Presuppositionalism: Fitting a Big World in a Small Mind
What is presuppositionalism? Is presupposition compatible with science? Why are there still creationists? Why are there still flat-earthers? How does anyone still believe Noah’s ark is real? Does anyone really believe all of the Bible?
As much as it reminds me of writing a high school essay, I will start by defining terms. Since I’m not writing a dictionary and I wish to use agreeable terms, I’ve chosen Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as a starting point.
1: to suppose beforehand
2: to require as an antecedent in logic or fact
Presupposition is not necessarily the claim that one has a given answer to a question, but that one accepts certain premises as factual BEFORE considering possible answers.
Presuppositionalism hasn’t received an entry yet and MS Word’s spellcheck gives it a big red underline as well, but it has been created and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. Rather than exhaustively researching the history and writings of its authors, I’ve taken a shortcut and will reference its Wikipedia page.
At large, presuppositional apologetics includes the assumption that a particular religious text is correct. If the text is considered divine, it is assumed to contain “truth”, or transcendent fundamentals of reality. From this starting point, a presuppositional apologist may gather information that supports these “truths”.
If one assumption is that a snake talked to a man, then it is considered truth. The presuppositional apologist is not phased by the suggestion that snakes do not contain the anatomical necessities to create sounds recognizable as a “voice”. The starting point is that the snake HAS talked.
Additionally, if the assumption is that the Earth is flat, then for the Christian presuppositional apologist, the proof is in the 100+ verses of the Bible that indicate this, not experimental results. Do they all believe this? No. In short, the truth is assumed to be contained in the Bible, not the interpretations of the reader. This creates a lot of leeway in what a presuppositional apologist can argue. The assumption that the Bible is the “word of god” allows for the notion that it’s our flawed humanity that prevents comprehension. These apologists take on the task of interpretation of these “truths” through the study of Biblical context and a desire to reconcile our shared human experience with the often contradictory given “truth”.
Science doesn’t work this way. Back to the dictionary. There are several definitions of science, but I’m referring to this one:
3 a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
While the apologist often likes to claim that the scientific method was invented by religious people with religious motives, the method itself is secular. It wouldn’t matter if it had been dictated by a talking snake as the method is a tool, valuable to humanity for its efficiency in the acquisition of knowledge through understanding the workings of the observable universe. Science itself achieves nothing. It’s a sort of recipe that can be followed to reach conclusions. The use of the scientific method is responsible for the rapid advancement in technology over the past several hundred years. The findings are recorded, collected, confirmed, repeated, and passed on to others, for additional scientific research and in science education. In a secular student’s first science classes, the scientific method is presented in its basic form which usually looks something like this:
In experimentation, procedural minimization of variables and careful analysis of data are critical in the formulation of valid conclusions. Repeatable results and the survived scrutiny from other scientific sources reinforce established conclusions.
If something is considered to be scientifically valid, even if all related research was lost, the discovered principles could still be observed and repeated by anyone. A person could independently come to discover and understand photosynthesis even if they had never saw the word. Its effects are observable and repeatable.
We tend to take a lot of scientific principles for granted, like the tendency of a liquid to take the shape of its container or our tendency to return to the earth from a jump. In fact, one might say we presuppose a lot of things, but does that invalidate subsequent conclusions? Not necessarily. One could go back and verify that liquids assume the shape of their container. One can observe and calculate the acceleration due to gravity. Should we? Accepting established principles allows us to move on and progress. The more times these scientific theories are upheld, the less skeptical a scientist will be of the results.
Is that what happens in presuppositional apologetics? Is it just a different starting point? A different perspective on the same thing?
No. No. No.
Recalling that if all research is lost, a scientific principle could be rediscovered and validated, what would happen if all Bibles were lost? No one could come to the conclusion that there was a great flood that wiped out all but two of each species. No one would conclude humans could live hundreds of years. No one would conclude that a snake ever had a voice or that humans were created by some other creature. It all goes away.
So, if it isn’t a form of science, what is it? Pseudoscience is not an insult, it’s what is erroneously regarded as scientific without containing the requirements of science. If science is a recipe, pseudoscience is missing ingredients or steps. It is the mock apple pie that someone brought to the potluck after they specifically said they were bringing apple pie! Absolutely blasphemous! Reading the comments on the linked recipe, there is legitimate confusion about when to add the apples.
The crackers when combined with other create a substance that vaguely emulates the texture and flavor of a mushy apple pie. Recommended ONLY for people allergic to apples so they can be convinced that they’re not missing out on the real thing (though they really are).
We can set the metaphorical apple pie to cool on the window sill and continue on how presuppositionalism is incompatible with science. The steps are out of order and incomplete:
- The conclusion is made.
- Data is collected.
- What is observed is reconciled with what was concluded.
- The conclusion is reinterpreted with reconciliation or is attributed to divine power as incomprehensible to humans.
Additionally, there is no experimentation in this process. What good would it do? You already have the conclusion. The only thing you could do is contradict it. This might lead a rational person to question the point of the exercise.
While the goal of using science is the acquisition of knowledge, the goal of presuppositional apologetics is the reconciliation of what is observed with the “truth” of their Bible.
The more knowledge that is gained through science, the more challenging that reconciliation becomes. The goals for the use of these tools are diametrically opposed, so their combination makes no sense. Presuppositionalism is anti-intellectual to its core. The intent to integrate it into education is not an attempt at fairness, but a sabotage of science itself toward an end of intellectual stagnation, where new ideas are merely dangerous contradiction and labeled as blasphemous.
We have seen this throughout history in every case where religion has control of government, with the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, Witch Trials, and currently with Islamic states. What is true must never be in contradiction with the “truth”, and enforcement has always been “by any means necessary”.
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.”― George Orwell, 1984