Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Münchhausen trilemma entails Secularism

Not too long ago I had a nice discussion with Jonathan Pearce that lead to his posting about the Münchhausen trilemma.

This is an interesting thing I picked up on while debating with a (surprisingly nice) Presuppositional Apologist. 

The interesting thing that came about was that once both theists and atheists come to accept the Münchhausen trilemma as the major issue in epistemology that it is, I think that secularism in terms of governance follows as a result.  This post is to explain why I think that to be the case.

It should be said that if you haven't read up on the Münchhausen trilemma, follow the links above to check it out before continuing with this article.

Before I get into that, I want to point out that one doesn't have to be a presuppositional apologist to appeal to the Münchhausen trilemma.  Any theist that endorses Alvin Plantinga's model of reformed epistemology and "Warranted Christian Belief" you're going to touch on Münchhausen trilemma where we start arguing about which set of axioms can count as properly basic or truly axiomatic.  Generally this too ends in a stalemate.*

The interesting thing is that once the theist accepts the rationality of theistic or Christian belief by this method, they likely are going to assume that atheistic non-belief is similarly rational.  This is one of the reasons I consider Randal Rauser to be a cut above his peers as an apologist since he applies this epistemology consistently and doesn't try to call atheism irrational or self defeating.

So where does secularism come into play in all this?

I think once someone has accepted that both theism and atheism are equally rational positions, I think they've necessarily boxed themselves into a position that a secular form of governance is preferred.

The reason being is that for such a person they've called the debate a draw in terms of pure rationality.  This doesn't entail that they think arguments can't be used to try and persuade people, but they acknowledge that there are arguments and potential defeaters on both sides that render logical argument almost moot in terms of settling the debate. 

That is to say that there is no decisive victory - it all ends up coming down to what an individual finds plausible in terms of those arguments.

Given that and the fact that we'd rather build an equitable form of government for people on both sides of the issue rather than start a civil war - it entails that neither arguments that pre-suppose theism or naturalism can really be used.  This largely puts the theist at a disadvantage, since they're the ones making the primary claim.  As a result of this neutrality in terms of what can be settled rationally theistic based premises can't really be used to argue for specific policies.  Theists have to make their arguments from a neutral perspective.

Conversely the atheists must also assent to protect the theists right to worship so long as it did not entail impinging on the rights of others.

I think this is why we find many theists and apologists are unwilling to concede that atheism is rational.

*Note - I should say that in some cases such a theist may accept the Münchhausen trilemma but still say that atheism is irrational because of specific arguments they think make atheism internally contradictory.  This is a position similar to what Alvin Plantinga holds with his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  Suffice it to say such a position is very controversial given that there are many responses to that argument. 


  1. Being a (Germanic) Frenchman, I am certainly completely for secularism IF it is understood as NEUTRALITY of the state with respect to any worldview.

    I believe that several atheistic philosophies can provide a foundation for an objective morality.

    "This is one of the reasons I consider Randal Rauser to be a cut above his peers as an apologist since he applies this epistemology consistently and doesn't try to call atheism irrational or self defeating."

    I think the main explanation for his superiority is his rejection of the inerrancy of the Biblical authors. This is clearly a great step forward for an Evangelical.

    If it is understood as the denial of the existence of God, I certainly don't believe that atheism is self-refuting.

    Nevertheless, it hard for me NOT to believe that materialism is utimately incoherent:

    I would love to interact with you on this topic.

    Cheers from Europe.

    1. Sorry, it was not the link I first meant.

      The last one is a critique of materialist morality.

      This one is about the coherency of this worldview:

    2. Hi Lothar,

      I'm not sure there's too much to discuss there. It seems when you're talking about the "fact of materialism" you're talking about a description of reality. It's a metaphysical view that is about something, it's a thought. This seems to be something you mention at the end of your post there.

      This only seems to be a problem if you want to assert that any "fact" needs to have a corresponding ontological grounding. What makes materialism true, or what would make it true if it were, is if the only things which exist are that which are made of material. I'm not sure this could really ever be proven thought that's my working assumption.

      To me it seems almost equivalent to naturalism, which again I think is best thought of in terms of being a provisional conclusion based on observation rather than an a priori metaphysical truth.

