Sunday, July 30, 2006

Responding to Chris

Christian commenter Chris posted some comments to my blog Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point. He wrote:

Oh Dawson, you've incinerated me. I admit that I cannot keep up with you. Your verbal gymnastics are extraordinary.

Thank you, Chris. I aim to incinerate.

Chris writes:

I suppose I should be flattered that you felt the need to devote an entire post to little ole me. My wife will be jealous. Better cut it out. Of course your brilliance is only surpassed and mightily dimmed by your arrogance. Perhaps you can put down your verbal sword and have a civil discussion?

I run a blog, and I reserve the right to post anything on my blog that I see fit. I had not posted anything since July 12, and, given the little time I have to devote to blogging, a response to Chris was also an opportunity to post a new blog. If Chris opened up his own blog, he could do the same.

I had hoped that Chris would consider the points that I posted in response to him. But given what he wrote back to me in the comments section of Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point, it does not appear that he has pondered on my points very deeply. He does not demonstrate that he has grasped what I have presented, nor does he interact with what I have stated. Instead, he accuses me of arrogance and complains over the prospect that I might think that I “have it all figured out.” I don’t claim to “have it all figured out,” but so what if I did? I know that I don’t believe in any gods. And I know why. Chris has not shown that my reasons for disbelieving theistic claims are flawed or insufficient. His reaction to what I have provided suggests that he is in fact frustrated. But this can hardly be due to incivility on my part, even though he wonders if we could “have a civil discussion.” I come prepared for a civil discussion. I have defined my terms and have traced the course of reasoning supporting my conclusions and verdicts. I am patient and willing to teach. I am willing to consider what Chris presents. When I think Chris is wrong, I point it out. Am I being uncivil? How so? Does Chris want me to go along with where I think he’s mistaken, just to be chummy? I won’t. Friends don’t let friends drink and drive. Friends don’t let friends mismanage their premises, either.

Chris writes:

If theism is not useful in man's natural desire to know why he exists, what is? Do you not seek greater understanding of life's many mysteries? Are science and philosophy your religion? Are you confident that in time you will be able to figure it all out? Or perhaps you already have? Yes, I think that must be it, because your steadfast foreclosure of all things theistic is a clear indication that you have it all figured out.

Falsehood and arbitrariness are not useful to any legitimate need that man has. “Mysteries” is just another term for the gaps in our knowledge where mystics want to say their preferred source of mystical knowledge exists. These persisting “mysteries” are nothing more than shadows where the cockroaches of the intellect hide. Shine the light of reason, and they scurry to find another shadow to hide in as they scamper to find another gap in man's knowledge which can be claimed to be inhabited by their god. Chris’ response to my post is a superb example of this. I’m interested in knowledge, not in “mysteries.” And what’s more, I’m interested in leading an honest life, not in pretending to have a knowledge from beyond that I don’t really have.

Chris writes:

You must know something that I don't know (other than all those neat words and verbal deconstructions), otherwise you wouldn't spend so much time telling me I'm wrong for believing as I do.

There are many things I know, and there are many things that Chris knows. Some of what he knows I know, some I don't know. And vice versa. I use my blog as an opportunity to tell my readers what I know. Chris is welcome to take a look and examine it, or to spout off in unintelligent reaction to it. The choice is his. One thing that I do know is that he has not refuted anything I have presented. In fact, it does not even appear that he has tried to do so. Rather, he seems to be upset that I have confidence in my verdicts. But calling me "arrogant" does not refute my verdicts.

Chris writes:

The universe existing is not in question. The questions are why it exists and how did it come to exist? I believe you made the claim, perhaps it was someone else, that the universe is eternal. It doesn't have a starting point. That claim can be nothing more than a statement of faith, since no evidence is offered to back it up.

So that my readers can understand where I’m coming from, let’s consider Chris’ questions one by one:
1. Why does the universe exist?

This kind of question is invalid because it commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. The fallacy of the stolen concept occurs when a thinker makes use of a concept while denying or ignoring concepts or conditions on which that concept depends. As such, it constitutes a breach of the knowledge hierarchy. For example, suppose someone told you that geometry is a valid science, but basic arithmetic is always wrong. The problem here is that geometry builds on the truths of basic arithmetic. So if arithmetic is always wrong, how can geometry, which makes use of arithmetic principles, be valid? Suppose someone makes the claim “There is no such thing as consciousness.” Would you accept this claim? Does not the individual making that claim need to be conscious in order to make that claim? Do his hearers not have to be conscious in order to hear and consider his claim? In fact, he is performatively affirming the concept 'consciousness' by forming and making a statement, but his statement is denying the existence of the faculty which makes this possible.

Now consider the question “Why does the universe exist?” Let’s focus first on the nature of questions which ask “why” something happened or is the case. Typically these are purposive inquiries: those who ask them are seeking to discover the purpose or motivation of an action or decision. We can ask, for instance, why did Billy stay home from school today? Naturally we suppose there is some rationale behind Billy’s decision to stay home from school, but not knowing what it is, we ask the question. There’s purpose here: Billy tells us that he was sick, and he stayed home to recuperate. We can accept this because Billy is a human being, and human beings possess the faculty of consciousness capable of conceptual thought, and are thus capable of making purposive decisions like this. What’s clear here is that Billy has to exist in order to make any decisions, and he exists in the context of other things existing around him in making decisions. So existence is obviously a precondition to purposive action, and therefore also of questions inquiring about purposive action.

But when we get to the universe, are such questions valid? Well, what is the universe? I have already stated what I mean by this term. The universe is the sum total of all that exists. If something exists, it is by virtue of its existence a member of this sum totality called the universe. To ask why the universe exists is to ask why the sum totality of everything that exists, exists. But since questions of purpose can only be meaningful in the context of what exists, such questions can only apply within the universe, not to the universe itself. The universe exists by itself; it does not exist within something greater than itself. This follows from its definition as the sum totality of what exists. Since the question applies purposive inquiry to the universe as a whole, it ignores the fact that the universe is all there is, thus committing the fallacy of the stolen concept. If the universe is everything that exists, there's nothing outside the universe to satisfy the question on its own terms.

Also, the question “why does the universe exist?” begs the question against the position affirming the eternal universe by assuming what the advocate of the non-eternal (or "created") universe is called to prove, namely that the universe is here to satisfy or fulfill some extra-universal purpose. Where does the theist validate this assumption? Indeed, he seems unaware that this assumption is built into his question, and yet it is plainly there.

2. How did the universe come to exist?
I think questions like this are also clearly invalid. Since the universe is everything that exists, the question ignores that the only alternative to the universe is non-existence as such, which is nothing. Such questions ignore the fact that no matter what exists, if it exists, it exists within the totality of all that exists. So, the question requires that we start with non-existence - i.e., with nothing, since it does not allow anything to already be existing. At this point we have an unsolvable problem: if nothing exists, what can happen? Action requires something that exists to do the acting, so postulating any action necessarily assumes that something exists to do the acting so postulated. Theists are always telling us that the universe could not have created itself. I agree with this, but for slightly different reasons. I don’t think that the totality of all that exists could have brought itself into existence, for an act of bringing anything about requires that something exist to do the bringing about in the first place. But since I start with existence, not with non-existence, I do not partake in the theist's unsolvable conundrum.

The theist does not have a problem with something existing eternally, so long as it is a form of consciousness, namely his deity. But if a deity exists, it would merely be a part of the totality of what exists, by virtue of its existence, whether hypothetical or actual. That is, it would be a part of the universe, since the universe is the totality of what exists. But the theist finds this unsatisfying, not for intellectual reasons (for we will see that an eternal universe is intellectually valid), but for emotional reasons. The alternatives to his god-belief are considered depressing, therefore he will deny all reasoning which conflicts with his god-belief claims.

And yes, I do affirm that the universe is eternal. My reasons for supposing this are already suggested in the foregoing. But an additional point which even many atheists overlook or misunderstand is the fact that time is not metaphysical, it is epistemological. I do not accept the idea that the universe is "a space-time continuum." Time is not a thing existing out in the world that we find and pick up and hold in our hands; figurative expressions such as "I have a lot of time on my hands" notwithstanding. On the contrary, time is a measurement of motion, and requires a fixed standard, such as the earth's revolution around the sun. One revolution around the sun we call a year, and this standard is taken as a unit and broken into various subdivisions to give us the calendar and the clock. When we get to the universe as a whole, however, it's clear that there can be no relationship which can be taken as a standard. The universe is not revolving around some other object to provide a basis for temporal measurement. Time simply does not apply to the universe itself, it only applies within the universe. The universe thus exists outside of time, i.e., eternal.

