The illegitimacy of presuppositions

A linguistic presupposition is ‘an implicit assumption about the world or background belief relating to an utterance whose truth is taken for granted in discourse’. (Wikipedia)

A epistemic presupposition might be defined similarly as an implicit assumption about the world or background belief that is taken for granted prior to attempts to determine its veracity.

PROPOSITION: The inclusion of epistemic presuppositions in an epistemic method is always illegitimate.


(1)

At the foundation of epistemology lie two hopes.

  • 1: The hope that our reality will make sense.
  • 2: The hope we can uncover a methodology that will make sense of our reality.

These are hopes. We don’t need to assume these hopes can be actualized.

Some take these two hopes, and for various reasons, presume they are more than hopes. They start with the presupposition that reality does/will make sense, and that we do/will have a methodology that will make sense of that reality.

These presuppositions are clearly unfounded. There is nothing about hope that warrants a presupposition. Those who do accept such presuppositions have blundered at the very foundation of their epistemology in that they have accepted a conclusion to a degree not warranted by the appropriate degree of evidence, thereby abandoning the very essence of epistemic integrity.


(2)

Highly reliable regularities do not deserve the status of “presupposition”.

We were not born assuming our realities would appear logically coherent. Yet, for most of us, we discovered that reality invariably mapped to “laws” of logic to such a degree that, by the time we were toddlers, we possessed a justified extremely high degree of confidence in the continued reliability of “laws” of logic.

Some who can not remember this process of legitimately acquiring confidence in logic through inductive experience during infancy subsequently claim logic is something we are warranted in presuming. This is a presupposition arrived at out of forgetfulness; they have simply forgotten (or are ignoring) the natural cognitive acquisitions of their infancies.


(3)

The reliability of our minds need not be presumed. Nor should it be presumed.
Some claim that we must presume the reliability of our minds before we can even attempt to make sense of the world around us. This is not true.

Imagine a system of interdependent modules, all of which must be working for a positive outcome. Examples include a car engine, a computer or clock. If any individual module of the system ceases to function, the entire system will fail.

The same holds for what we might call an epistemic apparatus in which 1) a mind, 2) sensory organs, and 3) scientific methodology all combine to form an interdependent system. If any of these three modules fail, the entire system will fail. If any one of these modules is faulty, the system will be faulty. However, if this epistemic apparatus produces predictive power and explanatory coherence, we can map the degree of confidence in the working of the constituent modules to the degree that the system is demonstrated to be successful.

So the reliability of our minds need not be a presupposition, nor should it be a presupposition. Our minds should be tested prior to our confidence in our minds. And there is no guarantee that the current reliability of our minds will not increase or diminish in the future.

Even those who claim we must presume the reliability of our minds understand that their minds will begin to diminish in their later years. And they admit that even our faltering minds can normally test the degree to which our minds are faltering through the observation of our own forgetfulness, or through more rigorous means such as charting our success over time at crossword puzzles.

So, presuming that our minds are reliable prior to testing our minds transgresses epistemic integrity.


(4)

Any method currently successful in making sense of our reality need not be presumed to always be successful.

I am sometimes met with the objection that my current epistemic methodology is a presumption I hold. It is not. Just as the continued reliability of my mind I don’t nor should presume, I do not presume that my epistemic method will continue to work.
What is that epistemic method? Essentially it is to follow what appears to work (in terms of predictive power) to the degree that it appears to work for as long as it appears to work.

And what if this method stops working? To the degree that it stops working, to that degree I will lower my confidence in the method.

(I currently can not imagine what it would mean for a method of following what works to cease working, but my lack of imagination does not warrant that I hold my method as a presupposition.)

Some may argue that, since I am admitting I am dependent upon the appearance of the success of the method, that I am subject to being deceived. Welcome to the limits of subjectivity. Absolute certainty is not possible for those less than omniscient since we are limited to less than certain evidence, the longing to transcend this limitation notwithstanding.

Even my epistemic method need not be held as a presupposition.


(5)

It may be that some who insist others hold presuppositions are simply over-projecting from their own emotional/cognitive inability to appropriately abandon their presuppositions to the conclusion that no one else can abandon their psychological disposition to hold presuppositions. They will poke and prod at my position, and when they can not uncover a presupposition, will simply assert I have presuppositions hidden away somewhere deep down in my presupposition-inclined soul. It’s an argument based on the arrogance of assuming others do not know nor can control their own degrees of certainty.

Ultimately, the attempt to demonstrate everyone holds presupposition is driven by the hope to make one’s own faulty epistemology more legitimate by claiming an equivalency that does not exist. If they can only demonstrate we all hold presuppositions for which we have no justification, their own unjustified presuppositions are somehow made legitimate.

This is both illogical and indicative of the current dismal state of apologetics.


