Friday, June 08, 2007

Circular Frame - Presuppositional Apologetics

Circular Frame
Presuppositional Apologetics Gone Terribly Wrong

According to another Internet poster, JonathanB, Frame wrote:
Criticism is effective only when the critic can suggest a better way. But there is no alternative to circularity [in relation to one’s ultimate commitment]… Circularity in a system is properly justified only at one point: in an argument for the ultimate criterion of the system… It is possible to argue the Pauline authorship of Second Timothy on the basis of higher and broader princples than the Pauline authoriship of Second Timothy. Allowing circularity at one point in a system, therefore, does not commit us to allowing circularity at all points.

(John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 13-131) (citation by JonathanB)

Frame is wrong in saying that circularity is "properly justified" at all.

Circularity is never justified in argument. Frame's assertion that it is justified is simply a self-serving ipse dixit. There is no basis for his claiming that it is justified, and there is a categorical problem with circular reasoning: it is logically invalid.

In other words, circular reasoning is not an example of reasoning, it is an example of broken reasoning, just as potsherds are not a category of pottery.

Frame argues that "there is no alternative to circularity." This manifestly incorrect. If one is going to rely on logical fallacies, there are plenty of others that could be employed. Ad baculum is a favorite of mine, and should your argumentative vein be less pugilistic, you could try the ad misericordiam or the ever favorite in certain circles, ad nauseum.

More importantly, the correct response is not a circular argument, but a simple statement: This is my presupposition: I trust God. If someone asks: "But why do you trust God," the response is: didn't you just hear me? I said it is my presupposition. It's absurd to ask what the basis is for a presupposition.

Asking what is beyond an ultimate commitment is like asking which letter comes after zed, or what building is taller than the tallest building. It's a silly question, and the best responses are to point out that the question itself is absurd, to clarify that you have arrived at the tallest building, last letter, or presupposition, or simply to remain silent.

Frame and many of Van Til's followers make the serious logical mistake of attempting to provide an answer to the complex question: "what is the justification for your presuppositions?"

In doing so, they undermine their otherwise good, presuppositional apologetic.

An Alternative view of Frame

I should note that Frame's argument can be expressed other ways. For example, Frame states:

However, it is quite impossible to argue for Christianity, or anything else for that matter, without making a presuppositional choice. One cannot reason without criteria of truth. And criteria of truth come from a wide variety of sources, ultimately religious commitment. Those criteria will either be Christian or non-Christian. If they are non-Christian, they will be self-defeating and subject to divine judgment. To say this is to say that argument for Christianity will always be in one sense circular. Arguments for Christianity must be based on Christian criteria, which in turn presuppose the truth of Christianity. You can't prove God without presupposing him. This is one of the principles of Van Til's apologetics which most irritates our authors. [Footnotes omitted.]

This excellent comment by Frame is in response to the errors of the evidentialists. "Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic," WTJ V47 #2 Fall 1985 pp. 287-88.

And Frame's comment is not unique to Van Til's apologetics, but also applies to the slightly more pure presuppositional apologetics of Dr. Clark. The one thing that Frame fails to do is properly complete the thought. After correctly stating, "You can't prove God without presupposing Him," Frame ought to have added: "and a proof that presupposes its conclusion is logically invalid, consequently one cannot prove God using deductive reasoning."

Frame appears to believe that this would mean he would then have to accept the evidentialist approach of seeking to prove God (courtroom-style) from the preponderance of the evidence. However, as Frame should be able to recognize, the fact that God's existence cannot be proved by deductive reasoning, does not mean that it must be proved some other way. The response, as noted above (and below in the objections answered section), is to simply say that the presupposition is off the table. Failing to accept the presupposition will lead to judgment, as Frame himself pointed out.

Accordingly, there is certainly room in Frame to accomodate the slight correction needed to avoid the problem of circularity, and thereby purify the VanTilian approach to presuppositional apologetics.

Objections Raised

One follower of Van Til has raised various objections, in a comment below. Rather than simply reply in the comment box, I thought it would add to this post to have those objections addressed within the post.

Objection 1: An unfounded claim (or an axiom) is an arbitrary assertion.

That assertion is incorrect. Some unfounded claims (and some axioms) are arbitrary assertions, some are not. Of course, we are speaking here of claims that are not founded in reasoned argument.

This is not a legitimate objection, however, because a circular argument is not a foundation (in the sense of a reasoned argument) for a proposition.