That's my position, and Chris is free to dismiss it or make fun of it or anything else he likes. I don't really care.

Chris wrote:

I understand that you don't buy the theistic reasons for creation, because your mind requires evidence and a logical progression of cause and effect. You cannot contemplate a Divine hand in creation because it is not tidy, it is not mathematical, and it is not sensory based. You require facts, evidence, and logic. Nothing short of God revealing himself to you personally will do. So you retreat to the discernable universe and instead of asking the questions of why and how, you make yourself comfortable with the notion that it just is.

I have not given as reasons against god-belief that “it is not tidy” or that “it is not mathematical.” Tidiness is not a condition that I put on claims, and I do not tend to measure claims for their mathematical accuracy unless of course they involve mathematical calculations (such as reconciling an inventory turn-over report or validating my mobile phone bill).

However, I have no choice about my reliance on sense perception, because this is part of my nature. My awareness of the world is made possible by sense perception. Everything I know about the world finds its ultimate basis in sense perception. Theists want to play a little game at this point, asking something like “Did you perceive with your senses the fact that everything you know about the world finds its ultimate basis in sense perception?” But if they practice a little more care in grasping what my statement says, they should see that I did not claim that every truth I know is a truth that I perceive directly. The ultimate basis of knowledge is sense perception, but through the formation of concepts I can build a body of knowledge upon that basis. Because I am able to form concepts, I am not bound to the perceptual level of awareness; I am able to develop broad abstractions which take the perceptual awareness of the world as their basis. I need this perceptual basis in order to build a body of knowledge in the first place. Knowledge of what? Knowledge of the world, of reality, of things that exists. Knowledge requires reason, which is the faculty which integrates and identifies what we perceive. It is not bound exclusively to the empirical level, for concepts are not empirical.

Yes, I do require facts, evidence and logic, because knowledge of the world is based on facts, evidence and logic. I want knowledge, so I go by the facts, the evidence and the logic that connects them together. I have found no gods there. Theists tell me that I need something in addition to these, namely something they call 'faith', which they treat as a kind of faculty like reason, but which operates completely mysteriously, even to the user. What’s noteworthy is that the products of faith contradict the products of reason, so there’s no valid way to integrate the two. Also, different people claim to know different things by means of faith, so those who claim to know things by faith quite often tend to disagree with each other, unless of course they're reciting from the same playbook. Since it remains completely unclear what faith's 'processes' are (supposing it has any processes to begin with), there’s no way to determine whether a mistake has been made, or whether its basis is true, or whether its conclusions (if they can be called that) in fact rest on their stated basis in a rightful manner (we can’t say “validly” here because validity is a property of rational thought, not of faith-mongering). So appeals to faith only complicate things, and bring us no closer to actual knowledge of the world. Besides, if one is honest, he has no need to resort to faith to substantiate his position. Either he knows on the basis of reason, or he simply doesn't know - he merely "believes," and even this is questionable.

As for the Christian god revealing itself to me... Well, it allegedly did this for Saul of Tarsus, did it not? The Christian god doesn’t play favorites, does it? It seems that, if the Christian god exists and wants me to believe it exists and become a devoted follower and witness, it is free to do for me what it did for Saul of Tarsus. In fact, according to the legends we find in the New Testament, Saul was a violent persecutor of Christians. I’m quite the opposite: I’m trying to help Christians. Perhaps if I become a persecutor like Saul of Tarsus, the Christian god will pay me a visit?

Chris writes:

To answer your challenge of how I am aware of my God (to spare my jugular), my spirit attests to his spirit. My heart knows God, even as my mind struggles to keep up. I have felt God’s spirit in my life. I have felt his directing hand. I have felt his assurances. When I become agitated, my appeals to him for relief are answered. This of course, is unsatisfactory to those whose requirements for belief are completely captive to the “sense modalities”.

All of this suggests that Chris is “aware” of his god by directing his attention inwardly, by consulting some internal impulse or set of feelings which are in fact not a means of acquiring and validating knowledge of the world. By saying "my spirit attests to his spirit," Chris gives us nothing that we can examine and understand, unlike what we can know of the process of reason. He does not identify what he means by "my spirit," or "his spirit," or the process by which the one "attests to" the other. He says that his "heart knows God." But this gives us no further understanding of how he could know what he claims to know. What does he mean by "heart" in this context, and what is the means by which it "knows God"? Without an understanding of the process by which this alleged knowledge is to be acquired and secured, how does Chris know that he hasn't made an error? Or, is "error" simply not possible in such a case, because there is no actual process here? John Frame says "We know without knowing how we know." (Presuppositional Apologetics: An Introduction (Part I)) Now, that's not very helpful, nor does it give me any confidence that John Frame really knows what he claims to know. He knows no how, that is, without method, process, understanding or assuredness. This is by definition what we mean by a baseless claim.

What's noteworthy is that adherents to different religions claim their truths on a similar non-basis, saying that they "know" by some internal testimony which we're expected to accept on their say so. And when we don't, they get upset at us, sometimes calling us names, condemning us to imaginary realms of eternal punishment, sometimes even taking up arms against us for the threat of doubt and non-belief that we represent. If what they claim is all so true, why do we get such attitude when we express doubts or question their claims?

Also noteworthy is the fact that Chris does not enlighten us on how we can distinguish what he calls "God" from something he is merely imagining. This was my other question to him. To make matters worse for him, he appeals directly to his feelings when he says "I have felt God’s spirit in my life. I have felt his directing hand. I have felt his assurances." Basing one's knowledge on his emotions is called subjectivism. Essentially it is the claim that something is true because we want it to be true. Typically subjectivists are not so openly brazen about their reliance on emotions as their epistemological rudder, seeking instead to camouflage their noetic vice.
But I do thank Chris for his comments here, for they strongly confirm the conclusion I came to in my blog Carr vs. Cole, namely that Jesus is a mood, not an actual person. His god-belief is merely a set of feelings, not a set of truths.

Chris concluded his comments, writing:

You say that the universe is neither a cause nor an effect. Again, I say that a statement like that requires faith, because you cannot present evidence supporting it. I say that God is the cause and the universe is the effect. Evidence? Plenty, but none to your satisfaction. Again, I assert impasse.

Yes, I say that the universe is neither a cause nor an effect, and I have given substantial reasoning to say this. This has to do with what we mean by 'universe'. I have given my definition for this term; Chris has yet to give his. By universe I mean the sum totality of all that exists. Since the concepts 'cause' and 'effect' both presuppose existence as a necessary condition, they can only have meaning within the universe. They cannot refer to the universe as a whole. My reasoning is my evidence, and crucial to understanding my reasoning is an understanding of my definitions. If the universe is everything that exists, how can one say that it is an effect of something beyond it? The sum totality of what exists is the sum totality of what exists, i.e., nothing exists outside that sum totality.

Chris says he has "plenty" of evidence to support his claim, whose "truth" he apparently "knows" by means of consulting his internal feelings," that "God is the cause and the universe is the effect." From what I have seen, he has not presented his evidence for this claim, and what he has stated gives me no confidence to suppose that he has any objective evidence to present in support of it, and what he has left unstated (namely how we as his hearers can confirm that he is not mistaken or how we can distinguish between what he calls "God" and what he may merely be imagining) gives little confidence that even he truly believes these claims deep down.

by Dawson Bethrick

Friday, July 28, 2006

Theism and Its Piggyback Starting Point

This post continues a conversation between myself and a Christian named Chris which began in the comments section of John W. Loftus' blog What Do You Think? The discussion gravitated from a debate on whether or not the universe is eternal to a comparison of respective starting points. I have already written much on this topic and would suggest that Chris familiarize himself with my position by reading this.

Responding to one of the other commenters in the combox, Chris stated:
It's not logical to assume that the universe has not been caused.
And in response to this, I asked Chris to indicate what he means by the term 'universe'. But instead of answering this, he seized on a statement of mine, namely:

Since I start with existence, there's no validity to the idea that existence needs to be explained.

