Defending Atheism, and Why Presuppositionalist Apologetics Fail

When theists run out of conventional arguments for the existence of God, sometimes they grow desperate, and take the so called “nuclear option” of attempting to cast doubt on common epistemologies many atheists rely on like empiricism, rationalism, and naturalism. This was the primary approach Sye Ten Bruggencate took in his recent debate against Matt Dillahunty in Memphis, and I am sure many atheists who read this have experienced these kinds of arguments in debating theists. Seeing how this is my first blog post on the Atheist Analysis, and considering how the Bruggencate vs Dillahunty debate is still fresh in everyone’s mind, it makes sense to both comment on presuppositionalism, as well as defend the worldview many atheists rely upon.

Presuppositionalists like to ask questions regarding how we know what we know. They try to corner skeptics who lack belief in the supernatural into a form of solipsism, and this can be difficult for some people to counter if they have not experienced these kinds of arguments before. Wondering how we know what we know is a valid question, and it is something philosophers have been debating for centuries in the form of the Munchhausen Trilemma. This trilemma gives people three options in creating the foundations of their worldview.

The first option is to ultimately found one’s worldview on circular logic. Atheists do this in the form of using reason to justify their reason, or science to prove science. When those skeptical of this dig deeper, atheists can respond by pointing out that this is valid because it works. We have seen this both in Matt Dillahunty’s debate performance a couple weeks ago, and in Richard Dawkins’ comment that science “works, bitches!” However, philosophically, theists like to use this as an opportunity to use God to prove God. This can be problematic because God is not reliably detected in any way, and there is no reason to believe that he exists (which is not necessarily for case for the universe in the secular point of view, as we will see later).

The second alternative to the Munchhausen Trilemma is an infinite regress of things justifying other things, but this option makes no sense. In practice, it is impossible have an infinite regress, because once one gets to the most foundational questions of existence, reasoning quickly becomes circular again, or becomes based on axioms, which is the third prong of the Trilemma.

The use of axioms is probably the best way to approach these foundational questions regarding the validity of worldview, but it is something that both Christians and atheists end up doing. Atheists generally end up using the existence of self, and of the universe as axioms, while theists like to plug in God as an axiom.

Choosing axioms on which to base a worldview can be tricky. It is theoretically possible to make anything an axiom, from god, to the force, to invisible pixies from the planet Mongo. However, this would be counterproductive if one wishes to base their epistemology on that which is most likely true. Therefore, it is best to limit the axioms in one’s worldview as much as possible to avoid violating Occam’s Razor and multiplying unnecessary, unproven variables. Axioms should be chosen for good reasons, and generally be assumed out of some sort of necessity to make a worldview function. That being said, there are two axioms that are absolutely necessary to make an epistemology escape solipsism: that the thinker exists, and that the universe exists.

The first axiom is assumed even by solipsists: that we (thinkers) exist. Descartes summed it up well: “I think, therefore I am.”. Something is doing some sort of thinking here, so we can say that it exists.

The universe can be accepted to exist as the second axiom for this reason: it is reliably and consistently experienced. Human beings have five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, in which we can experience the universe. These experiences are generally reliable in the sense that we can continue to seek out the same sensations, and in doing so, the same thing will happen every time. If we look up, for roughly twelve hours a day, we will see a sun. For the other twelve hours or so, we see darkness and sometimes the moon and the stars. If we eat a hamburger, it generally tastes similar to the last time we had one. If we put our hands in fire, they burn. If we touch ice, it feels cold. This is different than a dream, which can be experienced once, and then disappears forever when we wake up. The difference between a dream and the universe that is dreams are not consistent, while the universe is. We can experience it for the duration of our lives. While it is possible that the universe is an illusion of some kind, it is all we have to work with, and there is no way to know it is an illusion. We could be a brain in a vat, but there is no way we could ever know any better. That being said, to an atheist, absolute certainty is a red herring, and there is very little it is possible to be absolutely certain about. The goal is to realistically maximize certainty, and to change perspectives when what is believed is shown to be wrong or inaccurate.