And a circular argument is patently worse than just stating that the matter is a presupposition, because it has the appearance of an attempt to decieve the audient into thinking that the matter has been proven using reason.

The assertion that God exists is not "arbitrary." It is God's own name for Himself. He is the "I AM." It is not a conclusion that we arrive at by logical reasoning, it is simply the revealed truth of God.

Consequently, the objection fails both because the Circular Reasoning position is worse than the acknowledgment of the presupposition, and because it is untrue that the only alternative to reasoned proof is mere arbit.

Objection 2: You assert that circular arguments as illogical and then abandon logic yourself.

This objection has a facade of validity, in the sense that at first glance it appears to be a valid objection. As noted above, however, the problem is not just that circular arguments are illogical, but that they are (in Frame's apologetic) being passed off on the unsuspecting public as logically valid. That passing off is deceptive and unworthy of Christian apologetics. The simple acknowledgement: "This is my presupposition: this is what God has revealed to me," is worlds better than attempting to suggest that one has "proven" one's presuppositions.

Furthermore, such an obvious deception is readily detected both by anti-Christian philosophers and evidentialist Christian philosophers, who then come (wrongly) to despise presuppositional apologetics in general as dishonest.

Objection 3: If axioms don't have to be justifed by reasoned argument, then I can escape having to justify my position on anything by calling it an axiom.

This objection does not have much force, for three reasons.

The first reason is that there is not some alternative in which axioms ARE justified by reasoned argument. As noted above, a circular argument is not a reasoned argument.

The second reason is that if a circular argument IS a reasoned justification, then it could simply be employed to support any arbitrary axiom: consequently, the same criticism would inhere. Frame tries to escape this by saying that circular arguments are only valid sometimes (not all the time), but aside from a self-serving desire to permit circularity when it is helpful, Frame does not justify his resort to fallacious reasoning.

The third reason is that there is value in people exposing their axioms: their presuppositions. For example, most Arminians have a presupposition that man's destiny is not (effectively) written in stone, but that the future (to a large degree) is up to each individual person. That's a presupposition for them, but some (indeed many) refuse to acknowledge that it is a presupposition, choosing instead to assert that is based in Scriptural exegesis. When they acknowledge that it is a presupposition, then the debate can shift to whether that presupposition is consistent with other of their presuppositions, as opposed to whether the presupposition itself is justified.

Objection 4: Your ability to be logical on matters other than your presuppositions is not due to your presuppositions.

I agree. I don't see this as a reason to object to my view.

Objection 5: Your decision to be logical is arbitrary

This objection is not true. I am logical because reason has been revealed to be of use in understanding.

Objection 6: Aristotle was circular before we were.

That's hardly an objection worth mentioning. Asserting that a truth is self-evident is dogma, not demonstration, even if one places Aristotle's signature under the assertion.

Interestingly, though, even the pagan author Longinus recognized that Paul preached in a style that was different from the Greek orators: "Let the following men be takend as the summit of all excellence of eloquence and Grecian intellect - Demothsenes, Lysias, Aeachines, Hyperides, Isaeus, Deinarchus, or Demosthenes Crithinus, Isocrates, Antiphon; to whom may be added, Paul of Tarsus, who was the first within my knowledge who did not make use of demonstration."

This, of course, relates back to the objection in my previous post (Link here) that Van-Tillian apologetics are (at their starting point) unbiblical: not derived from exegesis.

Objection 7: Such circularity can be justified "transcendentally" (by which this author supposes that the objector means: transcendently)

The circularity is not being justified transcendently; the proposition itself ("I AM") is justified transcendently. Distinguishing the fallacy attempt to justify the proposition using logic from the proposition itself is an important step. God's declaration "I AM" is a transcendent declaration. It is outside the bounds of proper debate. It is impudent and even lèse majesté to debate contrary to God's own declaration that he IS. Furthermore, we know that the proposition is evident to everyone, even if they refuse to accept it as true, for Scripture reveals this information to us.

Thus, the propositon is not arbitray and - at the same time - there is no reason to seek to justify the proposition using logical deduction.

Objection 8: If we attempt to give no explanation at all we would be arbitrary.

No. We might be perceived to be arbitrary, but we believe because we have been persuaded of the truth by the Spirit of God.

Objection 9: There are three options: circular reasoning, self-contradiction, and arbitrary assertion.

False trichotomy. As noted in my previous post, there are further categories of invalid argumentation we could employ in the place of the first two options listed (for example we could argue as the Muslims have historically done, ad baculum) and there is the option of responding that the question (what is the justification of your final justification) is as absurd as the question, "which building is taller than the tallest building?" or "what lies below the geometric center of the Earth?"

