Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mind Your Presuppositions or They Will Mind You

In reading this post ( by James McGrath, who is a liberal New Testament scholar, I am struck once again at how oblivious scholars are to their own presuppositions. Let me say a few words to give background here first.

Most people think that scholars are so well educated that they have thought through their positions from A to Z and back again. Nothing could be further from the truth. A scholar who has done this is actually a rare bird. Most scholars simply regurgitate information and ideas that they have read in other people, especially when those ideas/theories are widely accepted. If you're careful when you read them, many of them make what is called ad populum arguments. An ad populum argument is one where the majority opinion is appealed to in order to establish some authority for that opinion. Of course, this is a logical fallacy if it is given as the sole argument for a position. The majority of scholars once held to numerous positions we now know are false.

Other scholars tend to suggest new things based upon the information they've read in yet other scholars, but this often assumes that those things widely accepted by other scholars are true. Most scholars don't go over that ground again. They accept the conclusions, if only in a very wide sense, of those who preceded them.

Now, addressing McGrath's post, I think he has misunderstood the relationship between liberal scholarship and atheism. He is right that atheists adopt some things from liberals, but the relationship largely goes back to presuppositions shared between the two groups. Liberal scholarship accepted similar conclusions to atheism because they both presuppose the same things in their methodologies of inquiry. They are both empiricists in determining truth for our world. The liberal just adds some spirituality via other avenues; but they both interpret what can be known about reality through empiricism, and that assumes first an absence of revelation embodied within the biblical text (or any text for that matter). It assumes a particular view of human ability to comprehensively know something, since the naturalist believes in a closed universe, and ironically (and in contradiction to his worldview I might add) that humans are capable of knowing reality as it exists. The facts he knows are not, therefore, partial (i.e., with both physical and spiritual properties), but complete, as long as he has exhausted his physical analysis of those facts.

In other words, both liberalism and atheism have a view concerning what can be known in the universe as true because they both have the same methodology to determine what is true. The liberal may chime in and say he believes all sorts of supernatural things as well, but these things cannot be known. Only the physical can be known. He agrees completely with the atheist here because of his adoption of the worldview that reality can be known by humans (ergo, humans are not limited by their finitude or sin to know reality, something atheism borrows from liberal theology, so in that regard McGrath is right here, reality can be analyzed physically in order to determine what can be known about it, revelation has not been given by God, as no metaphysical assumptions can be brought to bear on our knowledge of reality, only our unverified beliefs about it can be brought in after the fact).

What I'm trying to get at here is that early on in the Enlightenment assumptions of knowledge were made by liberals that became a part of our academic thinking in general, and those assumptions are largely naturalistic. Hence, it is not a surprise that liberals beget more liberals and atheists in the academy because the academy assumes a naturalistic presupposition in its methodology. Other scholars followed the scholars that assumed this before them, and other scholars today follow along. Of course, this isn't simply a matter of scholarship, as what scholars believe always trickles down to churches, lower level schools, and general culture. We are an atheistic culture, whether philosophically or practically, for a reason. Our religions are atheistic, with the goal to make ourselves better (in whatever way we personally define that), because our presuppositions of knowledge assume it.

The problem with this presupposition, however, is that it's self refuting. A self refuting argument is one that self implodes. It's a logical fallacy of the highest order. Whereas an ad populum fallacy can be legitimized by other arguments in its favor, a self refuting argument cannot be. If you hold a self refuting position, you hold a false position. There is no doubt about it.

Aside from the fact that humans are finite and programmed to see reality, not for the sake of knowing truth, but for the sake of survival (and hence, their perceptions of reality may be altered/distorted for self or social benefit), the metaphysical assumptions that empiricism must make, if used as the sole means to determine reality apart from faith (that liberals see, not as believing a report, such as one has in the Bible, but as the sense one makes of his own personal spiritual experiences--hence, empirical via a third eye or sixth sense), cannot substantiate itself. Hence, if the only reality one can know must be empirically verified, and the metaphysical assumptions that empiricism makes cannot be empirically verified (which of course they cannot be), then the truth claim that empiricism has the ability to discover truth is something that cannot be known, and hence, cannot be considered apart of known reality. It must, therefore, be placed in the category of belief (in the liberal and atheistic sense of the word).