      In fact thinking along these lines the "truth of materialism" would best be thought of about the non-existence of non-material objects. In that sense materialism would be true in the same sense that we can say "there is no unicorn" or "there is no leprechaun".

  2. There are several distinct concepts at play here: theism, religion, atheism, secularism, and naturalism. And in places a failure to keep them distinct presents a problem.

    "Theism" carries no connotation at all about political organization. Nor, for that matter, does atheism. So I think it is wrong-headed at the outset to pose a question about political organization by opposing theism and atheism.

    Nor does a religion like Christianity take a position on the organization of the state though, of course many Christians do. As a Baptist I am a proponent of secular forms of governance, i.e. political expressions that are not tied to any particular religious organization or belief system.

    However, the central argument you present, as I understand it, is that atheism (or naturalism? or secularism?) is neutral and thus should be the default position. That depends what you mean exactly. Atheism is the belief that the ultimate nature of reality is non-personal or a non-agent. That's a robust claim in need of defense. Naturalism, on common understanding, is a claim about the nature of reality (e.g. that everything that exists is "natural"; that only the physical universe exists) or about the nature of knowledge (e.g. the only kind of objective knowledge is scientific) and those are also robust claims in need of defense. "Secularism" is also often not neutral in its myriad concrete expressions. For example, right now the government of Quebec is proposing to ban from all provincial governmental employees the display of any religious iconography. But other iconography (e.g. sports symbols, political symbols) is fine. Is that neutral? Why would a person think so?

    1. Randal,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I am interested in your take here since it seems you picked up on a few things I didn’t really intend to convey (and thought I didn’t say). That doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means I probably should be more careful in my writing. 
      Anyway, I’m not trying to allege that “atheism is neutral”. I would agree with the position that “atheism is the default” but that’s not what I’m arguing here, and is a discussion all of its own.

      I’m also not trying to allege that atheism or theism entails a specific form of governance. This was more along the lines of assuming that we were working in a Republic/Democracy style system that is common in western nations like the US and Canada. I should have been more explicit here. I’m more talking about how one argues for various government policies, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

      I do agree that views like atheism and naturalism require defenses, and I think that there are a number of robust defenses out there. There are also defenses for theism. We can of course disagree over whose critiques and defenses succeed, but that’s rather the whole point of this.

      When a philosopher/apologist/theologian (much like yourself) embraces the idea that belief in god is properly basic ala Reformed Epistemology, you’re arguing that belief in god should be granted as an axiom for your epistemology.

      My argument is that once we’ve moved the god question over to whether it is a valid axiom, and a person agrees that either theism (or even Christian theism) and atheism are rational positions that “secularism” follows as a basis for governance.

      In this case the neutral position would be agnosticism, admitting that it appears that logic can’t be wielded as a cudgel to defeat either world view.

      Now by “secularism” I mean the following:

      1.) The government should not endorse/promote any specific religion and it also should not endorse atheism.

      2.) Similarly the government should not infringe on the right of any individual to practice or refrain from practicing any religion, so long as the practice of religion doesn’t impinge upon the rights of another individual.

      3.) When arguing for policy arguments based on religion should not be accepted as valid. For instance, we shouldn’t outlaw the eating of pork or consumption of alcohol because Islam says that’s against god’s law. Arguments against same sex marriage or abortion would similarly have to be made on grounds that don’t suppose the existence of a specific or even generic god.

      That last point was the stickler. I wasn’t trying to imply that theism or Christianity entails a form of governance, but I was trying to get to the point that the argument that say same sex marriage shouldn’t be permitted because the bible says it’s wrong. This isn’t to say people can’t argue against same sex marriage or abortion, but they can’t use explicitly religious arguments to do so.

      This sword cuts both ways. Atheists couldn’t argue that all churches should be taxed because god clearly doesn’t exist. Or that religious practice shouldn’t be accommodated in the military because it’s absurd, etc.

      That’s really what I’m trying to get at when it comes to “secularism”. I do think there are cases where secularism can go too far. I don’t want to say too much since I don’t know the specifics in that case you mention with wearing religious symbols by gov’t workers would be prohibited, but it does sound like a case of misapplication of secularist principles.

  3. Democracy system exist only in Europe and Amrica.

  4. Check out this article which examines the relationship between belief in free will and honesty: