Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Singhing the Greg Bahnsen Blues

A court jester for Christianity recently created an anonymous moniker on Blogger so that he/she/it can masquerade in the comments sections of this and other blogs. This one goes by the name Singh. His/her/its Blogger profile is dated September 2007, and when I checked it there had been only 4 page views. So Singh must have just recently been born again, for it appears he/she/it just fell off the cabbage truck. Incidentally, Peter Pike just happens to have has an entry on his blog about a book by Simon Singh. Coincidence?

Anyway, Singh left comments today in response to two of my blog entries. Singh also made an appearance at Debunking Christianity earlier today as well. On my blog, Singh's drive-by comments can be found here and here.

Singh apparently didn’t like my series on Greg Bahnsen’s attempts to defend “knowledge of the ‘super-natural’.” Observe:

Singh: "Sure, you have answered Bahnsen."

I surely have.

Singh: "Whether you have answered correctly is another story."

In my final assessment, I identified 13 areas where Bahnsen's defense of "knowledge of the 'super-natural'" could at best be considered utterly deficient. Bahnsen's defenders are free to show where Bahnsen in fact addresses these concerns in the space of the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready. Failing to do this on these 13 points will only concede the matter to my analysis and the verdicts it supports.

Singh: "Your unargued presupposition that all existence, life, mind, and reason it itself is the the result of mindless processes is still hanging out their [sic] twisiting in the wind."

What is the alternative to what Singh has characterized as "mindless processes" if not some process which is guided by mental activity? And what alternative is there to the "presupposition that all existence, life, mind, and reason it [sic] itself is the result of mindless processes" if not the presupposition that "all existence" is "the result of" a mental process? Thus in so characterizing my "presupposition" (which is nothing other than the primacy of existence principle), Singh confirms Christianity's dependence on the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. Notice how Singh's own presupposition of the primacy of consciousness hangs itself: on his view, "all existence" is the "result" of some conscious activity - which can only mean: the conscious activity took place prior to "all existence" - which could only mean that the conscious activity could not exist. But in order to be responsible for "all existence," it would have to exist. Thus your Singh's presupposition necessarily entails self-contradiction. This isn't surprising coming from a Christian, for Christianity is a form of worshiping contradiction.

Now what is so wrong with supposing that a so-called "mindless process" is responsible for various activities in reality? Singh does not say, so perhaps there's nothing wrong with it. But consider: when a drop of water falls from the leaf of a plant in the early morning dew, why suppose that some conscious activity makes this happen? Sure, one can imagine that a magic being is causing this. But this simply raises the question: what objective inputs from reality suggest this? The lack of objective inputs does not stop a thinker from imagining that a magic consciousness resides "behind" everything in the universe. But that's one of the major points which Bahnsen continually fails to confront: since there is a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, those who assert a god need to explain how a thinker can distinguish between what the believer calls "God" and what the believer may simply be imagining. I raise this question at numerous critical junctures throughout my interaction with Bahnsen's essay, but Singh nowhere acknowledges that this might even be a concern, let alone addresses it.

Singh: "Science has certainly not demonstrated your presuppositions of course, but your faith that it will is obviously great."

Singh succeeds only in broadcasting his/her/its own ignorance here. Science is only possible on the basis of a rational worldview guided by the principle of objectivity. The primacy of existence is the essence of the principle of objectivity. It is the recognition that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. The alternative to this view is any form of subjectivism that the human mind can invent (such as Christianity). In terms of essentials, the primacy of consciousness view of the world ultimately reduces to the view that wishing makes it so. Obviously science does not proceed on the basis that wishing makes it so; rather it proceeds on the basis that facts obtain regardless of what we wish and that the scientist's task is to discover and identify those facts, whatever they might turn out to be. Since science is not possible on any basis other than the primacy of existence principle (the recognition that existence exists independent of consciousness), there is no scientific burden to demonstrate the truth of the primacy of existence. It is in fact axiomatic - a base-level truth upon which all other truths depend. If the primacy of existence were not already true, science simply would not be possible. The fact that science not only is possible but is an amply developed field of human endeavor, is for the purposes of serving the point thus taken as sufficient confirmation of the primacy of existence. To deny this is to deny the principle of objectivity and surrender the mind to outright subjectivism.

Singh: "And I do use faith in the same perjorative [sic] sense that you do, in this context."

It is the bible, not I, which associates faith with hoping (see specifically Hebrews 11:1). And it is Greg Bahnsen himself, not I, who characterizes faith as belief without understanding. If Singh affirms things on faith, that's not my problem.

Singh: "Frankly, your self referential rehashes and baseless moral pronouncements are unconvincing."

It's not clear what Singh is referring to here. So saying whatever it is he has in mind is "unconvincing" is unhelpful to anyone other than himself.

Singh: "The great flaw in your whole continuing thread is your constant claims that Bahnsen does this...Bahnesen does that...without adequate (or, in many cases ANY) references to where EXACTLY he does this."

This is so false that it's apparent that Singh hasn't bothered to read any of my installments interacting with Bahnsen's essay. I give "references to where EXACTLY" Bahnsen does precisely what I cite him doing. What's more, I identify the book where does this, and I cite the page number. And I go even further to quote exactly what he says. Then I interact with it.

Whether he/she/it realizes it or not, Singh demonstrates that his/her/its commitment to Christian mysticism is emotional rather than intellectual in nature. Singh's concern is to discredit my criticism of Bahnsen without assembling any counter-criticism of his/her/its own or showing where in fact Bahnsen addresses the issues which I have raised. Apparently Singh sees that his/her/its champion apologist has been decisively exposed as a blathering fake, and frustrated by this he/she/it feels a need to retaliate. Why does it matter to Singh what I or any other critic of Bahnsen has to say? Did Singh really believe that such paltry comments are going to accomplish anything of value by emoting in this manner? T'is true, Christians do believe all kinds of foolish things, so perhaps this is the case.

Singh: "And knowing how much you despise Christians, from your remarks on other blogs, I am certainly not going to place any "faith" in your representing him correctly."

I nowhere ask that any of my readers "place any 'faith' in" anything I do, say or present in the first place. In fact, I have published arguments for my verdicts. But I don't see that Singh has interacted with any of them. Why, for instance, does Bahnsen seem so oblivious on the relationship between perception and conceptualization, as his own statements make clear? If Singh thinks I'm wrong in concluding that Bahnsen did not understand the relationship between perception and the conceptual level of cognition, where does he present his understanding on this, and why didn't he integrate it into his "defense" of his "knowledge of the 'super-natural'"?

As for the claim that I "despise Christians," this only shows that Singh is a very poor judge of character. Singh has mistaken his/her/its own umbrage with evidence of spite on my part. On the contrary, however, I love Christians. They make for great entertainment. Singh is a case in point.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Roadmap to Bahnsen on the Supernatural

This is a jump page to all 18 parts of my examination of Bahnsen’s attempt to deal with “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” which he undertakes in the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: “The Reproach of the Transcendent”
Part 3: “Defining the Metaphysical”
Part 4: “Fundamental Distinctions”
Part 5: “A Comprehensive Metaphysic”
Part 6: “The Christian Metaphysic”
Part 7: “Distinguishing Appearance from Reality”
Part 8: “Ultimate Questions”
Part 9: “Suprasensible Reality”
Part 10: “Pure Motives?”
Part 11: “The Case Against Metaphysics”
Part 12: “Logical Positivism”
Part 13: “Double Standards and Begging the Question”
Part 14: “Philosophical Self-Deception”
Part 15: “Further Difficulties”
Part 16: “No Predictability”
Part 17: “Naturalism versus Supernaturalism as Worldviews”
Part 18: Final Assessment and Conclusion

I have also assembled all 18 parts into a single document which is now available on my website in two different formats:

Bahnsen on “Knowing the Supernatural” (HTML)

Bahnsen on “Knowing the Supernatural” (PDF)

Again Greg Bahnsen has been answered.
Where are his defenders?
Where are his rescuers?

Perhaps silence is golden after all.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 18: Final Assessment and Conclusion

Continued from Part 17.

Final Assessment and Conclusion

Before Greg Bahnsen’s death, Christian apologist John Frame hailed him as “one of the sharpest apologists working today,” opining that “he is the best debater among Christian apologists of all apologetic persuasions.” (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 392) Elsewhere he says that Bahnsen was “singularly gifted for the spiritual warfare of our time” by the Christian god, and perhaps because of this divine endowment, “Bahnsen still has no peer.” “Bahnsen's mind is razor sharp,” says Blake White in his brief review of Always Ready. Another source refers to Bahnsen as “the man atheists fear most.”

Given this noteworthy adulation, one would suppose that, if anyone can tackle “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” it would be Greg Bahnsen. And many Christian warriors would probably agree with this, supposing that books like Always Ready and its 31st chapter are quintessential armaments against the Christian worldview’s critics and the objections they raise. “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” then, gives us a firsthand look at how this amply lauded apologist addresses a matter of fundamental importance to the Christian worldview.

As I pointed out at the beginning of my examination of Bahnsen’s chapter on “Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” Christianity’s defenders are prone to characterizing the non-believer’s rejection of “the supernatural” as a symptom of some unjustifiable “bias” or unfair “prejudice” which precludes an honest hearing of the case for supernaturalism or validation of knowledge whose source is in “the supernatural.” But if it turns out that, when the defense they offer for the notion of “the supernatural” is full of gaping holes and missed opportunities, as we find in the case of Bahnsen’s treatment of the issue, such charges are shown to have no credibility whatsoever. Over and over we find that Bahnsen ignores fundamental questions to the point that it becomes clear that he is seeking to evade them. This became clear by reviewing his attempt to deal with “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’” with a few basic questions germane to the topic of the chapter in mind, such as:

How can one “know” what the believer calls “the supernatural”?

By what means does the believer have awareness of what he calls “the supernatural”?

How does the believer distinguish what he calls “the supernatural” (or “God”) from what he may merely be imagining?

How is “revelation” as applied to the bible different from simply assuming that the stories in the bible are true?


Add to this list the question of how the notion of “the supernatural” is compatible with the principle of objectivity, the primacy of existence metaphysics, and rational philosophy in general, and we find that Bahnsen simply did not do his homework on the issue.

Instead of addressing questions of this nature, Bahnsen expends much of his energy baldly asserting Christian dogma as if it were self-evidently true and trying to discredit rival positions, as if doing so will somehow resolve “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’.” At no point does he validate the notion of "the supernatural," explain why we should believe it is anything other than imaginary, identify the means by which man can have awareness of it, or show how belief in "the supernatural" is compatible with the principle of objectivity and rational philosophy.

Upon close examination of what Bahnsen does present, we find numerous new problems instead of any resolutions, such as:
  1. Bahnsen nowhere identifies in clear terms the starting point which grounds a “comprehensive metaphysic” suitable for man, the means by which one might have awareness of its starting point, or the process by which one can know that its starting point could be true.

  2. Bahnsen’s conception of “supernatural” (“whatever surpasses the limits of nature”) is too open-ended for his own apologetic interests. It does not specify any actual thing, and could apply to anything one imagines. To accept "the supernatural" on Bahnsen's conception of it, would be to accept not only Christianity's supernatural beings, but also those of other religions, since - like Christianity's supernatural agents - the supernatural agents of other mystical worldviews likewise "surpass the limits of nature." Also, in practical matters, “whatever surpasses the limits of nature” quite often spells danger and disaster for man.

  3. Bahnsen nowhere enlightens his readers on how they can know “the supernatural," even though the very title of the 31st chapter of his book suggests that this is something he would be setting out to do in that chapter.