In response to this, Chris reacted by declaring my starting point is "arbitrary," and though I asked him to present an argument to support this charge so that I can see how he came to this conclusion, he did not offer one. Perhaps it is not a conclusion to prior reasoning and thus has no argument. It may simply be a baseless charge. Chris gives nothing to rule out this possibility.

I had also pointed out that:
Existence is irreducible.
Chris complained:

You're repeating what you previously stated. It is your starting point. You make this statement definitively as if it requires no proof.

It should not be difficult to see why existence is irreducible. By irreducible I mean it cannot be analyzed or broken down into something more basic than itself. What is more basic than existence? Meta-existence? What is that? Does it exist, or not? Since I do not see any need to multiply distinctions beyond necessity, I would see the postulation of something called 'meta-existence' as ad hoc, merely an attempt to offer something instead of my position in order to be able to claim a difference. But is there a difference? Would "meta-existence" be irreducible? Why couldn't there be something like 'proto-meta-existence'? We could continue fabricating ever more primitive levels ad nauseum, but would that gain us more understanding of reality? I don't think so. In the end, either something exists, or it doesn't. There is no in between here.

Also, an objective starting point by definition does not need to stand on proof. All proof assumes the truth of my starting point. Proof is a process by which we make explicit the logical relationship between something that is not perceptually self-evident to that which is perceptually self-evident. That which is perceptually self-evident does not need to be proven. When you see a tree, you see it, you don't need to prove that it is there. A proof of existence would be superfluous. And to what would its premises refer, if not to things that exist? Blank out.

Chris:
I say that God is irreducible.
In a prior comment I had asked Chris to identify the means by which he is (allegedly) aware of what he calls "God." He has not done this. Why? He is aware of his god, is he not? If so, there must be some identifiable means by which he has this awareness, no? Most theists say that their god is invisible, and object to us rejecting their god on the basis of our inability to see it because we accept all kinds of things that we cannot see. For instance, theists have pointed to wind as an example of something we do not see, but accept as real nonetheless. True, we often do not see wind, and let's grant for argument's sake that we can never see wind. That's fine. But we need to remember that vision is only one of our five available sense modalities. We can feel the wind against our skin, as when we walk out into it. In fact, I've experienced some wind that was so strong it almost knocked me down. Wind is physical and scientifically measurable, so wind is a very poor analogy for theism to draw on, unless of course theists are ready to admit that their theistic arguments are full of a lot of wind. (Memo to self: Ask theists hypothetical question: Can God break the perfect wind?)

Chris wrote:

You require proof of me to make this claim.

I know better than to ask a theist for a proof of his god. Instead I went for the jugular by asking Chris to identify the means by which he thinks he is aware of his god. I also asked how I can distinguish between what he calls "God" and what he may be merely imagining. Theists claim that their god is invisible, it's not part of this world, it can do all kinds of amazing things which we can all imagine one way or another. But they can point to no objective basis to support what they claim. I'm simply being honest when I point out that I do not believe that the Muslim's Allah exists, and I'm simply being honest when I point out that I do not believe that the Lahu's Geusha exists. Likewise, I'm simply being honest when I point out that I do not believe that the Christian's god exists. It doesn't bother Christians when I don't believe the Muslim and the Lahu, but it bothers him when I don't believe him.

Chris stated:
I require proof of you to make your claim.
The validation (which is broader than a formal proof) of my starting point is that it has to be true in order for Chris to deny it. For Chris to deny existence, he would have to exist, thereby refuting his own denial. Also, since his claim "God exists" piggybacks on my starting point by affirming the fact of existence, my starting point would have to be true in order for him even to contemplate what he calls "God." For Chris to contemplate the existence of his god or anything else, he would first have to exist. This alone is sufficient to validate my starting point. He then tries to make off with my starting point by smuggling it across the divide between atheism and theism, and attempts to enlist its service in support of theism. It is at that point that he swears allegiance to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics by affirming the view that the objects of consciousness ultimately find their source in a consciousness, as I have explained here and here.

Meanwhile I can deny Chris' god, just as I deny the Muslim's Allah and the Lahu's Geusha, while remaining true to my starting point. But Chris cannot affirm his god without begging and borrowing from my starting point.

I wrote:

Don't you have a concept which includes everything, including your god?

Chris responded:

Of course not. God is apart from everything.

But since he affirms that this thing he calls "God" exists, he automatically includes it ex hypothesi in the class of things which exist. The universe is the sum total of things that exist. (This is in direct keeping with Webster's, which defines 'universe' as "the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated.") Therefore, if Chris' god exists, it exists as part of the sum of all that exists, which means: it is member of the universe. If Chris maintains that his god is not a member of the universe, then it is not a member of the class of things that exist. Which means: Chris is telling us that his god doesn't exist. There, we have agreement. And he said "we are at an impasse"!

Chris continued:

Including God in the definition of the universe, is to make him subject to it instead the Causer of it.

Here Chris is telling us that he has reasoned from undesirable consequences. Essentially he's saying "I don't want to use a concept that includes both everything in the universe and my god because I don't like what this might imply. My god's bigger than anything, dammit!" It's like a kid on a schoolyard insisting that his GI Joe is bigger than everyone else's, and therefore should be excused from all contests. He exhibits no concern here for conceptual integrity for he slashes himself off from a perfectly good concept and offers none in place of it. Thus he divides existence into two categories, the actual (which is represented by the finite universe of real objects) and the imaginary (which is represented by his god and arbitrarily elevated above the actual, as if the actual found its source in the imaginary).

Chris stated:

The bible says he is without beginning or end, from time indefinite to time indefinite.

This is not an argument. Also, if Chris learned about his god from the bible, then he is acknowledging that his god could not be his starting point. He had awareness of the physical material making up his copy of the bible before he had awareness of its content. Ignoring this fact and asserting that the god he imagines came prior to and is responsible for creating the materials which make up his copy of the bible and everything else we find in the universe of real objects, is just an expression of frustration with the actual universe prompting a retreat into a realm of his own imagining where his god rules over all. Meanwhile, he continues to make use of my starting point, but does not explain where he got it. So he stands before us red-handed, his mouth full of cookies and the cookie jar lying broken on the kitchen floor. What does he say for himself? He does what all Christians eventually do: he appeals to the bible and hopes that serves as an adequate surrogate for an explanation to exonerate himself.

Chris asserted:

The name Jehovah means 'causes to become'.

This too is not an argument. And to the extent that it is true, it is at most trivial and uninteresting. The name of the Lahu's deity is Geusha. It has numerous meanings, such as "before the before," "the one before all," "the supreme ever," etc. So what?

Chris claims:
He is the First Cause.
But the concept 'cause' does not make sense outside the context of the universe - i.e., outside the context of that which exists. Since Chris refused his god membership in the sum total of existence, he commits the fallacy of the stolen concept by referring to his god as a cause, whether foremost or collateral.

Chris wrote:

You prefer to relegate this concept to "the universe" or existence itself. Again, you have no evidence of this so therefore you must have faith that your argument is correct, as I do.

This misconstrues my position. I do not posit a "first cause." I have not identified the universe as a "first cause." Nor is the universe an effect; to call it an effect would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. Why would one do this, unless he doesn't care about the logical implications of his position?

Also, since I have awareness of my starting point by directly perceiving it with my senses, no faith is needed to affirm its true. Everything that exists is evidence of itself, which means: my starting point is ubiquitously attested.

by Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Slam Dunk!

According to Calvinists I don’t believe because God has determined from the beginning of time that I should not believe.

In response to this, Paul Manata stated:

John, you confuse causes and reasons for unbelief. At least get our position correct.The cause of your unbelief is God's determining that you'd be blinded. The *reasons* for your unbelief are, well, nill.

Paul, according to you then, the cause of your belief is God's determining that you'd believe. And according to me, the *reasons* for your belief are, well, nill.

Touché, John!

If "God controls whatsoever comes to pass," as Calvinists maintain, then even the believer's own "beliefs" are out of his own control. On the basis of their "worldview presuppositions," there would be no "reasons" underlying their own beliefs, because their beliefs were determined by an invisible magic being, not by logic and reason. They are not held on the basis of a supporting, rational context, for there is no autonomy in the cartoon universe of theism. Their own teaching denies them the rational basis of their beliefs that they so often claim to have. So they may "believe," but they do not know.