I hold no presuppositions. If you do, I strongly recommend, for the sake of epistemic integrity, that you abandon your presuppositions. Limit your degree of confidence in any proposition to the degree that is warranted by the perceived efficacy of that proposition. You’ll discover a reality with less of the comfort of dogma, but much more freedom to honestly follow the evidence into a more rigorously constructed ontology.

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Our Epistemic Disposition

Most foundational to an honest search for truth is a healthy epistemic disposition. Here are a few question we can ask ourselves to detect weaknesses in our epistemic dispositions.

  • 1: Do I find myself uncomfortable saying “I don’t know” on large issues?
  • 2: Do I find comfort in possessing a high degree of emotional certainty that exceeds the evidential certainty? 
  • 3: Do I treat belief in a binary way (either I believe or disbelieve) instead of attempting to map my degree of belief to the degree of the evidential evidence?
  • 4: Do I find myself claiming everyone has faith to give my own faith legitimacy or excuse?
  • 5: Do I find myself claiming everyone has presuppositions to give my own presuppositions legitimacy or excuse?
  • 6: Do I find myself pointing out that all humans draw conclusions based on emotions to give my own emotionally tainted conclusions legitimacy or excuse?
  • 7: Do I find myself frequently pointing out flaws in others’ ideologies, and feeling this makes my own ideology more likely flawless?
  • 8: Do I find myself avoiding sources of arguments that run contrary to my current position instead of seriously considering contrary arguments?
  • 9: Do I feel that honest doubt in which I back away from and reexamine every assumption I hold makes me unstable in some way?
  • 10: Do I infrequently sit down and reconstruct my beliefs and update my degree of confidence in each belief based on any new evidence or arguments I’ve uncovered?

These questions are offered as a heuristic to uncover unhealthy distortions in our epistemic dispositions.

The Demonization of Doubt

Christianity is flawed at its epistemic foundation. Certainty is applauded, and doubt is disparaged. At best, doubt is treated as a hopefully brief and emotionally distraught excursion away from what must be true, rather than reflecting an epistemically honest mapping of one’s degree of belief to the degree of the evidence.

This was demonstrated very saliently in the latest episode of “Reasonable Faith” (Doubt and Certainty | July 9, 2016) with William Lane Craig (WLC).

“I suppose that you can’t doubt something unless you believe it” WLC begins the episode.

Craig immediately falls into treating the notion of belief and doubt as if they were binary, as if they were ontologically similar to a wife and a girlfriend. Sure, you might have a wife, but that does not keep you from unwisely also having a girlfriend. And this is how he treats doubt, as if it were a natural impulse, but somehow impure, the optimal condition being fidelity to your wife.

This binary notion of belief and doubt does not remotely approximate the actual concepts. Both belief and doubt are intrinsically gradient. And they are simply inverse reflections of each other in the same way “hot” and “cold” are.

Sure, you can ask “Is it hot?” or “Is it cold?” as a binary linguistic shortcut, but we all understand “hot” and “cold” are intrinsically gradient, and inverse reflections of each other. When we want precision, we instead ask “How hot is it?” or “How cold is it?”

So also for the notion of belief. While we can ask as a linguistic shortcut “Do you believe?”, we all understand that we are simply applying an arbitrary threshold, subjectively defined, to split the epistemic gradient into two artificial zones for the sake of convenience. A more precise question would be “How much do you believe?” or the inverse “How much do you doubt?” Answering one of these complimentary questions will supply the answer to the other.

And it is to the advantage of the Christian apologist that he suggest that the binary notion of belief (distorted by linguistic artifacts) is the actual essence of the concept of belief, for that is also how the Bible treats salvific belief. Every instance of salvific belief in the Bible treats belief as if it were binary. Yet we know that the gradient essence of belief will always hold primacy over any linguistic shortcuts since those linguistic shortcuts suppose some subjectively defined arbitrary threshold along the epistemic gradient. The fact that “hot” and “cold” are linguistic opposites does not warrant the notion that heat is somehow binary in its essence. Heat remains gradient in spite of linguistic artifacts. The fact that “belief” and “disbelief” are linguistic opposites does not warrant the notion that belief is binary in its essence. Belief remains gradient in spite of linguistic shortcuts. Linguistic artifacts encouraging a binary notion of belief are not a basis for an actual just and intelligent God to employ when determining alleged eternal fates as found in the Bible.

Worsening this linguistic distortion of the actual gradient essence of belief is the irrational psychological tendency of humans to default to the poles of the disbelief/belief gradient instead of rigorously positioning their degree of belief to map to the actual degree of relevant evidence. This is human, yet this is irrational.

Belief is intrinsically gradient. Belief and doubt (disbelief) are simply complimentary epistemic notions reflecting some nuanced point along the epistemic gradient. Any non-gradient artifacts in language or psychology are distortive.