  4. Bahnsen totally neglects the issue of how one might have awareness of what he calls “the supernatural.” He notes at many points that one does not have awareness of “the supernatural” by means of sense-perception, or by any empirical mode of awareness. However, this only tells us how we do not have awareness of “the supernatural.” It leaves completely unstated how one does have awareness of “the supernatural,” if in fact he claims to have such awareness. Bahnsen resists identifying what that mode of awareness is.

  5. Bahnsen’s theology entails knowledge acquired and held by a passive, inactive mind, which is a contradiction in terms. The “knowledge” in question is the “knowledge of the supernatural” that Christians claim to have as a consequence of divine revelation, which is characterized as the Christian god coming to man rather than man "speculating" or "groping" his way to it through some cognitive activity.

  6. Bahnsen promulgates a most tiresome and outworn dichotomy: either the mind is passive and inactive in its acquisition of knowledge (since its “revealed” to him by supernatural spirits), or he is left with “arbitrary speculations.” This arbitrary dilemma ignores the very faculty by which man acquires and validates knowledge in the first place, namely reason.

  7. Bahnsen provides no indication of how one can confidently distinguish “the supernatural” from what he is imagining. If there is a difference, then the ability to distinguish them is of vital concern, since neither “the supernatural” nor the constructs of one’s imagination exist in the “here and now,” are beyond the testimony of the senses, and “surpass the limits of nature.” In other words, since the imaginary and "the supernatural" look and behave very much alike, the absence of an objective process by which the one can be reliably distinguished from the other indicates a glaring epistemological oversight of enormous proportions, suggesting that our leg is being pulled.

  8. Bahnsen exhibits a hesitant fickleness regarding the role of inference in knowing “the supernatural.” Is his god’s existence inferred from objectively verifiable facts (if yes, from what objectively verifiable facts?), or directly known (if yes, by what mode of awareness?)? At times he seems to be affirming the former, at others the latter. At no point is he explicit in how exactly the human mind can have knowledge of a being which "surpasses the limits of nature."

  9. Bahnsen expends much energy focusing his readers’ attention on purported failings of non-believing worldviews, even though they are irrelevant to explaining how one can acquire and validate knowledge of “the supernatural.” The detection of internal problems within Logical Positivism, for instance, is not a proof of the existence of "the supernatural," nor does it serve to inform any epistemological basis to suppose that "the supernatural" is real.

  10. Bahnsen seems resentful of epistemologies which take sense perception as a starting point - that is, as the fundamental operation of consciousness upon which knowledge of reality depends - but nowhere identifies any clear alternative. Indeed, he seems not to have thought this through very well at all. For upon analysis it becomes clear that “special revelation” (i.e., accepting whatever the bible says as truth) requires sense perception in order to “read the book,” and “general revelation” (i.e., inferring the Christian god’s existence and/or message from what we discover in nature) also involves sense perception (as a mode of awareness of nature) as well as at least in part consulting “internal evidences” – which could be feelings, wishes, imagination, hopes, etc. So there is strong evidence here of an ad hoc approach to epistemology as such.

  11. Bahnsen is oblivious of how conceptualization works. This is can be attributed to the fact that Christianity does not have its own theory of concept-formation. Specifically, much of his case against supernaturalism’s detractors demonstrates that he does not understand the relationship between the perceptual level of awareness and the conceptual activity. For instance, Bahnsen supposes that a comprehensive metaphysic cannot be based ultimately on sense experience because sense experience is “limited.” But concepts allow a thinker to expand his awareness beyond what he personally experiences and while still basing his knowledge ultimately on what he experiences. So the conflict against which Bahnsen reacts is really due to his own ignorance of the nature of concepts.
  12. Bahnsen shows that he must appeal to the supernatural in order to validate the supernatural, which is terminally circular.
  13. Elements in Bahnsen’s case are incompatible with elements that are part of the worldview which he is trying to defend (e.g., that appearances are distinct from reality, and yet “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen” per Romans 1:20).

So instead of providing an objectively reliable answer to the problem he purports to be addressing in the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready, Bahnsen relies on a list of cheap gimmicks and blaring gaffs that carry him haphazardly into areas that no careful thinker would want to go. Persisting throughout the chapter is Bahnsen’s ignorance of the relationship between the perceptual and the conceptual levels of human consciousness. In fact, it is this relationship that is key to unraveling many of Bahnsen’s confusions over issues such as the purported dichotomy between appearance and reality (which Bahnsen raises, but does not explain or resolve), the conceptual (as opposed to “empirical”) nature of knowledge, the fundamental weaknesses of Logical Positivism, and a host of other related issues. In typical presuppositionalist fashion, Bahnsen seeks to exploit this ignorance, which he shares with many unwitting non-believers as well, in a concerted effort to turn the spotlight from the problem which he should be addressing in his chapter (given its title), to problems which he perceives in rival worldviews. But anyone should be able to recognize that pointing out a problem in someone else’s position does nothing to validate the claim that “the supernatural” is real and that “knowledge” of it is legitimate. Exposing fundamental errors in Logical Positivism, no matter how egregious they may be, will not explain Bahnsen allegedly acquires knowledge of what he calls “the supernatural.”

But in spite of these problems which should be obvious to any critical thinker, we still find that many are charmed by Bahnsen’s sophistry. Blake White, for instance, in his review of Always Ready, tells us that

Bahnsen spends a lot of time on epistemology and the need for a truly Christian theory of knowledge.

What contribution does Bahnsen make on the topic of epistemology when he doesn’t address the fundamental questions pertaining to “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” and how do the gimmicks, fallacies and evasions listed above address man’s need for a theory of knowledge? Contrary to what White tells his readers, Bahnsen gives us at best an epistemology of utter negligence.

In conclusion, then, we can with certainty say that any appeal to the supernatural is irrational. This is because supernaturalism assumes the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, which constitutes a crass departure from the reality-based orientation to the world which makes rationality possible in the first place. In addition to this, appeals to supernaturalism fail to identify how the content of its claims can be established in a manner consistent with the nature of the human mind and its cognitive functions; they fail to identify the means by which one can acquire awareness of that which is allegedly “supernatural,” how claims that supernatural beings exist can be validated, and how such claims can be tested for their supposed truth value. Adherents to supernaturalism are quick to point to the means by which supernatural claims are not validated or tested, but fail to identify the means by which they could be validated and tested. Furthermore, adherents to supernaturalism fail to provide a method for distinguishing what they call “the supernatural” and what they may merely be imagining, thus priming the mind of one who is prone to believing supernatural claims for compromising fact with fantasy. As evidence of these points indicating the irrationality of supernaturalism, adherents of supernaturalism inevitably find that they need to appeal to their supernaturalism in order to defend their supernaturalism, which is viciously circular and therefore fallacious. So not only is supernaturalism by virtue of its nature and content irrational, it also invites the call for fallacy in its defenses. To accuse non-supernaturalists of an “unjust bias” for their rejection of supernaturalism, then, is consequently also irrational, indeed hypocritical.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 17: "Naturalism versus Supernaturalism as Worldviews"

Continued from Part 16.

"Naturalism versus Supernaturalism as Worldviews"

A common tactic throughout Bahnsen's apologetic is to focus the spotlight of his (and his readers') attention on the purported failings of "unbelievers" who remain anonymous and thus by implication include virtually any non-Christian that a believer may encounter. By dwelling on purported failings of non-believing worldviews, Bahnsen is safe to ignore the issues surrounding his claims that I have highlighted throughout my analysis of his chapter on "The Problem of Knowing the 'Super-Natural'." Concentrating on what other worldviews do or don't do puts these issues securely out of mind. The intention here should be obvious: to direct the thinker's attention away from the questionable nature of religious claims while putting those who do not accept those claims on the defensive. It's nothing more than an attempt to shift the burden of proof. This is why Bahnsen devotes so much of his chapter on raking over failings of certain philosophies and happily leaves the reader free to assume that those failings are endemic to any non-believing worldview by virtue of its non-belief. In this sense, Bahnsen's captivation with what "anti-metaphysicians" may be guilty of endorsing serves as an effective red herring, dragging the reader off the trail which Bahnsen should be following (in order to explain how one can have knowledge of what Christianity calls “the supernatural”) and onto something irrelevant (e.g., Logical Positivism contradicts itself) to the task at hand.

This embedded fallacy is key to the presuppositionalist strategy of framing the debate as a clash of opposing worldviews. If debate concerning the existence of a god reduces to a conflict between two rival philosophies, and it is implicitly accepted that the two philosophies involved in that clash are jointly exhaustive (i.e., the only two possible), and the philosophy opposing the Christian worldview is exposed to suffer certain fatal internal problems, then – so goes the reasoning – Christianity wins by default. Such a strategy will of course be satisfactory to those who are confessionally committed to the Christian faith (i.e., to the hope that it is true), but it is hard to see how such a scheme could be deemed intellectually responsible.

We see this kind of reasoning in action when Bahnsen opens the final section of “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready with the following statement:

Enough has now been said to make it clear what kind of situation we have when an unbeliever argues against the Christian's claim to knowledge about the "super-natural" - when the unbeliever takes an anti-metaphysical stand against the faith. (Always Ready, 189)

So while earlier Bahnsen focused on the failings of Logical Positivism, he now conflates Logical Positivism with non-belief as such by intimating that non-belief entails a rejection of metaphysics (even non-supernaturalist metaphysics). This is most naïve. One does not need to reject the philosophical branch of metaphysics in order to recognize the irrationality of god-belief, Christian or otherwise. Bahnsen acts as if he’s felled all non-believing worldviews by toppling one. Not only is this deceptive, it does not address any of the questions which have been raised on the topic of “knowing the ‘super-natural’.” Meanwhile, Bahnsen’s hoping that everyone’s looking the other way. Here’s one who isn’t.

Bahnsen claims:

The believer holds, on the basis of infallible revelation from the transcendent Creator, certain things about unseen reality (e.g., the existence of God, providence, life after death, etc.). (Always Ready, 189)

Bahnsen still does not address the fundamental question here, namely: how did the believer acquire awareness of this “revelation”? Again we come back to the “problem of knowing the ‘Super-Natural’,” which Bahnsen seems unable to address. Did the believer not learn it from the bible? If so, this would have required him to use his senses. Reading a book is hardly a supernatural event. This would mean that the source of “revelation” is actually material in nature: a book consisting of paper pulp and synthetic jacket material, produced by human effort and distributed by a vendor, often for financial profit. This is essentially what constitutes “divine revelation” for the Christian. Ironically, the believer’s own sense perception is plays an inextricable role in his acquisition of knowledge of the Christian god’s “revelation” if reading the bible is how he acquired awareness of it.

But this suggests that “revelation” for the Christian believer is nothing more than simply believing whatever he reads in a storybook. Indeed, it even suggests that “revelation” consists of assuming that whatever the bible says is true, even before one has read all of it. This is not uncommon among Christians, who consider it a virtue to believe religious pronouncements on the basis of faith. Not only does such an attitude not require the existence of a god to explain it (for it is an attitude that any parent can foster in his philosophically defenseless children, for instance), it also goes against certain statements by Bahnsen’s own mentor, Cornelius Van Til. For instance, in his book A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Van Til wrote:

Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? (p. 12)

Here Van Til clearly indicates that it “a simple blunder in elementary logic” to suppose that something is true simply “because it is in the Bible.” What implications does this statement have for the notion of “revelation,” whereby “revelation” ultimately signifies believing whatever is written in the bible? Nowhere does Bahnsen seem to deal with this problem, and in the meanwhile he still fails to explain how one can “know” what he calls “the supernatural.”