With all that in mind, it is time to turn our attention to whether God is a valid axiom. The idea presuppositionalists argue with making God an axiom is that because God is omniscient, he knows everything with absolute certainty, and therefore, anything he has revealed to human beings is absolutely true. While the logic appears sound if the premises are true, the problem lies in the premises. If we go back to the Atheist Experience episode 517, Don Baker and Matt Dillahunty make the point that often times, beliefs in God are not necessarily one claim, but multiple. In reaching the conclusions presuppositionalists assume, they are actually making multiple claims here. They are claiming God exists. They are claiming he is all knowing. They are claiming that he communicates with human beings. Finally, they are claiming that the so called revelation is reliable. On top of the two axioms that many atheists assume, presuppositionalists are making four extra claims just to reach the red herring that is absolute certainty. In doing so, they completely failed at this because one cannot be absolutely certain of any of those axioms themselves. Each unproven claim multiplies the possibility that the presuppositionalist could possibly be wrong and violates Occam’s Razor. Presuppositionalists are in the same conundrum they love to remind atheists of; they just refuse to admit it.

That being said, based simply on assumptions and axioms alone, a more naturalist worldview appears to be far superior, since its it makes fewer assumptions just to reach the same conclusion, and tends to defend its axioms and recognize their shortcomings more than presuppositionalists do.


J.W is an ex-Christian with a lot of interesting things to say. He argues passionately about religion and politics, and bases his views on logic, reason, and evidence.

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2 Replies to “Defending Atheism, and Why Presuppositionalist Apologetics Fail”

  1. I once debated a presuppostionalist from “Choosing Hats.org”. He attempted to box me in with the apparent “circularity” of inductive inference (what you spoke of at the begining of your post. i.e the sun rises and sets). “How do you know the future will resemble the past?”, he asked me.
    When I responded with an argument from personal and corroborated experience he said, “gotcha, you are using experience to justify experience… that’s begging the question. You are basically saying that because things HAVE been a certain way, they OUGHT to be a certain way in the future and you can’t get an is from an ought”
    I think that was the total scope of his philosophic training, because even Hume said in his treatise that although inductive inference was not rationally justifiable, it still works.
    Having studied post modern ontology in college, I was familiar with the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. I pointed out to him the brute fact that I not only have had experiences that corroborate the general reliability of inductive inference but so have others—and that this fact was irrespective of one’s inability to formulate the nature of inductive inference in a,“logically coherent” statement.
    To demonstrate the folly of his reasoning I asked him how he knows god will be the same tomorrow as he has revealed himself to be today. And his only answer was,” because he has said he will be, and god does not lie, God cannot lie, because God is the foundation of and for truth”
    I asked him if gods existence was an axiom, and he said “yes”. So, then I said, “how do you know gods existence is axiomatically true?”
    His reply ,” well, that’s the whole point of an axiom now isn’t it? Its true by necessity”
    My reply, “gotcha, you are using god to justify god! That’s begging the question. Your arguments account for nothing by your own standard!!”
    This was just to make a point and turn the tables, and it didn’t stop him from trying to grab at straws like, “see you acknowledge god.. blah blah”
    but I pointed out that “god” is a false axiom because the statement, “god exists therefore god exists” possesses no factual precedent like say, “existence, exists” or “a car is a car”. While the STATEMENT of what an axiom is, will ALWAYS “beg the question” and thereby commit a logical fallacy–that is totally irrelevant to the brute, empirically demonstrable FACT , that the axiom is true in a physical, material sense!
    So, by applying his ignorant reasoning to the very notion of axioms; I showed him how his arguments essentially imply “the material universe is illogical”, and that such a claim is literally nonsense. Because no sane person will look at a rock on the ground and say, “gee, its illogical that rock there is a rock because it hasn’t accounted for itself???”
    Presuppostionalists are very fond of “logic”, for as little as they know about it. They fail to understand not only the fundamental epistemic principle I outlined above (and many others–as well as regularly display a complete ignorance of basic ontology and metaphysics) , but, they fail to understand that logic is nothing more than a conceptual framework to guide the application of reason and therefore derive rationality for our own human purposes, and that nothing is “required” for logic to exist, be valid, and true, except for human minds to conceive of and understand it.

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