Thursday, June 29, 2006

Carr vs. Cole

I really enjoyed listening to the exchange between Canon Michael Cole and Steven Carr concerning the resurrection of Jesus on Premier Christian Radio out of London. Cole is a Christian who sought to defend the Christian view that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened as described in the gospel stories. Carr is an atheist who raised numerous points against the Christian view of the New Testament record and ably countered Cole’s arguments and claims to evidence. Both gentlemen maintained a quick-paced and polite exchange, never allowing the discussion to degenerate to personal invective. And the host of the show, Justin Brierley, refrained from heckling and badgering the non-Christian "protagonist," allowing Carr sufficient time to make his points.

Cole dragged out the same tired defenses that Christians can be expected to bring up, assuming that the New Testament documents are not only historically reliable but also uniform in what they affirm. As is typical with many Christian defenses, his claims to evidence took for granted key suppositions which can be reasonably dismissed on a more critical approach than believers tend to apply to their own views.

Carr held his own confidently and eloquently, making excellent counterpoints in response to the tired Christian position. One of Carr’s main points was that the resurrection of Jesus as described by Paul in his letters is fundamentally different from the resurrection described in the gospel stories. The gospel stories describe Jesus being resurrected in a physical body, while Paul clearly indicates that it was a spiritual body, even scolding the Corinthians, for instance, for asking how a physical body can rise from the dead. The one kind of body does not turn into another kind of body.

Carr points out that Paul never explained to the Corinthians or other budding churches that Jesus’ risen body could be touched and examined, as we find in the gospels (cf. John 20-21). He stated (00:23:10*):

Whenever Paul talks about the resurrection, he never stresses that the flesh rose. All the early creeds, such as in Romans 1, or 1 Corinthians 15 or Philippians 3, never have a bodily Jesus walking the earth. Jesus ascended, he went to heaven, and after that he appeared in visions and trances toward these people.

Indeed, Paul's show no awareness of most traditions found in the gospels, and Cole nowhere shows that Paul either had knowledge of the gospel stories or that he believed that Jesus was resurrected in a physical body. On the contrary, Cole seemed to think it wasn’t an issue whether the resurrection body was physical or spiritual. Rather, he simply stressed that Paul affirmed the resurrection and that this alone is all that is really important, but nowhere really dealt with Carr’s points.

In response to one caller, who asked inquired on what Carr himself believes, Carr responded (00:28:18):

Well, I don’t believe what Paul writes, but Paul’s letters are primary evidence, the sort historians really value. If for example two thousand years from now historians discover a letter by a Moonie, saying that he believed that Reverend Moon was the messiah, that would be really good proof of what Moonies believed. And Paul’s letters are really good proof of what the early Christians really believed.

At one point Cole admitted that the gospel accounts may not be completely harmonious on every minute detail, acknowledging differences such as whether the angel was inside or outside the tomb. However, he clearly thinks such discrepancies are trivial against a far more significant point, namely that they all agree that Jesus' tomb was empty and Jesus was seen walking and talking after he died by crucifixion. But Carr rightly pointed out that even this is misleading. Mark, agreed by most scholars to be the earliest of the gospels, originally ended at 16:8. While it mentions the sepulchre, its post-resurrection scenes are confined to an appendix which was tacked on later, in verses 9-20. As Robert Grant plainly puts it:

The ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:9-20) is no part of what its author originally wrote. (a) Justin alluded to it and Irenaeus quoted from it; it is included in some important uncial manuscripts, mostly ‘Western’. (b) On the other hand, it is absent from the writings of Clement, Origen and Eusebius, and is omitted in Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, as well as in the older Latin and Syriac versions; the Freer manuscript contains a different ending entirely. (c) Therefore, though it was undoubtedly added at an early date, it is not authentic.

This means that the original version had no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. In fact, as Grant mentions, Mark has had several endings that were appended to its original ending at 16:8. But its problems do not stop there. Grant points out that the "textual problems of the Gospel of Mark occur primarily at the beginning and at the end," but also acknowledges that "throughout the gospel scribes have made additions in order to bring the book into closer conformity with Matthew and Luke."

Carr himself brought out some very important points about the gospel of Mark. When host Brierley asked (00:54:30):

When it comes to the gospel accounts, how happy are you to believe that they are authentic and that they are an eyewitness account of what happened?

Carr responded (00:54:36):

Well Paul never uses them, so he couldn’t have thought much of them. The earliest gospel is the gospel of Mark, and that bears no marks of being a work of history. It never names any sources, it never gives any chronology, it never says who it is – it’s anonymous, we don’t know who wrote it, we don’t know when it was written, we don’t know why it was written, we don’t even know if it was intended to [be] history. And it doesn’t have a resurrection appearance – it ends at Mark 16:8 where Jesus is not seen; all that happens is that some women are told that Jesus is risen, and they don’t tell anybody. Anonymous works are just rejected by historians out of hand. No historian would then accept that.

Note these fundamental strikes against the presumed authority of Mark. This gospel:

- does not name any sources that have been used to inform it (tradition affirms that the source was the disciple Peter, but does it say this?)
- it ascribes no dates to any of the events it describes
- the author nowhere identifies himself
- the author nowhere indicates when he wrote it
- the author does not tell readers that he intended to write a history to begin with

The whole account appears to be largely a midrashic concoction.

At one point, while defending the literalist Christian view, Cole stated (1:05:25):

Now the evidence that he is God does not depend entirely on the resurrection. Many other things as well. I think I also want to bring in personal experience. I said earlier on that I’ve been a Christian from the age of twelve. And I’m just aware of God being there in the person of Christ in all sorts of different situations, speaking to me by his spirit through the word of God. There was one particular experience when I was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me in the church I was serving, asking whether we would make him Lord of that church... I wouldn’t say anything about that for 24 hours, it was too personal, too close.

In responses to this, Carr pointed out (1:06:55):

Canon Michael again says he had an experience of the risen Christ. Now that wasn’t a bodily experience. So Conan Michael is disproving the bodily resurrection with his very own experiences.

Carr's point here is extremely significant. Many believers today claim to have experienced the "real Jesus," allegedly sensing Jesus standing right beside them even though we would not see this Jesus figure with them if we were to look at them. Cole himself claims to have had this kind of experience where he "was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me." Of course, Cole is not claiming that Jesus was beside him in a physical body, bloody wounds and all, that anyone could see and come up to touch, as the gospel of John has Doubting Thomas do. The point here is that the believer does not need Jesus to be in a physical body in order to claim to have a personal encounter with him. This certainly casts 1 Cor. 15:3-11 in a new light.

I, too, have seen Christians make the very same kind of claim, and I've even met adherents of other religions who make similar claims about the deities and heroes of their religions. Is this an instance of hallucination per se? I don't think it is, and I'm certainly willing to suppose that such experiences are not hallucinatory in the clinical sense. But they do seem to be religiously induced, akin to a waking fantasy which the adherent may willfully indulge while seeming increasingly real to him. As Cole puts it, "it was too personal, too close." Reviewing the experience over and over in his mind, the adherent may in fact try to relive the experience, to capture any detail that may have been missed the first time around, amplifying the overall significance of the experience in his mind. At some point, he no doubt wants to believe that it was a genuine, authentic experience of a spiritual being as his memory of it grows in its seeming metaphysical proportions.

I have known many Christians who have made claims of this nature before a group of like-minded adherents. Some of the more enthusiastic believers will often ask others if they also felt the presence of Jesus. This was a routine occurrence in the church I attended in the early 1990's. The praise worship would be congenially interrupted as one of the sisters broke out into a wailing cry, her eyes shut but turning her face upwards, with tears running down her cheeks (she apparently had a very bad day at work). One by one other members of the church would join the swooning, which typically had a most pitiful, even whiny sound to it, as if their lives were unbearably miserable. Then the sister who started it all would begin to speak aloud, addressing everyone but no one in particular. She would begin by saying how good her god has been to her, and then enumerate a long list of miseries she's had to endure over the past week. She clearly needed the church environment in order to "recharge," otherwise she might not get through another week of torture living her life. Soon almost everyone in the church would be reacting to "the Spirit" which had "gathered in our midst," as they would say, supposing that Jesus was really in the building with us, referencing passages like Mt. 18:20 to validate the experience. At the height of the commotion the pastor, who was treated as if he were an infallible puppet of the supreme being, would ask the church with a big encouraging smile, "Now who doesn't feel the presence of Jeeezusss here today?" No one was going to spoil the mood of the moment to jump up and say "I don't!" The power of suggestion is indeed very strong in a social setting of surveillance, which can easily pressure one to conform. To admit that one did not have the same experience would be tantamount to numbering oneself among God's damned. If one honestly did not experience what the sister claimed to be experiencing, he held his lip tight, and just nodded along approvingly, perhaps trying to find a way to convince himself that he was experiencing the same thing, but only in a different manner, one not so readily understood but still just as real.

So the whole church seemed to be in agreement, "on one accord" with one another as the spirit of Jesus invaded and conquered the restlessness of human spirits weary from a long work week in the evil wicked world. The pastor would thus interpret this collective experience as uniform confirmation of the confession, and in his mind he would be right to explain to others that all 50 or 100 of us had actually experienced Jesus. There was of course no risen Jesus standing there in a physical body. A physical Jesus was in no way needed for the church congregants to "feel" his presence. For these people Jesus is a mood, not a person. If it is this way for today's believers, why think it was any different for the earliest Christians, who never placed their Jesus in a historical setting?

