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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Elaborating on Induction and the Inappropriateness of Presuppositions

{The following is a post I made on a thread on the Facebook group Unbelievable.}

As I mentioned earlier, induction is assessing what works. I’m not merely claiming induction includes assessing what works, it IS assessing what works. And rationality is positioning one’s degree of belief to a degree that maps to the degree that something has been assessed to work.
So you have the following apparent paradox: what would it mean for the assessment of what works to fail an assessment that it works? :) This is nonsensical.
Let’s apply some rigor and tease out some of these concepts.
What do we mean by “what works”. This is essentially noting regularities in our experience. These regularities allow us assess to what degree we are warranted in believing event X will occur in the future given its regularity in the past.
And there is what we might call a meta-regularity: the observation of regularity in the success of assessing regularities. Herein lies the apparent paradox: Is it possible for our assessment of regularities become irregular? As fallible minds we can not dismiss this possibility even though we can not fathom what this could ever mean. If this assessment of regularities ever becomes irregular, would there be something else that provide us with the power of predictability? In this remote scenario, I would simple back away from my confidence in this inductive process, and explore whether there was something else that would make my reality more predictable. We are warranted in following whatever works to make our realities predictable. We place non-absolute confidence in what appears to work to the degree that it appears to work, and for as long as it appears to work. No presumptions are required.
(This is parenthetical to some degree, but if I were to discover that I was a brain in a vat, I would not protest, but simply think “Well, this is interesting.”  It appears others who have decided they are somehow warranted in absolute certainty in logic, mathematics or other axiomatic notions would feel the need to protest the violation of the impossibility of this new revealed reality…or so it seems from some of the comments claiming some absolute presumptions are warranted.)
Now let’s deal with the notion of rationality. I want to start with the concept and then find an appropriate linguistic tag rather than start with a linguistic tag and subsequently try to force a concept into that tag. The concept is following what works, and includes the connotation of value or praise being placed on following what works. This is made most salient with its converse. We all consider following what we perceive to not work to be irrational. (This is a critical point, so if you disagree, make that clear.) This is a gradient concept, so we can add nuance by restating this as, “to the degree that someone knowingly follows what they perceive to not work, to that degree they are irrational”. The converse of this produces what I, for a couple decades, have been calling “rationality”. The inverse correlative would be “to the degree that someone knowingly follows what they perceive to work, to that degree they are rational”.
Now, this is important. For this concept, I’ve assigned the linguistic tag “rationality”. Words belong to convention and are not bound by my stipulations, but it appears that most conventional uses of the word “rationality” at least intersect with this concept. If you are in disagreement and have a better linguistic term that will better convey the concept, please let me know. If you feel that the term “rationality” does not adequately convey this concept, provide a term that will more effectively convey the concept. It is the concept I want to convey rather than promote a linguistic tag since concepts are logically prior to the terms employed to convey those concepts.
It is essential to this project that we use terms for which we share identical referents. I’m going to assume you are, at this point, with me on this definition of “rationality”.
Now, note that throughout this discussion I have not treated belief as binary. Nor should I. Because rational belief (in propositions other than immediate perception) is a degree of belief commensurate to the perceive balance of evidence, and because evidence is inductively assessed, all rational beliefs are sub-absolute and subject to revision. There is no need to carry presuppositions, nor is there warrant for this. If by “presupposition” you actually mean a sub-absolute degree of belief wholly based on the degree of the perceived evidence, make that clear now. I would suggest that the etymology of the term “presupposition” implies it is the action of irrationally accepting without any degree of doubt something prior to its assessment, and suggest that it would be confusing to suggest a presupposition is a rigorous mapping of the degree of belief to the degree of the evidence.
