From My Point of View YOUR Worldview Is Circular!
Reflections on the Presuppositionalism Debates
Christian education has failed you, Van Tillian friends.
If you are a Van Tillian Presuppositionalist and your response to the accusation that you are reasoning circularly (committing the fallacy of petitio principii) is simply, “But you do it too,” then your Christian education has failed you.
Van Tillians often use the tu quoque comeback as a way to deflect or evade a legitimate challenge posed to their ideological system. When the challenge is: “You are committing a logical error as follows…” the manful response is to explain why there is not, in fact, a logical error being committed. But that is not how a Van Tillian typically responds. Instead, the response is: “But you do it too.”
Perhaps Van Tillians do not know how to concisely explain how what they are doing is not in fact a logical error. But the least they could do would be to say, “I do not believe there is a logical error here, and if you have the time I would be willing to give you an overview of why I believe this.”
“We all have to do it,” is not an answer to the challenge. First of all, the Classical Foundationalists do not agree that “We all have to do it.” Second, we are not willing to accept the very Van Tillian Presuppositions under debate as premises leading to that kind of conclusion.
The most honest answer to the challenge would be for the Van Tillian to acknowledge, “Yes, I am advocating logical circularity as being a good thing, and, no, I do not yet know how to explain why circularity is to be permitted in some cases but not others.”
What the Van Tillian refuses to do is to own the implications of his “All worldviews are logically circular” position. If he did try to own up to the implications, he would need to affirm that his position is not subject to — or grounded in — the normal standards of logic, and, thus, that his belief in God is a pre-theoretical faith commitment, not a conclusion reached by a process of rational discovery.
As a defense for Presuppositionalism, the tactic of saying, “From my point of view YOUR worldview is circular,” accomplishes nothing. If the accusation were true — if all worldviews were in fact circular — then there would be no objective way of establishing any fact, and all claims would be untestable in the final analysis, including the claim that “all worldviews are circular.”
When the Van Tillian claims are treated as knowledge, theses claims invalidate knowledge, as such. The Van Tillian accomplishes the exact opposite of his purported goal, which ought to have been to establish that the Van Tillian claims about knowledge are true.
Nevertheless, this tu quoque argument can have rhetorical power on those it is intended to impress. If a Classical Foundationalist is publicly criticizing a Presuppositionalist for his embrace of circularity and the Presuppositionalist can convince onlookers that his opponent is doing exactly the same thing, then the onlookers will likely conclude that the two debating parties are tied together in the same fate: Either they are both making a logical error, or it is not in fact an error to embrace circularity, in which case the man who is self-aware about his own circularity comes out appearing to be the more credible of the two.
I have been describing the outcome of my December 2019 debate with Seth Bloomsburg.
View the debate here:
The debate was productive because it surfaced two clear points of disagreement between the Classical Foundationalists (such as myself) and the Van Tillians (such as Seth Bloomsburg).
Van Tillians are committed to two erroneous claims:
- That Classical Foundationalists are unwittingly engaged in circular reasoning in defending their own epistemology.
- That it is appropriate and necessary to engage in circular reasoning — when making theistic arguments.
In our debate, Seth Bloomsburg focused on the first point. This put me in the position of explaining and defending Classical Foundationalism.
By the end of the debate, Seth Bloomsburg and the Presuppositionalists in our audience had concluded that I was being unwittingly hypocritical for the following reasons:
I embrace observation and reason as the foundational standards for determining truth, and I do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate to offer a deductive argument proving that observation and reason are valid. Thus, maintain the Van Tillians, I am taking it on faith that observation and reason are reliable. I have arbitrarily placed “observation and reason” at the foundation of my epistemological system.
Classical Foundationalists do not see their position as arbitrary.
We certainly do not see anything “arbitrary” or “circular” about our view. We are careful to point out that there is nothing circular about using one’s means of knowledge in order to gain knowledge. It is not even circular to use observation and reason to make the identification that “observation and reason” are the foundations of knowledge. The only alternative to making discoveries without using our means of discovery would be to make no discoveries at all.
In my debate with Seth Bloomsburg, the Van Tillians and the Classicalists both came away thinking their side had clearly prevailed. This is typically the case in debates between these two positions.
Not long afterward, Seth Bloomsburg agreed to do a follow up debate with Jacob Brunton. This debate focused on the question of whether it is appropriate and necessary to engage in circular reasoning when making theistic arguments. Jacob Brunton’s goal was to establish even more firmly that the Van Tillian position does embrace circular arguments and then to offer an alternative approach.
Please judge for yourself whether Jacob Brunton succeeded in demonstrating his position, that it is neither appropriate nor necessary to engage in circular reasoning when making theistic arguments.
Having reviewed the state of the discussion, I now want to offer an approach to answering the other major Van Tillian error: that Classical Foundationalists are unwittingly engaged in circular reasoning in defending their own epistemology.
What follows is a concise way to answer when someone says: “From my point of view YOUR worldview is circular.”
When someone claims Classical Foundationalism is circular, here is the response:
My view is that claims should be made only when a person possesses good reason to make them. When I say I know something, I am saying I possess (have obtained) good reason to make that claim. Is there anything about this idea that anyone disputes? Do you disagree that I have good reason for any of my claims? For instance, when I see that it is a sunny day, and when I say so, do you say I do not have good reason to say it?
With the above response, you remind any listener that knowledge claims must be grounded in first-person discernibility. See more about this concept of first-person discernibility here. You thus position the discussion where it ought to take place. A rational discussion about the nature of knowledge should focus on what the criteria for knowledge are, not on the self-contradictory question of whether such criteria even exist.
What constitutes a good reason? The common sense position is that we obtain good reasons to make claims by seeing or hearing or touching objects and interacting with them and using our minds (our reason) to form conclusions about what we are observing.
Apart from such things as observation and reason, it is unclear what it would mean to say one has obtained good reason to make a claim.
If someone challenges the idea that observations give a person good reason to make claims and if he asks for a “good reason” for that very idea, you must remind him what he already knows: that observation and reason together form the standard for what we mean by having “good reason” to make claims.
If the Van Tillians say such a standard is circular, we should point out that we would only be guilty of circularity if we attempted to use a premise that observation is reliable in the process of arguing toward a conclusion that observation is reliable. Where have we done that?
We are not making an argument that observation is reliable. Observation is the given. Observation is the basis by which we determine which claims are reliable. We determine what is reasonable by asking whether claims correspond to that which we have observed.
The Van Tillian may say: “But you have arbitrarily decided that observation will be your standard.” To that accusation, we must simply respond, “Why do you think that? What do you think non-arbitrary means, if not grounded in observation and reason?”
Someone asking for an argument that observation is reliable is actually asking for an argument that arguments establish truth, or to say it another way, he is asking for evidence that evidence is evidence. That he does not see the absurdity of his demand is his problem, not ours.
The person asking these kinds of questions is guilty of not understanding what arguments are. He asks the impossible. It remains to the Classicalist merely to point out: Claims should be made only when a person possesses good reason to make them.
Observation and reason are the kind of things that confer on us “good reason” for making a claim. It is unclear what other sorts of things could serve that purpose.
To challenge the special status of observation and reason at the foundation of knowledge is not to pose the Classicalist a puzzle he cannot solve. Instead the challenger has merely confessed his lack of awareness of the meaning of terms in the discussion.
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