Let the theists talk, for therein is the entertainment.

by Dawson Bethrick

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A.S.A. Jones on the Age-Old Rock Question

A friend of mine recently asked if I had seen this site:

http://www.ex-atheist.com/index.html
Wouldn't you know, it's another Christian apologetics site! This one is by A.S.A. Jones, who "deconverted" from atheism to Christianity. The landing page at her site has a quote at the top which states:

It isn't a matter of validating or invalidating arguments. It's about being able to see those same arguments from a different perspective. . . What I discovered was an intellectual riddle that couldn't be solved by the logical mind. It had to be solved by the intuitive heart.

I gather from this that Jones prefers to look at theistic arguments from a perspective other than one that is concerned with whether or not they are valid. And if they are arguments for a position that consists of "an intellectual riddle that couldn't be solved by the logical mind," then I can see why someone confessionally invested in the position they are offered to defend would choose to look beyond the invalidity of its supporting arguments.

So I took a look and poked around. I found that Jones thinks that J. P. Holding "is the most thorough researcher and honest apologist I have ever read." They say that another sucker is born again every minute.

I also found a small article devoted to the age-old perplexing question Can God create a rock that is so big that He wouldn't be able to lift it? I've seen many treatments of this conundrum, and this one is quite typical. Jones rushes to call it an illogical question. But what exactly makes the question itself illogical? Jones never makes this clear as her effort is spent on analyzing surrogate rephrasings of the original question, and when it comes to actually answering the question on its own terms, we'll find that she affirms both horns of a contradiction anyway. Let's take a closer look.

Jones compares the original question to the following:

A genius is so smart that he should be able to successfully pass any test, including a test that would qualify him as an idiot.

For one, this is a statement, not a question, so already Jones is bleeding off the page. Also, this statement equivocates on the word 'test', since it is implied to mean one thing in the main part of the statement, but something else in the follow-up phrase. It is thus a play on words. Cute and clever, but hardly equivalent to the question being considered in the article. Indeed, what would a test intending to qualify those who pass it as idiots look like? And what would count as passing it?

Jones then says that the question on whether or not her god can create a rock so big that it cannot lift it "contains a contradiction." But where does the question do this? What's so contradictory about the question itself? Jones says that it is "the same type of contradiction that is made when we say that someone has accomplished the impossible." I don't think so. On the contrary, Jones is begging the question at this point by assuming what she needs to prove. On the face of it, I don't see anything at all impossible or contradictory about the proposal that someone can create something so big that he cannot lift it. After all, human beings do this all the time. Human beings create grand pianos, assemble heavy construction vehicles, build tall skyscrapers, etc., things that their creators and builders cannot themselves lift because they're far too heavy. So I don't see where the question itself contains any contradictions or inherently affirms that the impossible is possible. Consider this question:"Can a person assemble an object that is so big and heavy that he cannot lift it?"Obviously the answer is yes: we do this all the time. So where's the contradiction? Is it in the question? Or, is it in the idea of an omnipotent god? On my worldview, I have no problem answering the question I have posed, so the problem is not in my worldview.

Jones then wants to rephrase the question again. This time the concern is to tackle the following rendition:"Is God so powerful that he can successfully do anything, including things that he couldn't do?" This question is markedly different because the use of "anything" here makes the question open-ended, whereas the original question was specific. The apologist is using the new version to exploit the open-endedness afforded by swapping out the specifics of the original question and replacing them with "anything," which allows Jones to double-back against it, thus purporting to show that the original question is similarly contradictory. Jones needs to resort to sleight of hand to shore up the claim that the original question "contains a contradiction," even though we already saw that the original question itself is not inherently contradictory, for it is very possible for a personal agent to create something so big and heavy that he cannot lift it.

Jones then tentatively offers the answer "no," sticking with the safety of the tautological statement "God cannot do those things that God cannot do," which departs from all specificity that might tarnish the expedience hopefully gained with frequent rephrasings. After all, theists certainly don't want to take a stand that they will later regret. All of this is powered by having slipped into the imagination gear: "No matter how big a rock is created, God will always be able to move it. God is not powerful enough to compromise His own power."

But giving a definitive answer such as this is unsettling for god-believers, because they want their god to still come out on top. At this point, she is affirming a deficiency: her god is all-powerful lite - that is, really really powerful, not so powerful that it can create a rock so big that it cannot lift it. That's because any rock it creates, it will be able to lift it. This actually suggests that the dimension at which the rock would become too heavy for Jones' god to lift cannot be reached by its creative powers. It's not her god's lifting abilities that are deficient, but its ability to create a rock whose weight exceeds its lifting ability. Thus it remains possible to suppose that there might be a point at which a rock becomes too heavy even for Jones' god to lift, but its creative powers would never allow it to create something quite that big. Its creative powers thus have a limit: whatever it creates will still be within its ability to move, lift, toss around, juggle, etc. So, this is emotionally unsettling for the theist, because it exposes a limitation on her god that she finds intolerable. At this point, she's like a little kid who insists that her favorite superhero is invincible no matter what. And she'll ball up his fists to anyone who tries to challenge her beyond the limits of her own reasoning ability.

So Jones then says that it is possible to answer "yes" to the question after all! She says, however, that we need to "get beyond the deficiency of language in order to understand the concept behind the question" first. But what "deficiency of language" does she have in mind here? And what exactly is the "concept behind the question" that can be understood only if we "get beyond the deficiency of language"? This is all a set-up for toning down the meaning of "all powerful" (again), which is what Jones needs to do in order to finally address the question. A theist's claims about the powers of her god always come with an inexhaustible list of reservations. The term 'all powerful' now becomes "hyperbole," not intended to "be carried to hyper-literalism that renders it incomprehensible." Is this an admission that the statement "my god can do anything!" is really incomprehensible? That's what it sounds like to me at this point. Jones tones it way down to mean "the most powerful thing that can possibly exist." But what specifically "can possibly exist"? Such a question involves a lot of "presuppositions" - that is, prior assumptions which would factor into assessing what is possible. For the theist, she's drawing not only from subjective assumptions (since she's already granted primacy to the subject by affirming the existence of a god in the first place), but also off her own imagination (for everything she's talking about when she talks about what her god can do or has done is grounded in what she imagines, not in something she has witnessed firsthand). The question is thus reduced to a trivial thought experiment whose inputs are imaginary and whose outcome will inevitably be useless anyway.

At this point Jones summarily disarms himself:

Can the most powerful thing that can possibly exist create a rock so large that it could not lift it? Yes, it certainly could.

So what has Jones gained through this article? She answered the question both no and then yes, after calling it contradictory. Thus she's affirming two horns of a contradiction. She should have just done this in the first place instead of trying to provide an analysis which only succeeds in making her more confused than when she started.

However, at this point, Jones is still not entirely comfortable, for she wants to change the topic to questions about motivation: "we may ask why, and if, it would choose to do such a thing, it would still remain the most powerful thing that exists." This of course was not the original question, and it is not at all germane to whether or not a personal agent can create something so big that it cannot lift it. But the theist, always on the run from the light of reason that she cannot ever fully escape, needs to throw this out there in order to camouflage her commitment to a contradiction. One can think of many reasons why a personal agent might create something too big for it to lift it, but we must remember that when a man does this, he is not setting out with this outcome as an end in itself. Rather, this is simply one of many consequences of his efforts to meet his goals. When he builds a skyscraper, for instance, he's not building it so that he can say "Look! I created something too heavy for me to lift!"

When we get to goals and motivations, what goals and motivations could a god have? It has no needs, and anything it could possibly want (to the extent that it would even be sensible to say that it has any wants in the first place) could be provided just by wishing for it. But of course, the Christian god is characterized as both angry and unchanging, which suggests that it must be eternally miserable anyway. So its wants could never be satisfied anyway.

Jones ends by giving a roundabout admission that her analysis up to this point is worthless, saying that she would "still prefer the answer, 'I can't give a smart answer to a dumb question'!" But then again, where did she establish that the question is dumb in the first place? Ah, that's right, her 7 year old daughter told him this.

