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.

Statistical and logical illiteracy

Many think statistics can be used to illegitimately defend even the most absurd positions. Is this true? Only among the statistically illiterate. Those who understand statistics are led into rigorous conclusions that may significantly differ from what they want to conclude. Those who don’t understand statistics, instead of blaming their own statistical illiteracy and modifying their positions, will dismiss the most rigorous statistical studies by suggesting statistics are some kind of mathematical trickery, and of the same evidential weight as anecdotes and emotional appeals. 
Recently, there has appeared the same attitude towards logic. Ever hear someone say “Well, that’s just YOUR logic” as if logic were as subjective as your choice in socks? In this US election cycle, logic is being treated as something that is malleable and accommodating of nearly every position…and is not that important anyway. Logical arguments have been replaced by unfounded accusations by those hoping to poison the opposition’s well, and attempt to justify this behavior through the childish retort “Well, THEY started it”. And since logic requires focus and fidelity and an honest positioning of conclusions to the actual facts, logic seems far too troublesome and restrictive. Far fewer voices are ashamed of their intentional illogic. This is not a good thing. 
Emotional intensity has replaced logic as the measure of a good argument. And this is only accelerating the recent dismissal of logic in the public forum to a point at which minds no longer have access to even the logic necessary to comprehend their illogic. 

The Failure of the Biblical Notion of Salvific Belief

This post will demonstrate that the binary notion of salvific belief (belief leading to salvation of the soul) found in the Bible is logically absurd.

You may love both 1) pizza and 2) your children, but you wouldn’t abandon your children as you might a pizza during a catastrophe.

You may spend money on both 1) a pizza and 2) a house, but I would hope the prices you pay for each are vastly different.

You may believe both that 1) your young son will attend university and that 2) your young son will live to see tomorrow, but those two beliefs are very likely at very different degrees of certainty.

Loving, spending money and believing are all gradient concepts.

Gradient concepts are sometimes represented with low-resolution paired binary tags such as “hate” and “love”, “cheap” and “expensive”, and “disbelief” and “belief”.

These tags, in spite of their binary linguistic essences, do nothing to change the gradient essences of the concepts they are recruited to represent.

Modifiers such as “very”, “slightly”, “absolutely” or “tend to” are often attached to the basic tags in an attempt to add precision to the actual degree of loving, spending or believing one wishes to convey.

Most humans have no trouble understanding the intrinsic gradient nature of loving and spending, but have much more difficulty perceiving the concept of believing a gradient concept.

We have a psychological impulse and social pressure to either believe or disbelieve any given proposition. Even those deeply schooled in science often deviate from the degree of scientific certainty to epistemically gravitate to one of the poles of either disbelief or belief.

But, once again, neither the binary nature of the linguistic terms employed to reflect a gradient concept, nor the psychological impulse to sort propositions into one of the low resolution buckets of disbelief or belief are reasons not to map our degree of certainty to the degree of the relevant scientific certainty.

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the relevant evidence as one perceives it.

Because evidence for inductively assessed propositions normally arrives incrementally to the assessor of the evidence, adding to or subtracting from the balance of evidence with each bit of confirming or disconfirming piece of evidence, the scientific certainty for such a proposition can be at any point upon the evidential gradient for any assessor of the evidence..

And because a rational degree of certainty must invariably map to the current degree of scientific certainty, the rational mind updates its epistemic degree of certainty upwards or downwards with the introduction of each new bit of confirming or disconfirming evidence.

This notion of rational belief as intrinsically gradient is not controversial, and this notion sets the stages for our discussion of the salvific belief found in the Bible.

Salvific belief treated as meaninglessly vague or binary

John 3:18 says…

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Imagine a stranger knocks at your door and says…

“Give me money. If you do, I’ll reward you with everything you’ve ever dreamed of. If you don’t, I’ll inflict upon you every misery you can imagine.”

Wouldn’t this be not just a little bit strange? The stranger has not specified how much money will result in reward and not misery.

This is the first absurdity. The demands for belief in Jesus found in the Bible are presented as demand for a binary belief: either you believe or you don’t. Nothing specifying the degree of belief accompanies the demand, yet the consequences are highly nuanced and as polar as one could ever imagine. It is almost as if these passages were written in an age that had not yet conceived of the necessary nuanced degrees of certainty we easily recognize as essential to a rational epistemic position in this age of science. It is as absurd as our stranger demanding an unspecified amount of money without including the threshold at which the reward will be granted, and the misery avoided.

I’ve been quite interested in the various degree of belief at which Christians place this threshold absent in the Bible. There seems to be four very different positions on this.

1. Any degree of belief greater than zero.
2. Any degree of belief greater than 50%.
3. Any “high” degree of belief.
4. Only 100% certainty.