Regarding this, Bahnsen affirms that

Knowledge of such matters is not problematic within the worldview of the Christian. (Always Ready, 189)

And we can see why. For as we saw in Part 13, if the believer grants one arbitrary premise, why not grant others? And if simply believing what is written in the bible constitutes “revelation” of the Christian god, then of course it would be easy to ignore epistemological questions (as Bahnsen does), since there really is no epistemology here: all one needs to be able to do is read and be willing to regard whatever he reads in the bible as unquestionable truth. Questions about the means and range of human awareness, the relationship between the conceptual level and the perceptual level of consciousness, the distinction between “the supernatural” and what is merely imaginary, are of no concern here. These matters can be safely swept under the rug so that nobody has to consider them, for indulgence in fantasy has replaced any concern one might develop for the way human cognition operates.

Notice how everything up to this point has served to prepare Bahnsen for an appeal to the supernatural to justify belief in the supernatural, which is viciously circular. In spite of this “simple blunder in elementary logic,” Bahnsen writes:

God knows all things, having created everything according to His own wise counsel and determining the individual natures of each thing; further He created man as His own image, capable of thinking His thoughts after Him on the basis of revelation, both general (in nature) and special (in Scripture). (Always Ready, 189)

Encapsulated within this statement, we have what can be validly called the summary description of an epistemology of pretended vicariousness. It consists of justifying a claim to knowledge that is not rationally defensible by inventing an all-knowing deity which, on account of its all-knowingness, would know what the believer claims to know. As such, it serves as a substitute for justification, one which is supposed to be superior to any that the believer himself could ever provide of his own (which would immediately be dismissed as a product of “autonomous reasoning” if it were presented by a non-believer). Now frankly, anyone can do this. It just requires a willingness to fake reality, not only to others, but to oneself (for as Bahnsen demonstrates, the proponents of such vicariousness take it seriously). Appealing to an imaginary being that is omniscient and infallible can cover any lie, deception, fraud or arbitrary claim one wants to promote. This is the appeal to “someone smarter than I knows, so it doesn’t matter what I don’t know” gimmickry that colors the whole of Christian “epistemology.” For the Christian believer, when it comes to knowledge, it is not what he (the believer) knows, it is what (the believer claims) his god knows. And since his god knows everything, then the appeal to what (he claims) his god knows is a sure bet, given his mystical premises. The believer can even claim to have insight into his imaginary deity’s decrees by claiming to “think” its thoughts “after Him,” thereby increasing his descent into the labyrinth of self-deceit. For Bahnsen, this is the stuff of philosophy. And while such an ability to “think” the “thoughts” of an omniscient and infallible being should endow Bahnsen with astounding mental capacity, what we find instead is quite disappointing.

Unfortunately for Bahnsen, he makes at least one thing indisputable: that he has no rational defense for those mystical premises which he clearly wants to take for granted. Observe:

Thus man has the rational and spiritual capability to learn and understand truths about reality which transcend his temporal, empirical experience - truths which are disclosed by his Creator. (Always Ready, 189)

Clearly Bahnsen thinks that truths which “go beyond” the perceptual level of consciousness, must be "truths which are disclosed by [the Christian god]." For how else could man know them if his primary faculty of awareness is sense perception? This amounts to nothing more than a confession of ignorance and serves as further evidence that Bahnsen does not understand the relationship between the perceptual and the conceptual levels of consciousness. This persisting default is commonplace in presuppositionalism. The fallacy behind this symptom is made most obvious in non sequiturs such as the following:

there is no universality in perception so that which is based on perception cannot be universal. (Peter Pike, The Contra-Pike Files, p. 79)

It is true that perception does not provide us with universal awareness. But as I have already shown, if we could have direct awareness of all things past, present and future such that we were omniscient, we would not need concepts to retain our knowledge in the first place.

Moreover, the argument that “that which is based on perception cannot be universal” ignores the fact that universality is a property of concepts resulting from the mental operation of measurement-omission. Universality is nothing more than the open-endedness of a concept’s range of inclusive reference, and this open-endedness of a concept’s range of reference is what measurement-omission makes possible. There is no reason (and unsurprisingly, Pike offered none) for supposing that concepts cannot be open-ended in their range of reference because they are ultimately based on perception. Perception gives us direct awareness of actually existing objects, and these objects are used by the mind as models from which concepts are formed by a process of abstraction and according to which similar units can be mentally integrated when they are encountered. So while perception does not give us universal awareness, the concepts which we form on the basis of what we perceive do in fact universal reference.

Notice how crucial a role presuppositionalism gives to ignorance here. Mysticism is borne not only in ignorance, but also in the desire to perpetuate that ignorance. We have seen how insidiously presuppositionalism seeks to exploit a thinker’s ignorance of the way his mind operates in order to substitute an objectively informed understanding of how it works with an elaborate fiction resting ultimately in imagination, ad hoc invention and intellectual self-negation, such as we have seen. We saw rudimentary elements of this syndrome in Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein, where Bahnsen seeks to mock Stein for not having a ready answer to Hume’s “problem of induction.” Bahnsen was so eager to fault Stein for this, not because Stein was a dimwit, but because doing so is apologetically expedient. The presuppositionalist defense claims that the problem of induction is answered by an appeal to the supernaturalism of Christianity, indicating that the apologist has at best a storybook understanding of induction. This simply announces that Bahnsen and co. do not have a conceptual understanding of induction. A persisting ignorance of the nature of concepts, the process by which they are formed, their relationship to the perceptual level of consciousness, and the rich implications they have for philosophy in general, is one of the calling cards of the presuppositionalist.

Again, Bahnsen must appeal to the supernatural in order to validate his supernaturalism:

It is evident that the Christian defends the possibility of metaphysical knowledge, therefore, by appealing to certain metaphysical truths about God, man, and the world. He reasons presuppositionally, arguing on the basis of the very metaphysical premises which the unbeliever claims are impossible to know in virtue of their metaphysical nature. (Always Ready, 189)

Again Bahnsen announces that he does not understand either the process by which general truths about reality are discovered and formulated, or their relationship to our experience (both in their formulation as well as their application). He thinks he needs an invisible magic being to impart these truths to us, which is a dead giveaway that he is going by premises he got from a storybook rather than legitimate knowledge of the mind and the world. He says that these truths “transcend [man’s] temporal, empirical experience,” but does not give an example of such truths. Does he explain how these “truths... are disclosed by his Creator”? No, he does not. He neither gives any details about such a phenomenon, nor does he explain how he knows that this takes place. He simply asserts it to be the case. But notice how Bahnsen really means “supernatural” here rather than “metaphysical” proper. Intellectually, it is not sufficient merely to affirm that knowledge of “the supernatural” is “possible,” and leave it at that. This would only abandon knowledge, a key value to man’s life, to the wilds of the imagination. But nowhere does Bahnsen either seem to recognize this, nor does he seem at all concerned by it. His primary concern is discrediting Christianity’s detractors, and in his vigilance to submit the opponents of the Christian worldview to a setup and a shakedown, as if the truth of Christianity could be established as the result of pulling off some devious sting operation. This will only turn off honest inquirers, and announce to virtually all comers that the apologist is trying to hide something dishonest here.

But notice Bahnsen’s description of the presuppositional method here. He makes it clear that “presuppositional reasoning” involves “arguing on the basis of the very... premises” which the non-believer disputes. So it is clear, by what Bahnsen says here, that he wants to treat as a given that which is already controversial. This is quite an admission, one which exposes the profoundly anti-intellectual nature of presuppositional apologetics. It suggests that he has no intention of presenting a defense for those premises which he acknowledges as being controversial. This is not the course of reasoning one would take in an upstanding philosophical debate. Bahnsen needs to be prepared to defend those premises which are disputed from the very beginning rather than simply affirm them in spite of their controversial nature. But his preferred method only raises the suspicion that he cannot in fact defend them, but wants to cling to them nonetheless.

Bahnsen continues:

However, the anti-metaphysical unbeliever has his own metaphysical commitments to which he is presuppositionally committed and to which he appeals in his arguments (e.g., only sensible individuals or particulars exist). (Always Ready, 190)

If the non-believer has metaphysical commitments of his own, then perhaps characterizing him as “anti-metaphysical” may actually be inaccurate. Perhaps he simply rejects Christianity's metaphysics. This alone would not make him "anti-metaphysical." Since Logical Positivism is not the universal testimony of non-Christians, what may very well be the case is that the non-believer rejects Christianity because its metaphysics, epistemology (to the extent that it has an epistemology) and its ethics are in conflict with what he knows about reality and with his intellectual and axiological needs. And though he may recognize that there is a conflict here, he may not be able to articulate it very clearly or explicitly. In fact, the presuppositional apologetic is counting on the non-believer not being well informed on these matters (for instance, I doubt Gordon Stein thought that he was attending a debate on the problem of induction). An informed mind is more likely to be able to defend itself against the apologist's program of bamboozling, and conversely an uninformed mind is more likely to be vulnerable to such bamboozling.

Now while Bahnsen has stated on numerous occasions that everyone has their “presuppositions” (cf. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, pp. 461-462), he seems to resent non-believers for having their own:

His materialistic, naturalistic, atheism is taken as a final truth about reality, universally characterizing the nature of existence, directing us how to distinguish appearance from reality, and resting on intellectual considerations which take us beyond simple observation or sense experience. The this-worldly outlook of the unbeliever is just as much a metaphysical opinion as the "other-worldly" viewpoint he attributes to the Christian. (Always Ready, 190)

Yes, the "this-worldly outlook of the unbeliever" is in fact a metaphysical outlook (in the sense of metaphysics as the branch of philosophy which formulates a view of existence as a whole), just as the other-worldly view of the Christian is. The non-believer may be a non-believer ultimately because he takes the fact that reality exists as a final truth, whereas the theist chooses to treat the fact that reality exists as a derivative truth, one that is "contingent" on the wishing of an invisible magic being.

The non-believer is simply being consistent with the recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so; whereas the believer is affirming a metaphysical position which essentially affirms that reality conforms to conscious intentions (at least to those of an invisible magic being), which robs him of any basis on which to affirm with the non-believer that wishing does not make it so. And while many non-believers do not identify this metaphysical orientation explicitly, and many may in fact not be totally consistent with it, it does have a name: the primacy of existence.

So what does Bahnsen do now that the non-believer willingly acknowledges that his position has a metaphysical basis to it? He proceeds to characterize him as contradicting himself by putting words into his mouth:

What is glaringly obvious, then, is that the unbeliever rests upon and appeals to a metaphysical position in order to prove that there can be no metaphysical position known to be true! He ironically and inconsistently holds that nobody can know metaphysical truths, and yet he himself has enough metaphysical knowledge to declare that Christianity is wrong! (Always Ready, 190)

No doubt this would a self-defeating position for one to take (though not all non-believers affirm what Bahnsen attributes to them). But what does it have to do with "knowing the 'super-natural'"? Predictably, Bahnsen turns every opportunity to "account for" his worldview into an occasion to lambaste those who do not believe in his invisible magic being (even if it means attributing to them a position they do not affirm). What is irresponsible is the fact that Bahnsen does not caution his readers to keep in mind that not all non-believers repudiate the philosophical branch of metaphysics. This is in addition to his default on the very topic of the thirty-first chapter of his book Always Ready.

For Bahnsen, it always boils down to a matter of antithesis:

It turns out that two full-fledged presuppositional philosophies stand over against one another when the anti-metaphysician argues with the Christian. (Always Ready, 190)

There are two fundamental orientations to the world, the objective and the subjective. I have already explained this in a previous blog: see Only Two Worldviews?

