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Shh Finger

Declining to Answer: The Hallmark of Inconsistency

Thinkers can be divided into two groups.  The first group positively insists upon “straight” answers to questions.  The second group does not.  What is a “straight” answer?  It’s not always as simple as “yes” or “no”, because sometimes neither of those is most accurate.  There are five basic responses to a propositional question:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. I don’t know
  4. I don’t accept one or more premises inherent in the question
  5. I decline to answer

The first four responses are “straight” answers, the fifth response (“I decline to answer”) is the essential non-straight answer.  To show you what I mean, let’s take an example question: “are there any cats in this room?”  Either there are cats in the room or there are not – but it can’t be both.  Based on the five categories above, here are four straight answers:

  1. “There are three kittens in the corner.” (Yes)
  2. “The room is completely empty.” (No)
  3. “I am wearing a blindfold.” (I don’t know)
  4. “We are outdoors.” (I don’t accept the premise that we are in a room)

The only other possible response is some form of “I decline to answer the question”.  One example might be “it doesn’t matter whether there are any cats.”  I have not asked whether it matters, I have asked whether they are there.  Maybe I’m allergic to cats, so it matters to me!
Declining to answer is always an attempt to deceive.  If there’s no structural flaw in the question, but a person still doesn’t want to answer, it’s because they know they’ve been caught out.  Thinkers who regularly decline to answer direct questions should make you very suspicious.  Either they are confused by their own self-contradictory views, or they are actively trying to manipulate you.  The one thing they are not doing is looking for the truth.

Reading a Hebrew Scroll

Two Serious Problems for Presuppositionalism

The Canon of Scripture

How can a presuppositionalist decide which books belong in the canon of scripture? The typically-accepted canon does not contain an authoritative list. What if I were to “presuppose” that 1 Maccabees or the Book of Enoch belonged in the canon? What if I wanted to eliminate Jude, Hebrews, Esther and Obadiah? It doesn’t seem like these changes would cause any great, internal inconsistency. If we say that some new book is inconsistent with the other canonical books, first we must ask how we know that our existing books are canonical? How can we use the Deuteronomy 18 test for prophets without first assuming that Moses was a prophet? Determining the canon by strictly presuppositional methods is the height of circularity. I realise that staunch presuppositionalists are not necessarily opposed to this. But I live in optimism that every person’s tolerance for irrationality must have a breaking point.

Hermeneutical Principles

Where does a presuppositionalist get their hermeneutical principles from? From scripture? What hermeneutical principles were they using to interpret those scriptures? They cannot have been scriptural principles, because scripture had not been read yet! The presuppositionalist wishes to believe that they only use the words of God as their axioms. But in practice this simply cannot be true. The words “hear O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” mean nothing at all, unless they mean that Israel does not have 2, or 20, or 200 gods. But the denial of many gods is not stated explicitly. For these words to have that meaning, the speaker and hearer must have a prior commitment to the law of non-contradiction. Logical axioms are absolutely required to do even the most basic hermeneutics. That is to say, the very act of reading scripture must presuppose certain logical axioms.

Presuppositionalism and the Problem of Evil

I sometimes hear Christian apologists of a presuppositional persuasion argue that when atheists bring up the problem of evil, they are necessarily borrowing a standard of morality from the Christian worldview in order to form their objection. The apologist then says that this means the objection is invalid, or that it is self-defeating.

But isn’t this exactly the methodology that these presuppositional apologists coach Christians to use? “Step into their world view and show them its inconsistencies.” Aren’t the atheists doing exactly that? Maybe the likes of Richard Dawkins and Michael Schermer use different jargon to the Christian philosophers you’re used to, but I think they’re arguing with fundamentally the same pattern. What they are really saying is “if you believe that God exists and defines morality, then it is inconsistent to believe that he himself often violates that morality. Step into our world view and you will see, since we don’t believe God exists, we don’t have this inconsistency.”

Now, I have problems with this argument for atheism. I think it is flawed and there are counter-arguments I would make. But if we say that the atheist cannot make the argument properly because they don’t believe in a God-defined morality, then I think we are missing their point.