Monday, March 23, 2009

Apologize? For What?

In the Reformed faith, we hold that God calls His people not with syllogisms, but by changing their hearts. Paul even dismissed debating with non-believers as pointless, since Christianity was considered heresy by the Jews and foolishness by the Greeks -- respectively, the theologians and philosophers of his day. Yet Paul did debate the pagans, and the list of great Christian apologists includes Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and (more recently) C. S. Lewis. So perhaps there is cause, sometimes, to seek to expand God's kingdom through philosophical argument, bearing in mind that that such arguments will not change very many minds. They mainly serve to bolster the believer's confidence that the Lord has sovereignty over all things, including reason itself.

In recent weeks, I have become intrigued with the arguments put forth by the proponents of presuppositional apologetics. The presuppositionalist boldly argues that all world views that are not Christian are self-contradictory. Unlike more traditional forms of apologetics, the presuppositionalist denies that the Christian and the atheist share any common ground upon which even to engage -- that is, as soon as the atheist steps before the podium, he has already conceded the debate. A Thomist's strategy might be to argue on the basis of premises shared by Christian and atheist alike, regarding the tools upon which man's wisdom depends: rationality, reason, order, logic, evidence, morality. By contrast, a presuppositionalist demands that the atheist provide an account consistent with atheism for the existence and authority of these concepts before being allowed to invoke them in his arguments. After all, one cannot use logic to prove that logic itself is valid; its validity must be assumed, i.e., presupposed. The atheist cannot argue that the Christian ought to abandon his faith unless he can explain where "ought" came from. Are logic and morality authoritative? Are they greater than man? If so, how? If they don't, how do they claim any authority? And how do any such claims follow from a godless origin? If what the Christian quaintly refers to as "Creation" is merely the illegitimate offspring of haphazard bursts of energy and the random clanging of atoms, then how can any concept pretend to be transcendent?

This is more than just word play. A pivotal tenet of atheism holds that what we perceive as meaning, reason, order, logic, and morality all must have somehow spontaneously emerged from unmeaning, unreason, disorder, incoherence, and amorality. The universe was born perhaps twelve billion years ago, but meaning had to wait, in succession, for the solar system, the Earth, life, and man to be born -- and then had to wait until man could perceive it. Was meaning there all along, waiting to be discovered? If a philosophical proof falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound? Do logic and morality exist in an objective manner, and if so, how do we prove this without begging the question? Or are they simply ideas in man's head, subjective notions born of brain chemicals and circumstances, the result of eons of random mutation and natural selection? Did these notions come about only because they helped our species survive, and have they no further importance beyond that? And what makes man's survival a moral imperative? Many atheists berate Christians for accepting God without rational cause, but mostly they get away Scot-free without being forced to acknowledge their own reliance on things unseen.

Some atheists do believe in objective truth and transcendent morality because it seems instinctive to do so, but not before assuming the validity of instinct -- much like the mathematician who accepts that A = A, or like Descartes announcing, "I think, therefore I am" (which is not a proof, but only an assumption in the form of a proof). What they cannot do is to demonstrate why reason and morality, even if objective, are necessarily authoritative. Being mere participants alongside man in a universe neither made, reason and morality cannot be authoritative. They just sit there mumbling things, and whether we choose to heed them, or not, there are no consequences beyond the purely practical. We cannot tell whether logic is real or a mass delusion. We cannot tell if morality is absolute or even whether it is deranged. Does it whisper in our ear? Adolf Hitler listened to his inner voice when it told him, "Kill the Jews," while Raoul Wallenberg listened to his own inner voice when it said, "Save the Jews." Did they hear different voices, or was it the same voice speaking out of both sides of its mouth? There would be no way to tell.

The materialist has even bigger problems than the atheist/moralist. If physics is all there is, then reason and logic themselves, being immaterial, cannot exist at all as objective phenomena. The "transcendental truths" are therefore linguistic placeholders for illusions created in the human brain by electrical impulses and biochemical dynamics. If everything is physics and physics is everything, then it would be a mischaracterization to describe any argument between a Christian and a materialist as a "debate." I love Doug Wilson's depiction of such an event: it's like shaking up two cans of soft drink, setting them on a platform, and opening them. They can froth and foam at each other, and can even be entertaining. But it is hardly debate, no matter what the two cans of soda think they are doing, or whether they think at all. Since nothing is transcendent, meaning cannot exist, and logic and morality are simply a collection of conceits that crawled out of the mud along with man.

We all presuppose something. The ideas we have been talking about can only possess any meaning if they are eternal and therefore objective, and if they are greater than man and therefore authoritative. In the Christian view, they come from God; they seem eternal because He is eternal, and they seem authoritative because it is His will. There is no contradiction. The atheist therefore depends on the precepts of Christianity even to raise his voice in dissent. In word, the atheist denies God. But in deed, by acknowledging the existence of reason and morality, and because he cannot build their framework himself, he is forced to accept (if ungratefully) what the Lord has provided.

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