Well, as you can probably tell, I'm not very impressed. In fact, if I were a theist, I'd point out that the question illicitly assumes that the Christian god is beholden to the effects of gravity. I would add to this that my god is so powerful that it can turn gravity on and off as it pleases, and be done with it. I don't think I've ever seen a Christian deal with the question in this manner, but I think this would be more appropriate given the magical powers they ascribe to their god. After all, gravity would simply be an effect of the cartoon universe it created. And what cartoonist is bound to the effects he puts into his cartoons? Blank out.

by Dawson Bethrick

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Metaphysical Subjectivism and Christianity's Cartoon Universe, Pt. 2

Steve Hays of Triablogue has repeatedly attempted to exonerate the Christian worldview of its cartoonish implications. In addition to outright denying the striking similarities between Christianity's conception of the world and the fictional realm of a cartoon, Steve has attempted to weaken the analogy by misconstruing the points which are being related by the analogy. I have shown both how this procedure fails, and how the analogy is in fact strengthened by Christianity's own affirmations and the declarations of its own defenders. In the meantime, Steve has admitted to viewing himself as a puppet in a made up world (he claims it is an honor to believe this about himself), and has in fact made use of a very similar analogy in distinguishing his view from the non-believer's view. In this posting I will respond to more of Hays' attempts to neutralize the cartoon universe analogy.

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.

To which Steve responded:

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.

Now Steve says:

If a real live cartoonist does exactly what he described above, then, by Dawson’s own definition, he subscribes to a cartoon universe. Sorry if Dawson is unable to connect his own dots.

What I described in my own quote above is the non-cartoon universe of atheism, not the cartoon universe of theism. What Steve is missing here, is the point that an actual cartoonist in fact exists in the non-cartoon universe of atheism, not in the fictional realm that he creates. What distinguishes a cartoon universe from a non-cartoon universe is the former's dependence of all its contents and events on the will of some conscious determining agent that does not itself originate in that universe. This is the universe as Christians imagine it: all things and all events are “controlled” by a conscious being which designs everything which exists in the universe it creates and “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in it. The non-cartoon universe of atheism has no conscious determining agent originating from outside it which "controls whatsoever comes to pass" in it.

The cartoon universe analogy is not pointing out similarities between the universe as Christianity characterizes it and the non-cartoon universe of atheism. On the contrary, the cartoon universe analogy points out the similarities between the universe as Christianity characterizes it and the fictional realm of a cartoon. The cartoonist does in fact need to use materials to create his cartoons according to their nature, just as a carpenter uses wood to build cabinets according to wood's nature. But that is because both the cartoonist and the carpenter live in a universe where the objects of their awareness do not conform to wishes – i.e., a non-cartoon universe. In the non-cartoon universe, cartoonists and carpenters are autonomous agents - that is, they control themselves independently of each other, and they are not being controlled by some mystical personality which has choreographed all of history's events according to a mystical "plan."

In contrast to the non-cartoon universe of atheism, the universe that Christianity affirms is a universe where the things which constitute it conform to whatever a supernatural personality wishes. As John Frame puts it, "we are never free from divine control." (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 80.) Similarly, the fictional realm of a cartoon is a realm where the images look and act just as the cartoonist who creates it wants them to look and act. Likewise to Christianity, a cartoon character is never free from the cartoonist's control. In a non-cartoon universe, the objects hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of awareness, while a cartoon universe presupposes that the subject holds metaphysical primacy over the objects of awareness.

Someone existing in a cartoon universe wouldn’t “have to” use a keyboard to write what he wants to write, for in a cartoon universe there is nothing beyond the control of the all-determining agent. The very concept of necessity is strictly a non-cartoon universe idea borrowed by the cartoon universe worldview and used without understanding of its genetic roots. In a cartoon universe, everything is a wild card; there are no constraints independent of the supreme determiner’s will which define the limits of possibility within the cartoon realm itself. In a cartoon universe, the supreme determiner could, for instance, send a giant detached hand writing on the side of a large wall with its index finger. If the supreme determiner wanted to do this in the realm it creates, nothing would be able to stop it. This is precisely the kind of universe that Christianity affirms.

The Calvinist notion of a distinction between primary and secondary causation, where primary causation refers to the all-controlling sovereignty of the Christian god, and secondary causation refers to the incidental causes within the universe, is illustrative of just how integral the cartoon universe premise is to the Christian worldview. In describing the relationship between these two types of causation, John Frame makes use of an analogy not unlike mine. He writes:

Perhaps the best illustration... is this: In a well-crafted novel, the author creates a world in which events take place in meaningful causal relationships to one another. Each event has an intelligible cause within the world of the novel. But of course each event also has a higher cause, in the author's mind. Normally, such an author will try to maintain the orderly causal structure of his created universe. He may, of course, also work "without, above, and against" that causal order when he is pleased to do so. Usually, however, when an author disrupts the causal order of his novel, the narrative becomes less satisfying. Critics acuse such an author of bringing things about by a deus ex machina. (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 82)

Frame mentions that he got this analogy from his associate, Vern Poythress. So some of Christianity's own head honchos think such analogies offer wholesome representation of their worldview. In the analogy he offers Frame explicitly likens the universe as Christianity conceives of it to a work of fiction, pointing out that, as in a work of fiction, the players may appear to the reader to be acting autonomously on their own volition, but actually they are merely being pushed and pulled to and fro according to the intentions of the author. The author sets the rules, and breaks them when he wants. The author is in no way compelled to create his fictional realm one way as opposed to another. He could create a realm where gravity reverses its direction every seven minutes if he wanted to. The author can have his characters say magic prayers while objects alter themselves in immediate obedience, such as the parting of an inland sea when it suits their "needs." The author can choose to create a villain who savagely murders other characters. The author can even try to make himself feel better about creating such a character in his novel by saying he has "a morally sufficient reason to allow" this evil, as Bahnsen claims on behalf of his god.

Frame refers to his novel analogy as "perhaps the best illustration" of the "personalistic" determinism that lies at the foundation of his worldview. However, the advantage that a cartoon has over a novel is the graphic form in which a cartoon presents its invented realm. Where a novel leaves all the visuals and soundtracks up to the reader's imagination, a cartoon allows us to see and hear the invented realm. And while a novel can only be enjoyed at the pace of reader's reading rate, a cartoon proceeds on its own pace, since it actually portrays the action of the invented realm rather than merely describing it.

I had written:

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.

Steve responded:

I don’t have to provide my own argument since I’m playing off of Dawson’s argument. He is using the cartoon analogy to illustrate metaphysical subjectivism. But on that thesis, the ink, paper, celluloid, or software/hardware would be as much of a psychological projection as the imaginary realm of the cartoon itself.

I had pointed out that Steve’s earlier attempt to rebut the cartoon universe analogy traded on a confusion between the physical materials with which the cartoonist works and the fictional realm which he uses those materials to create. We saw above that this confusion still persists, and after repeated attempts to correct him, he remains unteachable on this point. In response to his contention, I pointed out this confusion on his part and explained that “the cartoon universe analogy in no way requires that cartoonists 'merely wish cartoon characters into existence',” and that the analogy is in no way intended to illustrate this. But Steve’s contention against the cartoon universe analogy does in fact require the analogy to mean that cartoonists, who exist in the non-cartoon universe of atheism, actually wish their cartoons into place. He nowhere provided an argument to validate his assumption that the analogy does in fact mean this, and now he comes back with a roundabout admission to the fact that he does not actually have an argument to support it, or that he needs one. He says he's simply "playing off" my argument. But is he? No, he's distorting it expressly to make it appear weak, even after he has been corrected. But as we have seen, even John Frame makes use of a very similar analogy himself, as have other Christians, including Steve himself.

The cartoon universe analogy illustrates Christianity’s personalistic determinism, which is an expression of metaphysical subjectivism. By determinism in this sense I mean the view that everything that happens in the universe has been determined according to a “plan” scheme set in motion by a conscious agent which oversees and directs its events. Just as a cartoonist determines whatever happens in the fictional realm he creates in his cartoon, the Christian god is said to determine “whatsoever comes to pass” in the universe it allegedly created.