So WLC, knowingly or unknowingly, distorts belief into some gargoyle of an epistemic switch flipped at some subjective threshold of confidence that warrants a move from “disbelief” to “belief” rather than honestly mapping the degree of epistemic certainty to the degree of evidential certainty as the confirming/disconfirming evidence accrues.

Let’s now examine the disingenuous disposition towards doubt held by Christians. The host of Reasonable Faith asks WLC the following.

“What would be the proper way to do it [doubt] without becoming, well, blasphemous?”

What are you doubting if you are not doubting the existence of a God without which there would be no blasphemy? If your prayers go unanswered, do you limit your doubt to the wisdom of love of your God, and rope off the notion of his existence as sacred? How can this be the disposition of an honest seeker?

WLC confirms this absurd and dishonest disposition by saying…

“Well, I think it’s important to go to God with your doubts, to be honest with Him.”

Doubting God’s existence is off limits. When you don’t understand Him, you go to Him for explanation and assurances, never actually doubting His existence. It’s similar to wondering whether your online romance may actually be with a web-bot, then asking that same potentially imaginary partner whose existence you are questioning whether they are real, never actually willing to doubt their human essence.

WLC also cites Gary Habermas in claiming doubt is “primarily emotional rather than intellectual”. This conveniently allows the apologist to shrug away any honest intellectual doubts the average believer experiences, to invoke the demonic elements in the spiritual warfare in which they perceive themselves as the source of doubts, and to again pronounce the essence their apologetics to be unassailable by “actual” intellectual arguments. You are probably just feeling a bit emotional when you doubt. You’ll get over it and come back to Jesus. Craig recommends you defeat doubt by engaging in activities in which “your emotions will be involved in worshiping and praising God…prayer, fellowship, sharing one’s faith”. It is indeed difficult to emotionally or intellectually doubt the existence of a god you praise and worship. Doubt is here treated as a spiritual illness, and the remedy is to position yourself in an emotional context in which doubt is suppressed, and in which vested interests favoring belief calcify. I suggest WLC wishes to define doubt as primary emotional so that it can be tolerated or disparaged, but not perceived as reflective of the consequence of an honest inquiry. The emotional cure he recommends for doubt, however, he does not disparage as inappropriate for an intellectually honest mind. And this asymmetry highlights the absurdity intrinsic to his position.

To be fair, WLC does admit there could be intellectual doubts. He says…

“I think one of the most exhilarating experiences in the Christian life can be to take one of these questions, and to pursue it into the ground until we come to intellectual peace with that issue.”

Note that, once again, doubt is fine only so long as it is experienced within the Christian life. No species of doubt that would actually lead to a rejection of Christianity is proper in the mind of Craig. Doubt seems to be heathy and legitimate only so long as it does not include an actual disbelief in the core entity in question.

In referencing his past reconciliation of the timeless nature of a Jesus who lived within time, Craig says…

“It [the reconciliation] enables your restless mind to come to peace with this issue, to have confidence in God…”

We are back to the only resolution to doubt that Craig will allow: confidence in God, the very God in question. This is nowhere close to intellectual honesty.

Craig encourages us to “go after” any doubts, not by looking at the arguments on both sides, but by reading the words of “good Christian philosophers, theologians, and Biblical exegetes.” Craig is “shocked at the folly” of Christians who “go to the internet” and listen to the arguments of non-Christians, “…and then they wonder why they are struggling with their faith.” Yes, once you are exposed to the arguments from both sides of the issue, you might find yourself doubting your position. Craig paints this as a bad thing. Once again, doubt is treated as some kind of tolerated, primarily emotional, nuisance or illness in the Christian life that, if only the doubter can refocused again on only the Christian side of the question, the doubt can be effectively suppressed. This is clearly intellectually dishonest.

Craig suggests that the doubter needs to go to the “work of the finest Christian philosophers, theologians, Biblical critics on these questions and see what they have to say, and whether this [the objection] stands up to the critiques and the doubts that are occasioned by the critics of Christianity.” WLC does not recommend a balanced examination of the experts on both sides.

Craig admits to promoting a “selective” approach to questions related to Christianity. He claims “The immature Christian who isn’t intellectually sophisticated ought not to be reading that sort of stuff until he has thoroughly grounded himself in the work of good Christian thinkers.” Would Craig recommend that doubting young Muslims limit their input to Islamic scholars? I think not. Does Craig recommend that young children in Sunday School be first taught intellectually sophistication before they listen to and accept the arguments from one side of the God-question. No. And this exposes the gross inconsistency in his position.