(When I say evidence, I don’t only mean only empirical evidence, but also the evidence provided by logical assessments of the proposition in question.)
With this foundation, I think I’m now ready to introduce an argument why you are not rational in holding any presupposition.
P1: For any presupposition X, there was a time in your existence when you did not believe X.
P2: If there was a time where you did not believe X, there was necessarily a point at which you mentally acquired a belief in X.
P3: Human mental acquisition is fallible.
P4: Anything mentally acquired by a human may be wrong.
C1: Your human presupposition X may be wrong.
P5: All presuppositions are believed with absolute certainty.
P6: Presupposition X is held with absolute certainty.
C2: Presupposition X may be wrong, yet is believed with absolute certainty.
P7: Whenever the degree of belief in a presupposition does not map to the degree of perceived evidence for a presupposition, that presupposition is held irrationally.
C3: Presupposition X is held irrationally.
Here’s a more pictorial description of this logical relation. Deduction is subsumed within induction. Deduction necessarily lies within the logical space induction, and can never, for fallible human minds, violate that constraint. All the axiomatic foundations of our deductive games and tools have been acquired at some point in our lives through inductive processes.
Now for the reiteration of my conclusion. I hold no presuppositions. I know my degree of certainty for everything I believe, and there is nothing that I hold with absolute certainty. (I think we agree that it would be absurd for person A to inform person B that they are mistaken about the degree to which they believe something.) Not only do I hold no presuppositions, I have argued that, holding presuppositions is intrinsically irrational.
Let me introduce one more salient example that may clarify some things.
Imagine you are being chased by a bear, and you come to an old suspended walk-bridge across a valley that would allow you to escape…if the walk-bridge does not snap. You assess the frayed ropes of the walk-bridge, and conclude that there is perhaps a 50% chance that you’ll make it across the walk-bridge. You assess there is a 1% chance you’ll survive if you turn to fight the bear. So you decide to cross the bridge. This choice is binary. Either you attempt to cross the walk-bridge or you don’t. You have chosen to attempt to cross the walk-bridge.
Now, does this decision to attempt to cross the walk-bridge require you to change your assessment that the walk-bridge has a 50% chance of snapping? Of course not. If you did, you would be irrational. Yet, I have actually heard it suggested, often in the context of a religious proposition, that it is both rational an necessary to abandon your honest assessment, and to believe the walk-bridge will not snap (or whatever the proposition is) with absolute certainty. This is wrong. Rationality is mapping our degree of belief in X to the degree of the perceived evidence for X. And decisions don’t affect nor should affect that honest assessment of your proper degree of belief.
{The following is an earlier post, and might add some clarity.}
 The crux of your misunderstanding is found in your notion that induction may not be reliable.
What would it mean for induction to suddenly become unreliable?
Induction is simply identifying regularities.  It doesn’t just involve that, but is equivalent to that. What could it ever mean to identify irregularities in a project of identifying regularities? What could it ever mean, in other words, to find induction irregular?
If there was something that worked better than induction to make sense of the world around me I would abandon induction for whatever is more reliable. (I hope you get the joke here.) (Also note that induction is not cause-and-effect. Readers of Hume may be confused in this respect.)
Rationality is following what appears regular to the degree that it appears regular and for the duration it appears regular. There is no commitment to the persistence of the regularity.
My confidence in any notion about the world around me is grounded in its regularity as I perceive it. When that falters, my confidence falters. When it rises, my confidence rises. I need not absolutely believe any axiom. Axioms are useful only within a system that you, if you are to be rational and epistemically humble as a fallible mind, have not accepted with absolute certainty.
So, no. I’m not required to presuppose anything. Nor do I. This is what epistemic humility requires.
(Note that the type of presuming/presupposing I’m rejecting is one of absolute certainty and does not include ‘assuming for the sake of argument’ or ‘for the sake of testing’ scenarios.)
Comments are much appreciated.