I recommend that Steve think a little more carefully about his own worldview’s affirmations, and what Christians are telling non-believers about the universe they live in. Does he accept the view that his god “controls whatsoever comes to pass,” or not? If he does, then whether he wants to admit it or not, he affirms a worldview which characterizes the universe in a manner that is analogous to a cartoon, so therefore the cartoon universe analogy applies to his conception of the world. If he does not think that there is some conscious agent which “controls whatsoever comes to pass,” then he’s probably not a very conscientious Christian after all. That is not my fault.

I wrote:

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.

Steve responded:

Although an analogy does not need to be (and cannot be) identical at every point, it does need to be identical at the salient point of comparison—otherwise the parallel breaks down.

Actually, an analogy need not be “identical at the salient point of comparison,” it only needs to be similar at the point of comparison. Here I’m simply going by what a standard dictionary indicates. Merriam-Webster gives the following definition:

resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike : SIMILARITY b : comparison based on such resemblance

From dictionary.com we have:

Similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar. A comparison based on such similarity.

The similarity between a cartoon and the Christian view of the universe should be obvious to any thinker. Does not a cartoonist determine what happens in his cartoon realm according to an overarching plan from beginning to end? Does not the Christian god, according to Christianity, determine what happens in its creation according to an overarching plan from beginning to end? To deny the applicability of the cartoon universe analogy to Christianity, is to deny the sovereignty of the Christian god, and with it all of Christianity's essential teachings.

I wrote:

…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?

Steve responded:

The problem lies with the way in which the parallel is deployed. What is it intended to illustrate?

i) If this is parallel to divine creativity, it is also parallel to human creativity. It is parallel to what Dawson does on his keyboard. So does Dawson inhabit a cartoon universe?

As I have pointed out numerous times, the parallel is the determinative sovereignty enjoyed by the cartoonist over the fictional realm his cartoon vis-à-vis the sovereignty that Christians claim on behalf of their god over the contents of the universe and the events in which they act. A cartoonist can make whatever he wants happen in his fictional cartoon realm, just as the Christian god is said to be able to make whatever it wants happen in the universe it allegedly created. The events we see in a cartoon are determined by the cartoonist who creates it, just as Christianity affirms the view that the events which take place in it are determined by the Christian god which allegedly created it.

Does my own creativity imply that I inhabit a cartoon universe? As I pointed out, no, it does not. For the universe, according to my view, is not analogous to a cartoon because its contents and the events which take place within it are not being controlled by a supreme determiner calling all the shots. My creativity in the universe which I actually inhabit is limited by external constraints which inherently exist in the universe, but which do not inherently exist in a cartoon world. Neither is the Christian god supposed to be limited by such constraints. A cartoon world is constantly subject to revision per the cartoonist's choices. Similarly, on the Christian view,

God may at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law. That is, there is no inherent reason in the facts or laws themselves why this should not be done. It is this sort of conception of the relation of facts and laws, of the temporal one and many, imbedded as it is in that idea of God in which we profess to believe, that we need in order to make room for miracles. And miracles are at the heart of the Christian position. (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 27)

That "there is no inherent reason in the facts or laws themselves" is not the only reason why the Christian god can "at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law" on the Christian view. On the Christian view, the Christian god has complete sovereignty, giving it carte blanche over the universe it allegedly created. Not only are the "facts" of the universe creations which can be revised by the Christian god at will, so are the "laws" which are otherwise thought to govern (as "proximate" or "secondary causation") those "facts." Animals speaking in human language and men walking on water are not contradictions in the Christian worldview any more than they are in a cartoon realm.

Steve continued:

ii) And, as I’ve said more than once, now, Dawson uses the cartooning analogy because cartoon characters are imaginary characters. And he trades on this invidious connotation to insinuate that if the Christian worldview is analogous to cartooning, then the Christian worldview is, itself, fictitious.

Steve repeats his earlier complaint, even though he announced at the beginning of his post that he does not intend to repeat himself. I use the cartoon analogy because a cartoon models the determinative sovereignty of an all-controlling agent over its creation in graphic form. It is not my fault that the imaginary realm of a cartoon resembles the Christian conception of the universe. And yet, the resemblance is tremendous. Both the Christian god as creator of the universe, and the cartoonist as the creator of his fictional cartoon realm, enjoy similar determinative sovereignty and freedom from constraint in relation to their respective creations. The Christian god, for instance, “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in the Christian universe, just as the cartoonist “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in his cartoon universe. "God's decree," says John Frame quoting his master Van Til, "'is the final and exclusive determining power of whatsoever comes to pass'." (Op. cit., p. 80.) Likewise the cartoonist's decisions are "the final and exclusive determining power of whatsoever comes to pass" in the fictional realm of his cartoons. The Christian god can choose to create man with 16 arms instead of two, and likewise so can the cartoonist. The Christian god can populate the universe it creates with talking snakes and donkeys, ax heads which float on water, men who walk on water and through solid walls, water which turns into wine, etc., all under its overseeing direction. Similarly, the cartoonist can create a realm where these same things can happen. His cartoon universe is as pliant and malleable and responsive to his imagination as the Christian universe is said to be with respect to the Christian god’s intentions.

It is not my fault that there are profound similarities between the Christian conception of the universe and the imaginary realm conceived by a cartoonist. Steve will not accomplish anything by getting sore at me for this.

I wrote:

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.

Steve responded:

The problem with this comparison, as I’ve said before, is that it’s trivially true of almost a creative process. In typing and posting on his blog, the product is determined by a conscious, external agent—Dawson Bethrick. He is responsible for the content. His analogy fails to illustrate metaphysical subjectivism, which is a more radical thesis. And he seizes upon the cartoon analogy because cartoon characters are imaginary. But cartooning is merely one example out of countless others of the creative process.

I have not denied that there are inchoate similarities in other creative formats. However, my composing of a blog article in no way presents a graphic representation of a realm where natural law can be abandoned or revised at will, as Van Til describes, while a cartoon does. While I am responsible for the sentences and paragraphs that I write in an article, I cannot make a donkey speak in human language. Now, I can compose a dialogue between two agents, and assign one of them the role of a talking ass. But it would be up to the reader at this point to imagine it. Of course, this is exactly what the believer does when he reads the story of Balaam and his talking ass in the biblical book of Numbers, or any other story in the bible: as he invests himself in the story as he imagines it, it becomes more and more real to him. We would not expect Steve to trash his $85.00 theological commentaries given the steep investment he's made in them, and likewise we wouldn't expect an individual who has invested himself in an imaginative worldview like Christianity to allow it to be tarnished by critical thinking. Indeed, Christianity assumes the cartoon universe premise because the bible is a compendium of cartoonish accounts.

The cartoonist, however, can present a graphic representation of a realm where such things happen. His image-making is not bound to the constraints of their actual models, supposing he's using actual things as his models; on the contrary, his imagination can override the constraints we meet in our day to day lives in the context of his cartoon universe, and he can put that imagination into visual, active form. The images he creates in fact conform to his imagination. In this way the fictional realm of a cartoon resembles the universe as it is characterized by Christianity in its obedience to the cartoonist's wishes.

I wrote:

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.

Steve responded:

Bethrick is also a creative agent. We see on his blog whatever he wants us to see. He’s responsible for the content.

See above. It should not surprise Steve to learn that I think that his god is an invention of the human imagination as well.

I wrote:

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.

Steve responded:

Bethrick is now rewriting his own thesis. This is what he originally said in one of those earlier posts with which he thinks I should be “intimately familiar”:

Quoting me:

So here are some questions readers might ask themselves to determine whether or not they really do ascribe to the cartoon universe premise of theism. Any "yes" answer to one of these questions affirms endorsement of the cartoon universe premise; a "no" answer affirms either that one is an atheist, or, if he thinks he is a theist, that he thinks his god is impotent.

- Can your god create something ex nihilo (i.e., without using materials that already exist)?

Here Steve thinks he's finally got me. But where do I say that the cartoon universe analogy subsists on the view that "cartoonists create ex nihilo the physical medium which they use in making their cartoons"? For me to be rewriting my own thesis, there’d have to be at least some alteration of that thesis. (And since when is revising a thesis “wrong”?) Above I simply pointed out that affirmation of Christianity’s doctrine of creation ex nihilo affirms a conception of the universe which is analogous to a cartoon. A cartoonist creates a cartoon realm where it did not exist before, just as Frame's novelist writes a novel where it did not exist before. In effect, this is like creating a whole universe. The cartoonist sets the rules of his universe, revises them when it suits him, determines which characters and objects to insert into his cartoon realm, and controls everything that happens in that cartoon realm. The cartoon realm is thus analogous to the universe as Christians conceive of it. Indeed, many Christians have referred to their god as the greatest of all artists.