Bahnsen makes it clear that vicious circularity is inevitable and unavoidable for his position, for he must rest his defense of his supernaturalism on an appeal to supernaturalism:

The metaphysical claims of Christianity are based on God's self-revelation. (Always Ready, 190)

This is a confession that Christianity’s “metaphysical claims” do not rest on reason. One must accept those claims on faith, which is the only option open to any position which reduces to the primacy of consciousness. And as I have already shown, Bahnsen’s conception of faith as belief without understanding is clearly indicated by his own statements on the topic.

Then Bahnsen makes a most perplexing claim:

Moreover, they are consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience. (Always Ready, 190)

Specifically, which metaphysical claims of Christianity in particular does Bahnsen think "are consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience"? Is the claim that reality conforms to conscious intentions (cf. Van Til’s “God controls whatsoever comes to pass,” The Defense of the Faith, p. 160), that is “consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience”? How about dead men reanimating and emerging out of their graves, walking around in a city and showing themselves unto many (cf. Mt. 27:52-53) – is this "consistent with the assumptions of science"? How about men walking on unfrozen water (cf. Mark 6:48-50)? And what about water being wished into wine (cf. John 2:1-11)? Why stop there? What about an extra-universal consciousness wishing the universe into being? How about a worldwide flood from which a tiny group of human beings and a collection of all animals living on earth escape on a wooden ark? How are any of these claims, which carry incredible metaphysical implications, at all "consistent with the assumptions of science, logical reasoning, and the intelligibility of human experience"? The intelligibility of human experience does not assume such a cartoon universe paradigm. On the contrary, it assumes the non-cartoon universe of rational atheism. Is it any surprise that Bahnsen does not stop to substantiate his claim here? Indeed, to do so would tarnish his reputation for drive-by assertions.

And instead of substantiating his own claims, Bahnsen prefers to dwell on the perceived errors of others:

On the other hand, the unbeliever who claims metaphysical knowledge is impossible reasons on the basis of presuppositions which are arbitrarily applied, self-refuting, unable to pass their own strict requirements, and which undermine science and argumentation - indeed undermine the usefulness of those very empirical procedures which are made the foundation of all knowledge! (Always Ready, 190)

Again, what does this have to do with unraveling “the problem of knowing the ‘super-natural’”? Pointing out the problems in position A does not validate the assertions informing position B.

Bahnsen closes the 31st chapter of Always Ready with a last gasp which does nothing to explain how one can have knowledge of “the supernatural”:

This is simply to say that the anti-metaphysical position has as its outcome the total abrogation, not simply of metaphysical knowledge, but of all knowledge whatsoever. In order to argue against the faith, the unbeliever must commit intellectual suicide - destroying the very reasoning which he would feign to use against the truth of God! This is too high a personal and philosophical price to pay for prejudices and presuppositions which one hopes can form a roof to protect him from the revelation of God. (Always Ready, 190)

It is indisputable that knowledge requires a metaphysical foundation. And it is true: anyone who disputes this is implicitly drawing from a set of metaphysical assumptions and thus undercutting his own claim. But not just any foundation will do. Philosophers and laymen alike need to examine their own understanding of the world and identify what it holds in terms of the issue of metaphysical primacy. Do they "believe" that reality conforms to the wishes and dictates of a reality-creating, universe-ruling consciousness (even though there is no evidence for such a proposal), or do they recognize that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy? This is the real root of the antithesis between rational men and those who abandon it.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 16: "No Predictability"

Continued from Part 15.

"No Predictability"

Bahnsen is desperate to sneak his religious position into the basis of scientific research:

Scientists could not arrive at even one dependable, rationally warranted conclusion about future chemical interactions, the rotation of the earth, the stability of a bridge, the medicinal effects of a drug, or anything else. Each and every premise that entered into their reasoning about a particular situation at a particular time and in a particular place would need to be individually confirmed in an empirical fashion. (Always Ready, p. 188)

Did Bahnsen truly think that one needs to believe in “the supernatural” in order to come to conclusions about “future chemical reactions, the rotation of the earth, the stability of a bridge,” etc.? What exactly does “the supernatural” have to do with these things, and why couldn’t one formulate conclusions about these things without believing in some supernatural being? As we have seen repeatedly throughout Bahnsen’s treatment of “the problem of knowing the ‘super-natural’,” he has given us no reason to suppose there is anything beyond his own imagining that actually “surpasses the limits of nature,” and the items he list here are not things which “surpass the limits of nature” anyway. Drawing conclusions about chemical reactions, the earth’s rotation, the structural integrity of construction projects, etc., is possible only if we remain within the bounds of natural law. Venturing beyond them and into the realm of imagination only produces fiction, and fiction is not truth. In fact, as I pointed out early on in my examination, trying to push these things “beyond the limits of nature” may very well result in disaster.

What Bahnsen should be concerned about here is how general knowledge of the natural can be formulated on the basis of a limited range of perceptual inputs. Indeed, the examples he mentions here are all within the realm of the natural anyway, so why is this not his concern? Exploring how we formulate general knowledge of the natural on the basis of perceptual input is altogether different from supposing that we can conclude that there are things that exist “beyond the physical realm” by observing things in the physical realm. What we have here is an insidious package-deal: by acknowledging the conceptual nature of generalized knowledge, we’re supposed to accept with that a magical realm that exists “beyond sense experience” but which is just as concrete and non-conceptual (and non-imaginary) as the things we perceive in the world, only they “surpass the limits of nature” and are capable of all kinds of wondrous feats in the physical realm (which of course we never get to observe). But here we are talking of two completely different animals. Concepts are not concretes; they are the form in which a mind retains its knowledge. They are not “things” that exist in some other dimension. They represent the activity of a mind, not entities which inhabit another world “beyond the physical realm.” The “supernatural” entities that Bahnsen has in mind are not themselves supposed to be conceptual in nature. The mind forms concepts, but Bahnsen is not going to allow that his “supernatural” realm and the beings which allegedly populate it are formed by the mind. No, he wants to suppose that they exist independent of human mental activity, unlike concepts. But it’s clear that he’s trying to use his own misunderstanding of the conceptual as a front-door, if you will, to the supernatural. Bahnsen thus gives us a textbook case of how errors can grow like weeds when they go unchecked.

This is truly getting to the heart of the presuppositionalist’s confusion. It is based on a most superficial half-truth that is subsequently distorted far beyond recognition. He observes that there is a difference between the physical concretes that we perceive in the world about us and the form in which he conceptualizes those concretes. It is true that there is a distinction between the objects we perceive and the manner in which we integrate those objects into conceptual wholes, just as there is a distinction between subject and object. And there is much to discover and learn about how the mind does this. But the presuppositionalist distorts this distinction beyond recognition and then tries to exploit it as evidence of the existence of the “supernatural” things he has enshrined in his imagination. Like other human beings, scientists can extrapolate from the relatively few units they perceive in the world and formulate wide-ranging principles which apply to units which they have not perceived and which they will never perceive. The presuppositionalist interprets this as reasoning from “the seen” to “the unseen,” which seems plausible on the face of it, but he does so in the most superficial manner possible, not understanding the mental operation which is responsible for this. In essence, the presuppositionalist wants to use the scientist's "reasoning from the seen to the unseen" to lend credibility to the idea of "knowing the supernatural" by putting both on the same level. After all, the scientist can have knowledge of things that he does not perceive, so why can't the religious believer have knowledge of "the supernatural"? Not being able to perceive something does not prohibit the scientist from having knowledge of that something, so why should the religious believer be held to a standard that is more stringent than that enjoyed by the scientist? This is roughly the kind of reasoning that the apologist seems to be using. Says the presuppositionalist, the science reasons from the seen to the unseen, and does so all the time. To say then that we cannot reason from the seen physical universe to the unseen realm of the supernatural, is special pleading, according to Bahnsen. It doesn’t matter to the presuppositionalist that “the unseen” things about which the scientist forms his theories or draws his conclusions, are just as finite, natural and this-worldly as the things he does see.More fundamentally, however, this kind of reasoning will seem most plausible in direct proportion to one's ignorance of the way the mind forms concepts. In fact, not only does this type of reasoning itself stem from a failure to understand how the mind functions conceptually, it also seeks to feed off the ignorance of any potential convert. The whole move from “the seen” to “the unseen” here is not a conceptual operation for Bahnsen, but a leap from the actual world to the world of imagination. Only he prefers not to acknowledge it as such. But the denial of the conceptual operation of the human mind is hard to miss once the nature of that operation is understood.

As if he were anticipating any doubts in my analysis, Bahnsen goes on to make it clear that the assumptions underlying his assessment of the "anti-supernaturalist" mindset include the denial of the capacity for concepts:

Nothing experienced in the past could become a basis for expectations about how things might happen at present or in the future. Without certain beliefs about the nature of reality and history - beliefs which are supra-empirical in character - the process of empirical learning and reasoning would become impossible. (Always Ready, p. 188)

Keep in mind that the scientist does not pretend to move from knowledge of things that exist in the universe to knowledge of things that allegedly exist in a realm which contradicts it. He does not move from things existing in nature to knowledge of things which are claimed to “surpass the limits of nature.” Rather, like other human beings do everyday, he moves from direct awareness of specific, natural things to generalizations pertaining to the classes to which those specific, natural things exist. The classifications are generalized by virtue of their omission of specific measurements; the classifications include a broad range of specific measurements, but given the fact that to exist is to be specific, any specific thing included in those classifications would itself possess its attributes in specific measure.

This is supported by a network of core constants which are found at the basis of rational (and therefore non-theistic) thought. If existence exists independent of consciousness (the primacy of existence), to be something is to have a nature which obtains independent of consciousness (the law of identity), and the action of an entity is dependent upon its identity (the law of causality), then there is a constant metaphysical basis for general classifications regardless and independent of temporal constraints (for temporal measurement itself would need to assume and consist of general classifications). So things happening in uniform manner from past to present and into the future is not metaphysically problematic. Also, if man has the ability to form concepts on the basis of perceptual inputs, then he has the elementary epistemological prerequisites for forming general classifications on the basis of limited inputs. The ability to do this is not itself dependent on what a person believes; he has this ability by virtue of his nature as a human being, not because he believes in invisible magic beings. His ability did not come into being as a result of assenting to some ideational content (he'd have to have the ability in question to do this intelligently in the first place), and likewise he does not lose this ability by believing some content, or disbelieving or failing to believe some content (though taking irrational beliefs seriously will undermine the efficacy of this ability). To suppose that merely believing something will turn this ability on would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept, as should be readily apparent. The distinction between past and present can only be made on the basis of certain constants (the primacy of existence, the law of identity, the law of causality), and these constants obtain regardless of what we believe. It is the task of philosophy to *identify* these constants (as opposed to installing them in reality as if they didn’t already exist), and their relationship to the process by which knowledge is acquired and validated. But watch as Bahnsen digs himself even deeper into his own intellectual pit:

At this point we can press even harder, arguing that if one presupposes that all knowledge must be empirical in nature, then not only has he undermined science and refuted himself, but he has actually scuttled all argumentation and reasoning. To engage in the evaluation of arguments is to recognize and utilize propositions, criteria, logical relations and rules, etc. However, such things as these (propositions, relations, rules) are not empirical entities which can be discovered by one of the five senses. (Always Ready, p. 188)

This statement not only confirms my analysis above (namely that the presuppositionalist is trying to dignify his supernatural claims by likening them to the scientist's reasoning from "the seen" to "the unseen"), but also the need for an objective approach to knowledge which Bahnsen's worldview specifically (and conspicuously) lacks and could not support. The apologetic scheme that Bahnsen deploys here might work well against those who affirm that "all knowledge must be empirical in nature." But it won't work against the Objectivist model, for Objectivism recognizes that knowledge is *conceptual* in nature. Bahnsen himself indicates just how feeble his own apologetic tactic is against Objectivism when he points out that "to engage in evaluation of arguments is to recognize and utilize propositions, criteria, logical relations and rules, etc." This is the realm of concepts, and Christianity's lack of a native theory of concepts only proves its utter insufficiency on the very issues which Bahnsen raises.Bahnsen further elaborates what he wants his readers to suppose is the case of all non-Christians:

Accordingly, according to the dogma of empiricism, it would not make sense to speak of such things - not make sense, for instance, to speak of validity and invalidity in an argument, nor even to talk about premises and conclusions. All you would have would be one contingent electro-chemical event in the physical brain of a scholar followed contingently by another. (Always Ready, p. 189)

But it does make sense to speak, for instance, of validity and invalidity in an argument, or talk about premises and conclusions, if we have concepts. In fact, concepts not only allow us to speak of issues regarding validity of argument, but also of electro-chemical reactions in the brain. (Without explanation, Bahnsen says “the physical brain” as if he had to specify it in contrast to a “non-physical brain.) And yet, it is specifically a theory of concepts which Bahnsen lacks in his bible-based worldview. So ironically, he is accusing non-believers of something he himself cannot produce: an account of human reason.

