Written by Jason Petersen
As of late, it seems that the atheist crowd has once again shifted their strategy on how to deal with presuppositional apologetics. So far, we have seen four major philosophies adopted by atheists to combat presuppositional apologetics:
Even though atheists have recognized the deficiencies of the first three philosophies(this is confirmed by their shift to the next philosophy), they still proclaimed that presuppositional apologetics was defeated and dead while holding to these apparently deficient philosophies. The fourth option, pragmatism, is their newest approach.[divider]
What is Pragmatism?
Pragmatism is a philosophy that was developed in around 1870. The most important of the ‘classical pragmatists’ were Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952).[acp footnote]1[/acp] Recently, pragmatism has enjoyed a revival of interest, and also has been further brought into light by atheists who embrace it in an attempt to defeat presuppositional apologetics. Pragmatists typically evaluate ideas and hypotheses by their practical consequences. Pragmatists argue that an idea or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily.[acp footnote]2[/acp]
A Glaring Issue with Pragmatism
Pragmatism is easily dealt with. The most obvious issue is its failure to resolve the problem of skepticism. The skeptic asks “How do you know anything to be true?” The pragmatist will respond, well, the system that I have developed for knowledge is useful and it works. The skeptic will then ask, “How can you know it’s useful?” Pragmatism assumes the ability to acquire knowledge by arguing that ideas should be weighed based off of their usefulness. However, if pragmatism doesn’t solve the question of “how can we know anything?” then the conclusion that philosophies and ideas should be weighed by their usefulness falls apart.
First Principles and the Problem of Skepticism
Every worldview must start somewhere. If one does not start somewhere, then their worldview will go nowhere. For instance, if someone races in NASCAR, but never starts moving their vehicle, they will never win the race. This is because the driver never started the race to begin with. Where does pragmatism start? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a pragmatist asserts that they start with the idea that hypotheses and philosophies are weighed by their usefulness. Does that answer the question of how they know anything? Certainly not, for the usefulness of the idea has nothing to do with the truth of the idea. There have been many hypotheses and theories in science in the past that were useful, but turned out to be false. This shows that the success of an idea does not determine whether or not something is true. For instance, Newtonian Physics worked well in science for a long time, but then the General Theory of Relativity became a better tool. Once we got to quantum mechanics, however, the General Theory of Relativity was not enough. There are millions of hypotheses and models in science that have been overridden by other models. Based on this fact, pragmatism cannot account for knowledge if used as a first principle.
It is also important to note that if a first principle doesn’t solve the problem of skepticism, any conclusions that are drawn from starting at that first principle becomes unjustifiable. Also, a philosophy cannot start in the middle or at the end. It must start at the beginning with a first principle. To try and argue that a philosophy can start beyond the area of epistemology(knowledge) is an irrational position, for if you can’t justify knowledge, how can you justify any sort of conception of metaphysics, morals, or purpose?
Objections to Christianity by Pragmatists
Perhaps the pragmatist may ask, of what benefit is Christianity? A proper retort may be, “How do you feel about hot places?” Perhaps some may find such a response to be inconsiderate, but many times the truth is not polite. Truth is not determined by what one likes to hear, rather truth can only be grounded in God himself.His Word is the written manifestation of his truth. (John 17:17) One could also argue that a benefit of Christianity is to have a reason to argue. After all, the atheist has no reason to argue. In the atheist worldview, existence is a brute fact, and the universe doesn’t know or care about anyone’s opinion.
What do we get in accepting Christ? We obtain assurance of salvation.(John 10:28, Romans 8:1, John 6:37, Romans 8:16) If the atheist is set on what is practical and beneficial, certainly, heaven is beneficial. The pragmatist may ask to prove that God exists, or else we have no justification for believing there is a heaven. However, The Bible clearly communicates that evidence is not what brings people to faith, rather, we are drawn to God.(John 6:44) The cross is foolishness to those who don’t believe.(1 Corinthians 1:18) The assumption that Christians are obligated to try to convince an atheist that God exists assumes a system of theology that is not found in scripture. Apologetics is not a tool for winning people to Christ, it is a tool for defending the faith. Going out and trying to convince the world that God exists is an action that is carried out with complete disregard for what scripture teaches. Faith comes by hearing, and by hearing the word of God(Romans 10:13). Faith does not come by hearing evidence for God from natural theology. Despite the benefits of Christianity, Christianity is not a worldview that is based on pragmatism. Scripture communicates that all things are for the glory of God and not for ourselves. (Romans 11:36, Colossians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 10:31)
A Further Elaboration on the Principles of Pragmatism
By now, it should be clear that pragmatism attempts to bypass the problem of skepticism by trying to start somewhere other than epistemology. The refusal of pragmatists to answer the problem of skepticism is one of the reasons why pragmatism is labeled under a sect of philosophy called irrationalism. In fact, some have argued that pragmatism actually succeeds in justifying irrationalism as a rational philosophy. [acp footnote]3[/acp] Of course, such a claim violates the law of contradiction. How can irrationalism be rational? Irrationalism argues against reason and instead embraces experience, feelings, and instinct.[acp footnote]4[/acp] Pragmatism holds these things in higher regard than reason, and at some points even argues against reason itself. Any pragmatist that argues that pragmatism is rational is violating the law of contradiction, for you cannot be both for and against reason. Pragmatism necessitates that the consequences be held over the rationality of an idea. In fact, pragmatism rejects the importance of formulating ideas that are consistent with reality.[acp footnote]5[/acp] In pragmatism, there can be no absolutes, nor can there any universality of thought.