To put it more plainly, empiricism (the idea that one can know the truth concerning reality through the senses) assumes something about the metaphysical world (i.e., that it either does not exist, does not exist as a determining factor in understanding the truth concerning reality, etc.) that cannot be empirically verified, and yet, is vital in determining the truth claim that empiricism can determine the nature of reality. Naturalistic empiricism itself, therefore, is self refuting, as one must believe certain metaphysical presuppositions first in order to use it as a way to know what is true. It thus implodes.

So what have we assumed in the academy? Nonsense, that's what. And that's what we have assumed in liberal churches, and in our larger liberal culture. Please note that most conservatives are also liberal in this regard. This isn't a matter of just liberals being affected. We assume these things in the larger culture, and hence, even in churches that we would not normally call "liberal." Our religion, where everyman does that which is right in his own eyes, stems from our liberal theology, and our liberal theology stems from our naturalistic worldview. In other words, we stand on a flimsy stack of cards, but there is a bright side to all of it: we're all in good company (there's that ad populum again).

But in contrast to this, orthodox Christians believe that faith is believing a report, not merely making sense of one's community's or one's own experiences. Faith is believing the report in Scripture. We know both through empirical means and through report. In other words, we need faith to know. We either must believe Metaphysical Idea X or Metaphysical Idea Y, but what we believe or do not believe metaphysically will determine what we believe about the physical. It is not something that can be brought in ad hoc. It predetermines our conclusions, and orthodox Christian thinkers, as opposed to Enlightenment-oriented thinkers, have always known this. Hence, since Christians know we must determine reality first by faith and then by sight, and the Bible is their authority by believing its report, the Bible determines the nature of reality and the Christian's view of the physical world as well. What I mean by this is not that the Bible teaches us about the physical world directly, but that it gives us a worldview, i.e., a presuppositional grid, through which we pull all of our other knowledge gained from empirical means. Knowledge is made up of faith driving experience, not the other way around. If it's the other way around, we get liberalism and atheism, and all of the nonsense that comes from a self refuting position.

So the next time you might think scholars have it all figured out, think again. They're as lost as their "revelationaless" religion is lost in a sea of self refuting claims and nonsense. Take their observations with a grain of salt, and don't think that because many of them hold to a particular idea that makes it true in itself. You may just be adopting junk knowledge determined by presuppositions that are completely and utterly nonsensical. In other words, mind your presuppositions or they will mind you (i.e., control your path of knowledge without you knowing it and lead you to know reality less than you did before you read all of those great scholars).


  1. Ahhhhhhh. (A satisfied sound as I was reading this post and drinking my coffee simultaneously).

    At first I didn't see where you were going with respect to McGrath's post. But reading further, I see that you went far deeper and far better than McGrath's post.

    Very, very good.

    Have you posted a comment linking your response in McGrath's thread?

    If not, would you mind if I assisted? I think your article deserves wide readership.

    Thanks Hodge.

  2. I haven't, Truth. But if you would like to, feel free. I'll brace for myself for incoming and malicious fire. ;)

  3. I don't have any malicious fire to offer - sorry if you are disappointed. But I will say that the account you offer doesn't fit my own experience. My liberal perspective on the Bible is one that resulted from studying the Bible in a conservative Evangelical context, one which I resisted for as long as I could, but which I ultimately embraced because I don't think it makes sense to defend one's doctrine of Scripture from the evidence in Scripture itself.

    (I have told quite a bit about my own story on my blog in the past. Here's a link to one such recent post of mine.)

    Thanks for taking the time to read and interact!

  4. James,

    Thank you for interacting.

    I'm sorry to point this out, but I'm afraid you've misread me. I said nothing about the Bible being unmediated. But your counterpoint proves my point. You did not mention the Holy Spirit or the ability of God to communicate through language to and through His community using the Bible because you assume naturalism first. Hence, one only has his experiences, etc. to know the truth. Man is on his own. My point is that orthodox Christians believe a report in language, and language can be understood, even when spoken to us by other humans (especially so, therefore, when it is spoken by God).