At 1:13:00 Cole goes on to describe belief in his god as a choice. The context of what he says suggests that one can simply choose to believe, as if something will be true if one can simply choose it to be true. Statements like this reveal the inherent subjectivism of such beliefs, implying that truth is something that will conform to our wishes. Christians have often said similar things to me.

Take for example the following statements which have been made to me over the years by Christians (these are verbatim quotes):

God has given you a choice, choose wisely, dont waste your life serving your selfish wants

As God He has no obligation to propve to you! You may accept or reject...your choice [sic]

Eternal life, in heaven, or eternal death, in hell. What do you choose?

You can choose to deny Jesus all you want.

You should put your full trust in the LORD and allow HIm to guide you and accprt the path HE has choosen for you. [sic]

YOU choose not to believe it!

Heaven really is the last reason I choose to be a Christian.

We can choose to believe what we want and who we want.

Etc.

Christians seem to find it reassuring to characterize a non-believer's non-belief as something they have deliberately chosen in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as if non-believers were inherently opposed to truth as such (and yet, we're told that we were created by an infallible and perfect creator). I cannot choose to believe something that I already think is untrue or know to be false. In this way, knowledge supercedes belief. If my coworker tells me he saw our boss levitating 10 feet off the ground and walking through walls, my knowledge of the world would prevent me from simply believing this. The formula that Christians give for induction into their belief club is a formula for dishonesty, for it encourages one to affirm beliefs on the basis of irrational criteria (e.g., belief makes one feel secure, fear of consequences of not believing, anxiety over questioning childhood beliefs, etc.) and contrary to one's better knowledge.

* Transcriptions are mine, so any mistakes are also mine. The time markings refer to the point at which the transcribed statement begins on the recording.

by Dawson Bethrick

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Response to Paul

A fellow named Paul recently paid a visit to my blog and kindly posted some comments and questions for me to consider. Paul opened his series of questions with the following statement:

This is a general comment regarding the many posts on this site. Thanks for the opportunity to revisit some good cartoon memories. I have read some of what you have written and I am immediately impressed by the logical coherence of your arguments. So I hope that you will understand that my comments should not be viewed in any way as an attack on your intelligence. But I would like to suggest a few things for your consideration.

I want to briefly remark on Paul’s welcome approach here. Where other Christians have berated and ridiculed me for my non-belief, deliberately insulting my intelligence (one even referred to me as “a retarded adult”), Paul instead resists the condescending tone which characterizes many Christians who have sought to engage me, even giving me some credit for the work I have put into my postings. This is a significant and refreshing cut above what I find on many Christian apologetic sites, even where we would expect to find at least some self-monitoring and decorum (such as on Gene Cook’s online radio programming).

Paul himself has started his own blog, called Unveiled Faces, and his very first posting suggests that the approach which he modeled in his comment to me is characteristic of what we can expect from him in the future. For he writes:

I would like to engage in polite and peacful discussions about God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ.

I look forward to reading the kind of discussions he describes, and would encourage other Christians to follow suit.

Now on to Paul’s list of questions for me.

Paul wrote:

1) Since you prefer the rationalistic approach, what would be your view of evidential apololgetics?

In contrast to presuppositional apologetics, which require the person to believe certain standard absolutes about God and the universe before ever being able to come to know God, evidential apologetic are first and foremost, evidence based. That would certainly be more in keeping with your rationalistic approach. Some of your comments or posts would indicate that your conclusion is that evidence does not support the existence of a God who is the sovereign creator of all things, but I think that it is important for you to never completely rule out the possibility that the God of the Bible exists. In other words, based upon your present view of the evidence as you have come to see it, Jehovah is not real and the Bible is not authoritative. That has now become for you, your presupposition. If presuppositionalism as a mode of rational thought is incorrect, be careful that you do not come to the same place by your own rational thought. You may later gain more pieces to the puzzle. You might want to leave room for the possiblity of changing your mind. What if your presupposition . . . that rational human thought is the highest standard of truth . . . ends up being faulty?

Since the preponderance of my blog postings have to do with presuppositionalism, I’d say this is a fair question, and I hope Paul finds my response to be equally fair. Generally speaking, my view of evidential apologetics is that it has already been sufficiently answered. Evidentialism, as a developed form of apologetics, has been around for a very long time, longer than presuppositional apologetics (though some presuppositionalists might disagree with this). Also, evidential apologetics has enjoyed far more popularity over the past decades and centuries than anything approaching that which presuppositionalism has enjoyed during the same period. Consequently, there have already been so many thinkers who have interacted with and critiqued evidential arguments over that period, that it seems to have already been well covered. In fact, before turning my attention to presuppositionalism, I examined arguments stemming from the evidential camp for a long time, and I came to the same general conclusions about them as other non-believing thinkers: that such arguments fail to prove what they were intended to prove. At some point, a doctor needs to pronounce the expired patient dead, and move on.

Another point is that presuppositionalism is now in vogue in many apologetic circles. Although the history of apologetics has been dominated by more or less evidentialist type argumentation (e.g., attempts to infer the existence of a supernatural being from evidences found in nature), presuppositionalism has grown in popularity in recent years, and is thus becoming more and more common and relevant in the arena of Christian apologetics. In tandem with this is the fact that there are not many sources offering good analysis of and well considered responses to presuppositionalist positions (though this is certainly changing). And while I realize that most philosophers would probably dismiss presuppositionalism as rather unserious, this may possibly change if good answers to presuppositionalism cannot be found while more and more youngsters fall under its captivating spell. In other words, I expect we’ll see more presuppositionalists in the future, so I’m assembling a source to provide well-needed counterbalance.

Now I have noticed the tendency among presuppositionalists to retreat to more or less evidentialist postures, once their presuppositionalist positions have been effectively demolished. The "true believer" presuppositionalists see this kind of move as an abandonment of the only biblically warranted approach to apologetics, while others argue that evidential-type arguments are inevitably needed to support presuppositionalist points. It is interesting to observe the disputes among Christian apologists on which is the best or proper or divinely sanctioned method of apologetics. For brining out this aspect alone, I find Cowan and Gundry’s Five Views on Apologetics quite informative and most enjoyable.

It is true that evidential apologists claim to have actual evidence which supports the claim that their god exists, and they do seem to disagree with presuppositionalists by assuming or implicitly granting, contrary to presuppositionalism, that non-believers are able to examine this evidence independently of subliminal pre-commitments to anti-theistic attitudes which "distort" or "corrupt" their reasoning process. Presuppositionalists have objected to this stance by stating that Christian god-belief requires a complete rototilling of one’s most fundamental worldview conceptions, whereas the evidential method, at least according to presuppositionalists, implies that Christian god-belief can fit comfortably atop the non-believer’s basic worldview assumptions without necessarily requiring them to be uprooted and discarded. Many presuppositionalists accuse evidentialist apologists of the same "myth of neutrality" that non-believers are said to be guilty of. Of course, I realize that many apologists would consider this whole controversy to be far more nuanced than my rough description might at first blush seem to allow, but I’m not intending to write an introduction to an anthology here. However, I do have my own theory as to why controversies like this persist among apologists.

Paul mentions that portions of my writing “would indicate that [my] conclusion is that evidence does not support the existence of a God who is the sovereign creator of all things.” The key word here is conclusion - and I appreciate Paul’s resistance of the common presuppositionalist tactic of characterizing every position a non-believer has as a “presupposition” – that is, as a position held without the benefit of prior rational support. I did not “just decide” one day that there’s no evidence for the existence of a god as if the facts of reality simply rearranged themselves according to my druthers. After all, one of my most fundamental recognitions is the fact that truth does not conform to one’s wishing, so I would be inconsistent with my own foundations to suppose that I could simply decide that there’s no evidence for something, as if I could dictate reality according to my preferences. Rather, I do take a rational approach to the matter, carefully considering what has been claimed and what has been presented as evidence in support of what has been claimed, and examining how well the two measure up.

But consider: What can we look at in nature and conclude just from looking at it that, “Aha! A supernatural being exists!”? Anything that can be presented as “evidence” for the existence of a supernatural being, typically itself turns out to be something that is itself natural. I already see this as a major stumbling block for the evidentialist’s task. We are told that a supernatural being exists, but the evidence provided to support this claim is itself natural. I can see how the natural serves as evidence of something else that is natural, but I fail to see how something that is natural can serve as evidence of something that is “supernatural.” In my blog Is Human Experience Evidence of the Christian God? I ask the question:

How does that which is natural, material, finite and corruptible serve as evidence of that which is supernatural, immaterial, infinite and incorruptible? In other words, how does A serve as evidence of non-A?

Perhaps at this point a good understanding of what 'supernatural' is supposed to mean is needed. Since my worldview does not affirm anything it calls "supernatural," it is not up to me to supply the meaning of this term. But I certainly reserve the right to question any definitions put forth for it, and to determine how suitable they are for purposes of isolating the essentials that things which are said to be supernatural share in common. Further questions, such as those relating to epistemic methodology, are waiting to be answered as well, such as: How can one discover something that is said to be supernatural? In what form can one have awareness of that which is said to be supernatural? How can one verify that something claimed to be supernatural is in fact supernatural? How can I distinguish what the Christian is calling 'supernatural' from something he may merely be imagining? Etc.