This list of vastly diverse opinions on salvific belief serves to highlight the absurdity of treating belief as if it were binary. Salvific belief is the only way to redemption, yet it is presented so vaguely as to completely confuse the very Christians who seek that redemption. They disagree on the threshold in incomparable ways. This vague treatment of the belief at the core of salvation is not the modus operandi of a rational god who wishes to present the method of salvation in an unambiguous way.

This becomes more salient when you imagine “believe” replaced with another gradient concept, “love” in our scenario of the stranger at your door.

Imagine the stranger at your door demanding that you “love” him to be rewarded and avoid unimaginable misery. We recognize instantly that, while we might love the stranger as we would any other human, we probably do not love him to the degree that he expects. So also for the the amount of money, and so also for the amount of belief he might expect as we shall soon see.

Now imagine the stranger at your door says…

“I am your king. If you believe I am your king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”

Now that we have introduced belief into the scenario, we can see how absurd the demand is. The two possible choices and their consequences are unambiguous, yet the degree of belief is unstated. Belief is not binary, yet the Bible treats it as such with no gradient nuance introduced in any of the hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief.

(Some Christians attempt to suggest that salvific belief is binary since it involves the binary choice of following or not following Jesus. This is misguided. Imagine you are forced to cross an old bridge because a bear is chasing you. You assess the bridge to be 50% likely to hold your weight. You make the rational choice to cross the bridge since your chances of fighting off the bear are very small. As you cross the bridge, would you then increase the original 50% degree of likelihood the bridge will hold your weight to near 100%? Of course not. Yet the Bible absurdly presents such a move away from the actual evidence a virtue as we shall see next.)

(Another objection I’ve heard is that we can not easily place a highly specific number to the degree of belief. This is often true, but rationality only requires that the epistemic agents feels they have honestly mapped their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, even though those degrees may be quantitatively imprecise. This will be dealt with in the next section.)

Salvific belief encouraged with no reference to the degree of the evidence

The absurdity deepens. Not only do we have an alleged God of the Universe unable to clearly state how much belief is required, we also have hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief without the slightest suggestion that the degree of belief be mapped to the degree of the evidence.

As we’ve already established, rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence. Imagine the stranger at your door says…

“I am a king. If you believe I am king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”

In this circumstance, it is not hard to imagine a majority of those so confronted simply conjuring up belief in the stranger as king just to avoid the negative consequences were the stranger is telling the truth.

However, how could any actual king be just? Would not a perfectly just king honor only epistemic honesty from you?

Let’s review John 3:18.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Here we have the bald affirmation that Jesus is God’s one and only son. There is no requirement to map your degree of belief to the degree of the evidence. In fact, you will unlikely find any promoter of Christianity suggesting that believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of relevant evidence is improper.

(This would be an interesting study. Ask church leaders the following question: “Is believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of the evidence a virtue? Is it epistemically dishonest?” I suggest you’ll find yourself up against the most vigorous attempts to evade this question.)

Let’s modify our scenario a bit.

Imagine two strangers arrive at your door, each claiming to be the actual king (let’s ignore the fact that neither may be) that will reward you immensely if you believe, and torture you horribly if you disbelieve. Each offers you a letter allegedly certifying their right to the throne. Each asks you to look deep in their eyes as evidence of their honesty. Yet, each stranger continues to emphasize that you’ll be tormented horribly if you do not believe one or the other is indeed king in spite of the evidence that each is the actual king being equivalent in weight.

Is this an unrealistic scenario? Not at all.

Imagine a young girl with a Muslim father and a Christian mother. In her honest little mind, based on the teaching of each parent, she holds it equally likely that the Muslim God and the Christian God are actual…yet she must choose only one according to both the Koran and the Bible. And neither book leaves open the option of simply and honestly not choosing either. Both books affirm that, if she fails to choose, that is tantamount to rejection, and worthy of eternal damnation.

Is it here not clear to the rational mind that neither alleged God could be just? For how could any just God condemn epistemic honesty?

Nowhere in the Bible do you find the notion that rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence as perceived. And the Bible’s demand for a degree of belief unmapped to the evidence is quite ample grounds for its rejection. Just gods don’t encourage you to become epistemically dishonest by detaching your degree of epistemic certainty from the scientific certainty. And just gods certainty do not damn humans who, out of epistemically honesty, refuse to choose one of two or more evidentially equivalent options.

Not only does the Bible ignore the rational epistemic commitment to mapping your degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence, it encourages belief beyond the evidence, and classifies doubt a character flaw rather than as a rational response to the evidence.

Look at the following verses.

“For we live by faith and not by sight.”
“διὰ πίστεως γὰρ περιπατοῦμεν, οὐ διὰ εἴδους”
2 Corinthians 5:7

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων”
Hebrews 11:1

Note these verses contain no suggestion belief (πίστις) is a gradient act rationally mapping to the degree of the evidence. Explore the many other reference to belief in the Bible. You’ll find the consistently irrational form of belief you see in these two verses encouraged. (http://biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm) There is one notable exception.

