reasoning.” Now of course many people make the mistake of responding to Hume saying, “Hey listen. We all assume the future will be like the past.” Hume said that he understood that, there is no question that in practice we act that way, but as he said and I quote him again: “I want to learn the foundation of this inference.”

And then there are people who say, “Well we know it’s very probable although it may not be very certain. “But that misses Hume’s point as well. Hume knew very well that we don’t have certainty about all matters of science. His point is that we have no logical right to affirm on the basis of our past experiences that even probability is true of the natural order. And so that the principle of induction is left without a foundation.

Bertrand Russell, the 20th century philosopher, said that we cannot justify our belief in induction on the basis of the past success we’ve had in believing that the inductive principle is true because that too assumes that what happened in the past is going to be like the future. Let me quote Russell here: “The inductive principle is equally incapable of being proved by an appeal to experience. Experience might conceivably confirm the inductive principle as regards to the cases that have been already examined but as regards unexamined cases it is the inductive principle alone that can justify any inference from what has been examined to what has not been examined. All arguments which on the basis of experience argue as to the future or the unexperienced parts of the past or present assume the inductive principle. Hence we can never use experience to prove the inductive principle without begging the question.”

So now do we have reason for believing the inductive principle? We need to set the Christian worldview, the theistic world view side by side with the atheist world view and ask which one comports with the inductive principle and thus provides the preconditions for science, language, learning, and any intelligible human experience. And I will say it’s certainly not atheism. Atheism’s view of reality and historical eventuation cannot provide a cogent reason for what all of our reasoning takes for granted. It is debunked by its philosophical arbitrariness at just this point as even men like Hume and Bertrand Russell realize. Accordingly, it is most reasonable to believe in God and entirely unreasonable not believe in God, for God’s existence is the precondition of all reasoning whatsoever.”


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