Presuppositional Spaghetti, the Lottery Paradox, and the Search for God

Introduction and Background on Presuppositional Apologetics

Unlike many Christians, I confess to being somewhat enthralled by a good atheist argument. I see no sense in letting the significant mental capacity directed by intelligent atheists and agnostics toward the discovery of logical weaknesses in typical Christian apologetics be wasted on us by our having an attitude of scorn or dismissal. Would it not be wiser and more honorable to learn respectfully from their analysis, and to admit where our own arguments may be flawed, in order that if our faith is worth anything to begin with it will hopefully be honed and shaped to something more solidly grounded?

Among many such weaknesses that could be pointed out in various popular Christian apologetic arguments,[1] one in particular that I am thinking of is the tendency to assume Christianity is automatically, without further need for argument, the most reasonable alternative to metaphysical naturalism.[2] Nowhere does this tendency come across more directly, perhaps even arrogantly, than in the strategy of presuppositional apologetics.

Presuppositional apologetics is an approach to arguing for the Christian faith that properly emphasizes the truth that we all base our arguments on assumed first principles, or presuppositions. Traditional apologetics really acknowledges this as well, and therefore attempts to argue for the truth of Christianity starting from basic presuppositions that virtually everyone would agree with. These would include the assumption of the validity of logic and the belief that our senses are generally trustworthy, so that we can be confident that the world we see really exists and is not just a figment of our imagination, for example. Presuppositional apologetics, on the other hand, generally works on the belief that for the Christian, the truth of Christianity itself is the basic presupposition that must be assumed as the starting point for our apologetic.[3]

The presuppositional apologist will therefore generally not even attempt to argue for the truth of Christianity from basic principles that are held in common with the non-Christian. Rather, his approach is based on his firm conviction that his presupposition of the truth of Christianity is the only one that ultimately makes sense of the world. In particular, presuppositional apologists generally employ what is called a transcendental argument for Christianity. This is an argument that claims that the very validity of the act of argument itself must necessarily presuppose the existence of the Christian God. This is usually applied both to logical argumentation (i.e., whether or not something is true) and moral argumentation (i.e., what one should or should not do). The transcendental argument thus asserts that all arguments that Christianity is either false or should not be believed are therefore self-defeating, for the person doing the arguing must unknowingly adopt the very presupposition he is arguing against in order to argue against it.

Though some have claimed otherwise, I do not believe the transcendental argument offered by presuppositionalists truly distinguishes itself from the traditional approach. I see it rather as fundamentally equivalent to some fairly classical arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, the moral argument, and the argument from reason, only put into a slightly different form. The cosmological argument attempts to show that without a supernatural first cause, our very existence would not be possible. The moral argument attempts to show that without a supernatural source of morality, the concept of “ought-to” would not have any real meaning. And the argument from reason attempts to show that without a supernatural source for our rational faculties, there would be no reason to believe we could trust our own thoughts to represent actual truth and not just utilitarian functionality.

I believe all of these arguments have their place. It is very difficult, to say the least, on the presumption of pure metaphysical naturalism, to explain why there should be something (as opposed to nothing), why there should be a true difference between right and wrong (as opposed to simply a fictional concept of this difference that was naturally selected to aid the survival of the species), and why our thought processes should come to be able to discern truth from falsehood (as opposed to simply processing input into output according to a preprogrammed sequence, like a computer). And I believe the transcendental argument of presuppositional apologetics can make these points in a reasonably convincing manner.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Other Unlikely Gods

Where, then, does presuppositional apologetics (usually) go astray? As I suggested near the beginning of this essay, I believe the most obvious problem is in how far it takes its argument. If presuppositionalists would simply claim to be presupposing the inadequacy of metaphysical naturalism, I believe they would have a much stronger case. But when they claim, as they traditionally do, that it is only on the basis of the presupposition of the whole truth of Christianity that existence and morality and logical argument can make any sense, I believe they open themselves up to some well-deserved criticism.[4]

It is certainly not only the presuppositionalists who have an unjustified tendency to assume that an argument against naturalism amounts to an equally-strong argument for Christianity. But it is the presuppositionalists whose very approach forces them into this mistake, inasmuch as it claims that one must presuppose the whole truth of Christianity in order for rational argument to be accounted for, which simply does not seem reasonable. And it is the presuppositional approach that puts this weakness in its most glaringly obvious light, which the atheists, naturally, have not missed seeing. More importantly, I believe this weakness in the presuppositional approach gives rise to an atheist argument that not only powerfully refutes the particular flaw in question, but on the surface seems even to be a fairly reasonable argument against the existence of any kind of god whatsoever.