    But it's much worse than this, since you did not bother to engage what I said, but rather caricature my position as "fundamentalist" on your site. The point of the post was that both liberals and atheists assume that they can use empiricism to know the legitimacy of a truth claim when the truth claim, "empiricism can discover the nature of reality," cannot be truthfully known, using empiricism. Knowledge can only be known by faith in a report by someone with metaphysical knowledge. Without faith in such a report, NOTHING can be known. Hence, we are left with just whatever everyone wants to believe about his or her experiences (i.e., liberalism, atheism, etc.).

    You're confusing what I'm saying with the objective versus subjective apprehension of knowledge, and your presupposition is showing.

    Regarding your personal story, James, I appreciate the feeling that you were predisposed toward a more conservative position, but please note that I am not talking about bias. I am talking about presuppositions in one's methodology of inquiry. You are talking about the former and I am talking about the latter. Presuppositions ALWAYS determine our conclusions. Biases can be removed through study. Hence, I said before that liberalism is everywhere in the academy and in the churches, not just in those we normally identify as "liberal."

    My definition of "liberal" is not one who does not find his theology in accord with Nicean Christianity, but one whose ultimate source of authority lies in his own experience (e.g., empiricism, spiritual experiences), and not in the belief in a report, such as the Bible. Hence, when you tell me that you rejected the idea that you should defend one's doctrine of Scripture from Scripture. Well, with what would you defend it? A higher authority? Is this not simply an embrace of a liberal worldview? Most evangelicals I know already embrace such a worldview, even though they remain "conservative" in their theology and social ethics. So your story, although probably causing you to feel your new found believes have more explanatory power due to your supposed opposite positions, only confirm to me what we presuppose as true (without questioning it) in Western culture.

  5. BTW, just to clarify, James, I wasn't expecting malicious comments from you, but from many of the liberals (and more likely) atheists that comment on your site. Thanks again.

  6. "i.e., a presuppositional grid, through which we pull all of our other knowledge gained from empirical means."

    If you presuppose the Bible to be true then how, pray tell, is that empirical?

    "Knowledge is made up of faith driving experience..."

    Interesting. You are citing personal experience and empirical evidence? Regardless, this personal experience seems to have been revealed inconsistently by the divine because there are many who have not experienced it. Oh, and we can bracket out the fact that adherents of other religions often claim this personal experience too.

    Thanks but if this is Theological Sushi I'll have to pass. The Secular China Buffet seems to leave a somewhat better taste in my mouth. :-)

  7. Hi B.

    "If you presuppose the Bible to be true then how, pray tell, is that empirical?"

    It isn't. My entire point is that our knowledge must consist of both empirically verifiable data and unverifiable data. The latter requires faith, and all make that leap. The difference between liberals/atheists and orthodox Christians is that one faith is in the report of Scripture and the other has faith that their metaphysical speculations are true without a claimed report from someone who has knowledge of the metaphysical.

    "Interesting. You are citing personal experience and empirical evidence?"

    No, I don't think you read me correctly. I am citing empirical evidence (which is personal experience) and faith in a report. Both are needed to know reality (and everyone uses both, whether they admit it or not).

    "Regardless, this personal experience seems to have been revealed inconsistently by the divine because there are many who have not experienced it. Oh, and we can bracket out the fact that adherents of other religions often claim this personal experience too."

    Again, I'm not referring to what everyone experiences in religion. That is more consistent with James' liberalism. I am talking about the necessity of faith in a report in order to know truth. So, yes, many people do make experiential claims concerning their religion. The question we must ask is, Where are you getting this knowledge? Is it pure speculation or gained from a belief in a report? Christianity would answer the latter, not the former. Atheism and Liberalism would answer the former. You might want to pick your bone with them.

    "Thanks but if this is Theological Sushi I'll have to pass. The Secular China Buffet seems to leave a somewhat better taste in my mouth. :-)"

    Really? The secular Chinese Buffet is usually fake Chinese food rather than the real deal, but that would be fitting, I guess, since those who reject the report are left with a fabricated view of reality. ;)

    Thanks for commenting.