Christians have told me that when they look at the stars, watch a sunset, or marvel at the beauty of a forest or painted desert, they see evidence of the existence of their god. Muslims have claimed the same evidence on behalf of their Allah, which is also supposed to be supernatural. When I visited the Lahu tribe in northern Thailand, they pointed to nature as evidence of their Geusha. But in each case, the things these people point to are finite, physical things. So how do they serve as evidence of something that is said to be infinite and non-physical? They tell me that the complexity of living organisms is evidence for the existence of a supernatural creator. But living organisms are natural, physical, finite and corruptible, while they’re god is said to be supernatural, non-physical, infinite and incorruptible. So how do living organisms serve as evidence of something they are not? They tell me that I cannot explain the existence of life on the basis of my non-theistic worldview, and then proceed to point to their allegedly living god as the explanation. But if living things need an explanation outside of life that distinguishes them from other things, how does pointing to something that is itself said to be living serve to explain life? In pointing to their god as an explanation for life, these apologists simply move the need for an explanation back one step rather than giving anything that can be accepted as a serious explanation. And even then, it can only be accepted on someone's say so. The same is the case with the demand for an explanation for rationality: if rationality needs an explanation by appealing to something beyond man’s nature, and that explanation is said to be found in a rational god, what explains the rationality that has been attributed to this god? Their god, they tell me, is impervious to any requirement for explanation. This tells me that they have run out of explanations once they get to their god, and so bring the intellectual process to a dead stop once they arrive at their god.

At any rate, I don’t think any apologetic argument for the existence of a god, whether evidential, presuppositional, etc., will be successful. That is because I am entirely convinced that god-belief is false to begin with. Likewise, I would say that any attempt to prove the claim that squares are are both square and circular is doomed to failure, because I am entirely convinced that squares are not circular, and that circles are not square. Some may want to say I am closed-minded, bigoted, or simply foolish for making such statements. They are free to hold these opinions, just as I am free to hold to my verdicts. But I do welcome further inquiries.

Paul’s second point was the following comment:

2) Your communicative skills may be superior to most, but that does not mean that your conclusions are.

I was often frustrated as a student by one particular English teacher. I learned much from her, because she was very intelligent and highly skilled in the English language, but the frustration came from not being able to "out-debate" her. Even when I knew that she was wrong and I was right, she could still "win" the argument. Even when SHE knew that she was wrong (and would smile at me with a knowing look on her face), she could still "win" the argument. I could say more, but it would sound like I am trying to flatter you by praising your intelligence. Just remember that it is possible to be an impeccible debater, and still be wrong.

While noting the caveat that Paul embedded in this comment, I do appreciate its complimentary sentiment. And I also appreciate his point: just because I may be skilled at communicating my thoughts, this alone does not mean that my thoughts are flawless or that my conclusions are entirely sound. Of course, I recognize this, so I do try my best to be careful. At the same time, I am not afraid per se of making mistakes, for I find that I have learned some of my most valuable lessons as a result of making mistakes. This in itself is a lesson I have learned as a musician. If I were to allow the fear of making mistakes control me, I would never have sat down at the piano a second time. I was born ignorant and unskilled, and will always be ignorant of and unskilled at many things. I am fallible and I will always be capable of erring. I made peace with these facts long ago. My worldview is not one which will condemn an individual for having ‘spots and wrinkles’, as it were. To me, it is more important to be honest than to avoid making mistakes, as one can make mistakes and still be honest, and go on to enjoy the benefit of learning from those mistakes to boot. Someone who never makes mistakes may never learn more than he already knows.

I can also sympathize with Paul’s anecdote here. When I was in my teens, I was thoughtful, but I had to admit that I was not a very skilled thinker in spite of my scholastic achievements, which were admired by my peers. Having older siblings and a mother who were sharp as whips, often made me feel as though I had a lot of catching up to do if I wanted to spar on their level. After all, even my sisters were significantly older than me, and were well ahead of me by the time I came along. I remember being frustrated by simple one-liners that I often fielded when I tried to make an intelligent point.

Unfortunately, at that time in my life I tended to do what so many people do, namely presume the superiority of other minds. Along with a few other key defects in my psychological make-up, it was this bad habit that I developed and did not adequately check that made me vulnerable to religious suggestion in my early 20s. The presumption that other minds are superior in some respect, effectively disarmed my own mind, at least in certain social contexts, and eventually led to my being seduced into religious belief. Without really realizing it, I tacitly assumed out of habit rather than for any good reason, that at least some other minds were superior to my own, and this put me in a position to take what they claimed "on faith." Christianity quickly turned me into the psychological yes-man that it requires of men.

I have never thought of myself as an “impeccable debater,” even though I suppose I’ve grown in this area over the years. Rather, I think of myself just as I state in my blogger profile: I am a Man, and I think with my own mind. If others think I have erred, I welcome their efforts to show where I’ve gone wrong. But that’s just it: Where exactly has my reasoning gone wrong?

Paul then asked a series of questions in his third point:

3) If your own intelligent words and thoughts are carefully crafted, does not reason lead us to conclude that the source of your intelligence (your mind/your brain) is carfully crafted as well?

At this point, I doubt that the suggestion of an "intelligent designer" comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, it amazes me to think that such an intelligent person as yourself would not acknowledge your creator. Wouldn't it be a shame to come to the end of life and find out that you were wrong? Can you just imagine . . . imagine God saying to you that you had much less excuse than the majority of people since he had given you a superior intelligence to see all the intricacies of his creation? Can you imagine standing in his presence, and suddenly realizing that you had used the mind that he had given you . . . to marginalize his sovereignty or to reject the fact that he existed? I know you can come up with a rational response to this line of questioning, but nevertheless, what if?

Consider the implications if we vary the condition on which this question rests: If a person’s words and thoughts are carelessly crafted, does not reason lead us to conclude that the source of that person’s intelligence (his mind and/or brain) are carelessly crafted as well? That is to say, the cogency of the desired outcome here depends greatly on the skill level of the one taken as a sample. If carefully crafted thoughts imply a carefully crafted mind/brain which thinks them, do not carelessly crafted thoughts then imply a carelessly crafted mind/brain which thinks them?

However, my primary response to such questions would be to point out the following. I was not born with the ability to put carefully crafted arguments together. Indeed, many of my detractors today claim that my arguments are very poorly crafted, while yet others say I never present any arguments to begin with. (Mind you, the latter seem to be of the type who think the statement “without God, you can’t prove anything” constitutes an argument.) One’s skill in any ability is something he develops over time. We aren’t born with these skills, as we would expect if our minds and bodies were well designed finished products. At this point, defenders of the design argument need to shift their premise enough to allow for this, saying that we would have needed to be designed just to have the capacity to develop any abilities in the first place. But if I were to suppose that my brain, because of its capacity for consciousness, required a conscious designer, I would likewise think that its designer itself required a designer, and so on, ad nauseum.

Am I not acknowledging my creator? Well, who is my creator if not myself? I am who I am and where I am as a result of my own choices and actions. I have always had the choice to think, or to evade thinking. There was a time in my life when I evaded, and that was when I was a Christian. Then I realized the importance of the choice to think. No one else chose for me (I’m not a character in someone’s cartoon, or a puppet dangling on a string). I chose for myself to develop my mind as I did, and I put in the work and effort to make my mind what it is now. You’ve heard the expression “self-made man.” There’s a reason why this expression came into use. As I mentioned, I was not born with the abilities I have now. I worked very hard to develop them. No one came along and just gave them to me. I could have just as easily chosen to sit back and watch reruns for all my life. I was the one who chose to develop my mental abilities and apply my mind to the task of living my life, to put in a good day’s work, to pursue those values which I have chosen, values which make my life possible and worth living. I had some good models along the way, I also had some bad ones as well. I sought, by my own choice, to emulate the best of the better models, and to refrain from taking on the bad habits of those models I judged to be inferior to what I want to achieve in myself. After all, it is in my Self that I live, move and have my being. I am an ever-increasing sum of accomplishments and failures, with more accomplishments and fewer failures as I go.

There’s no question that we can imagine a god doing one thing or saying something. But the point is that this is all one can do, since we do not find a god in reality. So all we’re left with is what we can imagine. And throughout the ages, men have imagined all kinds of gods. I can imagine all kinds of things. That does not make what I imagine true or even place what I imagine within the realm of possibility. I can imagine, just as easily as standing before the Christians’ god, also standing before the Muslims’ Allah, the Lahus’ Geusha, the deities of Mt. Olympus, the Vikings' Odin, etc.

The whole line that human beings find their source in the Christian god is quite incoherent. The source here is said to be perfect and infallible, omnipotent and incorruptible. But human beings are far from perfect and infallible. The source claimed for man does not at all cohere with any aspect of the state of man. Essentially, we have what I would call the problem of deficiency. If the product has any defects, how can it be claimed to have come from a perfect source? A creator that creates imperfection cannot be a perfect creator, because a perfect creator by definition would not create something that is imperfect. Its purposes would be perfect, which would disallow any intended imperfections. Its abilities would be perfect, which would disallow any unintended imperfections. Suppose someone told you that he was a perfect bread maker, but every piece of bread you sample from his ovens was either undercooked, charred to a crisp or so hard that you couldn’t take a bite out of it without cracking your tooth. When you tell him that he has yet to perfect his bread making technique, he scoffs and says “Well, I intended my bread to be like this!” Would this at all seem plausible?