If these events are thought to follow a pattern, we must (again) note that on empirical grounds, one does not have a warrant for speaking of such a "pattern"; only particular events are experienced or observed. (Always Ready, p. 189)

He has warrant if he can form concepts from empirical inputs, and every man (save perhaps for utter and complete imbeciles) has this ability to some degree. Concepts are how a thinker integrates “particular events [that] are experienced or observed” firsthand into general classes which imply like events that he has not experience or observed, whether hypothetical or actual.

Moreover, even if there were a pattern within the electro-chemical events of one's brain, it would be accidental and not a matter of attending to the rules of logic. Indeed, the "rules of logic" would at best be personal imperatives expressed as the subjective preference of one person to another. In such a case there is no point to argument and reasoning at all. An electro-chemical event in the brain cannot meaningfully be said to be "valid" or "invalid." (Always Ready, p. 189)

Although electro-chemical reactions are a reality in the human nervous system, they are not a substitute for epistemology. In spite of this, Bahnsen wants to suppose (and wants his readers to suppose) that this is the consistent testimony of every non-believer, not because he has witnessed every non-believer confess it (that would be too principled for Bahnsen), but because it is apologetically expedient to do so.

As for “personal imperatives expressed as the subjective preference of one person to another,” this bears striking resemblance to the supernatural, commandment-issuing deity enshrined in Christianity. Again, having fashioned a noose after his own image, Bahnsen decisively thrusts his own worldview’s head right into it. Indeed, when Bahnsen’s god issues its commandments, does Bahnsen argue with his god about them? Is there any place for argument in Bahnsen’s worldview when his god has issued commandments? Commandments are given to settle matters without any back-talk or haggling. So just how does one reason with someone who thinks he’s always right? Did Abraham try to reason with his god when he was commanded to prepare his son for sacrifice? The Genesis story surely does not model this.

Incidentally, the reason why “an electro-chemical event in the brain cannot meaningfully be said to be ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’,” is not because “the supernatural” is real, but because concepts of validity apply to conceptual methodology, and electro-chemical events are not a conceptual methodology. Had Bahnsen understood this in full, he would have seen the philosophical futility of this application of his apologetic.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 15: "Further Difficulties"

Continued from Part 14.

"Further Difficulties"

Bahnsen then raises a most curious concern:

There are other difficulties with the position expressed by (1) as well. We can easily see that it amounts to a presupposition for the unbeliever. What rational basis or evidence is there for the position that all knowledge must be empirical in nature? That is not a conclusion supported by other reasoning, and the premise does not admit of empirical verification since it deals with what is universally or necessarily the case (not a historical or contingent truth). Moreover, the statement itself precludes any other type of verification or support other than empirical warrants or evidence. Thus the anti-metaphysical opponent of the Christian faith holds to this dogma in a presuppositional fashion - as something which controls inquiry, rather than being the result of inquiry. (Always Ready, pp. 187-188)

We have already seen that the presumption that knowledge must be "empirical" in nature is a mistake which can be easily corrected. And correcting this mistake does not in any way compel us to affirm or appeal to supernaturalism.

But Bahnsen wants to ask those who affirm that knowledge is empirical in nature, what rational basis they might have for supposing this. It may simply be that they do not know of a better way to express what they sense to be the case about the knowledge they have acquired. But if Bahnsen wants to know what rational basis one has for his suppositions, he should at the very least tell his readers what rational basis he might have for supposing that Christianity’s claims about “the supernatural” are true. Unfortunately, Bahnsen does not indicate any rational basis that his supernatural beliefs might have. In fact, he has only told us how his supernatural beliefs are not supported. For instance, their “support is not limited to natural observation and scientific experimentation.” They “do not stem from direct, eyeball experience of the physical world.” “They are not verified empirically in a point by point fashion.” “Empirical experience” must not be sufficient, for it “merely gives us an appearance of things,” and “the Bible distinguishes appearances from reality,” so there is obviously a conflict between how things “appear” to us and what they “really are.” Indeed, Bahnsen does not even explain what he means by “rational basis,” and yet he wants to know what “rational basis” others have for their claims, even though when he has an opportunity to identify any “rational basis” for his supernaturalism, he reneges on it. The consequence of this for Bahnsen is, obviously, if he has a problem with others not providing a “rational basis” for their position, he is quite simply a hypocrite for holding that against them.

Bahnsen wants to reserve the right to raise questions about what “rational basis” his adversaries might claim for their own positions, but when it comes time for him to defend his claim to “knowing the ‘super-natural’,” he's content to leave such concerns completely unattended. So when Bahnsen says that "everybody should be expected to play by the same rules" (p. 185), that holds only some of the time.

Bahnsen elaborates on the problem with empiricism as he understands it:

That anti-metaphysical presupposition, however, has certain devastating results. Notice that if all knowledge must be empirical in nature, then the uniformity of nature cannot be known to be true. And without the knowledge and assurance that the future will be like the past (e.g., if salt dissolved in water on Wednesday, it will do likewise and not explode in water on Friday) we could not draw empirical generalizations and projections - in which case the whole enterprise of natural science would immediately be undermined. (Always Ready, p. 188)

So what is missing? Does Bahnsen think that this problem is somehow overcome by belief in "the supernatural"? Would believing in "the supernatural" somehow make it sensible to assume that nature is uniform with itself? How would this follow? Bahnsen likes to raise problems, but doesn't explain how we can resolve them.

Let us entertain Bahnsen's supposition that "if all knowledge must be empirical in nature, then the uniformity of nature cannot be known to be true." Unfortunately, Bahnsen nowhere explains why this would be the case. Moreover, Bahnsen does not correct the error in the assumption that "all knowledge must be empirical in nature" by pointing out the fact that knowledge is actually conceptual in nature. Why doesn't he do this? I suspect there are two factors involved here: 1) Bahnsen does not understand that knowledge is conceptual in nature because he does not have a conceptual understanding of knowledge (and this in turn is due to the fact that the biblical worldview has no native theory of concepts); and 2) a conceptual understanding of knowledge would actually undermine the presuppositional apologetic, since presuppositionalism is geared toward exploiting Christianity's lack of an understanding of concepts in order to attack the human mind. In fact, had Bahnsen understood the nature of his mind and of knowledge before he became a Christian, he probably would never have become a Christian in the first place.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Bahnsen raises against non-Christians the very concern non-Christians could easily (and rightfully) raise against Christianity, given its commitment to metaphysical subjectivism, its lack of a viable conceptual theory and its moral proscriptions against autonomous judgment.

If I truly believed that the universe in which I exist were a creation of an invisible supernatural being which had the power to manipulate at any time or any place any object which exists in this universe, including myself, how would I know that salt would dissolve in water on one day, and not explode in water on other days? Bahnsen's mentor Cornelius Van Til tells us that the Christian 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 the 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, p. 27)

On this "presupposition," the ruling consciousness ("God") could decide that, on Wednesday, it is a fact that salt dissolves in water, and on Friday, it is a fact that salt explodes in water. It can do this, according to Van Til, because "there is no inherent reason in the facts or laws themselves why this should not be done." It is simply setting the fact of how salt responds to water "into a new relation to created law," which it can do at will, and without advance notice or approval of the church elders. If one were to believe that such a thing as Van Til's god were real and active in the universe, where's this "assurance that the future will be like the past" that Bahnsen speaks of? If I truly believed that facts could be altered by the will of an invisible supernatural consciousness, how I could acquire the foreknowledge that it would or would not manipulate some object in my experience or some state of affairs in my life? How could I know that salt always dissolves in water? What if the ruling consciousness planned that later today salt will cease dissolving in water, and turn into rubber trees when it comes into contact with water? Surely the Christian believes that his god has the ability to do this. So what tells the believer that it won't do this or something else that is as absurd? What if the ruling consciousness is having a bad day, prone to wrath as the bible says it is? What if it's in a bad mood, and decides to send a tornado, earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami? Or, perhaps it decides to whip reality around such that utterly unpredictable chaos ensues? On Christianity's premises, we are to accept that such things are possible on the basis of the will of an invisible supernatural consciousness. But Christianity's defenders seem oblivious of the implications such views have for epistemology, which is utterly ironic given their characterization of rival positions.

Suppose I assumed what Christianity says is true, that there is an invisible supernatural being which can alter the facts of the universe at will. Even if I deluded myself into thinking I could forecast events before they happen, such as salt dissolving in water, my bus coming on schedule, or the sun warming the day, I do not know how I could acquire any degree of confidence in my forecasts, for my mind is not a supernatural mind, nor does my mind have the power to read the mind of any invisible supernatural consciousness (I cannot "think the thoughts" of an omniscient, infallible being after it, and I'm simply too honest to pretend that I can). In essence, all inductive generalizations and projections would be worthless. Some might perchance come true, but not because my inductive inferences were cogent. Only because my conclusions happened to coincide with the present wishes of the ruling consciousness would they seem to be true. Epistemology would thus be reduced to a crapshoot. But even here, “true” is a contextual assessment, and there would be no context corresponding to what actually happens available to me, for I would be unable to assume that the present is a reliable indicator of the future. If Christianity were true, as Van Til indicates, there would be no necessary relationship between an entity and its own actions, just as there would be "no inherent reason" why the ruling consciousness could not "at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law." My "knowledge" would ultimately boil down to chance occasions of just so happening to get things right. And yet, this is the very same weakness that Bahnsen wants to charge against non-believing worldviews. Bahnsen thus hangs himself with his own rope.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 14: "Philosophical Self-Deception"

Continued from Part 13.

"Philosophical Self-deception"

Bahnsen opens this section of the chapter “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’, the 31st chapter of his book Always Ready, by referencing a position that he characterizes as “the first and foundational step in the case against metaphysics” – by which he really means, “the case against supernaturalism.” Recall what that “first and foundational step in the case against metaphysics” – according to Bahnsen – was:

There cannot be a non-empirical source of knowledge or information about reality. (Always Ready, p. 185)

In response to his own rendition of what “anti-supernaturalists” hold, Bahnsen asks:

What are we to make of the assertion that "all significant knowledge about the objective world is empirical in nature"? The most obvious and philosophically significant reply would that if the preceding statement were true, then - on the basis of its claim - we could never know that it were true. Why? Simply because the statement in question is not itself known as the result of empirical testing and experience. Therefore, according to its own strict standards, the statement could not amount to significant knowledge about the objective world. It simply reflects the subjective (perhaps meaningless!) bias of the one who pronounces it. Hence the anti-metaphysician [i.e., anti-supernaturalist] not only has his own preconceived conclusions (presuppositions), but it turns out that he cannot live according to them (cf. Romans 2:1). On the basis of his own assumptions he refutes himself (cf. 2 Timothy 2:25). As Paul put it about those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness: "They became futile in their speculations" (Romans 1:21)! (Always Ready, p. 187)

Did anyone besides me notice the switch here? In the above paragraph Bahnsen announces that he is turning his focus on “number (1) above,” which he states here as follows:

All significant knowledge about the objective world is empirical in nature. (Always Ready, p. 187)

But earlier, when he first listed point (1) on page 185, it was stated as follows:

There cannot be a non-empirical source of knowledge or information about reality (Always Ready, p. 185)

There is a fundamental difference between the two statements that Bahnsen sets before himself. One version speaks of the nature of knowledge itself, while the other version makes a statement about the nature of the source of knowledge about reality. The two are not the same thing. At some point Bahnsen swapped the one for the other, but he does not explain why. Perhaps, in spite of his acclaimed precision and brilliance, Bahnsen did not notice the switch, or did not think it was worth explaining.

In regard to the affirmation that “all significant knowledge about the objective world is empirical in nature,” Bahnsen misses his opportunity to point out the most obvious error committed by such a statement. Knowledge itself is not “empirical” in nature. On the contrary, knowledge is conceptual in nature. That is, knowledge consists of concepts and concepts are the form in which we retain our knowledge. That Bahnsen missed this painfully obvious opportunity to correct such a statement, is itself indicative of his own position’s inadequacy to deal with much of anything philosophical, especially epistemology. This correction is enough to put all of the concerns that Bahnsen raises in the above paragraph to rest. For instance, if knowledge is conceptual in nature, there is no reason to suppose that “we could never know” this to be the case. For there is no reason to suppose that we could not form concepts to identify the nature of knowledge. All we need is an understanding of how concepts are formed, and we have this understanding thanks to an objective philosophy. And while Bahnsen might point out that the claim that all knowledge is empirical in nature is not itself open to “empirical testing,” such difficulties need not concern us if knowledge is in fact conceptual in nature. This recognition is itself conceptual, thus qualifying as knowledge on its own terms. Furthermore, if the concepts which informs one’s knowledge of the world were formed according to the objective theory of concepts (a theory which we will not find in the bible), then we need not worry that such knowledge “simply reflects the subjective (perhaps meaningless!) bias of the one who pronounces it.” If they are formed according to an objective process, one which is fully consistent with the primacy of existence, then the conceptual products of our methodology have an objective, rather than subjective, basis. Meanwhile, by identifying the nature of knowledge as conceptual rather than empirical, the non-believer can confidently plead innocent to Bahnsen’s charge that the anti-supernaturalist cannot live according to his own worldview’s premises. For by understanding and acknowledging that knowledge is conceptual in nature, the non-believer nowhere “refutes himself,” nor is there any need to suppose that such recognition commits thinkers to “become futile in their speculations.” The bible’s canned platitudes and denunciations thus resound in the hollow vacuum of its own anti-conceptual wasteland.

Now in regard to the affirmation that “there cannot be a non-empirical source of knowledge or information about reality,” this is an altogether different claim, for it speaks about the nature of the source of knowledge rather than the nature of knowledge as such. Unfortunately Bahnsen nowhere addresses it. His comments aimed at discrediting the idea that the nature of knowledge is empirical do nothing to refute the position that the nature of the source of knowledge is empirical in nature. Indeed, there is no incompatibility between the position that the nature of knowledge itself is conceptual on the one hand, and on the other the position that the source of knowledge is in fact ultimately empirical in nature.

Concepts need content to inform them. Where do we get that content? To what do our concepts refer? What do our concepts denote? How do we form our concepts? We do not know how Bahnsen’s worldview might answer such questions, for the source of Bahnsen’s worldview is the bible, and the bible does not provide a theory of concepts. Indeed, the bible is totally silent on the issue of what concepts are, how the mind forms them and how they can represent things in reality.

But an objective worldview which is not constrained to conforming its understanding of reality to ancient storybooks, does not promote such intellectual disability. In fact, an objective worldview which provides a working theory of concepts has the power of opening an individual’s mind both to itself and to the universe in which he lives, giving the understanding he needs to maximize his mind’s abilities and efficacy in his life. An objective theory of concepts recognizes why man needs concepts (for they bring the universe of things and facts into the range of human consciousness) and how they are formed (by a process of abstraction). It also identifies the source from which the content of our concepts ultimately comes, namely empirical experience.

We need inputs from reality to inform our concepts with content that is relevant to reality. Otherwise, if what informs our concepts does not come from reality, on what basis would we say that those concepts have anything to do with our living in reality? How could we say that any statement we make is true if the conceptual constituents of our affirmations do not ultimately refer to things in reality? Perception supplies us with the inputs we need to inform and integrate the concepts we need to identify and live in reality. If Bahnsen does not like this idea, he needs to identify and argue for an alternative to perception as the mode of awareness by which we acquire the inputs we need to give our concepts the content they need to qualify as knowledge of reality. As we have seen throughout his chapter, however, Bahnsen does not identify any alternatives to perception as means of awareness of things that exist. And when he claims that supernatural things do exist, he presents no method by which we can confidently distinguish the things he calls “supernatural” from what he may merely be imagining. Consequently, he gives us no reason to suppose that his god-belief is anything other than an elaborate fantasy.

An objection to the effect that the view that the source of knowledge is empirical would cripple our ability to arrive at universal truths about things in nature, would of course be a non sequitur. If concepts are understood as open-ended classes which are formed on the basis of the limited input provided by sense perception, then there is no reason to suppose that man’s mind cannot arrive at universal truths by beginning with an empirical source. The nature of the product is not – and need not be – the same as its source, because the units given in perception undergo a process of abstraction, which consists essentially of four steps: isolation, integration, measurement-omission and definition. Universality is a property of concepts; it is nothing more than the open-endedness of a concept’s scope of reference vis-à-vis the units subsumed by it.

We form the concept ‘ball’ on the basis of just a few (two or more) units which we perceive in our firsthand experience, but the concept ‘ball’ includes all balls which exist now, which have existed in the past and which will exist in the future. This all-inclusive capacity of concepts is made possible by the third step in the process of forming them, namely measurement-omission. This is the step which acknowledges that specific units possess relevant attributes in some measure, but those attributes can exist in any measure. A ball can be 2 inches in diameter or it can be 10 inches in diameter; it may be red, or it may be black and white; it may be inflated with air such that it floats on water, or it may be solid and more dense than water such that it does not float, etc. The concept is thus universal, i.e., open-ended in its scope of reference.

It should be noted at this point, to preempt common presuppositionalist refrains, that propositions are not primaries. On the contrary, propositions are assemblages consisting of concepts put together in a coherent manner. As such, propositions represent a further step in the process of integration beyond concept-formation, for they integrate two or more concepts into a meaningful whole, resulting in a unit all its own and denoting a complete thought. But the universality of a generalized proposition (e.g., “all balls have a radius and a diameter”) is derived from the universality of its constituent concept(s). Since we can form the concept ‘ball’ on the basis of just a few units of which we acquire awareness through perception, and since the concept ‘ball’, as a result of measurement-omission, is universal in its scope of reference, a proposition such as “all balls have a radius and a diameter” which encompasses all balls is possible because of the universality already available to us in the concept ‘ball’.

None of these points on behalf of the view that knowledge is conceptual in nature necessitates belief in a god or necessitates a leap beyond the natural to “whatever surpasses the limits of nature.” Indeed, the formation of concepts and their assembly into larger units (e.g., thoughts, propositions, theories, etc.) are natural processes of the human mind. They are consistently identifiable according to a process which most thinkers should be able to understand without too much difficulty, and they are open to a means of testing which is in fact scientific. There is no contradiction in affirming that knowledge is conceptual in nature and that the source of knowledge is perceptual (or empirical) in nature. The objective theory of concepts bridges the perceptual and the conceptual levels of cognition, thus demystifying the process whose disunderstanding is so central to the presuppositionalist strategy.

by Dawson Bethrick

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Bahnsen on "Knowing the Supernatural" Part 13: "Double Standards and Begging the Question"

Continued from Part 12.

"Double Standards and Begging the Question"

Bahnsen begins this section of chapter 31 of his book Always Ready by interacting with the second premise that he attributes to the case against supernaturalism. That premise is:

it is illegitimate to draw inferences from what is experienced by the senses to what must lie outside of experience. (Always Ready, p. 185)

Bahnsen probes this statement with a series of questions:

We should first ask why it is that metaphysicians (and theologians) should not reason from what is known in sense experience to something lying beyond sensation. After all, isn't this precisely what empirical scientists do from day to day? They continually reason from the seen to the unseen (e.g., talking of subatomic particles, computing gravitational forces, warning against radiation simply on the basis of its effects, prescribing medicine for an unseen infection on the basis of an observed fever, etc.) It certainly appears capricious for those with anti-metaphysical leanings to prohibit the theologian from doing what is allowed to the scientist! Such an inconsistency betrays a mind that has been made up in advance against certain kinds of conclusions about reality. (Always Ready, p. 185)

So, is Bahnsen saying that we reason from an empirical source? Indeed, we do just this. But one does not need to be a metaphysician or theologian to be able to do this. Ordinary mortals do this all the time. What makes this possible? Bahnsen wants to argue that his god makes this possible. But in fact, the ability to conceptualize is what makes this possible. One will never learn this point from Bahnsen, for his desire to assimilate the human intellect into the context of his god-beliefs will only cloud the matter rather than pave the way for clear understanding.

The ability to form concepts allows the human mind to create open-ended classes of entities, attributes, actions, etc., which include not only those qualifying entities, attributes, actions, etc. which we perceive, but also those which we do not perceive. The concept 'cat', for instance, includes the cat we are looking at in the neighbor's yard, as well as cats that we saw in another neighborhood, cats that lived 100 years ago, cats that will live in the future, etc. The membership of individual cats within the range of reference of the concept 'cat' is not restricted to some specific number; the concept 'cat' does not "expire" after it's been used to denote 10, 100 or 5,000 specific cats. On the contrary, the concept is open-ended, and there is no quantitative limit to the units which can be included in it. What specifically makes it possible for the human mind to continue integrating new units into the concept ‘cat’ is the operation known as measurement-omission. Measurement-omission is the principle which guides conceptual integration: “the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity.” (ITOE, p. 12) With simple principles such as this, which are accessible to any thinker, there’s no reason to posit an invisible magic being to understand how the mind operates when it “reason[s] from what is known in sense experience to something lying beyond sensation.”

Note that the cats which we do not see but include in the concept 'cat' are just as finite and this-worldly as the cats which we do see. There is no reason to suppose that the cats which we do not see and yet include in the scope of reference of the concept 'cat' cannot be seen at some point in time by someone, even ourselves, unless of course they no longer exist or will not exist during our lifetimes. But even then, the units included in the concept are still just as non-supernatural, non-otherworldly, non-miraculous as the ones we have actually perceived, for the ones we have actually serve as the model for the concept in the first place. So while concepts do in fact serve as our cognitive means by which to reason from what we do see to what we do not see, we don't leave the universe by performing this process, and what we reason to is just as non-supernatural as that from which we originally reasoned.

But is this really what Bahnsen is proposing that theologians are doing when they assert the existence of “the supernatural”? If theologians who assert “the supernatural” are simply drawing conclusions pertaining to what is not seen from what they do see, what are the steps in their reasoning process which lead to such conclusions? Scientists can identify the steps they take in developing their conclusions, so why doesn’t Bahnsen identify the steps that the theologian takes in concluding that “the supernatural” is real?

Bahnsen seems to be setting up a subtle false dichotomy: either one affirms that it is completely illegitimate to reason “from the seen to the unseen,” or – if we grant that this is impossible – then supernatural claims are perfectly legitimate. But he gives us no reason to suppose that both positions are wrong. Why not entertain the objective alternative which Bahnsen ignores: that we do in fact reason from what is given in perception to what lies beyond perception, and yet the units which lie beyond perception that we integrate into the sum of our knowledge are just as natural and this-worldly as the units which we perceived and which we used as models for the integration process in the first place.

Bahnsen wants to make it all appear so innocent (and yet, Bahnsen himself has warned us that there is a distinction between appearance and reality) by pretending that what theologians do is essentially no different from “what empirical scientists do from day to day.” And yet he conspicuously ignores the fact that his scheme requires us to drop the principle of objectivity from the context of the reasoning process he's trying to assimilate into his defense of supernaturalism. Moreover, he does not show how the process of reasoning to the supernatural from what is seen is at all similar to the process of integrating unperceived but still completely natural and this-worldly units into concepts formed on the basis of perceived models.

Thinkers of all professions – not just those involved in the special sciences – do in fact reason from what they perceive firsthand to things that they do not perceive or have not yet perceived. But there is nothing inherent in this process which requires that what is concluded from such reasoning cannot be perceived at some point. The cats about which I draw general conclusions from a small sample, for instance, are just as non-supernatural as the cats which I perceive and which make up my sample.

For instance, I have been to many, many cities in my lifetime. I have seen them firsthand, walked their streets, eaten at their cafes, gone to board meetings in their tall buildings, strolled in their parks, etc. Every city I have seen has had trees. I have never been to Pittsburgh, PA, but I have no reason to suspect it does not have trees. I reason from what I have seen (other cities) to what I have not seen (trees in Pittsburgh, PA). There is nothing illegitimate about this, and if I do in fact one day go to Pittsburgh, I wager that I will see trees there. This is an important point: the reasoning process that Bahnsen alludes to (“from what is known in sense experience to something lying beyond sensation”), does not require that we reason from what we perceive to what must be imperceptible, supernatural or otherworldly. What Bahnsen mentions – subatomic particles, gravitational forces, radiation, causes of infection, etc., may be imperceptible, but this does not mean that all things concluded by a course of reasoning that begins with what we perceive must also be imperceptible. Moreover, there’s no reason to suppose that subatomic particles, gravitational forces, radiation, causes of infection, etc., are just as finite, non-supernatural and this-worldly as the cats and trees we perceive on a daily basis.

But Bahnsen wants to make sure that we allow at the very least the ability to reason from what is perceived to that which is imperceptible. That’s because his invisible magic being is held to be imperceptible. That is why he specifically names examples which are imperceptible (e.g., subatomic particles, gravitational forces, and the like). But does Bahnsen explain how one can reason from what is perceived to that which is not perceived? No he does not. Does he explain how conceptualization makes this possible? No, he does not. If he did, he’d have to show how this process could be executed and validate his god-belief claims at the same time. Bahnsen nowhere comes close to doing this. I suspect that his defenders will probably say that his book was intended for an untutored audience, meaning: he hadn’t intended on tutoring them. But this is a roundabout way of admitting that he in fact did not explain these things. So such defenses are unhelpful.

Bahnsen then writes:

Everybody should be expected to play by the same rules. (Always Ready, p. 185)

But does Bahnsen truly want “to play by the same rules” as non-believers? If anything, one gets the impression that he emphatically does not. Bahnsen clearly wants to reserve for himself the option of appealing to “revelation” as a defense for his claims. This is simply a variant of the invisible magic being defense: if you cannot establish your position on the basis of facts which are accessible to anyone who reasonably investigates the matter, claim that your position has is certified by an invisible magic being who makes it so. This assessment of Bahnsen’s apologetic is no stretch, not even in the least.

In his opening statement when he debated Gordon Stein, one of Bahnsen’s chief points was that “the existence, factuality, or reality of different kinds of things is not established or disconfirmed in the same way in every case.” Apparently some claims should be established by means of reason, but other claims are exempt from this requirement. Bahnsen found it important to segregate his god-belief claims epistemologically from other types of claims, insisting that we should not expect his god-belief claims to be verified in the same manner as we might verify other claims, particularly claims having to do with things that exist in the universe (i.e., things which are not believed to “surpass the limits of nature”). Of course, if “the supernatural” were really imaginary, we would not expect the methods we use to verify truths in the actual world to be sufficient when it comes to verifying claims about “the supernatural.” So such reservations are not surprising.

To illustrate his point, Bahnsen employed his famous “crackers in the pantry” example, which achieves its aim by trivializing the methods we use to verify claims in “the ‘here-and-now’.” His point was that one cannot expect to verify the claim that the Christian god exists in the same manner as we verify the claim that there are crackers in the pantry. The existence of the crackers in the pantry can be verified by simply going over to the pantry and checking to see if the crackers are there. If we see the crackers in the pantry, then we can be sure that the claim that the crackers are in the pantry is true.

But, according to Bahnsen, the existence of the Christian god cannot be verified in such a manner. Okay. How then can it be verified? He implies that the existence of his god can in fact be verified by the same mind that can verify whether or not there are crackers in the pantry. But this is where Bahnsen led the audience on a wild goose chase, never elucidating any methodology by which we can verify such claims. Throughout the debate, one of Bahnsen’s primary aims was to shield his god-belief claims from criticism (his other aim was to discredit non-belief in Christian supernaturalism), and in the present context he sought to do so by pointing to other things whose existence is not verified in the same way we verify whether or not there are crackers in the pantry, such as: “barometric pressure, quasars, gravitational attraction, elasticity, radioactivity, natural laws, names, grammar, numbers, the university itself (that you’re now at), past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of thought, political obligations, individual identity over time, causation, memories, dreams or even love or beauty.” What Bahnsen ignores is the fact that all these examples are of things that can be verified and understood by means of reason. In fact, we use reason when we check to see if the crackers are in the pantry just as we do when we measure barometric pressure, search for the existence of quasars, test gravitational attraction, etc. Reason is the common denominator for exploring all these inquiries. But reason does not help us when investigating the alleged existence of “the supernatural,” and Bahnsen’s own appeals to “revelation” confirm this. Since Bahnsen does not show how reason can be used to verify his god-belief claims, and numerous statements of his verify that the existence of his god cannot be known by means of autonomous inference from what we perceive (in fact, he says, this knowledge needs to be “revealed” to us), then it does in fact look like Bahnsen wants to reserve for himself a different set of game rules, in spite of his statement to the opposite effect.

Could it be that the method by which Bahnsen has “knowledge” of “the supernatural” is just too sophisticated to explain? It would appear not. Instead of going and looking on the shelf, as we might do if we’re in doubt about there being any crackers in the pantry, Bahnsen’s method for “knowing the supernatural” seems to be nothing more than consulting a storybook to settle questions about the existence of his god. Christians might object to this characterization, saying that it is just as geared toward trivializing Bahnsen’s methodology of confirming his god-belief claims as his crackers-in-the-pantry example trivializes methodologies used to verify claims in “the ‘here-and-now’.” But again we must ask: what exactly is the methodology that Bahnsen proposes for investigating claims about “the supernatural”? If Bahnsen never presents any methodology for investigating such claims, how can we be accused of trivializing it? And if Bahnsen does have a methodology which for one reason or another prefers to keep close to his chest, how exactly does it differ from taking what the bible says at face value on its own say so? Here we just get another massive blank-out.

But notice what Bahnsen says next:

Moreover, it is important to notice that (2) above is not really relevant to making a case against biblical metaphysics. Christianity does not view its metaphysical (theological, supernatural) claims as unguided or arbitrary attempts to reason from the seen world to the unseen world - unwarranted projections from nature to what lies beyond it. In the first place, the Christian claims that God created this world to reflect His glory and to be a constant testimony to Him and His character. God also created man as His own image, determined the way in which man would think and learn about the world, and coordinated man's mind and the objective world so that man would unavoidably know the supernatural Creator through the conduit of the created realm. (Always Ready, pp. 185-186)

Bahnsen needs to make his position on this matter clear instead of clouding it with the murkiness of statements like this. He needs to come clean on this: Does man (according to Bahnsen’s view) infer the reality of “the supernatural” from what he perceives in the world around him, or not? If Bahnsen thinks so, then what are the steps in that inferential process? How does one infer the existence of “the supernatural” (i.e., that which “surpasses the limits of nature”) from the natural? As I ask in my blog Is Human Experience Evidence of the Christian God?

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?


How does something serve as evidence of that which completely contradicts it?

On the other hand, if Bahnsen does not think we infer the reality of “the supernatural” from what we perceive in the world around us, then he admits that such beliefs cannot be rational, for they have nothing to do with reason. Bahnsen cannot have it both ways. Indeed, he will have to play by the same rules. If he cannot establish his claims on the basis of reason, he needs to admit this, and with that he will concede all debate.

Now those who confuse their imagination with reality and give special names to their confusion (e.g., “the supernatural”) will always be able to concoct explanations for how they come into possession of what they call “knowledge.” By accepting one arbitrary premise, especially in a position of hierarchical importance in one’s overall understanding of the world (cf. Bahnsen’s “ultimate presuppositions”), the believer shows his willingness to compromise his rational faculties and thus opens the door to any other arbitrary notions that he will need to support the original. Essentially, he uses a fabrication to cover up another fabrication. The common currency here is pretense in the guise of profound philosophical truth. But in doing so he outlines a worldview that is completely incompatible with what we learn from the world. We learn from the world, for instance, that we possess a volitional consciousness, but here Bahnsen tells us that an invisible magic being has “determined the way in which man would think and learn about the world.” According to this view, we are merely puppets manipulated by strings dangling from a magic kingdom, or characters in a cartoon universe executing an elaborately contrived script.

The commitment to the primacy of consciousness here is difficult to miss. This deity – a supernatural consciousness – “coordinated man’s mind and the objective world so that man would unavoidably know the supernatural Creator through the conduit of the created realm.” On this view, both the subject (“man’s mind”) and the object (“the objective world”) conform to the wishful dictates of the supernatural consciousness, whose will holds metaphysical primacy over both. The subjectivism of such a view is echoed by Van Til: “the world of objects was made in order that the subject of knowledge, namely man, should interpret it under God... The subject and the object are therefore adapted to one another.” (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., p. 43) According to such a view both man (even as a subject himself) and the world about him, are objects of the consciousness of the supernatural deity, and they conform precisely to its intentions.

This view suggests more than that knowledge of “the supernatural” is not the conclusion of a rational process, but that man is completely infallible so long as his “conclusions” (which are “unavoidably know[n]” and not derived from any rational process to begin with) agree with the content of the storybook (and so long as those conclusions conform to the prescribed interpretation of that storybook), but wholly fallible in any other use of his intellect. If man’s mind and the world he beholds were “created” such that they are both “adapted to one another” by a perfect creator which can never err, then it seems that infallibility in theological assertions is exactly what is being claimed.