A cartoon’s parallel to Christianity’s creation ex nihilo is not difficult to see. As I pointed out, the analogy does not claim that actual cartoonists can or do wish into existence the materials they use to make cartoons. After all, the cartoon universe analogy itself does not assume that the actual universe is analogous to a cartoon, since atheism does not affirm the notion that the universe was created by an act of will. Rather, it points out the similarity between the universe as Christianity conceives of it and the realm which a cartoonist creates. In both cases, the creative agent responsible for creating the realm “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in their respective creations. The cartoon world that a cartoonist illustrates in his cartoons does find its source in the cartoonist’s consciousness, namely his imagination. The graphic representation in a cartoon is the cartoonist’s bringing into existence a fictitious realm which did not previously exist, and in this way it parallels the creation ex nihilo attributed by Christians to their god. There was a time when the cartoon character Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tune world he inhabits did not exist in graphic form. Bugs Bunny is not eternal; according to Christians, neither is the universe. Both are creations of consciousness.

So there you have it. We see that the cartoon universe analogy has more than sufficient backing, both by the striking similarities cartoons share with Christianity's conception of the universe, and by analogies which Christians themselves have used to illustrate their god's determinative sovereignty over the universe they claim it created. It is, as one commenter recently stated, a "perfect" analogy.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Metaphysical Subjectivism and Christianity's Cartoon Universe, Pt. 1

Steve Hays continues to nitpick at the cartoon universe analogy in an attempt to exonerate Christianity and even to impute it to an atheistic conception of the world. In a recent response on this topic, Steve sought to raise controversy by setting my words against those of Anton Thorn, who has also shone a light on Christianity's subjectivist foundations. He writes:

This is how Anton Thorn, Dawson’s fellow Randian, defines metaphysical subjectivism:

Metaphysical subjectivism, which is the view that the knowing subject creates its objects by an act of consciousness, essentially that existence finds its source in a form of consciousness.

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Sparta/1019/AFE/Metaphysical_Primacy.htm

And this is how Bethrick redefines metaphysical subjectivism:

Metaphysical subjectivism - the view that reality conforms to someone's intentions.

Why does Bethrick redefine and radically scale back the definition of Thorn? Because Bethrick finds himself in a quandary. For he is attempting to impute to Christianity two contradictory descriptions. On the one hand, he wants to say that Christianity espouses a cartoonish worldview. But the problem with this analogy is that even if Christian theism were analogous to a cartoonish worldview, a cartoonish worldview is disanalogous to metaphysical subjectivism. And that is because, as defined by Thorn, metaphysical subjectivism is an ontological thesis according to which reality is constituted by mental acts—by acts of consciousness. But, needless to say, a cartoon is not constituted by mental acts. A cartoonist lacks the power to create a cartoon by a mental fiat. Instead, a cartoonist must employ a physical medium of some sort to create a cartoon. So Bethrick is confronted with a choice: he can either try to salvage his cartoon analogy by sacrificing the imputation of metaphysical subjectivism, or else he can try to salvage the imputation of metaphysical realism by sacrificing his cartoon analogy. Clinging to his cartoon analogy, he chooses to jettison the imputation of metaphysical subjectivism to Christian theism. This he does through a face-saving redefinition. He swamps out an ontological theory for an epistemic theory. This involves the far weaker thesis that the artifact corresponds to the subjective intent of the agent, rather than the far more ambitious claim that the artifact is instantiated by the subjective intent of the agent.

Yes, that very well may be the definition of ‘metaphysical subjectivism’ that Thorn gives in the article that Steve cited. But we should note that it is not at all unusual for a term to have more than one definition, even ones that are closely related. In fact, elsewhere Thorn presents a conception of metaphysical subjectivism which is right in line with how I have used the term:

All of these notions tell us that the Christian view of reality is essentially that reality is a creation of consciousness, that reality conforms to conscious intentions. This is a view of reality which is called metaphysical subjectivism, and it springs directly from the primacy of consciousness view of reality. (TAG and the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept)

Since it's common for a term to have more than one definition, and Thorn himself uses this term in a manner that is directly in line with how I have used it, I see no problem here. But even if that were not sufficient, I gave my own definition of ‘metaphysical subjectivism’ as follows:

Metaphysical subjectivism is the genus of various versions of the fundamental orientation to reality which affirms that the objects of consciousness conform to the dictates of consciousness. This orientation is properly called “subjectivism” because it grants to the subject power over its object(s). (In the case of Christian teaching, this power is said to be absolute in the case of the Christian god.) It essentially holds that the world of objects (e.g., the universe) finds its source in a form of consciousness, or that they obey the dictates that originate in consciousness. (The Argument from Metaphysical Primacy: A Debate)

On the conception that I offered here, metaphysical subjectivism is a genus or broader category distinguished from metaphysical objectivism by virtue of its assumption of the primacy of consciousness in the subject-object relationship, while specific positions which grant metaphysical primacy, such as the view that consciousness creates its own objects or can revise their nature at will, etc., are species thereof. What unites these specific positions is their allegiance to the primacy of consciousness – i.e., the primacy of the subject over the object. There's no "radical scaling back," no "backing away," no "shell game" or other synonym for "face-saving" retreat going on here at all as Steve has alleged. As I pointed out before, Steve is simply broadcasting the fact that he has ventured into an area of is own ignorance. There's nothing wrong with being ignorant per se, but Steve is trying to speak as if he had familiarity where in fact it is painfully obvious he does not. This explains why he frequently finds himself confused.

The two definitions which are confusing Steve are the following:

“the view that the knowing subject creates its objects by an act of consciousness, essentially that existence finds its source in a form of consciousness.”

“the view that reality conforms to someone’s intentions”

It should be obvious to anyone who gives this some careful thought, that the common denominator to both of these definitions is the primacy of the subject metaphysics, a fundamental platform which characterizes worldviews such as Christianity. My statement above, that “metaphysical subjectivism is the genus of various versions of the fundamental orientation to reality which affirms that the objects of consciousness conform to the dictates of consciousness,” adequately applies to both statements. Both grant primacy to the subject in the subject-object relationship (subjectivism), and both pertain to the metaphysical relationship between subject and object, where the object either has its origin in consciousness, or is at any rate obedient to the dictates of consciousness. Thus, whether the view in question holds that an object first needs to be created by a super consciousness that one imagines in order to be controlled by it, or that the object already exists but can in any event be controlled by such a consciousness, the term metaphysical subjectivism still applies since both views back out to the primacy of consciousness, which is the essential fundamental of subjectivism. A subject which creates its objects is typically thought to have the power to conform those objects to its intentions. That is the power that Christianity claims on behalf of its god. Quite a fantasy, I must say.

Steve says that “a cartoonish worldview is disanalogous to metaphysical subjectivism.” However, I don’t think I ever said that the cartoon universe premise is analogous to metaphysical subjectivism. Rather, I hold that the cartoon universe premise is an expression of metaphysical subjectivism. That is, the view that the universe and its objects owe their existence, nature, form, shape, activity and relationship to other objects to the dictates of a personal will, clearly assumes the primacy of the subject in the subject-object relationship. That Christianity asserts that the universe was created by a conscious agent through an act of its will, only confirms that Christianity grants metaphysical primacy to the will of that conscious entity over any object it is said to have created. The affirmation of such a view is a sufficient condition to suspect that the cartoon universe premise may be in operation, for a universe so created may also be thought to be under its control, just as the fictional realm of a cartoon is under the control of the cartoonist who creates it. In the case of Christianity, both conditions exist: it teaches that the Christian god created the universe by an act of will, and it teaches that this god "controls whatsoever comes to pass" within it by will. Does not the Christian god determine what exists and happens in the universe it allegedly created? Does not the cartoonist similarly determine what appears and happens in the fake realm of his cartoon? Are cartoons not creations? Does not Christianity affirm that the universe is a creation?