A Refutation of Pragmatism
Some issues with pragmatism have been brought up in this article, but now they will be explained in more detail. First, the atheist typically tries to position themselves as a champion of reason due to embracing science as the best way to obtain knowledge while shunning religions, particularly Christianity. They repeatedly ask for evidence of God’s existence, and argue that God does not exist. This mindset contradicts pragmatism. Recall that pragmatism holds that we should be more concerned with the usefulness of the idea rather than reality itself. This means that according to pragmatism, there is no reason to ask for evidence for God, for pragmatism does not concern itself with the way reality is. If the true nature of reality is not of concern, then the atheist has no reason to even argue for or against the existence of God. By attempting to use pragmatism as a defense against presuppositional apologetics, the atheist is effectively contradicting himself.
Second, if pragmatism is being held as a philosophy, there is no reason to argue that pragmatism is rational. Pragmatism argues that the usefulness of an idea(or lack thereof) determines whether or not one should hold that idea. Some atheists will argue that pragmatism is a rational view, but if pragmatism is concerned with the usefulness of an idea, then why should rationality matter? After all, pragmatism holds rationality in lower esteem than the usefulness of the idea, and some pragmatists argue against the merits of being rational. By appealing to the “rationality” of pragmatism, the pragmatist is contradicting the very thesis of pragmatism: Ideas are weighed by their usefulness, not on whether they match reality or if they are rational. By arguing for the rationality of pragmatism, the pragmatist has effectively left the bounds of pragmatism and has violated the law of contradiction.
Third, pragmatism rejects universal truths and absolutes. This means that the universal truth of the laws of logic are rejected. These laws do not tell us how we “ought” to think in pragmatism. If there is no fixed way that we should think, then there is no reason for any pragmatist to argue that we ought to go with the ideas that are useful. After all, to say that an idea is useful is to appeal to the laws of logic such as the law of identity and the law of contradiction. By arguing that we ought to accept ideas that are pragmatic, the pragmatist is contradicting himself, because such a notion assumes the law of identity and the law of contradiction. If the law of contradiction is denied, all communication becomes nothing more than noise or symbols. However, by saying that we “ought” to accept something based on its usefulness, the pragmatist that rejects the laws of logic are unwittingly appeal to them.
Fourth, pragmatism attempts to start beyond epistemology and appeal to experience, feelings, etc. instead of reason. As was stated earlier in this article, a philosophy must always start at the beginning. It cannot start in the middle, nor at the end. Instead of addressing the problem of skepticism, pragmatism states that there is no need to worry about it. This is akin to effectively sticking one’s head in the sand, and this is not a rational response. Anyone who holds to pragmatism must be prepared to admit that they adhere to an irrationalistic philosophy. If the pragmatist argues for the rationality of pragmatism, then it entails leaving pragmatism. By leaving the bounds of pragmatism in order to argue for it, the pragmatist has effectively refuted his own philosophy, for he shows that he himself does not believe it. This reduces pragmatism to skepticism, because pragmatism itself is not justified within the very parameters it sets. The advocate of pragmatism can either admit that pragmatism is irrational or they can argue for its rationality and expose the fact that pragmatism is so ridiculous that even the advocate doesn’t believe in it.
It is ironic that atheists that oppose presuppositional apologetics have embraced pragmatism. Those atheists, particularly the popular YouTube atheists, that have for years claimed to be champions of reason and advocated that science is the best way to learn about reality have embraced a philosophy that is completely against such principles. Pragmatism embraces irrationality and repudiates the approach of trying to form ideas that match reality. This means that pragmatism is not compatible with empiricism or with science(At least, as atheists attempt to define it). These are two things that the new-atheist community have been promoting for the past 10 years. It is ironic that these atheists, in an attempt to be able to defeat presuppositional apologetics, have turned around and walked in the opposite direction of what they were advocating for the past ten years. The acceptance of pragmatism entails a rejection of binding truth, logic, reason, science, reality, and even the point of discussing God’s existence.
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Pragmatism, August 16, 2008 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatism/>, (2 May 2014)
2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Pragmatism, <http://www.iep.utm.edu/pragmati/> (2 May 2014)
3. Pragmatism: Critical Concepts in Philosophy, Volume 1, Russell B. Goodman p. 78
4. Encyclopedia Britannica, Irrationalism, < http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/294716/irrationalism> (3 May 2014)
5. Queens College, Pragmatism, <http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/socialsciences/ppecorino/ethics_text/Chapter_10_Postmodernism_Pragmatism/Pragmatist_Ethic.htm> (3 May 2014)