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Monday, February 15, 2016

Presuppositions, Circumstantial Evidence, and Free Will


In the last month or so, I have become more of a "fly on the wall" in different scientific groups on Facebook. It has been interesting to take a break from interaction for a while and simply observe it. Something that I have noticed come up quite often is that many Christians, when debating scientific evidence with skeptics, end up telling the skeptics that they do not accept the evidence based on their presuppositions of atheism. That is bad enough, but what is disturbing is that I have also witnessed Christians say this same thing (presupposition of atheism) to Christians who take a different perspective (specifically on the age of the universe or evolution). (I have been a victim of this myself but did not think much of it until I saw it committed against several other Christians in multiple groups by multiple people.) Included in the attacks on both the skeptic and the fellow Christian is (sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit) the claim that presuppositions cannot be set aside. This leads the attacking Christian to feel justified in cutting off discussion and no longer answering questions or challenges to their view, and consigning the questioner to damnation. Today, I want to address the idea that presuppositions cannot be set aside, for if this is false, then the attacker has a false sense of logical security in their decision to be dismissive in the face of challenges they cannot (or will not) address.


All experience must be interpreted through a lens, a set of presuppositions if you will. However, if it is impossible to set aside our presuppositions long enough to objectively examine circumstantial evidence, then in a court of law, everything between the bailiff announcing that "the court is in session" and his/her reading of the verdict is wasted time. For if presuppositions cannot be set aside to examine circumstantial evidence objectively, then all jurors have already come to their conclusion before the trial begins. Evidence is of no actual use in a courtroom; rather it is merely for show or a formality. If someone is to believe that evidence plays an actual role in a courtroom, then they must also believe that presuppositions can be suspended long enough to objectively examine evidence and come to a conclusion based on that evidence.

Interestingly enough, when the presuppositions are put back in place, they may be different from what they were before the evidence was presented. A new lens has now been established to interpret experience. This is bias that is justified because it is grounded in evidence. Prior to setting aside the presuppositions to objectively examine the evidence, the bias is not justified, and acceptance of such bias without justification is tantamount to fideism.

Circumstantial Evidence Justifies Presuppositions of Christianity

As I discussed in previous posts here and here, this is very important to understand when discussing past, singular events (such as the creation of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of humanity, the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth). All of these past singular events can only be established with circumstantial evidence because there are no living eyewitnesses. Some claim that circumstantial evidence is not necessary to know these events took place (and how and when) because we have the eyewitness testimonies (the Bible). However, the records of the dead eyewitnesses (the Bible) had to be transmitted down the centuries to us. Each step in this transmission is a past singular event that must be established through circumstantial evidence before we know the record of the dead eyewitnesses is reliable.

The importance of circumstantial evidence to defend any particular view of any of those events cannot be escaped. Even the person who wishes to presuppose the reliability of the eyewitness account must justify their bias. And if they justify their bias by circumstantial evidence supporting the past singular events of the steps to transmit the eyewitness accounts (the Bible), they have granted the necessity and value of such a method for discovering the truth about other past singular events (such as the creation of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of humanity, the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth). If they wish to continue to deny the value of circumstantial evidence to support their view, then they have essentially affirmed fideism (which stands mutually exclusive to evidence playing an actual role in a courtroom).

Free Will

Of course, in order to put aside presuppositions to objectively investigate the evidence, a choice to do so must be made. This choice can only be the work of a free agent. The very action of examining evidence objectively necessitates free agency. If it is not possible to temporarily set aside presuppositions to objectively evaluate evidence, then the very existence of free will comes into question. If free will does not exist, then all actions are predetermined. Without the ability of man to freely choose, he cannot be held responsible for his choices. This means that, if free will does not exist (necessitated by the inability to set aside presuppositions), no one may be punished or rewarded justly for the "choice" they made. Any reward or punishment is merely the outworking of other people commiting actions that are also predetermined. For Christianity, this also calls into question the moral justification for the existence of eternal, concious torment for the unsaved.

A very powerful case for the existence of free agency can be made biblically, philosophically and scientifically (see "The Only Wise God" by Dr. William Lane Craig and "Agents Under Fire" by Dr. Angus Menuge), and if free agency exists, then presuppositions can be set aside if the person is willing to make the choice. If a person argues against this ability, they argue against free will. If they argue against free will, they affirm that they were determined to argue against free will. They do not choose to defend what they believe to be true, they are forced to defend what just happens to be true- they could just as easily be defending what is false not because they believe it to be true but because they are forced, just like their opponent. Just because we presuppose the correct general worldview (Christianity) it does not follow that we also presuppose the correct specifics of the worldview (see "Is Your View Falsifiable?"). So, we must set aside our presuppositions to discover who is right and who is wrong about the specifics. If this cannot be done, then truth is not discoverable and fideism necessarily follows.


For the person who insists that presuppositions cannot be relinquished long enough to test them, they are drawn into some very dangerous theological and philosophical waters that go beyond the doctrine of creation. Based on this reality, it appears that holding such a position has provided the adherent a convenient excuse to not honestly evaluate things they presuppose to the true. There is nothing wrong with having a "lens" to evaluate experience as long as the "lens" has been tested thoroughly. Even after testing a presupposition, if evidence arises that seems to challenge it, there is nothing wrong with setting it aside again to examine in light of the new evidence. This does not mean that this new evidence will necessarily falsify or confirm it, it just means that the person is still humble enough to recognize that they could be wrong.

If the Christian has the correct general worldview, then testing presuppositions of the specifics of the worldview should not scare him or her at all (see here and here). God seeks worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24), but if we are not willing to make the choice to set aside our presuppositions to see if they are justified by the evidence and relinquish the false ones, how can we claim that we are one of those worshippers that the Father seeks? 

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