Archive Peter Escalante Philosophy Responsa Steven Wedgeworth

Responsum: Defining First Principles

Pastor Benjamin Miller from Long Island, NY, asks:

Can you define and distinguish:

(1) W.W. Bartley III’s notion of “ultimate commitment” (which he regards as voluntaristic and finally arbitrary);

(1) is something that is simply chosen or asserted: “I want to believe in X, or I have various reasons to believe in X, but it really doesn’t matter if X can be proven or not.” This is related to Popper’s doctrine of falsifiability. Ultimate commitment cannot be falsified, not even theoretically or hypothetically, and so it is incapable of any scrutiny. And when one worries about the status of this commitment as a public truth claim, one simply withdraws it from canons of public reason, into privileged subjectivity: this move is what Bartley calls “retreat to commitment.”

Ultimate commitment is different from faith because, although saving faith is fiducia, it is living trust based on the vision of the absolute reality of God and the absolute certitude of His promise. Faith transcends speculative reason, because its object is at once too big for it and too small: too big, because God in His essence absolutely transcends the powers of our mind, and too small, because the particular object of saving faith is an economic act (the atoning passion and victorious ascension of Jesus), and thus not the kind of logical universal which affords science to the mind of man. But faith is nevertheless science, because its objects are certain; and while we cannot rationally attain knowledge of God in His essence, nor foresee (as if a necessity of Being) the saving economy of God in history, nevertheless belief in these is not irrational, and can be supported and defended as reasonable. This is a signal difference from what Bartley means by “ultimate commitment,” although all too many Christians today could not tell you that difference, and in fact are on the “ultimate commitment” side of it in their expressions.

(2) The more classical construct of self-evident first principles (principia);

(2) is something that is objective and and prior to the individual. Thus when the individual attempts to scrutinize and question these principles, he cannot even coherently do so. “Can X both be and not be X at the same time and in the same respect?” This doesn’t make any actual sense. So too with the question, “Might I not exist at this moment?” Well, if you didn’t exist, then you couldn’t ask that question, so … no. First principles are the given and inescapable starting points of thought.

(3) The “preconditions of intelligibility” identified by presuppositionalism:

(3) is a confused articulation of (2), but put into Kantian terms. Thus it is more circular: I have a predetermined notion of what “needs to be the case,” and so I then go back and find things to support that. Basically this is asking for Nietzsche to come along and call its bluff. These “preconditions” are also almost always “a system,” rather than simple boundary lines.

Additionally, we said “confused.” What (3) is confused with are elements from (1), and what follows from this confusion is that, unlike for (2), the products of (3) are explicitly admitted by proponents not to be universal; non-Christians are explicitly said not to possess (except in some repressed way, à la Freud) these “first principles.”

Presuppositionalist “presuppositions” are basically a fideist twist on paranoid foundationalism: people cling to cognitive security blankets in the face of a darkness of doubt that was created by their giving skepticism too much credit in the first place. They agree with Hume and co. where they should reject Hume’s false premises, and they subsequently offer up in place of (2) something like (1), the content of exclusively special revelation.

(4) The self-evident and incorrigible propositions of classical foundationalism (critiqued by Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and others in Faith and Rationality).

(4) is meant to function the same way (2) does, but (4) is “postcritical,” that is, it presumes radical skepticism as the immediate starting point, and then seeks to ground knowledge on the subject-side, with a very impoverished point of contact on the object-side – usually what is mathematically representable or some other simplification. But these are not classical first principles, and postmodernists and fideists err in using foundationalism as a straw man for classical Christian wisdom.

By Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante are the founders and editors of The Calvinist International.

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