“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”
“Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ’ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως”
Romans 12:3

This verse is not dealing with salvific belief, but with a post-redemptive belief related to the assessment of one’s worth. Note that, rather than the measure of belief depending upon the measure of the evidence, the degree of belief is absurdly dealt to individuals by God. This frees the Christian from the obligation of aligning their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, and instead associates virtuous belief with whatever degree of belief God grants. If you find yourself believing more than the evidence warrants, it can be, according to this verse, be attributed to the grace of God, and that would be, if not rational, at least virtuous, right? Of course not.

The absurdity in this can be seen if adherent to religion X considers the identical form of belief of the adherent of religion Y. If religion Y also states belief comes from its particular God, and their own God-belief is, as a result, honest and virtuous, no adherents of either religion can be considered irrational. And since no just God would damn someone for an honest and virtuous form of belief, your own religion is in error if it condemns those who have “honestly” and “virtuously” arrived at their God-beliefs through the same process you employ.

This perverse severing of the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence is made even more clear by the Bible’s treatment of doubt.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord. He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
“αιτειτω δε εν πιστει μηδεν διακρινομενος ο γαρ διακρινομενος εοικεν κλυδωνι θαλασσης ανεμιζομενω και ριπιζομενω. μη γαρ οιεσθω ο ανθρωπος εκεινος οτι ληψεται τι παρα του κυριου. ανηρ διψυχος ακαταστατος εν πασαις ταις οδοις αυτου.”
James 1:6-8

Those who doubt, according to the Bible, are not simply mapping their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, but are “double-minded” and “unstable in all [their] ways”.

The facts are clear. The Bible wrenches the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence, and makes a degree of belief exceeding the evidence virtuous, and any doubt a character flaw. The Bible is therefore not representative of any God who encourages rational belief.

And this abandoning of the mapping between belief and evidence becomes even more apparent based on the history of Christianity. Martin Luther stated “Reason is a whore.” Turtullian proclaimed “credible est quia ineptum est” (“I believe because it is incongruous”). Kierkegaard spoke of a “qualitative leap” of belief above the evidence necessary to follow God. This notion that salvific belief is rational in some way is a recent invention. Nothing in the Bible suggests that its God requires a mapping of the degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence as honestly perceived. The Bible introduces not the slightest reference to the standards of evidence and tools of rationality we successfully employ today in the sciences and in our personal lives.

(One exception cited is the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who “…received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” But this is was simply their comparing the account of the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies that the New Testament writers had access to before they wrote down the account of the life of Jesus. Imagine being able to invent and/or tweak the life of a god-man based on a multitude of well-known vague messianic prophecies the public held in high anticipation.)

And even those who claim their belief in Jesus is rational do nothing to discourage those who believe in Jesus irrationally. Children in churches the world over are encouraged to believe long before they are taught standards of evidence or the tools of rationality. Many adult Christians, even as they claim they believe based on various evidences for an intelligent creator and an actual resurrection, know they did not become a Christian based on these evidences. A substantial majority of Christians become Christians long before they are taught to think rationally, and older Christians will invoke as virtuous the innocent unschooled belief the little child places in a salvation story motivated by emotions, most predominantly, the fear of eternal damnation. At the same time they will consider the belief of a Muslim child, identical to Christian belief in all but its object, worthy of damnation.

This attempted reformation of salvific belief into something somehow rational transparently transgresses the Bible, Christian history, and the actual practices found in Sunday Schools around the world.

Conclusion

The Bible’s notion of salvific belief can be safely rejected as nonsense for the two reason argued above.

1. The Bible, instead of treating belief as gradient, treats it as a binary act, making no reference to any sort of nuanced position.
2. The Bible, makes no reference to the evidence in the context of salvific belief, encourages a degree of belief above the degree of the evidence, and disparages doubt as a character flaw.

Any ideology that encourages a perversion of rational belief is false. For the rational mind, the degree of belief in any proposition must be honestly mapped to the degree of the relevant perceived evidence for that proposition. The Bible fails in this respect, and can therefore be dismissed as nonsense.

How do we know our minds are reliable?

There has been a recent odd argument that, if our brains are the product of evolution in which survial is the only “goal”, then we can not have any certainty that our mental processes are generating true conclusions. I responded to this notion on a Facebook thread begun by a Christian apologist recently.

Thanks for a well-formulated response, Nancy.

You asked how I know rational thought is a valid means of knowing truth.

Suppose you find an old compass in the middle of the woods. You want to know whether it functions reliably. What should you do? Do you attempt to discover the manufacturer of the compass? Probably not. Do you need to know how the compass ended up in the middle of the woods? I doubt it.

All you need to do is to test the compass. To the degree that the compass gives you sufficient predictive power to successfully navigate your way through the woods, to that degree you are justified in your confidence in the reliability of the compass.

The same is true for rational thought and our minds that process rational thought. To the degree that rational thought succeeds in accomplishing our goals, to that degree we are warranted in Continue reading