Ultimate authority

Whatever it may sell itself as to believers, presuppositionalism in practice usually boils down to a loose collection of contrived and superficial “gotcha” dialogs in which the entire skeptical worldview ends up “exposed” as self-contradictory and invalid. The catch is that creating this illusion requires that the unbeliever stick to some rigid and narrow constraints on what they’re supposed to say. It’s a schtick that works best with 1-dimensional bad guys, who oppose the hero only to make the hero look good.

Real skeptics don’t talk or think like cartoons, however, so when the presuppositionalist tries to interact with a real live skeptic, they end up floundering around trying to force the conversation back into the canned script. Sometimes they meet unbelievers who haven’t thought much about the topic, and are easily steered, but if the skeptic knows anything at all about philosophy, epistemology, and phenomenology, the result can be a series of exchanges so disjointed they border on the surreal. For example, here’s Murk trying to respond to my observation that religious beliefs are necessarily subjective perceptions rather than verifiable objective fact.

“you’d be walking by proof, not walking by faith.” not true- boils down to ultimate authority – we all have one – what is yours again?

His response seems only tangentially related, if not completely disconnected, from the observation he’s trying to respond to. But that’s because he’s trying to get back to a script in which rationalism is really the vain assumptions of a conceited heart. I didn’t say anything that would support such a conclusion, but that’s beside the point. He’s here to have the scripted conversation from his apologetics texts, no matter how the real-world conversation may be proceeding.

His choice of scripts is not accidental, which brings up a very interesting aspect of his philosophy. If you want to deceive someone and keep them deceived, one of the most important components you need is some kind of mechanism to isolate your victim from the facts, so they never uncover the truth about your deception. One way to do so is through physical isolation: put your victim(s) inside a closed environment where the truth is not allowed entry. Many conservative religions provide this in the form of closed groups, censorship, anti-blasphemy laws, parochial schools, and so on.

There’s an even better method of isolating your believers, though, and that’s to condition them to reject everything that might possibly serve as evidence against your claims. Murk gives us a real doozy of an example here, with his notion that we all have some subjective ultimate authority. Notice, each of us has some ultimate authority—it’s subjective. He has to ask me what mine is, because it’s not the same as his. It’s personal, subjective, a matter of individual preference. In his worldview, the skeptic’s ultimate authority is his or her own unfounded assumption of omniscience, whereas the believer’s ultimate authority is divine, infallible revelation.

Notice how awesome this is? This is the believer’s universal trump card against any skeptical evidence. No matter how consistent, reasonable, and easily-verified the skeptic’s evidence may be, the believer is authorized to preemptively dismiss it, unexamined, on the grounds that it proceeds from an invalid ultimate authority. Using this little trick, you can simply deny everything that could possibly prod you into having second thoughts about your beliefs.

The underlying assumption here is that no person ever has any direct access to real-world truth. It’s too tainted by our (erroneous, unjustified) presuppositions. We can neither discover truth on our own, nor know truth on our own, nor verify the claims of others with respect to the truth. In the pious, quasi-postmodernism of the modern presuppositionalist, each person is limited to passively receiving whatever doctrines are supplied by his or her subjectively chosen ultimate authority. And the punch line is that everyone else has chosen the wrong ultimate authority! Unbelievers are wrong by default, and therefore the believer does not need to listen to anything the unbeliever says.

What’s missing here is any concept of the possibility of testing one’s presuppositions to see which ones are most consistent with real-world truth (and least reliant on superstition, prejudice, subjective preference, and other sources of perceptual error). In the presuppositional view, adopting a belief is the be-all and end-all of believing. You pick your preferred “ultimate authority,” and then you just believe whatever they tell you, without putting your beliefs to the test by questioning your presuppositions. And that’s all you can do, because people cannot know any truth at all unless they are omniscient (which of course no one is).

This is not so much ultimate authority as it is ultimate gullibility. You believe whatever you are told, without even the possibility of questioning or testing it. You assume that truth must be determined by some other person, since you yourself have no direct access to it apart from whatever authority you’ve chosen. Then you justify your gullibility by calling it “faith” and assuming that everyone else is also blindly swallowing whatever comes from their (defective) ultimate authority. You become the con man’s ultimate job security.

The crucial factor lacking in Murk’s philosophy is reality itself. The nature of reality is fundamentally and intrinsically ordered, in ways that give rise to the differences between what’s true and what’s false, and what’s real and what isn’t. We don’t just have direct access to reality, we are part of reality, and active participants in it. This means, among other things, that we are subject to the same ordered distinctions as are found in the world around us, which gives us enormous power both to perceive the truth and to measure the claims of men against material reality.