In his final point Paul gave some words regarding the notion of faith:

4) Faith, by the nature of what it is, is much harder for the intelligent mind to submit itself to.

Faith requires leaning on someone or something else, instead of self. Quite frankly, you might not see any need to do so. A person with seemingly impeccable logic would have much more reason to feel self-sufficient. If you feel like you have something solid to lean upon, why would you look for anything firmer to give you support? Especially when, from your perspective, other things seem to be as reliable as a swaying reed. Except in this case, the kind of support needed is not physical, but a support for life. Upon what should the whole of life be rested? For you, it seems that it is human logic and reasoning. And there is no doubt that what you have chosen is far superior to the weak things that many choose to rest their lives upon. Some rest their lives on physical security or provision. Some rest their lives on social acceptance or being loved. Some rest their lives on social superiority (physical, intellectual, talent-related, position/rank). And then others rest their lives on that which supercedes this present life . . . the possibility that there is presently something that transcends what we call space and time. Ultimately, even though I could call upon an enormous body of evidence to demonstrate the reality of Jehovah and the reliability of the Bible . . . ultimately that requires faith . . . faith in someone beyond yourself. To lean on someone who is presently unseen. And for a person with reason enough to trust himself, because of his intellectual prowess, faith of that kind is very difficult.

After reading through this statement a few times, the one question that I continually come back to is: what exactly is this ‘leaning on someone’ supposed to accomplish? Is it supposed to accomplish something one should do for himself, but doesn’t want to? Is it supposed to accomplish something one needs, but cannot do for himself? Is it supposed to make one feel better about himself? Perhaps my question boils down to this: Do I need faith? And, if one answers “Yes, Dawson, you do need faith,” why does he think I need it? At this point, we’d need a really good understanding of what is meant by faith. Paul indicates what faith requires, distinguishing it from self-reliance. Paul concedes that I might not need to lean on someone or something other than myself. Perhaps we need a good understanding of what “lean on” means in this context. I “lean on” my wife, for instance, to help me in many tasks. But I would not call this an expression of faith in the sense of leaning on someone I cannot see. For I can certainly see my wife. But I do not expect her to do my thinking for me.

Paul asks “upon what should the whole of life be rested?” My answer would be: on that which can support a life as it should be lived. And of course, I hold that it is up to each individual to determine for himself how he should live his life. I live for my own sake, and intend to lead an independent, productive life, increasing my skill set and knowledge of the world according to my interests as I go. I intend to lead a happy and spiritually nourished life, as I have done so successfully since my departure from Christian mysticism. Reason is what makes all this possible. It is not just a tool that can be picked up and put back down when it no longer suits my needs. On the contrary, it is the only standard that can suit my needs, since my needs are life-based needs, needs dictated by my nature as a biological organism with the capacity for conceptual awareness. I can take reason wherever I go, I can use it wherever I am. It will suit my needs so long as they are rational.

by Dawson Bethrick

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Steve's Persisting Haysiness

I want to begin by thanking Steve and every other Christian out there who has attempted to challenge the cartoon universe analogy. The more they battle against it, the more apparent it is that they can't knock a dent in it. But few have given me the pleasure that Steve Hays has given me in his botchy attempts to undermine it. Here we have Christian apologetics in its most entertaining form.

I had written:

Nice try, but no cigar. Steve finds that he needs to caricaturize my position in order to wriggle out of the cartoonish implications of his professed worldview, and in so doing he not only misses the essence of the analogy (not only of the cartoon analogy, but also Paul's own potter-clay analogy), he also misses the nature of Christianity's metaphysical position. In order to do this, Steve has to ignore the fact that, on my worldview, man is an integrated being of matter and consciousness. Had he more familiarity with my position, he'd know that his rebuttal only makes him look ignorant rather than successfully discrediting my position.

Steve fumbles:

Once again, Dawson has to run away from his own words and come stumbling back with an armload of caveats which were distinctly absent from his original reply I respond to what people say when the say it.

Here Steve admits his own hastiness. But in what way did I "run away from [my] own words"? In no way have I changed my position. My position has always been that man is an integrated being of matter and consciousness, and that he needs reason in order to learn how to work within the constraints of the universe in which he lives. These are not "caveats" by any measure of the term. All we have here is exposure of Steve's ignorance of my overall position and his own attempt to excuse himself. Steve then comes out and admits his ignorance while trying to trivialize it in his characteristic condescending manner:

It's true, though, that I've not chosen to immerse myself in all things Bethrickian—just as I don’t own The Essential Barry Manilow album, or a velvet painting of Elvis. Due to the brevity of life, we have to make many tragic choices with our limited time and resources.

I tend to prefer the term Dawsonian. And if this is a valid excuse for one's lack of intimate familiarity with a particular position, then it's available for my use as well. Like Steve, I too have time constraints crowded with far greater priorities than explaining where mystics go wrong. But as a form of entertainment, it does have its place in my life. This is precisely why I had stated the following in the very blog that he attempted to answer:

part of Steve's problem is that he's been working himself too hard, nervously posting hasty reactions to criticisms of his cartoon universe worldview without giving his own position the critical consideration it so sorely needs. I suggest he slow down, consider what he's responding to more carefully, and be willing to subject his own position to the same level of critical scrutiny he wants to have applied to rival positions.

Moving on…

I wrote:

On my view, the frustration he projects does not exist; at least, not for me. I can, for instance, direct my own movements; my metaphysical viewpoint in no way contends against this fact. And through my physical movements, I can move other physical things. Steve cited the example of typing words out on a computer keyboard. I can direct my fingers to depress the buttons on my keyboard. If the keyboard and the computer to which it is connected are functioning properly, it is possible for me to type the words that I want to type by using the hardware to transmit my intentions.

Steve responds:

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is exactly how a cartoonist operates. He expresses his intentions through a physical medium, such as computer animation.

The humanity and existence within the non-cartoon universe of atheism have never been denied from actual cartoonists. Nor does the cartoon universe analogy require it. But it does not at all follow from this point that

all that Bethrick has succeeded in doing is to illustrate his ontological commitment to a cartoonish worldview.

How does the fact that actual cartoonists themselves are human beings like me living in the non-cartoon universe of atheism suggest "ontological commitment to a cartoonish worldview"? Steve does not explain this. It appears that, in his efforts to sidestep the analogy, he has misconstrued it beyond recognition at some point while hoping to find some way to launch a counter-charge. This does not succeed because my worldview does not affirm the view that the universe is a product of someone's consciousness. Since my worldview does not take theism's imaginary super-consciousness itself seriously, and offers no like counterpart in its place, there is nothing in my worldview analogous to a master cartoonist calling all the shots in the world's state of affairs. Nor does my worldview affirm the view that the objects of consciousness are creations of someone's wishing, or that they conform to someone's wishing in the manner imagined by theists on behalf of their god. Again, it seems that in his persisting haste, Steve is dropping key contextual points that I have already made explicit. As I had stated,

Steve needs to understand (I thought it was apparent already) that I am not a theist.

Had Steve grasped this point, he would see how wrongheaded his statement above is.

I had written:

This, however, is not the same thing as conforming reality directly to my intentions in the manner that the cartoon universe of theism models. For instance, while I can wish that the buttons on my keyboard turn into hundred dollar bills all I want, no amount of wishing on my part will turn the buttons on my keyboards into something they are not. If I were the omnipotent deity that Christians imagine, then I could turn the buttons on my keyboard into anything I wanted them to be. After all, were I the Christian god, they would be buttons only because I intended them to be such in the first place.

Steve responded:

Notice how his cartoon analogy instantly breaks down. A cartoonist does not conform reality “directly” to his intentions. A cartoonist doesn’t merely wish cartoon characters into existence.

What has broken down here is Steve's own confused analysis. Essentially, Steve has confused the ink, paper, celluloid, or other technology with which a cartoonist works, with the imaginary realm that he uses these materials to create, a fake environment that is analogous to a universe created by a supernatural consciousness which determines its contents and events. The cartoon universe analogy in no way requires that cartoonists "merely wish cartoon characters into existence," nor is this what it is intended to illustrate. And Steve nowhere provides an argument to validate the supposition that the analogy requires this. Indeed, the analogy is perfectly compatible with the fact that an actual cartoonist himself does not exist in a cartoon universe similar to the one imagined by Christians. On the contrary, it is only because the cartoonist lives in the non-cartoon universe of atheism that such points can be raised to begin with, so Steve's objection here completely fails as it completely misses the point. Steve is making the same mistake that Tim Hudgins made in response to the cartoon universe analogy over a year ago. He was expecting the analogy to model "exact similarities" between cartoonists and the god he imagines, even though a strong analogy in no way requires such pervasive exactitude. I corrected this misguided assumption when I stated the following:

As for finding "exact similarities" between these things, I don't think there is anything in reality that can serve as an exact analogy to what Christians and other mystics call "the supernatural," simply because it bears no objective reference to reality.