If we choose the path of posing as presenting a logical argument, we risk being deceptive: for a circular argument is no more of a logical argument than is a self-contradictory argument.

Objection 10: If we allow presuppositions to be justified without circular argument, then we forfeit the right to make any argument at all; for, in allowing arbitrariness into our system (indeed at the very foundation of our system) we have forfeited the right to claim that others not be arbitrary on other points.

This objection is not valid, both because (as noted above) although the presupposition that God exists is not founded on deduction, it is not arbitrary, and because circular argument does not weed out arbitrary presuppositions.

Objection 11: Circularity with transcendental justification or no justification at all for anything.

This objection is a false dichotomy for two reasons: first, the two options are (from the standpoint of reasoned argument) the same. Circularity does not ADD to the justification of something, and transcendent justification is inherently not reasoned argument. Furthermore, there is no reason that the label "transcendent" cannot be appropriately applied to the presuppositions in the absence of a circular argument.



Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I don’t have time to carry on much longer. This will also count as my reply under the other thread.

You attempt to lambaste circular arguments and at this point you want to stick to logic but then you want to deny that an unfounded claim is an arbitrary assertion. You want to call it an “axiom” but what is an axiom? Something you just presuppose is true with no justification. So, what are we left with? You already admitted, “you can provide whatever axiom you like, and prove whatever you like by selecting the right axioms.” You can call this arbitrariness an “axiom” if you want, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Why could you possibly want to avoid circular arguments? Because they are illogical? Yet, you admit that your very foundation is not logical.

You may want to claim that by holding to that presupposition you can be logical in other areas…. Yet I can claim that that is not due to your presupposition at all. Take for example atheists, who, by your own admission, do not hold to your axiom and yet they are logical too. Any claim you make for your axiomatic belief cannot be supported. You state, “Scripture is true. It is foolish to take a position contrary to the truth by picking axioms that contrary to the truth. Therefore, it is foolish to pick axioms that are contrary to the Scripture.” You claim that you don’t have to provide any argument for P1 because it is an axiom. However, I can make anything I want an axiom and therefore I don’t really have to justify anything. In fact, on your assertion, if I made everything I believe an axiom it would actually be illogical for me to try and justify anything I did, including making everything an axiom. You have allowed arbitrariness into your system and in doing so you cannot, by any means, stop arbitrariness from taking over your system except by way of another arbitrary decision to be “logical” but why should I be logical? Can you justify that? You cannot justify induction can you? So how do you get around the problem? Easy, just make it an axiom (arbitrary assertion). So what you end up with is a bunch of arbitrary assertions that cannot be logically related or else you would have to provide arguments for their relation which would eventually lead to justifications of the axioms…

On the other hand, you act as though Van Tilians just made up circular arguments yesterday, when in fact such circularity, which may be justified transcendentally, has been used since Aristotle. We claim that Scripture is a self-attesting authority and if someone asks us why we believe that we must ultimately say “because it says so.” If we attempted to give some reason outside of Scripture’s self-attesting authority we would be denying that it is a self-attesting authority. On the other hand, if we attempted to give no explanation at all we would be arbitrary. So we have three options: circular reasoning, self-contradiction, and arbitrary assertion. If we chose the second option we have lost all claims to rationality. If we chose the third option then we have lost the right to make any argument at all; for, in allowing arbitrariness into our system (indeed at the very foundation of our system) we have forfeited the right to claim that others not be arbitrary on other points. If we chose the first option we could allow for a system to be a legitimate circle if it can be transcendentally verified. This allows us to claim validity for something such as the law of non-contradiction without making it an arbitrary axiom. Yes, ultimately, the law of non-contradiction must be argued for on circular grounds, but it is legitimate because it is transcendentally necessary. As John Frame said, a criticism is only valid if there is another option available.

I may leave it at this. Surely your readers can decide for themselves: Circularity with transcendental justification or no justification at all for anything.


Turretinfan said...

Dear JB,

Thank you for taking the time to reply. I have incorporated your objections into the post itself, and replied to them there. If you feel I have overlooked some aspect of your post, or you have additional objections or rebuttal, feel free.

May God's blessing rest on you,


Anonymous said...

I wrote a response. It is too long to make a comment so I have posted it on my blog here:

God bless,

Turretinfan said...

Hi JB,

Thanks for your comments, I've replied in a new post on this same blog. Here: