PZ Myers gives exactly the right response to “presuppositionalist” Sye

A number of years ago, back when I was still in college, I got invited on to a Christian podcast IIRC called “The Narrow Mind” (way to play to stereotypes there!). It ended up being one of my first encounters with a branch of Christian apologetics called “presuppositionalism.” Basically, presuppositionalism involves declaring that all reasoning depends on the truth of Christianity, then asking an atheist a bunch of questions, then declaring that the atheist’s inability to answer the questions to the presuppositionalist’s satisfaction proves that all reasoning depends on Christianity and therefore Christianity is true. It’s a total non-sequitur, but it can rhetorically effective if you don’t know how to shut it down.

I learned this the hard way. The interviewer, a pastor named Gene Cook, had invited me on to discuss, I think, the Canaanite genocide but midway through started asking questions about epistemology. I tried to answer them as best I could, but eventually got confused about what Cook was trying to say and told him to answer his questions we’d have to continue in text. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have the whole “dealing with hostile interviewer” thing down, wasn’t very forceful, said “um” a lot, and generally didn’t make myself look good. Then for the podcast Cook tacked on a thing at the end declaring that because I didn’t answer his questions, therefore he was right, and I had no chance to respond to that part.

There’s another presuppositionalist named Sye Ten Bruggencate I’ve previously seen around online. Apparently he and Eric Hovind showed up at Reason Rally with a video camera and kept pestering PZ Myers with it. The fourth time this happened, PZ called Sye a “slimy motherfucker” and told him “you’ve said such absurd things that I don’t need to employ my reasoning, I can just laugh and shoo you away.” Sye responded with several more questions, eventually causing PZ to ask, “what are you driving at?” With that question, Sye decided he had gotten the footage he’d wanted, shook PZ’s hand, and left. This then got turned into a video where that presents the encounter as a victory for Jesus.

What idiots. Seriously. Peppering someone with a lot of questions, and then declaring a “gotcha” when they try ask you a question and figure out what the hell you’re trying to say makes no sense. Even as propaganda. In particular, I don’t understand why the abrupt warp-up after PZ’s question got included in the final video, because that makes it transparently obvious that Sye wasn’t interested in an honest conversation. He was just trolling for footage to use for later propaganda purposes.

I’m only bothering to blog about this because of what Stephen Law posted about the video: “This is not Myers’s finest hour. Sye’s approach is an example of one that scientist atheists such as Myers tend to struggle with. You really need some philosophical knowledge and skill to cope at all well with Sye (and even then he is an extremely slippery customer)….”

I like most of what Law writes (I worry I’m using that qualifier a lot lately…) but, WTF? It’s not like Law can claim PZ did a poor job of responding to Sye’s argument, because Sye didn’t even have an argument. “What are you driving at?” is exactly the right thing to say when someone is asking a lot of questions in a way that suggests they think they’re making some kind of point, but it’s impossible to tell what the point might be. Law looks like he’s just seizing on a bad excuse to announce how great the things he focuses on are.

(Okay, it’s official. Too much negativity is creeping into this blog. Tomorrow, I shall make a post titled “The Big Thread of Happy Things!” Seriously.)

  • iknklast

    Of course, sometimes they just hit us with “well, let’s just agree to disagree”, and don’t engage with the science at all. This is another one of those propaganda show stoppers, because if you go on then, you become unreasonable to most people. In spite of the fact that “agree to disagree” presents NO ARGUMENT with which to engage, and is, in fact, usually brought out when the person has been backed into a corner and can’t answer what you just said.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Sye was being a manipulative jackass, and eventually, you have to just shoo such people off because there’s no point wasting time with their contrived crap. And when you shoo them off, politely or not, they’ll try to use it for their own purposes (and threaten to do so to try to prevent you from shooing them off); but that’s how manipulative people roll, which is why they have to be kicked to the curb.

    (And what the Hell is with these ads offering “the perfect Bible for your journey?” What, tehy sell different Bibles with different verses tailored for each individual’s “journey?” Seriously, WTF?!)