This flaw in the presuppositional approach is most convincingly argued against by the simple consideration of other religions. If the presuppositional approach constituted a proof of the Christian God, why could it not equally be employed by Muslims to prove the existence of their god, or Mormons to prove the existence of their god, or facetious atheists to prove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster god?[5] Presuppositionalists may claim that morality and logical argument would not be possible if the world came into being by any other god than their own, but even if this is true, it is certainly not intuitively or convincingly so. Why should anyone believe that it is only the God of the Bible, and not any other possible conception of a supernatural, rational, moral first cause, that could serve as a reasonable explanation for such things? It may be valid to hold an a posteriori belief that this is true based on a personal knowledge of the God of the Bible, but I can think of no a priori reason to believe that it is true. Thus, I can think of no reason why an apologist’s presupposition of the truth of Christianity should be convincing to others merely on its own basis, without being supported by other apologetic evidence, which the presuppositional apologetic approach generally eschews, or at least minimizes.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster god mentioned in the above paragraph is, of course, a satirical parody, but it is an example used by atheists (sometimes) to make a serious argument. We can’t logically and absolutely disprove the existence of any such thing, but that clearly does not mean a reasonable person would therefore believe in such a thing, because without any evidence for its existence, the probability is vanishingly small.[6] So it would be silly to even seriously consider the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just as it would be silly to seriously consider the existence of the Greek god Zeus, or of the Norse god Thor, to use some other commonly cited examples. We can’t absolutely prove these gods don’t exist, but we all intuitively know that it is fantastically unlikely. In fact, no matter what we think or imagine God to be like, the chances of a god fitting that description are next to nothing. So why should we not also consider the existence of the particular concept of God that happens to be described in the Bible to be similarly insignificant?

The truth is, the atheists have a point here, if the approach of presuppositionalism is correct. On an a priori basis (that is, purely as a presupposition, without any additional evidence or reason accessible from outside of that presupposition), it really would not make any sense whatsoever to consider the existence of the Christian God as even slightly likely. This does not mean the God of the Bible would in that case be proven false, of course, or that Christians who believe they have come to know Him from a personal encounter would necessarily be wrong. But if our apologetic approach was purely one of presuppositionalism, there would be no reason for anyone else to find it very convincing.

The Lottery Paradox

This leads to what seems on the surface to be a pretty good argument not just against Christianity in particular, or even simply for an agnostic point of view, but for outright practical atheism. If every possible conception of God is fantastically unlikely (again, on an a priori basis), then surely we are epistemologically justified in intuitively not believing any of them to be true. And if it is epistemologically reasonable to be extremely skeptical of every possible concept of God, is that not equivalent to saying that atheism is the most reasonable and warranted philosophy?

I can certainly understand and appreciate the appeal of this argument. Even if a non-Christian admits to the difficulties inherent in metaphysical naturalism, he may well reason along these exact lines to reach the conclusion that naturalism must nevertheless be true, because the existence of God is just so unimaginably improbable. Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the approach of the presuppositionalists is valid. If there actually are other reasons to consider the existence of the Christian God beyond merely the claimed advantages of presupposing it to be true, this would not apply. But let us acknowledge that even if there are other reasons, these reasons may be of a somewhat subjective nature, and perhaps fairly esoteric and therefore unknown to the non-Christian. The question is, why should he even bother to seek out such obscure reasons, if the a priori likelihood of the Christian God is so small?

This is a serious question that intuitively seems to put the atheist on the most logical ground. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to expend any effort investigating the potential evidence for the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so why should he investigate the potential evidence for the Christian God? Would it not be more consistent to similarly dismiss the possibility of all suggested gods? As the common atheistic saying goes, “Even Christians are nearly atheists; we simply believe in just one less highly unlikely concept of god than they do.”

As appealing as this way of thinking may seem, there is a rather gaping flaw in the seemingly bulletproof logic that the reasonableness of being highly skeptical of any particular god implies a corresponding reasonableness in holding to the position of atheism. This is most readily demonstrated by the lottery paradox, which is a popular thought-experiment proposed by philosopher Henry Kyburg to demonstrate the inherent inconsistency in some seemingly intuitive principles of epistemology. Imagine a lottery in which there are some large number of tickets (say one million), only one of which will be chosen at random as the winner. You possess ticket #274,153. Since the odds of this ticket winning are only one in a million, you are surely justified in believing (some would even say knowing) that you will not win. Yet by the same reasoning you would equally be justified in believing that each particular ticket from one to one million will not win. And if you are justified in believing each particular ticket will lose, intuitively you might argue that you are also logically justified in believing that there will be no winning ticket, but that is clearly not true. You can actually know with 100% certainty that one ticket will win.

Similar examples can be constructed that do not guarantee 100% certainty that one ticket will win, of course, but still make it fairly likely that one ticket will win, even though the chances for any particular ticket winning are still fantastically low. The point is, simply because the a priori odds against any one particular concept of god being true are prohibitive, that does not constitute a valid reason to be an atheist. The question of whether any god is likely to exist, as opposed to any particular god, must be considered separately, on its own merits (unless one is brash enough to believe he is actually able to mathematically integrate the probabilities over the infinite number of possible gods with any degree of accuracy, of course, and so calculate the final result).