Steve’s contention against the cartoon universe analogy trades on an equivocation at this point. He says that “a cartoon is not constituted by mental acts.” But this of course depends on what specifically we mean by ‘cartoon’ here. If, on one hand, by ‘cartoon’ we mean the physical materials that the cartoonist uses to create the images he imagines, then of course, it’s already been agreed that the cartoonist did not wish these into existence. And at no point does the cartoon universe analogy claim or require that they were. But if, on the other hand, by ‘cartoon’ we mean the fictional realm which the cartoonist conceives and puts into graphic form which others can perceive, then obviously the cartoonist’s own will and imagination ("forms of consciousness") play a determinative role here: what exists and happens in that created realm is determined by the cartoonist. Indeed, contrary to what Steve has stated, the things compared in an analogy need not be identical, and the fact that cartoonists do not wish the materials they use to create cartoons into existence in no way cancels out the similarities between the fictional realm of a cartoon and the universe as Christianity characterizes it, the very similarities which the analogy exposes.

A cartoon in this sense – i.e., the fictitious world which a cartoonist creates - is analogous to the universe as Christianity characterizes it in two aspects:

One: the fictional realm of a cartoon (corresponding to Christianity’s created universe) is a creation of the cartoonist’s imagination (a form of consciousness): he conceives the setting (it could be in a factory, in a desert, in outer space, etc. – it’s his choice) and the participants (they could look like humans, they could be walking and talking animals, aliens, etc. – it’s his choice).

Two: the images which make up the fictional realm of the cartoon (corresponding to the objects which exist in Christianity’s created universe) behave just as the cartoonist wants them to behave. Like a master puppeteer able to control many puppets at once, the cartoonist can have his characters do whatever he wants them to do as he moves his story according to his plan. They can walk through walls, leap over tall buildings, bend railroad tracks in their bare hands, walk on water, defy gravity, produce large objects (such as automobiles or school busses) from trouser pockets, etc. – it’s his choice.

Notice the following similarities:

Just as the cartoonist chooses to create the fictional realm of his cartoon, so the Christian god is said to have chosen to create the universe. The fictional realm of the cartoon is there because of someone's choosing, and the universe is said to be here because of the Christian god's choosing. In both cases, personal volition got everything started.

Just as the cartoonist chooses what images will appear in the fictional realm he creates in his cartoon, the Christian god is said to have chosen which objects will exist in the universe it creates. In both cases, the content of the created realm follows as a result of the choices of the agent doing the creating.

Just as the cartoonist chooses which events will take place in the fictional realm of the cartoon he creates, the Christian god chooses which events will take place in the universe. In both cases, the events and the sequence in which they unfold follow as a result of the agent doing the choosing.

Just as the cartoonist “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in the fictional realm of his cartoons, the Christian god “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in the universe it allegedly created. In both cases, everything that exists and happens is under the guiding control of the agent doing the choosing.

The similarities between the fictional realm of a cartoon and the universe as Christianity characterizes it, are striking. And since an analogy is a “resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike: SIMILARITY” (Merriam-Webster), we have unmistakably an analogy which connects at several levels. At each level the analogy highlights the similarities between the fictional realm of a cartoon on the one hand, and the universe as Christianity characterizes it on the other, in terms of their being sourced in a form of consciousness which authors the nature of their respective content and “controls whatsoever comes to pass” in their respective realms. Consequently, the dilemma that Steve says I face in defending the cartoon universe analogy, is merely a figment of his imagination, and the fact that he affirms what he has imagined as reality simply confirms his allegiance to a cartoonish conception of the universe. The only real difference is that the Christian typically recognizes that the fictional realm of a cartoon is in fact fictional, while failing to acknowledge that his worldview is also built on a fiction.

Now the Christian may object, saying that metaphysical subjectivism does not apply to Christianity because the objects of his consciousness do not obey his own wishes. I have seen Christians attempt to raise so weak an objection before. And of course, it is true that the objects they perceive do not obey his wishes. But on the Christian view, this is only the case because the Christian god has wished it to be, for on the Christian view “God controls whatsoever comes to pass.” So in the end, what is, is what the supreme being wants it to be, according to Christianity. Why? Because on the Christian worldview, the universe is analogous to a cartoon: its contents do whatever the master determiner wants them to do.

So on both counts, Christianity clearly and unashamedly endorses metaphysical subjectivism. It holds that the universe finds its source in a personal will, and it holds that the objects in the universe conform to what that personal will desires. The things that exist in the universe exist because someone wanted them to exist; they have the nature that they have only because that someone wanted them to have the nature they have; and they act in the way they act only because that someone wanted them to act the way they act.

Out of all human artifacts, a cartoon comes closest to modeling such a bizarre view of reality, far closer than the clay that a potter molds in his hands. The objects that appear in the cartoon appear only because the cartoonist wants them to appear there. The objects in the cartoon have the form and characteristics they have only because the cartoonist wanted them to have the form and characteristics they have. And the objects in the cartoon act the way they do only because the cartoonist wanted them to act the way they do. Where the Christian worldview affirms the primacy of wanting as the primary determinant in the universe as a truth, a cartoon graphically models the primacy of wanting as the primary determinant as a spectacle of entertainment.

If 'metaphysical subjectivism' is to be reserved exclusively to "the view that the knowing subject creates its objects by an act of consciousness," then it obviously applies to Christianity, for it affirms that the universe was created by an act of consciousness. But this is only part of the Christian picture of things. Christianity does not affirm the general view of deism, namely that a divine consciousness created the universe and then moved on, allowing the universe to operate in an autonomous manner on its own built-in principles. On the contrary, Christianity affirms that its god "controls whatsoever comes to pass" in the universe, that every event, from molecular activity to worldwide movements, from every baby's first words to the landing of a spacecraft on the surface of the moon, from the dislodging of a grain of sand from a riverbed to the shifting of the tectonic plates, is being personally directed by this supernatural conscious being. This god sets the rules, determining when they apply and when they do not apply, according to its will. Thus if metaphyiscal subjectivism includes the view that the objects of consciousness conform to the knowing subject, it again applies to the Christian view in its cartoonish view of the universe.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Monday, July 03, 2006

See, I told you so!

In contrasting himself from the "evil unbeliever" John Loftus of Debunking Christianity fame, Triabooger Steve Hays drew a remarkable analogy. He wrote:

You’re like a man who steps into a painting and then denies the existence of the painter because you can’t find the painter in the painting. From within the painting, you can’t see anything outside the painting. I’m like a man who steps into a painting and cannot deny the existence of the painter since he is evident in every brushstroke.

Give the man a cigar! Steve is finally starting to see the light! All he's missing now is a little action (perhaps he's not been getting enough lately). A painting is static. But a cartoon is animated and full of activity. With his blogging activity clocking at about 13.2 postings per day, Steve is a busy boy, not at all like the immobile figures in a painting. On the contrary, he's Superboy, trying to save the universe from the latest blitz of the evil atheist conspiracy. His painting analogy is lagging far behind the brimming liveliness of the cartoon universe analogy.

But it is a vast improvement over his earlier obduracy. For here Steve signs on the dotted line of his own worldview's commitment to the cartoon universe premise, cashing in on the legal tender of its vivid connotations. With scripture verses tucked under his arm like a security blanket, Steve is like a cartoon character who's pushed and pulled around a fabricated cartoon world, unable deny the existence of the cartoonist because the cartoonist has determined it to be. The cartoonist even makes him say that it's because of evidence that he knows of the cartoonist's existence. But even on his own worldview's terms, it's not really a matter of evidence. Evidence is decidedly trumped by foreordination. He's just a lump of clay in the potter's hands, a puppet dangling at the end of some strings. He has no idea who's manipulating the strings.

Steve writes:

What is more, the painter painted himself into his own painting 2000 years ago.

Exactly what I myself had stated. Observe:

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.

The biblical figure of Jesus is precisely that: the Christian god-cartoonist inserting itself into its own cartoon. And ever since, the cartoon has been on auto-repeat as we see each generation of believers trying to validate their creeds and raise their own apostles. The cartoonist exited the cartoon long ago, but vowed to come back, saying "Behold, I come quickly" (Rev. 3:11). I guess in the cartoon universe of theism, 2,000 years and counting constitutes "quickly."

Stay tuned! There's more to come!

by Dawson Bethrick

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