But Craig can hardly be blamed for his disparaging of doubt. The Bible itself treats doubt as a character flaw.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed. For let not that man think [a]that he shall receive anything of the Lord; a doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways.” [James 1:6-8]

The context here in James is petitioning God. But the reason for James’s disparaging of doubt is universal: a doubleminded man is unstable in all his ways. And you clearly can’t have full certainty that a God whose existence you doubt will answer your prayer.

This notion that doubt is a flaw in character rather than an honest, rational and necessary disposition for any inductively assessed question is an undeniably integral notion within Christianity, and good reason to reject Christianity as logically incoherent and inherently epistemically dishonest.

Forced atheism

This is a response to someone on Quora who instisted that belief is binary, and that I should be calling myself an “atheist”.


Belief could be considered binary in two uninformed ways.

1. You could imagine that words are ontologically prior to the concepts they are invoked to denote. Just because there exist the linguistic tags “like” and “dislike”, we don’t assume reality must reflect the artifactual binary nature of these words. We instead insist that reality trumps any and all linguistic tags invoked to reflect that reality. The deficiencies of language are no excuse to distort reality, in this case, the intrinsic gradient nature of belief.

2. You could imagine that human emotions are ontologically prior to objective reality. Here too you would be wrong. The cognitive bug humans have that makes it difficult for them to take an epistemic position between a) absolutely certain X is true and b) absolutely certain X is false is no excuse to pretend a gradient concept must conform to that cognitive bias. Yet, once again. our emotions are not ontologically prior to objective realities, but, if we are to be rational, must conform to those realities. In this case, your disposition to irrationally either believe or disbelieve must be discarded for a more rational approach that actually reflects the gradient nature of belief.

I hold about an 15% degree of belief that an Einsteinian god of some sort is out there. And since belief is not binary, and since I want to add as much resolution to the actual reality of my epistemic position, I do not distort that epistemic reality by presenting belief as intrinsically binary. It is not. Never will be. I *tend to disbelieve* an Einsteinian god exists. The term *tend to disbelieve* retains the necessary resolution that accurately reflects my epistemic reality. I do not feel at all compelled to pretend my 15% degree of belief is equal to your 0% degree of belief. If your own position requires no nuance, no problem. My position does. A single term such as *atheist* does not capture that distinction. I like distinction and nuance. It not only accurately reflects reality, it separates me from those who have no appreciation of nuance, and opens the door for more productive discussions without locking myself into a category with substantial connotative baggage that does no dialogue any good.

Evidential Certainty = Epistemic Certainty for the rational mind

If you don’t understand epistemology, you have no business assessing ontology.

William Lane Craig absurdly detaches degree of certainty from belief, and in so doing demonstrates his incompetence in assessing what is true.

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the relevant evidence. Yet WLC states the following, seemingly without embarrassment.

“But if you were to ask me about confidence, I just don’t have any sort of way assessing that. I simply believe that the evidence points to truth, and that the conclusions are therefore true.” (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8KMd_eS2J7o 1:12:30)

That’s right. WLC thinks he does not need to figure in the degree of warranted confidence into a deductive argument for him to conclude the conclusion is true. He offers no nuance nor resolution in his degree of confidence, and the terms “believe” and “conclude” are offered in a binary form. Rational belief is necessarily on an epistemic gradient, an epistemic gradient WLC wholly ignores.

You can not pretend to have anything substantive to say about metaphysics if your epistemology is screwed up, and the epistemology WLC, in abandoning the intrinsic gradient nature of rational belief, is definitely screwed up.

In an assessment of the debate from which the previous quote was taken, WLC says…

“You don’t need to have super-high confidence in order to believe something.” (Reasonable Faith Podcast June 18, 2016)

So absurd! How can a philosopher detach degree of belief from the degree of certainty the evidence justifies?

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the evidence. Rational belief is not some binary switch which is flipped at some arbitrary level of evidence. No. The rational mind will merely adjust its epistemic stance along the gradient of belief to map to the degree of the evidence.

Craig claims that he can’t assess the degree of confidence well, seeming to imply that we should not worry about whether our degree of belief maps to the degree of the evidence. But he has no problem in his arguments claiming one conclusion is more probable than another, and implying that accepting the one more probable is more rational to accept. So he at least admits that a relative degree of certainty is important. If he can perceive relative degrees of certainty, there should be no reason why he can not perceive general degrees of absolute certainty.

WLC tries to strip rational belief of its gradient essence. He treats belief as if it were binary. It is not, and more critically, this binary approach to belief has no place in a rational mind.

The degree of evidential certainty is inextricably tied to the degree of epistemic certainty for the rational mind. When there is a disparity between evidential certainty and epistemic certainty, you have irrationality. That irrationality can be in the form of irrational doubt, or irrational belief (often called faith). But make no mistake; if you are not consciously tying your degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence, you are not a rational thinker, and have no business dabbling in metaphysics.