Taking epistemology as the point of departure is fraught with insufferable difficulty. Yet, this is the lamentable method used in a great deal of modern philosophy. We take knowledge, or even the idea of our own existence, and then ask questions and analyze it. How did I come to have the thought, idea, perception, etc. that is before me right now? What is the logical relation between the ideas I have, the propositions I take as true, etc.? Only once I establish that I know can I then explore that which I know. Without a foundation of knowledge, I cannot speak about anything. If I posit something as existing, someone will ask me how I know about it. And if I cannot provide a good answer, then I might as well not even talk about it. Ontology is subordinated to epistemology. This is particularly evident in the Christian presuppositional tradition.
One problem I see with the presuppositional approach is that it is fundamentally idealist. In this post, I will try to explain what I mean by this and why it is an issue. Note, I am not making a critique of presuppositional apologetics per se. A great deal of ink has already been spilled on that. There are underlying philosophical commitments that are prior, and, I think, more interesting than strictly apologetic approach. I do not have a particular brand of presuppositionalism in mind. Rather, what lies within my sights is a consistent philosophical theme in Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, Oliphint, and others in this tradition, as well as those they have either directly or indirectly influenced. I also see presuppositionalism evident in preaching and pulpit teaching in many evangelical churches, so I aim to address this incipience also.
If we know anything, an important thing to ask is what man knows. Here we have two choices; does he know ideas/beliefs (thought) or things? If we say ideas (or beliefs), then our outlook changes quite a bit. For one thing, to say we know ideas immediately severs any possible physical world from the mind. Such a position naturally radiates from perceptual subjectivism. On this view, the mind is cut-off or mediated from the physical world (if the world is even held to exist). A dimly lit exit sign directs us to a dubious abductive labyrinth. Escape has been attempted by the greatest minds in modern philosophy to no avail because there is no way out. On the other hand, we can say man knows things. And if man knows things, he must know them as they really are. This can only occur if objects are antecedent to the knowing subject, impinging upon the subject’s senses. Such would be man’s natural mode of knowing, the way he comes to know things in his physical, temporal state.
Something of great importance follows if man knows reality (things). His mode of knowing proceeds from object to subject, from sensation to perception to abstraction to intellection. As a rational being, this process is natural; it belongs to his very essence. It is just what man does qua man. There is something outside of man by which man comes to know himself. I am, therefore I think versus I think, therefore I am. It is the Cogito of Descartes in reverse. If the way we know reality is through the process as outlined above, then the yardstick for truth is reality (being). To speak truly is to say that which is. There is a correspondence to reality, where a formal identity comes to exist between the knower and object known. I do not aim to fully defend direct realism here, but merely to highly its differences with idealism and the attending consequences of each. Even if an extended defense of my account of realism fails, the rendering and critique of idealism would remain.
Where does the presuppositionalist land? As I said above, I think he cannot help but land in idealism. Though, it would certainly be problematic to affirm idealism outright. It should be further noted that, by idealism, I do not mean anything other than the basic view that what man knows are beliefs and ideas. For example, holding that knowledge is justified true belief is fundamentally idealist. By idealism, I mean any view that affirms perceptual subjectivism. And by idealism, I mean one that would hold the only possible starting point for knowing reality is the thoughts/ideas/beliefs we have.
The modern/critical problem of Descartes begat idealism, cutting the mind off from things in pursuit of an indubitable foundation. The offspring of idealism is the mind/body problem, which in turn yields the substance dualism/materialism dilemma. (We might add panpsychism in there as a third option, but I think that quickly lands in idealism). Both the substance dualist and materialist options are bitter pills, viz. the interaction problem and the reductionist problem. The mind/body problem is also biblically troubling. Substance dualism, in the Cartesian or Platonic sense, strains the bounds of exegetical credulity. Does the Bible really teach that man is two distinct substances? On the other side, materialism eviscerates the biblical text entirely.
The presuppositionalist tells us that, unless we presuppose the triune God of the Bible (and the truth of the Scriptures), nothing could in principle ultimately make sense. We would contradict ourselves somewhere, probably very soon in the discussion. Any time we use logic, reason, math, etc. we are, in a very real way, implicitly affirming Christian theism. Thus, to deny God is to deny any basis by which we might make such a denial. The non-Christian must borrow from the Christian worldview to argue against the Christian. The Christian framework is the only coherent means of understanding and explaining things.
Given his fundamental position, I contend that the presuppositionalist cannot be a realist. He cannot be a realist because he takes epistemology as his point of departure, thus beginning with knowledge and not things. The presuppositionalist cannot be a realist because realism would open up the possibility of knowing God through the things He has made. On realism, man would know things, apprehend causes, and would reason from effect to cause. In short, with realism comes natural theology. And natural theology is what the presuppositionalist will deny.
A major question that arises is how the presuppositionalist knows about the triune God of the Bible. More importantly, how does he think that the pagan knows about God (Romans 1:18-20). It could only be from either (a) having the idea or belief in God or (b) based on conclusions drawn from interaction with the world. The presuppositionalist can opt for (a), holding that God implanted knowledge of Himself in all men. Perhaps the sensus divinatatus per John Calvin is in view. There are a few issues here. First, this does not necessarily seem like the triune God of Scripture. For if it were, the divinely implanted idea of God manifests quite differently throughout observed cultures in the world. The presuppositionalist will immediately revert that sinful man suppresses true knowledge of God. But then we have still not accounted for that true knowledge in the first place. How does the presuppositional (or covenantal) understand truth =? They might respond that God gives the idea, and then we interact with reality to calibrate the idea (prior to suppressing it). But this is the exact opposite process of how we come to know things unless we think that Plato’s theory of reminisce, or something like it, is true.
Even within an idealist context, it would be bizarre to claim that knowledge starts with an idea and then we reverse engineer or justify it via some investigatory process of prior ideas. A reverse building process, as it were. Do we always start with a complex idea and then investigate how we came to that via simpler ideas? Or do we move from the simple to the complex? Further, why would the way of having the idea of God be different than other ideas? Is knowledge of God innate? If so, what other innate knowledge might we have, and how do we distinguish? I cannot see any non-special pleading answers to these questions that can escape idealism. Starting with an idea will always result in capitulating to a coherence version of truth or making an unjustified leap to the physical world.
The presuppositionalist holds that without first positing Christianity, the world cannot ultimately make sense. The contention that the universe is only intelligible because of God is true, but the method by which we make this assertion makes all the difference. I remain with the question of where the notion of God is coming from? And the presuppositionalist certainly holds that man has knowledge of God and truth. Here is Oliphint’s position, via a summary from his tenets in Covenantal Apologetics “All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations…Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know.”
Given that man does know God and about Him, can the presuppositionalist maintain (b) per above? He cannot if he wishes to remain consistent. Such a move would undermine the entire project. However, this is what I think the presuppositionalist does. He concludes God exists by his natural mode of knowing (reasoning from effect to cause). Once arriving at that conclusion, he then claims the only reason he was able to reason in the first place is because of the conclusions he made based upon use of his reason (God). The presuppositionalist ignores the fact that he did not (nor could not) actually start with the existence of the God of the Bible. Yet he places this demand upon others. It is a highly unreasonable demand, and one that is completely unnecessary.