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Having dealt with Sy Ten Bruggencate on the intertubes, I agree wholeheartedly with PZ’s description of him. One of his favorite tactics is to ask the same question over and over again, ignoring all the answers given to it, until someone tells him to fuck off. He then declares victory, retrieves his spheroid and departs to his domicile.

  • Annatar

    Neither of those links is working.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Ack. Okay, it’s official, I’m going back to writing all my posts in HTML. When I do that, this doesn’t happen.

  • timberwoof

    I did some URL dissection. Let’s see if these work better:

    PZ Myers gives exactly the right response to “presuppositionalist” Sye:

    PZ Meyers and Sye Bruggencate video:

  • timberwoof

    Whups. The first URL was supposed to be

    Prideful buffoons

  • jamessweet

    So if I’m understanding presuppositionalism correctly, it boils down to:

    Premise: The problem of induction is really hard.
    Conclusion: Ergo, Jesus!

    Am I about getting that correctly?

    If so, then what is to stop a rebuttal based on “presuppositional empiricism”? So the argument goes: The only way to make sense of the world is to pre-suppose the validity of inductive reasoning. One cannot make sense of human experience without it, and there is no set of neutral assumptions on which to reason with someone who rejects empiricism.

    (All of that is mostly true, IMO)

    How is pre-supposing Christianity and better? If presuppositionalism was intended to put Christianity on equal footing with other epistemologies, then it would seem a little less absurd to me: While I think it is possible to make a strong case that it is worse to presuppose Christianity than to presuppose inductive reasoning, it is not trivial to do so.

    But for presuppositionalism to argue that Christianity is epistemologically superior is just baffling to me.

    • Caravelle

      I had that argument with a creationist, and we basically got stuck there. One problem seemed to be he didn’t recognize presuppositionalism as the same thing as “assuming something to start with”. Specifically, he started out arguing that circular reasoning was invalid, and that the way to avoid with the Bible was to call the Bible’s validity a “fundamental presupposition” (or something like that), while atheist reasoning was illogical because it required assuming things.

      He didn’t seem to get that 1) the Bible doesn’t get a free pass on circular reasoning, and 2) that the assuming the Bible was true and assuming logic was true, or reality existed, or our senses were trustworthy, are qualitatively the same thing.

      He made a big deal about how the Bible implied the existence of logic and reality, two things atheism had no explanation for.

      Then again he was a creationist, not a sophisticated liberal theologian or something.

    • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.com/ BecomingJulie

      The universe only makes sense if the intrinsic properties and behaviours of matter (I prefer that phrase over “laws of nature”, as the latter can be taken by the slimiest reality-denialists as implying the existence of a law-giver) are both universal and immutable.

      As long as these two preconditions are satisfied, the scientific method works. If, on the other hand, the intrinsic properties and behaviours of matter are not universal, or are changeable, then it won’t just be the scientific method that does not work.

  • Graham Martin-Royle


    The above is a link to the website of Paul Baird who has had a few run ins with STB. I think he quite convincingly demolish’s Sye’s arguments. Paul has done 3 radio discussions with STB, he admits that the 1st wasn’t his best moment as he wasn’t truly prepared but in the next 2 Sye just couldn’t answer his points.

    Pre-sup (STB) 1, Paul Baird 2, End of Game.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    Dawson Bethrick also has a lot of stuff about presuppers (and Sye) at his aptly named blog, ‘Incinerating Presuppositionalism’ http://bahnsenburner.blogspot.ca/

  • Annatar

    Reasonable Doubts had a two episode podcast on presuppositional apologetics which was VERY insightful and funny. I recommend it to ANYONE who is interested in this.

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  • Azuma Hazuki

    I’m glad to see this, as until recently presuppositionalism was my big bugaboo (simply from a lack of forma philosophy and logic training). As it is now, my biggest problem is actually admitting to myself that, yes Hazuki, William Lane Craig really is that much of a dishonest douchenozzle, as the scientific community terms them.

    Once I realized that “presupposition” was a fancy way of saying “axiom,” the entire house of cards came tumbling down. Also, “Bahnsen Burner” is an awesome name for a blog :)

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