Notice here that God, in particular, is not the ultimate authority regarding truth. In Genesis, the character of God tells the characters Adam and Eve that they will die on the day that they eat the forbidden fruit, and the snake tells them that they will not die, and then they eat it and do not die on the day they eat it. Believers today, concerned about God’s implicit deception in the Genesis tale, re-interpret God’s prediction of instant death into something spiritual, to avoid the contradiction between what God predicted and what actually happened.

That’s important, because it shows that God does not have the authority to decide what does and does not conform to the constraints imposed by logic. The distinction between true and false is part of the uncreated logical order inherent in reality itself, and that’s the authority that prevents contradictions from being true. Even if God were the penultimate authority, he would still be bound, by the higher power of reality itself, to obey the constraints of logical order–even in stories that are completely mythical!

To use another example, the prophet Ezekiel describes God as cursing the ancient city of Tyre, and issuing a divine decree that it would never be rebuilt. (Ezekiel 26:14). In reality, Tyre is not only a thriving seaport to this day, but had already been rebuilt in New Testament times, and the Apostle Paul stopped there on one of his missionary journeys (Acts 21:3-7). God says Tyre will never be rebuilt, but will forever remain a bare rock where fishermen spread their nets to dry. Reality says that Tyre was rebuilt and that, by the way, it was Alexander the Great, and not Nebuchadnezzar, who historically built the causeway and sacked the island fortress, contrary to God’s prophecy in Ezekiel 26. If you want to know the truth about Tyre, God is not the ultimate authority. In the places where God’s word conflicts with reality, it’s reality that’s the truth.

In a way, then, you could say that my ultimate authority is the same as Murk’s ultimate authority, which, if we’re talking about truly ultimate ultimate authorities, is the ultimate authority over any non-pantheistic god(s) that could conceivably exist. The one and only ultimate authority is material reality. You want ultimate authority? That’s what ultimate really means. There cannot be any greater authority than reality itself, because anything that claims authority has two choices: either submit and conform to what reality demands, or else contradict reality and make itself less authoritative by lying.

The bottom line is that reality is the only truly ultimate authority for any claim, because of reality’s inherent and uncreated order, which in turn are the reason that logic and reason and truth all exist. We are all inextricably part of that reality, and are not inherently cut off from it (and indeed, cannot be cut off from it so long as we ourselves remain real). We can, however, sabotage our subjective understanding of reality, and erect such barriers within our own minds as will prevent us from submitting our beliefs to the objective authority of material reality. When that happens, we make ourselves both gullible and unable to learn the truth.

That’s a consequence that no true religion would ever need to encourage. But they do, because reality really screws up presuppositional scripts.


  1. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Ultimate authority corrupts absolutely.

    As the quote goes.

  2. grumpyoldfart says

    I liked your examples in this post. The death threats in Eden will work against the fundies and the destruction of Tyre will be useful when talking to liberals. Thanks very much. Love your work.

  3. wholething says

    Presuppositionalism should be called Equivocationalism. “To know” might mean “reasonable acceptance” in a premise but “absolute certainty” in the conclusion. Their assumptions are called presuppositions so they don’t have to expose them to questioning, so their assumptions are no more than pretentions. They call your assumptions “presuppositions” to imply that you can’t question yours either, even if you are willing to reconsider them in the light of the evidence.

    So what if we can’t prove our methods of discerning what we believe are sound by using our methods. It appears that the scientific approach works consistently except when it’s forced to extrapolate from incomplete evidence. But we wre allowed to question our premises and conclusions so we can get out of a wrong conclusion. So even if it isn’t a perfect way to obtain knowledge, the evidence supports that it is the best way. When we find a better method, we’ll start using that one.

    The only way Equivocationalism could work is if the initial pretentions were correct. If just one is uncertain, it is impossible to get out of the circular loop because that wrong pretention can’t be questioned.

  4. busterggi says

    Ultimate authority should equal ultimate responsibility, even for the bad stuff, but believers never admit that.

  5. KB147 says

    Presuppositionalism is the most childish form of argumentation I’ve ever come across, especially as espoused by the likes of Sye Ten Bruggencate. They rely on frustrating any opposition by merely asking “why?”, ad nauseum, the way an irritating child might to a weary adult. They’ve been called out time and again on their crap, I think it’s time everyone just ignored them. And yet, I find myself drawn to arguing with them more than any other type of religious apologist, purely because they annoy me the most.

  6. says

    …whereas the believer’s ultimate authority is divine, infallible revelation.

    As interpreted by themselves or their personal favorite religious leader. You ever notice how supposedly core beliefs can change overnight when the preferred minister or other leader takes a nosedive and the believer switches to another church? I think some of these people will ‘believe’ anything so long as it isn’t incredibly far from their central inclinations (unless they also easily have conversion experiences), and as long as it is delivered with a proper amount of authoritarian confidence and is claimed to have been declared so by gawd.

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