The Search for God

Let us now reimagine the situation of the lottery paradox with some important differences. Suppose now that the winning number will not be chosen at random, but will in fact be based on some real entity, such as the population of the city of Peoria. Suppose further that you are allowed to fill in your own ticket number. Now if you simply choose a number at random the odds are still fantastically against you winning, but who in their right mind would do that? The fact is, even if you had no a priori idea of the population of Peoria, you would immediately start looking for that information. Even if the census data was not made public, you would search for every clue you could find. Perhaps there would be many people who claimed to know the number, even though their numbers did not all agree. Some you might be able to eliminate without the need for further investigation after getting some clues about the approximate population from your own observation. Others you would want to question and find out their sources, and then in turn try to investigate those sources. You might not have any idea how or even if you would eventually be convinced of the truthfulness and reliability of some particular source, but you would still try your best to do so.

The presupposition you would be operating under here is not that any particular number is the right one, but rather that the right number is worth searching for. You might not know if there was any way to find it or not, but if you valued the prize enough, you would not be put off by a simple consideration of the fact that each particular possibility was highly unlikely to begin with. This is because you would realize that if you honestly looked for them, you might find clues that would help you zero in on a particular number, and then the a priori improbability of that number would cease to be a factor. (In fact, once you really found the right answer, the probability of that number being the winner would jump up to 100%.)

This example may seem somewhat contrived, but I believe the major point stands. I do not say I can absolutely prove that metaphysical naturalism could not be a sufficient explanation for all truth, but I believe there are reasonable arguments for at least being skeptical. Whether you take the classical form or the transcendental form of these arguments, it still seems unlikely to me that the existence of the natural world, or of morality, or of our apparent ability to know truth, can be satisfactorily explained without an appeal to the supernatural. And if there is indeed a supernatural first cause for these things, it seems to me that it would be reasonable to call that cause “God,” and worthwhile to try to find Him. After all, if He created us and our ability to reason and to discern truth from error, it seems reasonable to at least hope that He may have done that for a purpose, and a purpose that may well have involved Him revealing Himself to those who honestly searched for Him.

So my suggested tentative presuppositions are not the truth of Christianity as a whole, but rather the more modest ideas that there is in fact a God and that He is indeed worth seeking. It is not a matter of picking an arbitrary starting point and presupposing it to be the winning ticket in spite of the incredible odds against it, but rather a matter of recognizing the reasonableness of seeking out the winning ticket starting from a much more rational (even if not absolutely certain) set of presuppositions. As it turns out, the Bible seems to agree with the reasonableness of starting from these very two presuppositions. “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:4). “The God who made the world and all things in it . . . gives to all people life and breath and all things . . . having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:24-27). Thus, the Bible seems to me like it could well be a significant clue in this search. If God does in fact reveal Himself through the Bible, perhaps we will recognize that if we are actually willing to look into it.

Is the evidence for this suggestion that God reveals Himself through the Bible compelling? Not so compelling as to make Him obvious enough that every intelligent person will automatically believe in Him, that’s pretty self-evident. Not so compelling as to constitute what I would consider an absolute, objective, mathematical proof that eliminates the need for sincere seeking. But compelling enough, I suggest, to merit a more careful consideration, to see if perhaps the evidence will at least point in that direction. Compelling enough to see if perhaps God might speak through this Bible to the genuine seeker who is not afraid to look critically and honestly at the evidence, in such a way that this seeker will be convinced of His voice, should God will this to happen. This is my approach, and this is the approach I would respectfully suggest to anyone else who might be interested.


[1]   Approaches that are firmly based on any one particular interpretation of the creation account in Genesis being an especially egregious example.
[2]   By metaphysical naturalism (sometimes called ontological naturalism) I mean the philosophical belief that nature (i.e., that which has its existence in the material universe) is all there is. I am not arguing against methodological naturalism, which is the belief that natural science ought to concern itself only with questions of nature rather than with anything of a supernatural character.
[3]   Cornelius Van Til, who is generally considered the father of presuppositional apologetics, wrote, “a truly Protestant apologetic must therefore make its beginning from the presupposition that the Triune God . . . speaks to him with absolute authority in Scripture.” (The Defense of the Faith, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1967, quoted by Phil Fernandez in his doctoral dissertation available online at Gordon Clark, whose brand of presuppositionalism was somewhat different from Van Til’s, nevertheless agreed with him on this point and went so far as to make it explicit that what he meant by Christianity in his presuppositional approach was the interpretation spelled out in the articles of the Westminster Confession. (Religion, Reason, and Revelation, The Trinity Foundation, 1961, pp. 23-24.)
[4]   There is another aspect in which many presuppositionalists take their argument much too far. This is in their claim that their apologetic does not simply show the presupposition of Christianity to be reasonable, but that it rather proves their presupposition to be absolutely, infallibly true. The fact that this so-called logical proof rests on circular argument is obvious to all and frankly admitted even by many presuppositionalists themselves, yet they continue to insist that their circular argument—and theirs alone—still results in absolute, metaphysical certainty (of the same fundamental degree as afforded by the laws of logic and mathematics, for example).
[5]   See for more information.
[6]   Philosopher Bertrand Russell cited the possibility of an orbiting china teapot to make the same point.

This page copyright © 2009 Edward A. Morris.  Created June 19, 2009.  Last updated July 10, 2009.

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