Again, if Steve took the time to familiarize himself with the sources that I had cited in my post, he would see that he's merely raising issues that have already put to eternal rest.

Steve affirmed:

Yes, an omnipotent God can wish things into existence by sheer willpower

Note that Steve explicitly affirms a view which reduces to the metaphysical primacy of consciousness. Just by saying that this is true, he contradicts himself, for the very concept of truth presupposes the metaphysical primacy of existence. Consider: does Steve think that it's true that his god "can wish things into existence by sheer willpower" because he wants that to be the case? No, of course not. When he offers a truth claim, he tries to make use of the primacy of existence in that the state of affairs he purports to be identifying is thought to obtain independent of his or anyone else's wishing. The concept of truth is only meaningful on the primacy of existence. On the primacy of consciousness, there would only be what we in a primacy of existence universe call 'absurdity'. There would be not 'truth' as we know it.

He then hastened to add:
but this distinguishes God from a cartoonist.
And likewise, this also distinguishes the Christian god from the potter in Paul's potter-clay analogy. But this does not disrupt the usefulness of this analogy for the purposes it is intended to illustrate, namely the apostle's theodicy. Same with the cartoon universe analogy: although actual cartoonists are human beings who exist in the non-cartoon universe of atheism, and thus do not have the subjective primacy over their objects that Christianity attributes to its god, this is in no way sufficient to undercut the usefulness of the analogy for the purposes it is intended to illustrate. Steve is attempting to shift contexts. As I already pointed out, the cartoon universe analogy in no way requires that actual cartoonists have the subjective powers that Christianity claims on behalf of its god, and Steve has offered no argument to show that the analogy does need this. Rather, it exemplifies the primacy of the creative will of the Christian god over the realm it allegedly created by noting the same primacy of the will of the cartoonist over the realm he creates in his cartoons. Steve is probably too deeply mired in the swirling and chaotic confusion of the cartoon universe assumptions inherent in his worldview to see the unreasonableness of his objections. I'm reminded of a wise point that Francois Tremblay raised for the benefit of those who might have the pleasure of engaging theists in debate when he wrote:

The disadvantage of following reality is that you also need to follow its complexity. Fictional positions are not bound to this restriction.

In other words, fictional positions are not bound to the constraints of an objective universe. On the cartoon universe preimse of theism, imagination, not reason, is the means of validation.

I had written:

No, the objects of awareness do not obey wishes. I can wish that pizza, potato chips and apple fritters are not fattening when consumed in mass quantities. But the objects of the universe will not obey my wishes; pizza, potato chips and apple fritters will remain as fattening as they are no matter what I wish, no matter how hard I wish it. Because I am an integrated being of both matter and consciousness, I am able to direct my own movements. But even this has its limitations. No matter how much I wish, I cannot fly like a bird does, nor will I ever be able to run a mile in 60 seconds. If reality conformed to my intentions, however, there would be no such obstacles to such endeavors. In the non-cartoon universe of atheism, I must govern my actions according to nature's constraints. My wishing will not override them.

Now watch how Steve recycles the same objection over and over again, even though the premise needed to raise it is not vital to the analogy itself in the manner that his objection requires it to be, and in spite of the fact that such objections have already been answered by anticipation.

Steve responded:

Once again, a cartoonist cannot make things happen by a sheer act of the will. So Dawson’s precious analogy is a systematic failure.

Consider the implications for Romans 9 here: a potter cannot make things happen by a sheer act of the will. So Paul's potter-clay analogy is a systematic failure. Thus we have failure in the bible.

I wrote:

Now, notice that the cartoon universe analogy does not rely on a caricature of Christianity. After all, Christianity asserts the existence of a creator-god whose intentions directly control the objects which make up the universe. According to this view, nature's constraints do not impede the ruling consciousness' ability to control the objects of the universe, just as in a cartoon the images we see act according to the intentions of the cartoon's illustrator.

Steve responded:

A cartoonist does not exercise direct control over the animated images. A cartoonist is constrained by the limits of the physical medium.

Likewise, a potter does not exercise direct control over the clay from which he forms household objects, any more than a cartoonist does not exercise such direct control over the images he creates in his cartoons. Like a cartoonist, a potter is constrained by the limits of the physical medium. Again, such points do no damage to the points that these analogies are respectively intended to illustrate, so such objections can safely be filed in the round "So what?" bin.

I wrote:

According to Christianity, if a man has two arms, it is only because the Christian god wanted it that way. If a slice of pizza has 600 calories, it is only because the Christian god wanted it that way. Nothing in the universe is the way it is without the Christian god's consent and decree. The Christian worldview is emphatic about the ‘all-controlling sovereignty’ it claims on behalf of its god.

Steve responded:

Bethrick, in his gimboid confusion, is repeatedly conflating two quite distinct propositions: (i) Correspondence between object and intent (ii) Causal immediacy These are not interchangeable or mutually inclusive propositions.

As is typical with many apologists, Steve is here attempting to obfuscate the issue by multiplying concepts beyond necessity (which is commonplace in theology) and then charging his opponent with failing to make similar (albeit arbitrary or irrelevant) distinctions. Steve needs to decide for himself whether or not he believes the slice of pizza has 600 calories because his god ultimately wanted it that way. That is, is he or is he not willing to commit himself to the view that the objects of the universe obey his god's will ("intent") regardless of whatever immediate causes he may agree exist as a means of transmitting that will from its source to the object in its final state? What holds primacy here - the obedience of created objects to the creating will, or "immediate causes" which we find in nature? Is it, or is it not the case, that "God controls whatsoever comes to pass," as Van Til tells us?

I wrote:

Similarly, in the context of a cartoon, the cartoonist controls whatsoever comes to pass. Nothing in the cartoon will appear unless the cartoonist willingly permits it to be there. The cartoon universe premise is particularly evident in the biblical notion of miracles. Take for example the miracle that the gospel of John has Jesus perform at the wedding of Cana. When it is discovered that there is no wine for the wedding guests, Jesus wishes the water in the six waterpots to turn into wine, something we would only see in cartoons. What the cartoon universe analogy serves to illustrate to a far greater degree than Paul's potter-clay analogy can hope to show, is the pervasive will-based sovereignty that Christians imagine their god has over the contents of the universe. Just as the universe is said to be dependent on the Christian god's intended designs for its origin and existence, the cartoon is dependent on the cartoonist's intended designs for its origin and existence. The contents of the universe, on Christianity's own premises, are what they are because the Christian god wants them that way. Similarly with the contents of a cartoon: they are what the cartoonist wants them to be.

Steve responded:

Observe the shifting definition.
Which definition does Steve think I'm "shifting"? It's not clear, but from the foregoing it's apparent that, while earlier he seems to have been (erroneously) assuming that the cartoon universe analogy supposes that the cartoonist can wish his cartoons into existence (which I nowhere affirmed), while now he catches onto the actual point of the analogy, namely that in the cartoon realm that the cartoonist creates, he calls the shots (just as in the realm that the Christian god is said to have created, the Christian god is thought to call all the shots). Is Steve really unable to see the parallel here? Consider the irony here: I'm expected to believe in an invisible magic being which created the universe ex nihilo and plans all of human history according to some preordained design scheme, but at the same time I'm expected not to see the obvious parallels between a cartoonist and the cartoon realms he creates, and the Christian god and the universe it is said to have created? This is simply amazing!

Now, recall that Steve had asked:

Does Bethrick believe that his computer keyboard can talk back to him and challenge his intentions?

To this question, I responded:

Of course not, because I do not believe that the universe is analogous to a cartoon. A cartoon can portray a talking computer keyboard, one which dialogues with its user. And according to Christianity and the powers it attributes to its god, this is in the realm of possibility, for it endorses the view that reality is dependent on its god's conscious intentions. The serpent in the garden, for instance, holds a conversation with Eve, the woman that was produced when the Christian god commanded Adam's rib to become "an help meet for him" (Gen. 2:18).

Steve then responded:

Bethrick is now committing a level-confusion. This is no longer a relation of causal immediacy between a cartoonist and the cartoon, but a relation between animated objects within the cartoon. Yes, all sorts of things can happen “in” a cartoon. But that is not analogous to the ontological relationship between a cartoonist and a cartoon. The cartoonist is not, himself, a cartoon character who directly interacts with other cartoon characters or animated scenery. A cartoonist exists outside the cartoon, and creates the cartoon through the manipulation of a physical medium.

The confusion here is all Steve's. Even the point he raises here supports the analogy rather than undermines it. For in the case of relations between animated objects within the cartoon, they do what the cartoonist wants them to do, just as according to Christianity, the objects in the "created universe" do what its god wants them to do. The parallel situations here are, by definition, analogous to one another. The differences which Steve has tried to amplify in his objections are trivial. What is essentially similar to both the cartoon realm created by the cartoonist and the "created realm" of the Christian universe, is the predominating, determining will of the agent responsible for creating each. The objects and events which take place in each are determined by a conscious being outside it. In Christianity's cartoon universe, "God controls whatsoever comes to pass," and in the realm of the cartoonist, the cartoonist controls whatsoever comes to pass.

I wrote:

I can only ‘impose my will’ on my own being, which is an integration of both matter and consciousness. My will does not directly manipulate the keys on my keyboard. If it did, I would not need to use my fingers to type them. Even in the case of volitionally directing the movements of my fingers, this only occurs within certain constraints within which I must work if I am to achieve my aims. I cannot, for instance, type 5,000 words per minute, or make the words flash in five different colors when they are read by someone named Hank or Judy. If all my fingers are broken or my hands are cut off, I'm not going to be able to type in the first place.

Steve responded:

Exactly the same thing applies to a cartoonist or computer animator.

Right - in the non-cartoon universe of atheism. Also, exactly the same thing applies to a potter working his clay into a pot. Why? Because he exists in the non-cartoon universe of atheism. Again, Steve needs to realize that I don't think the cartoon universe of theism is true.

I wrote:

Non sequitur. The keystrokes conform to the physical interaction of my fingers. If I did not have fingers, or if I forewent their use, the keys on my keyboard would not type out my thoughts as I think them. And in using my fingers to type, they do not conform exactly to what I wish, as I pointed out above. Nature requires me to practice my typing to develop my ability, and check my accuracy as I go. That's the non-cartoon universe of atheism in which I live.

Steve responded:

And in a non-cartoon universe, a cartoonist must also use his fingers to depress the buttons on his computer keyboard.

Perhaps now Steve will realize why I am an atheist: I realize that I do not live in the cartoon universe that Christianity affirms.

Steve wrote:

By contrast, God is fundamentally disanalogous to a cartoonist inasmuch as God does not require a physical medium to make things happen. Indeed, he creates the physical medium itself.

But the Christian god is fundamentally analogous to a cartoonist inasmuch as, like a cartoonist with respect to the contents and events that take place in the realms he creates, the Christian god is said to "control whatsoever comes to pass." What exists in the Christian god's universe is what the Christian god wanted to exist in it. What we see in a cartoon is what the cartoonist wants us to see. This is the analogy. The analogy was never "cartoonists create ex nihilo the physical medium which they use in making their cartoons, just as the Christian god created the universe ex nihilo." So this is a most abtuse objection.

Of course, if the Christian god did "not require a physical medium to make things happen," then why did it create the physical medium in the first place?

Again, as I pointed out to Tim Hudgins,

I don't think there is anything in reality that can serve as an exact analogy to what Christians and other mystics call "the supernatural," simply because it bears no objective reference to reality.

I wrote:

Steve views my analogy as an argument proving that Christianity is false.
He now says:

No, it doesn’t prove anything since the analogy is systematically bungled.

Steve doesn’t seem to know whether he’s coming or going, but is trying to play all positions so that he can cover himself. For below we will see him conclude that my “analogy either proves too much or too little.” Perhaps while responding to my points he changed his mind. And yet, why does he think the cartoon universe analogy is “systematically bungled”? Essentially, because the cartoonist does not create his cartoons ex nihilo, as the Christian god is said to have created the universe. He's objecting to something other than the cartoon universe analogy. Indeed, this objection is so trivial with respect to the parallels that have been pointed out that one might entertain possibility that Steve may very well be deliberately trying to be tongue in cheek. Indeed, if the cartoon universe analogy is “systematically bungled” because human cartoonists do not wish into existence the physical medium which they use to draw cartoons, then what can be said of Paul’s potter-clay analogy? The apostle himself gives us a precedent for analogizing the Christian god by comparison to a potter who fashions useful items out of clay. But do human potters create the clay they work with ex nihilo? No. Does this damage the point that the apostle was trying to illustrate by means of analogy? I don't think so.

I wrote:

Again, characteristic of Christians, Steve seeks to put a burden on my shoulders, albeit rather clumsily, even though he's made absolutely no progress in dispelling the cartoon universe analogy. Christianity's analogues to a cartoonist and the cartoons he creates are the Christian god and the universe as Christians imagine it. They imagine that the universe was created by an act of consciousness (according to their mythology, the Christian god willed the universe into being), and that the objects populating it conform to the creator's wishing.

Steve responds:

Observe, once more, how he merges two distinct propositions: (i) created by an act of consciousness; (ii) corresponding to the creator’s intentions.

It's not a "merge" in the sense of blurring such distinctions, but a point where the two overlap with one another. In fact, my analogy is compatible with a careful mindfulness of such distinctions, as should be clear. For while a cartoonist does not create the physical media which he uses to create his cartoons (an affirmation which my analogy nowhere affirmed in the first place), the cartoonist does create the realm that informs his cartoons. He determines everything that takes place in his cartoon, just as the Christian god is said to determine everything that takes place in the universe. Steve continually fumbles on this point. For instance, observe the same point that he keeps repeating over and over:

A cartoonist does not create a cartoon by a sheer act of consciousness.

And again I point out: the analogy in no way requires that the cartoonist create his cartoons by "a sheer act of consciousness," if by this expression we mean something along the lines of a creation ex nihilo materialization of physical media. And Steve nowhere argues that a cartoonist needs to do this in order for the cartoon universe analogy to be valid for its intended purpose. It is in the realm that he portrays in the cartoons that he creates that the cartoonist calls all the shots: just as the Christian god, so we are told, determines the course of human history, the cartoonist determines the course of events that take place in the imaginary realm of his cartoons. The cartoonist need not have the ability to wish his cartoons into existence in order for this parallel to obtain, and it is this all-determinative aspect of the cartoon universe premise of theism that Steve continually overlooks, or perhaps deliberately ignores. Just as Christianity teaches that “God controls whatsoever comes to pass” in the context of the universe it allegedly created, the cartoonist controls whatsoever comes to pass in the realm of his cartoon. There is nothing analogous to this subject-dominant determinism affirmed by Christian theism in an atheistic worldview.

Steve writes:

A cartoon may well conform to his intentions, but if what is what Bethrick means by a cartoonish worldview, then this is descriptive of his own worldview—in which agents, through the use of a physical medium, regularly make objects conforming to their designs.

Again, Steve has carelessly dropped the defining context of a cartoon. It may be the case, and in a specifically constrained, naturalistic sense, that human beings, either individually or jointly, conform certain material substances and objects to our designs. But this is in no way analogous to what Christianity portrays, nor is it analogous to what a cartoon realm portrays. In the non-cartoon universe of atheism, a plumber, for instance, may bend a pipe to direct the flow of water around a corner. But the plumber did not also create the house, the city street on which it is situated, the other people in the city, the trees, blades of grass, birds, clouds, blowing wind, barking dogs, buzzing bees, etc., etc., etc. A plumber bending a pipe to fit the needs of his project has no control over these things; they all exist and take place independent of the his intentions. The plumber is not determining the entire course of human history by doing this. In a cartoon universe, however, all things are being controlled and determined by a single conscious being. In the context of the earth, for instance, the Christian god decides if there should be a river and where it should be located. Similarly, in the realm of a cartoon, the cartoonist decides if there should be a river and where it should be located. The Christian god determines how many bends the river will have; likewise, the cartoonist determines how many bends his cartoon river should have. Similarly, the Christian god determines who the winners of a war that takes place on earth should be. And likewise, the cartoonist determines who the winners of a war that takes place in his cartoon realm should be.

Steve sought to summarize the problems with the cartoon universe worldview as he has sought to characterize it. Let’s see how well they stack up:

i) It is disanalogous with the Christian worldview vis-à-vis creation ex nihilo

This has already been answered above. As I pointed out, the analogy does not subsist on paralleling the abilities of a cartoonist with those attributed to the Christian god by believers in terms of being able to create his cartoons by an act of sheer consciousness (e.g., creation ex nihilo). Rather, the parallel involved in the analogy is the "all-controlling sovereignty" which the Christian god is said to enjoy over its creation vis-à-vis the “all-controlling sovereignty” which the cartoonist wages over the realm he creates in his cartoons.

ii) It is analogous to his secular worldview vis-à-vis the relation between intent and its extramental objects.

This too has already been answered above. Since this point requires us to put the analogy as it is originally conceived completely out of focus, it can only be foisted on the basis of misconceptions like those that Steve is peddling. By doing this, Steve denies himself the benefit of understanding just how his worldview's conception of the universe is acutely analogous to a cartoon. As I pointed out above, since my worldview does not affirm that human history is being determined by an omnipotent agent which calls all the shots, the cartoon universe analogy cannot apply to my worldview. There is, in the non-cartoon universe of atheism, no conscious being which enjoys “all-controlling sovereignty” over all the objects which exist in that universe, nothing which "controls whatsoever comes to pass," as a cartoonist does in his cartoons. The Christian god’s control over the events which take place in the universe is said to be total, and likewise the cartoonist’s control over the events which take place in his cartoons is also total.

iii) With respect to (ii), this is also analogous with the Christian worldview, vis-à-vis the creature/Creator relation.

Christianity’s so-called creator-creature distinction is really just another way of affirming the master-puppet relation. Recall what Greg Bahnsen affirmed:

God controls all events and outcomes (even those that come about by human choice and activity) and is far more capable and powerful than modern machines. (Van Til's Apologetic, p. 489n.43)

On Christianity’s view, Steve is just a puppet, Paul’s lump of clay in someone else’s hands, manipulated to do whatever pleases the universal cartoonist.

But if (ii) picks out the Christian worldview as cartoonish, then by the same token it also picks out the secular worldview as cartoonish. So the analogy either proves too much or too little.

Well, it's good that Steve is here conceding that the analogy at least proves something; above he said that “it doesn’t prove anything.” And yet below, he went on to claim that I've provided no argument in the first place, and yet it seems pretty difficult to prove something unless one has presented an argument. But as I pointed out, since the non-cartoon universe of atheism lacks the all-controlling dictator that Christians imagine, (ii) is wholly misguided. Besides, as I had pointed out before, whether or not I myself affirm a cartoon universe worldview is irrelevant to the fact that Christianity surely does.

I wrote:

For instance, man has two legs and two arms, not because of biological causes, but because the creator-god wanted him to have two arms and two legs. The Christian god could just as easily have created man with 22 arms and 14 legs. Since Christians believe that their god created the universe, they claim that their god is ‘bigger’ than the universe, and that nothing in the universe is exempt from its ‘all-controlling sovereignty.’ Similarly, a cartoonist can choose to draw images with two arms and two legs, and he can also choose to draw them with 22 arms and 14 legs if he so pleases. The cartoonist is ‘bigger’ than his cartoons in the sense that he calls the shots in dictating what takes place in them. To the extent that Christians claim that the universe was created by the Christian god and possesses the nature that it allegedly gave to it, Christians are affirming the cartoon universe premise that is integral to its form of theism.

Steve responded:

As we’ve seen several times now, this comparison falls far short of metaphysical subjectivism. For the ontology of creation ex nihilo is essentially disanalogous to the causal process of cartooning.

As we've seen several times now, Steve's attempt to dismiss the cartoon universe premise of the Christian worldview because actual cartoonists do not create their cartoons ex nihilo is based on a misunderstanding of what the analogy parallels. The analogy never claimed that "the causal process of cartooning" is analogous to the Christian god creating the universe ex nihilo. The analogy shows the parallels between a god determining everything that happens in the universe it created and a cartoonist determining everything that happens in the cartoon he creates.

I wrote:

That having been said, however, it is unlikely that someone who wants to believe in a cartoon universe is going to accept any demonstration of the inherent falsehood of such a model.

Steve retorted:

It is especially unlikely that someone will accept Dawson’s demonstration when his demonstration is so thoroughly inept.

I strongly doubt that it would be due to any ineptness on my part that someone would fail to acknowledge the validity of the analogy I have presented. As I pointed out in the statement that Steve responded to here, if someone wants to believe in a cartoon universe, it's unlikely that he will accept any course of reasoning which shows such a model to be flawed. I understand this quite well myself, being a former believer. There was a time when I was much like Steve, anxious to validate the Christian worldview in my mind. Like Steve, I was not inclined to take such criticism lying down. But in my case, the unlikely happened and I eventually woke up. Now, having distanced myself a ways from what had compelled me emotionally, I have a clearer understanding of all this.

I wrote:

Not at all. Both cartoonists and the cartoons they create are very real, just as a potter and the clay he works with are real. If cartoons were not real, how would people watch them on their TV screens? The validity of the analogy does
not in any way depend on its Christian analogues being actual.

Steve responded:

Now he’s equivocating. Cartoons are entities. So they are ontologically real. But the world they depict is fictitious.

Good grief! I just pointed out that “both cartoonists and the cartoons they create are very real,” and while expressing agreement with me, he accuses me of equivocating. The question is whether cartoons are real or not. In fact, my statement was in response to one that he had made: “the cartoon is real, but the cartoonist is fictitious.” Steve's Hays grows thick which each trial.

Steve wrote:

And Bethrick trades on that connotation when he says that Christianity has a cartoonish worldview. And in so doing he commits a level-confusion. Once again, his analogy falls apart.

So, is it not the case that the Christian god "controls whatsoever comes to pass"? We know that a cartoonist "controls whatsoever comes to pass" in his cartoons. Is Steve admitting that his god is just a chimera after all?

I wrote:

Wrong again. If Paul's potter and clay are analogous to his deity and its creations, then so are a cartoonist and the cartoons he creates, for the same essential reasons. In fact, as I have shown, the cartoon universe analogy is even stronger than Paul's analogy of the potter and clay. In the case of Paul's analogy in Romans, the potter is working with a pre-existing substance - namely the clay he uses to mold artifacts. Here's a point of disanalogy with what Christianity claims about its deity and its creation which the cartoon universe analogy symbolically overcomes: the universe, claims Christianity, was created ex nihilo. In other words, the deity did not take some pre-existing material and then reshape it, as a potter does with clay. In the case of a cartoon, however, the cartoonist approximates the ex nihilo creation of the universe claimed by Christianity by starting with a blank slate and drawing whatever he wants, where he wants and when he wants, just as the Christian god is alleged to have started with no pre-existing materials and proceeded to create what it wanted, where it wanted and when it wanted by wishing them into existence. For instance, cartoonist can give his cartoon a horizon with 27 moons instead of our one moon. Similarly, the Christian god can create a planet with 27 moons (Christians think that their god created Uranus too, don't they?). The cartoonist could decide to give his cartoon horizon 27 moons "just because," as he faces no constraints on his blank slate that will limit his creativity to a number less than this. Similarly, the Christian god, when creating a planet, can give it 27 moons "just because," since no constraints will limit its creative abilities. It just wishes, and the planet and its moons will magically appear.

Steve bucks:

No, the cartoon analogy does not “approximate” creation ex nihilo. That confuses the fictitious world of the cartoon with the real world of the cartoonist. The difference could not be more elementary or elemental. And it thereby fails to distinguish the Christian worldview from his own worldview.

I did not say that the cartoon analogy itself approximates creation ex nihilo, but rather that the cartoonist can approximate such a phenomenon in his cartoons. That is, the cartoonist can illustrate a realm in which a character comes upon an open field and commands a tower to exist, and as if by magic the tower appears where before there was just an open field. In so doing, he gives us a portrait of what wishing something into existence might look like.

I had quoted a few of the bible’s promises regarding the power of prayer:

Mt. 7:7-8 states: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."

Mt. 18:19 states: "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven."

Mt. 21:22 states: "And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive."

Jn. 14:13-14 states: "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it."

Jn. 15:7 states: "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you."

Jn. 16:23-24 states: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full."

I then wrote:

I welcome Steve's and any other Christian's efforts to downplay promises such as these, for I do not believe them either. They are, however, just a few of the verses that one can find in the New Testament which explicitly promise wish fulfillment. In terms of Christianity's cartoon universe, the believer is like Bugs Bunny having acquired self-awareness and being told by his illustrator (in whose "image" he was illustrated) that he can have whatever he wants just by asking for it. "Ask, and ye shall receive," says the promise of the divine cartoonist. The promise does not say, "Ask, and I might grant it." It clearly states "ye shall receive." But it is interesting to see Christians backpedaling from the bible's explicit promises, giving us the image of Bugs Bunny asking his cartoonist to give him a parka when he's drawn in an arctic setting, the cartoonist saying, "No, not just yet... You're going to have to freeze your little tail off first." All too often the bible models the divine cartoonist playing with its creations.

Steve responded to this, saying simply:

We don’t downplay these promises. We also don’t quote them out of context, detaching them from a theology of prayer.

The over-arching context of these promises on the Christian view is that they are issued by an agent which has the power to deliver on them. Also integral to the Christian context of these verses is that the god which issued them is trustworthy, that it will not lie, that it will not leave the believer in the cold, that it loves the believer and hears his prayers. Now, it needs to be borne in mind that these promises are not my statements; I did not author them - they came from the bible, which Christians tell me is true (indeed, many Christians like to ridicule me for not believing it). It also needs to be borne in mind that much theology is driven by the private recognition on the part of the theologian that he does not live in the cartoon universe that his confession affirms. This is why the more explicit teachings of the bible, such as the promises I itemized above, are frequently downplayed by drowning them in a context fabricated by amplifying surrounding statements beyond their scope and at the expense of the "harder sayings" against which those surrounding statements are pitted. Of course, we should expect believers to deny that such promises are being downplayed. We should never be so naïve as to expect honesty from people who want to defend a faith scheme.

I wrote:

But the universe as Christianity essentially conceives of it operates according to the cartoon dictim: ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be willed.’ According to the myth, what the Christian god wills, immediately becomes reality. The Christian god wills the universe to be, and it is. No fussing with natural laws here. What Christian would say that the objects of the universe do not directly obey his god's will? The Christian god will say to this rib, ‘Become thou Eve!’ magically the rib turns into Eve upon command. The Christian god will say to the rain clouds, ‘Flood ye the earth!’ and the rain clouds will obey, letting loose their waters to flood the earth, just as the divine cartoonist has commanded. The Christian god says to the flora and fauna of the earth, ‘Go now to Noah and get your sorry butts into his waiting barge!’ and in the cartoon universe of theism, they obey as commanded. We are not told how koalas and kangaroos find their way to Noah's ark from the Australian landmass, but according to the myth they did so, just as they were commanded. For in the cartoon universe of theism, there is no exception to the primacy of divine wishing, no exception to the obedience that this wishing brings about in the objects which populate the universe. The ‘how’ does not matter, for the lessons that the bible is intended to impart are not meant to have practical applicability in the non-cartoon universe of atheism where questions like ‘How did that happen?’ make sense. What's important here is obedience to the ruling will, the all-controlling subject, on the part of any object. This will has the power to command any object in the cartooniverse, and any object so commanded shall obey without exception, just as the actions of Bugs Bunny obey the wishes of an illustrator.

Steve then responded:

i) Bethrick never advances the argument.

I "never" advance an argument? Is this consistent with other statements he has made? See above.

Steve wrote:

ii) And if that were not bad enough, he is also confusing creation, providence, and miracle. The flood is not the effect of creation ex nihilo. Gathering the animals into the ark is not the effect of creation ex nihilo.

Well, I nowhere affirmed that the Noachian flood or that the "gathering of animals into the ark" was an "effect of creation ex nihilo." But on Christianity's premises, all of these things that took place on earth were willed by the supernatural cartoonist.


Steve confirms explicitly:

There is no “how” to creation ex nihilo.

There we have it: the alleged creation of the universe happened no how - and yet we're supposed to accept the claim that the universe was caused. How? Well, no how. How's that? No how. The overboiling of the Christian Zen pot makes a veritable Master Po of any internet apologist. Just as I pointed out: the 'how' is unimportant, so might as well deny all applicability of the term when it suits expedience.

Steve wrote:

BTW, Genesis doesn’t say that there were koalas and kangaroos in Australia before the flood. It doesn’t say Australia was there before the flood. It doesn’t say the current species or subspecies of koalas or kangaroos existed before the flood, or—if they did exist—where they were.

Indeed, in a cartoon universe, Australia could have been formed from a summit in the Andes (like Eve being formed from one of Adam's ribs), while the South American landmass could have been formed from the hip of the African continent after Noah's floating menagerie landed, thus providing a progressive land bridge on which some survivors (but not others) could have traveled to their final destination. Or, once Noah's ark landed, the divine cartoonist could have simply rearranged the continents and the distribution of the animal survivors, wishing Australia into place and magically teleporting the koalas and kangaroos into place. After all, in a cartoon universe, anything can happen, and the 'how' really doesn't matter, for in the end it all happens "no how" anyway.

Steve wrote:

Unbelievers try to make the flood account looks artificially problematic by interpolating a number of extra-narrative assumptions into the narrative.

And the ever-ready ad hoc plasticity of the cartoon universe of theism, which ultimately reduces to "it happened no how," sees to this. The cartoon universe premise inherent to Christian theism allows the believer to piggyback on the arbitrariness of his imagined god: the sky's the limit when it comes to supposing what "accounts" for the current state of affairs.

I wrote:

Now, I certainly do not think the universe is analogous to a cartoon. Either Steve agrees with me that the universe is not analogous to a cartoon (and thus implicitly agrees that a worldview which likens the universe to a cartoon misconstrues the nature of the universe), or he disagrees with me, thus affirming that the universe is analogous to a cartoon.

Steve responded:

What I don’t agree with is a maladroit confusion between two distinct modes of subsistence. What would be mean to say that the universe is analogous to a cartoon? Does that mean that the cartoonist is a part of the cartoon? That he’s a cartoon character? Or that he is apart from the cartoon?

As I expected, Steve does not come out and say whether or not he agrees with Christianity that the universe has a cartoonish nature. At this point, he should understand what this means if he had been considering what I've been saying rather than merely reacting. His mind is aswirl in a persisting haze.

But Steve does ask some juicy questions here. Can the cartoonist be part of the cartoon? According to Christianity, the answer is YES: the cartoonist can and did play a role in his own cartoon universe. This is the role of Jesus, the god of the heavens who "took on flesh" (i.e., assumed a form like other characters in his cartoon) and intermingled with its creations. In such a case, the cartoonist is of course initially distinct from the cartoon he creates. But as with any piece of art work, a cartoon is full of autobiographical elements which are sourced in the agent who creates it. Same with the Christian universe, according to Christians. We are told that "there is a rational God who has created a rational universe" (The Christian Professor), and that the supposed 'rationality' of the universe is a "reflection" of this "rational God" which allegedly created it. And since this god is all-powerful and "does whatever pleases him" (Ps. 115:3), nothing could stop the super-cartoonist from penciling himself into his own cartoon. And according to the Christian myth, this is precisely what the super-cartoonist did. Development of these points can wait for another occasion.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Strengths of the Cartoon Universe Analogy

The more I examine the cartoon universe analogy, the more I see how strong it is in applying to the Christian worldview. I have pointed out that, if Paul's potter-clay analogy in Romans 9 is a valid analogy, then the cartoonist-cartoon analogy is vastly superior, for various reasons. And the more I look at it, the longer the list of those reasons grows. The potter-clay analogy is found in the bible, and it is unlikely that Christians would say that anything in their beloved bible is invalid. So it is most curious to find Christians resisting the cartoon universe premise of their worldview, even though it is precisely this premise that they seek to defend.

Cartoons are a creation of skilled artists who conceive of their characters and the events in which they participate according to the value-judgments held by those artists. These artists design their cartoons and plan the events that take place in them, putting their conceptions into concrete form for purposes of enjoyment.

On the Christian view of the world, the universe is a creation of a conscious creator which conceives of its creatures and the events in which they participate according to the value-judgments it allegedly holds (i.e., the value-judgments of those who imagine the creator). On this view, the creator designs the universe and plans the events that takes place in it, putting its conceptions into concrete form for purposes of enjoyment.

Like cartoonists, the Christian god is characterized as a conscious entity. It can think, desire, command, get angry, remain angry, seek vengeance, condemn, behave destructively, etc. A famous argument for the existence of a god is the so-called "argument from design." Like cartoons, Christians think the universe was designed by a master designer. According to this view, the things that exist in the universe were conceived, designed and created by a creator which is said to have remarkable abilities. Man on this view has two arms and two legs, for instance, because the Christian god chose to create him this way. The Christian god could have easily created man with five arms and six legs if it wanted to.

Similarly, the images that we find in a cartoon were conceived, designed and drawn by a cartoonist who demonstrates remarkable drawing abilities. Bugs Bunny is a rabbit standing upright on two legs with long floppy ears and a bushy cottontail, for instance, because the cartoonist chose to draw him that way. The cartoonist could have just as easily drawn Bugs Bunny to resemble an actual rabbit, having it on all fours with its belly to the earth.

Christians often speak of "God's plan." Yes, that's right: their god, they tell us, is directing the entire course of human history according to what some defenders have called a "divine plan." This "plan" entails a design scheme down to the most miniscule detail. As apologist Mike Warren puts it, "All facts outside of God originate as a creation of God according to His eternal, comprehensive plan," adding that "the ultimate constant is God’s evaluation of worth and His plan." In other words, every event in human history was intended to take place according to this divine plan, since "God controls whatsoever comes to pass." (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 160)

Similarly, the cartoonist has a plan for the cartoons that he creates. One cartoon's plan might involve a coyote's futile chasing of a lightning-quick roadrunner through a desert. Another cartoon's plan might involve superhuman heroes battling evil villains and their nefarious schemes. Yet another might involve the adventures of a boy in an amazing fantasy world that includes a giant floating peach. What Christian would say that their god cannot create a giant floating peach? After all, just as the cartoonist is not working with pre-established images on his drawing board, the Christian god is not confined to creating things from pre-existing materials. As Van Til puts it, "God had to create if he wished to create at all 'out of nothing'." (Ibid., p. 26) The cartoonist could have kept the peach that he draws to a small fruit growing on a tree just as easily as he can draw an enormous peach which floats in the air and contains living quarters for a young boy and his friends. And according to Christian mythology, so could the Christian god.

Another point of analogy between Christianity and cartoons is the fact that we typically do not see the cartoonist when we are watching a cartoon. We can see, for instance, the coyote being crushed by a giant boulder which fell on top of him from a high cliff, but we do not see the cartoonist as this happens, nor do we see him when we see the coyote emerging from underneath the boulder and walking around like an accordion. Similarly with Christianity: the world's events are said to be controlled by the Christian god, but we do not see this god, just as we do not see the cartoonist responsible for the events in a cartoon. I Timothy 1:17 declares that the Christian god is "invisible." Likewise, in the context of a cartoon, the cartoonist himself is also "invisible." This again shows that the cartoon universe analogy is superior to Paul's potter-clay analogy of Romans 9, for we can see the potter as we watch him work the clay he spins and molds into the shape he wants his product to have.

For these and other points that I have brought out in the past, it is clear that the cartoon universe analogy more fittingly models the Christian conception of the universe than the analogy we find in Romans 9. If Paul's potter-clay analogy is valid, then the cartoonist-cartoon analogy is vastly more valid. What Christian would say that something in the bible is not valid? Again, I am simply exposing the inherent absurdity of Christian theism as a worldview on its own terms. It is not my fault that Christianity conceives of the universe in a manner that is analogous to a cartoon. And it is not my fault that the world that a cartoon paints is fake. So it will not do to chastise me for the astounding appropriateness of the cartoon universe analogy. Christians who object to the cartoon universe analogy should take a closer look at what they're telling non-believers to believe. An argument for Christianity is essentially an argument for the cartoon universe premise.

by Dawson Bethrick

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