Ask a Philosopher: I often get questions in emails about my blog or books. In this case it was in person at a research presentation. I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.” Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?
I am returning from giving some talks at Colorado Christian University. I have posted links to my talks under the video tab. These include this one where I discussed several issues surrounding the nature of religion and the purpose of the First Amendment.
One question that came up after the video was about how presuppositional thinking works. The question was: “don’t people agree on less basic things all the time without first agreeing on more basic things?” For instance, theists might agree that God exists while disagreeing between themselves about more basic things.
This is a helpful question to clarify how ambiguity works. To think presuppositionally is to begin with what is basic and go from there. Or, we can work backwards from a disagreement to where the disagreement begins at a more basic level. This method does not say that we won’t profess agreement at less basic levels.
However, what happens in such cases is that we quickly find that there is a kind of ambiguity. This is not ordinary ambiguity but philosophical ambiguity. An example is that we might agree that I am looking at a computer while having many more basic disagreements. And yet once we look at what it means for “I” to be looking at a computer we will find that we disagree even about this. We have different understandings of human nature (are humans just bodies, do humans have a soul, what is a soul, are humans just ideas in the mind of another, etc) and what it means to look (do we see material objects, representations of material objects, ideas only, etc). So even what appears to be an ordinary agreement soon evaporates.
This is all the more true for contentious but less basic issues like abortion or justice compared to an ordinary and uninteresting example of looking at a computer. So this question ends up highlighting precisely how important it is to think presuppositionally. It involves understanding the meaning of what is being said and how beliefs have presuppositions about what is real and how we know. Can we make progress on agreement about basic things?