Debate: Jason Roberts vs Phil Stilwell – Absolute Certainty


  • Jason is rational in his 100% certainty he has a relationship with his god.


  • Pro: Jason Roberts
  • Con: Phil Stilwell


  • Jason | Pro | 500 words

    My contention and my belief is that I have a personal relationship with God the Father through God the Son by the witness of the Holy Spirit. I am 100% certain of this belief.
    (Jason was reminded that he had been allotted 500 words, but gave assurances he was satisfied with his statement.)

  • Phil | Con | 500 words
    Jason has made the same blunder millions of theists have made over the centuries. He has confused the feeling of certainty with the objectively certain existence of the referent. This is a trivial mistake, but a mistake that serves as the foundation of faith the world over. I wish to dismantle this foolish notion comprehensively. Let’s first consider the following rigorous syllogism that contains the essence of my argument.

    Definition: Rational certainty is the degree of certainty commensurate to the degree of the available evidence.

    P1. All humans acquire knowledge through a medium/mechanism.

    P2. Knowledge that is acquired through a medium/mechanism is only as rationally certain as the reliability of the medium/mechanism.

    P3. The reliability of any medium/mechanism must be assessed inductively.

    P4. Any inductive assessment is, by definition, less than 100% rationally certain.

    P5. Jason is human.

    Conclusion. Jason does not have 100% rational certainty. (P1-P5)

    The syllogism is valid. All that remains is for Jason to logically dismiss any one of the assumptions. He won’t. He can’t. With the exception of P5, all these assumptions have endured the test of time.

    Jason has warm and fuzzy feeling about his god. Fuzzy feelings contribute not an iota to the substantiation his god-claim. Yet, as demonstrated above, emotional absolute certainty is the only type of absolute certainty Jason can possess. He possesses no rationally-obtained epistemic certainty that is commensurate to the degree of the inductively-derived evidential justification for that epistemic certainty. His entire worldview is based on wishes that have evolved into an emotional feeling of certainty. This is clear from the logical syllogism above. To the degree that Jason has confidence in the reliability of logic, to this degree he now understands his logical blunder in imagining he, as a human, has absolute knowledge in anything. The impossible infinite chain of mediums/mechanisms necessary to substantiate his claim will be forever missing.

    Jason claims the Holy Spirit is the medium of his 100% certainty that he has a relationship with his god. The next obvious question is, through what medium/mechanism did he assess the reliability (not to mention the existence) of the Holy Spirit? This is required for him to substantiate his claim that his epistemic certainty is rationally positioned at 100%. Any medium/mechanism Jason will employ to establish as 100% the reliability of the Holy Spirit will itself need to be assessed for reliability by yet another medium/mechanism such as his (fallible) mind which itself must be assess by yet another medium/mechanism…ad infinitum. Human knowledge is constrained to sub-absolute-certainty by this infinite regress of inductive assessment.

    Logic shows that Jason is wrong in his claim he has 100% certainty that he has a relationship with some god. Prior to this explanation, Jason might have been simply misguided. Assuming Jason does subscribe to logic, and is intellectually competent to follow the arguments, if he now persists in his claim, he is lying.

  • Well, it appears that we have misunderstood Jason’s position.
    After much evasion from Jason, the following exchange took place.

    Phil: Can you answer affirmatively any of the following questions?
    1. Are you 100% certain you have an actual relationship with your god?

    2. Are you 100% certain you have an imaginary relationship with your god?

    3. Are you 100% certain you think you have an actual relationship with your god?

    Jason: 3

    Jason’s position is much more profound than I imagined. He makes it clear that he was only talking about his 100% certainty that he thinks he has an actual relationship with his god. I completely concede this point. What profundity. I guess I lost this debate.

  • Jason | Pro | 300 words
  • Phil | Con | 300 words

  • Jason | Pro | 100 words
  • Phil | Con | 100 words


  • Comments will be allowed only after the debate has been completed.

Rationality and the impossibility of absolute knowledge for subjective beings.

This essay will be dealing with the concepts of rationality and knowledge, and the abuse of these terms by presuppositionalist apologists.

I will first make statements of my own personal beliefs that will be clarified and defended in subsequent expanded arguments.

  1. I have no absolute knowledge of anything outside my subjective perceptions, nor does anyone else.
    (This will be true of every statement in this essay. But read the next point carefully.)
  2. Having no absolute knowledge does not equate to an inability to assess the likelihood of various propositions since I have access to my perception of regularity.
  3. Making statements about things for which I have a high degree of belief does not require that I have absolute knowledge in those statements since the default conventional definition of truth does not imply absolute knowledge.
  4. A rational position does not necessarily equate to an objectively true position.
  5. I am rational in my high degree of belief that an objective world exists based on the high degree of regularity I perceive.

Continue reading

Salvaging Santa

This year has been a bit disappointing for Santa believers. Fewer and fewer souls seem to be taking the Santa story seriously. Anti-santaists have been enticing young minds away from the Christmas magic that has been essential in the maintenance of a healthy society. They ridicule Santa as a myth, along with all the accompanying concepts that have given us warmth and comfort for all these years. They actually suggest that the notion of a Santa rewarding only “good” children is not necessary to rearing well-behaved children. They are constantly asking for evidence of our Santa, not understanding that there would be no magic if Santa was subject to scientific scrutiny.

If we are to save our Santa culture from this insidious secularism that makes mockery of our faith, we need to acknowledge our weaknesses, and adapt to the changing cultural climate. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Place Santa out of the reach of science.
    Some point to what they consider the absurdity of a voluminous man descending a narrow chimney and other mysterious aspects of Santa. Here are a few ways to deal with this form of persecution.

    • Announce that Santa’s magic is far above human understanding. Santa, in his infinite magic, can fatten flues at will, create chimneys where there are none, and leave everything intact as if he had never descended from the roof at all. Ask the secularists how they even dare with their puny minds to question the magic of our Santa.
    • Call problematic parts of the Santa story figurative. Suggest that the notion of “descending the chimney” is a metaphor of Santa’s intent. He actually may come through a window. What matters is that the presents are there in the morning. In doing this, never submit a standard for discerning between literal and figurative elements of the Santa story. That will make it convenient for you to choose which is which as aplogetics needs arise.
    • Remind non-believers that, if the Santa story could be tested and confirmed, we couldn’t employ the faith that feeds the magic. Accuse them of not listening to the clear voice of Santa that each of us carries deep in our hearts if we only listen with open minds.
    • Affirm the magic. Point out all the cases in which reindeer dung was found on roof tops. Suggest that any father who would simply throw dung on his roof in an attempt to create the illusion of a rangiferine landing would have to be either a lunatic or liar. The only sensible inference is that Santa’s sleigh had indeed visited your house.
    • Belittle science and its tools. Point out that science is often wrong and is therefore not an appropriate method to assess the magic of Santa. Claim that statistics are a silly invention, and strongly affirm the idea that anything can be “proven” through statistics. The stronger you affirm this, the more true it will become. In this way, reports that suggest poorer (not misbehaving) children receive fewer presents can be dismissed. If secularists suggest this is not logical, claim that Santa logic is not the same as secular logic, but don’t bother explaining how.
    • Suggest that science and magic fall into two non-overlapping domains. Declare that scientific methodology cannot assess the wonderment of magic. When asked about specific claims of Santaism that seem to fall within the reach of science, offer evasive permutations of the particular doctrine to make it impotent and thus unassailable. Fudging a bit on exegesis is forgivable if the net result is an increase in believers.
    • Disparage the notion of belief based on “evidence”. This is becoming one of the most troubling issues that has already led to the apostasy of thousands. You’ll hear secularists claim that the degree of confidence in an idea should match the degree of the evidence. Where is the magic in that? Evidence only goes so far and is largely linear. How can belief be linear? Choose a side! Unless we go beyond the evidence with faith, we would be left saying “I don’t yet know” on many questions, a wholly unacceptable option.
  2. Exercise the right to arbitrarily define true Santaism.
    You’ll often hear accusations that Santanists do not behave any better than non-believers. Here you’ll want to point out the fallacy in this accusation by simply explaining that those who don’t act like Santanists are not real Santaists. This will prevent your opponent from citing anecdotes, and require him to lean on statistics that require a substantial sample that you can then simply dismiss as not representative of Santaism. If your opponent then demands positive evidence for superior behavior among Santaist, simply offer a few anecdotes as proof.
  3. Appeal to what people already know in their hearts.
    There are times when you may simply ignore the anti-santa arguments. Every person knows deep in his heart that Santa is real. Presuppositional affirmations are the way to go. This is economical in that it minimizes potential cognitive dissonance that may creep in through cracks in your counter-arguments, and eliminates the expenditure of contemplation that distracts from faith in Santa, and may even lead to doubting.
  4. Emphasize emotions.
    Fortunately, Christmas is replete with salient sensations that easily form a sense of identity, of belonging, and also address dozens of other emotional needs. We know through a feeling of certainty that emotions are a legitimate validator of what is true, so regardless of the apparent power of the secularist’s arguments, this emotional validation is what will vanquish the doubts that have destroyed the magic in so many young lives. And perhaps the greatest argument you can make is to ask weak believers if they would want to live in a world that had no magic. Ask them if they want to grow up to become merely scientists restricted by the parameters of materialism. Emphasize the rigor and critical thought required by those who have abandoned magic and have endeared themselves to rational thought. Above all, emphasize the personal relationship believers have with Santa. Have them make psychological investments by writing Santa letters for years, then remind them of this and of all other psychological investments at any point in which their faith is weak. Remind them that Santa’s apparent silence is simply a test of their faith or an indication that their requests are selfish. And always return to the assurance that emotions are a legitimate way to confirm the truth of their faith.

If we can only employ these noble tactics, Santa will not dissipate into a distant cultural memory as has the Easter Bunny. May Santa bless us all.