Bahnsen continues:

God Himself intended and made it unavoidable that man would learn about the Creator from the world around him. This amounts to God coming to man through the temporal and empirical order, not man groping toward God. This amounts to saying that the natural world is not in itself random and without a clue as to its ultimate meaning, leaving man to arbitrary speculation and metaphysical projections. (Always Ready, p. 186)

While Bahnsen wants to characterize the alleged “unavoidability” of this knowledge of “the supernatural” as the cause behind the world’s non-randomness, the view he presents here renders epistemology completely futile. For it puts man’s mind in a completely passive role when it comes to his acquisition of knowledge. Since it holds that the “knowledge” that the Christian god exists is “unavoidable” and this same god “com[es] to man through the temporal and empirical order,” man’s mind can remain completely idle and still possess this alleged knowledge. So Bahnsen is in effect coming full circle in divorcing knowledge from the operation of man’s mind, which is confined to “groping” were it not for a supernatural deity rescuing it from its own devices and helplessness.

It is at this point that Bahnsen introduces the dichotomy between “arbitrary speculation” and “divine revelation,” a commonplace assumption in Christian apologetics. This dichotomy is integral to the religious view that man’s mind is epistemologically helpless, and Bahnsen is in no way the only one who has tried to exploit it. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, makes it quite explicit:

How, then, do you discover the purpose you were created for? You have only two options. Your first option is speculation. This is what most people choose. They conjecture, they guess, they theorize ... Fortunately, there is an alternative to speculation about the meaning and purpose of life. It's revelation. We can turn to what God has revealed about life in his Word. (pp. 19-20)

Reacting to this, Mister Swig accurately encapsulates its apologetic use:

Either you guess at the truth like a hardcore skeptic, never knowing whether you're right, or you look at the Bible and accept its make-believe answer on faith. Given only these two options—and not the explicit alternative of reason, logic, and the scientific method—why would anyone choose mere speculation? (Rick Warren: Master Assimilator for the Christian Collective)

The reason why Christians want to characterize the discovery of one’s purpose in life as a matter of speculation vs. revelation, is to frontload a set of assumptions which will be recruited to discredit any purpose one might decide for himself that does not subordinate him to the will of an invisible magic being, specifically the Christian deity. If, for instance, a thinker recognizes that his purpose is to live and enjoy his life – a purpose which religionists want to discourage at any cost – then any reasoning he cites in support of this purpose can be discounted as the product of mere “speculation.” The message here is quite clear: don’t try to think for yourself, let the church elders do it for you, and abide by whatever pronouncements for your life that they might issue. Which means: you are not to live for your own sake, you are to sacrifice your life to whatever end the religionists decide for it.

Embedded within all this is the question of whether or not the world is “random.” Bahnsen wants to use the concept ‘random’ as if it denoted a metaphysical attribute, when in fact it describes an epistemological vantage. If the law of identity obtains throughout the universe (the apologist is free to argue that it does not), then “randomness” could only indicate a lack of knowledge on the part of any knower as to the causes of what he discovers or encounters. For instance, it may be a random incident that my coworker and I both show up to the water fountain with empty cups in hand at the same moment, but this would not entail that there is no causality behind our mutual meeting. If A is A, and A is what it is independent of conscious functions (e.g., beliefs, misunderstandings, wishes, emotions, etc.), then not only can we affirm that the universe is not random, we can affirm it on an explicitly non-theistic basis, that is: on the basis of the primacy of existence metaphysics.

Of course, I am a man, but no god has come to me “through the temporal and empirical order.” Only other men have, and men can be misinformed or dishonest (and even both). Many in the world are prone to making all kinds of outlandish claims. Would Bahnsen have me discard all discriminating awareness and simply accept whatever the first passer-by might claim? Perhaps this depends on who that first passer-by might be and what he might claim. If he claims what Bahnsen claims, then the answer would be yes: consider it true, even if you don’t at first believe it, and apply his scheme of apologetics to make sure what is claimed is in the end believed. If the first passer-by happens to be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Scientologist, or even a rational man, don’t trust anything he says, for he does not number among “the chosen.”

Sensing that what he has presented is still not sufficient to shield his position from scrutiny, Bahnsen ups the ante by invoking the doctrine that man is inherently sinful:

Moreover, given the intellectually corrupting effects of man's fall into sin and rebellion again God, man's mind has not been left to know God on the basis of man's own unaided experience and interpretation of the world. God has undertaken to make Himself known to man by means of verbal revelation - using words (chosen by God) which are exactly appropriate for the mind of man (created by God) to come to correct conclusions about His Creator, Judge and Redeemer. (Always Ready, p. 186)

Bahnsen’s tactic here is less than sophomoric. He’s essentially saying: “If you deny that my invisible magic being, then you’re morally worthless!” Which is essentially to say: “If you defy my authority, then you’re a disgrace!” That is what the appeal to sin is all about: it’s a last ditch effort to discredit anyone and everyone who does not believe what the Christian claims by exploiting any self-doubt or lack of self-esteem as an indication of the presence of this magical contaminant called “sin.” The doctrine of “sin” allows the Christian apologist to cover his resort to childish slander with something that seems seriously important: man’s moral nature. And yet, the doctrine of “sin” itself only demonstrates how out of touch Christianity as a worldview is with a rational understanding of morality. One of the ways Christianity’s own teachings succeed in nullifying morality as such, is by its underlying doctrine of collective guilt: all men are guilty by virtue of one man’s transgressions. Men “inherit” a “fallen nature” – and with it an innate “rebelliousness” against the Christian god – as a result of the “sin” of one man whom none of us living today ever met and whose existence cannot be objectively corroborated; all we have is a storybook, told in campfire fashion, that this man allegedly existed in some unspecified era of the distant past. You can’t be good by your own choices and actions, so why try? After all, morality on Christianity’s own view is primarily about being “good” (at least in the eyes of an imaginary being), not about how to govern your choices and actions in order to live. Your choices and actions, like your life, are of no concern in the eternal scheme of things, so they shouldn’t concern you in your life to begin with.Even Bahnsen’s own statements confirm the accuracy of this analysis, for he admits that this presumption of “man’s fall into sin” is not something he can discover by means of reasoning from the world that he experiences firsthand. According to the Christian view, this “presupposition” is based in “verbal revelation,” which is essentially nothing other than indiscriminately believing what one reads in the storybooks of the bible. Observe:

Christian theology is not the result of a self-sufficient exploration of, and argument from man's unaided and brute empirical experience, to a god lying beyond and behind experience. Rather the Christian affirms, on the basis of Scripture's declaration, that our theological tenets rest on the self-revelation of the transcendent Creator. Theology does not work from man to God, but from God to man (via infallible, verbal revelation; cf. 2 Peter 1:21). (Always Ready, p. 186)

So while above Bahnsen wanted to take thinkers to task for supposing we cannot reason from the seen to the unseen (because surely we do this all the time) as a premise in the case against supernaturalism, he’s now saying that this is not how one arrives as religious truths in the first place! Is Bahnsen coming, or going? It’s hard to tell, principally because the position he wants to defend requires a lot of shape-shifting on its defenders’ part. Recall that in the previous section, Bahnsen declared that “the metaphysician aims at absolute or necessary truths about the reality which somehow lies behind those appearances.” (Always Ready, p. 184) He may “aim” at such “truths,” but simply aiming for them does not validate them or make them truthful. So the question remains: How does he know? What epistemological procedure does he undertake to secure these “absolute or necessary truths about the reality which somehow lies behind those appearances”? Again, Bahnsen resorts to the claim of revelation, and he also characterizes the human mind as epistemologically passive as it is supposed to idly receive revelatory transmissions from “the supernatural.” Thus Bahnsen appeals to the supernatural in order to validate the supernatural, which is terminally circular. If this method is “valid” for Bahnsen’s purposes, why wouldn’t it be valid for any rival position? For instance, what would stop someone who wanted to validate The Wizard of Oz from validating the claim that The Wizard of Oz is true by appealing to what The Wizard of Oz says? The conclusion is inescapable: Bahnsen has no epistemological warrant for his claims whatsoever, for he identifies no epistemological process by which his belief in supernaturalism can be validated.

From all of this, however, Bahnsen wants to draw the following conclusion:

Therefore, the anti-metaphysical polemic - already seen to be arbitrary and inconsistent - begs the main question. If God as portrayed in the Bible does indeed exist, then there is no reason to preclude the possibility that man who lives in the realm of "nature" can gain a knowledge of the "supernatural." (Always Ready, p. 186)

In spite of the fact that Bahnsen’s defense is terminally circular, as we have seen, he can’t wait to accuse non-believing positions of begging the question themselves. This is not uncommon at all: presuppositionalists seem to delight in posturing as if non-belief in the supernatural somehow stood on a wobbly foundation full of fallacy and error. But does it really? Bahnsen’s focus is on dismissing efforts which “preclude the possibility that man... can gain a knowledge of the ‘supernatural’,” but fails to explain why anyone’s worldview should include claims about “the supernatural” as valid knowledge. Even Bahnsen’s own hypothetical “If God... does indeed exist” is intellectually shortsighted. If such a being existed, then all bets are off when it comes to assessing anything proposed as a possibility, no matter how absurd it might seem. If such a being exists, anything would be possible, both the theist’s proposals as well as any atheist’s. That’s because the very notion of a god presupposes the primacy of consciousness, and on such an assumption nothing could be written off as either an absurdity or an impossibility. What about corpses rising from their graves and walking around in cities a la Matthew 27:52-53? This is perfectly possible, on the assumption that an invisible magic being is running the universe like a cartoon. Same with the idea of a pack of acid-breathing canines typing out dissertations on Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints on the surface of Venus. If a mere human being could imagine these things, how could one say it’s not possible for the being which allegedly created man in the first place to be able to make what a human being imagines real? Can man’s imagination range beyond the abilities of the Christian god? What card-carrying Christian would admit to this?

But such “what if?” appeals are not helpful to Bahnsen. What if men were actually water-breathing lilies that grew in the silts of the Ayeyarwady delta? Well, we’re not, so why treat such questions as if they were important?

At this point, Bahnsen can only assert his position and treat it as a given:

God created and controls all things, according to the Biblical account. Given that perspective, God could certainly bring it about that man learns the truth about Him through both the created order and a set of divinely inspired messages. (Always Ready, p. 186)

In such a way, Bahnsen demonstrates how affirming one arbitrary claim and treating it as centrally important (cf. “presupposition”), allows one to argue any arbitrary claim he wants, since he’s already granted legitimacy to the arbitrary. A little leaven, leaveneth the whole lump. If we grant one absurdity, on what basis could we rule out any other absurdity? Blank out.

This in turn gives Bahnsen the license to speak for “the unbeliever”:

When the unbeliever contends that nothing in man's temporal, limited, natural experience can provide knowledge of the metaphysical or supernatural, he is simply taking a roundabout way of saying that the Biblical account of a God who makes Himself clearly known in the created order and Scripture is mistaken. (Always Ready, pp. 186-187)

I suppose that, no matter how solid a case the non-believer presents on behalf of his position that supernaturalism is irrational, the apologist will always be able to dismiss it as “a roundabout way” of saying the bible is mistaken. If the apologist has no arguments for his position, such maneuvers might be psychologically palliative, though only momentarily. But since Bahnsen prefers to philosophize on the basis of “what if?” scenarios, let’s ask one of our own: what if “the unbeliever” gives the apologist ample opportunity to

a) identify the means by which one can have awareness of “the supernatural,”

b) explain how supernatural claims can be verified in a manner consistent with the nature of consciousness which man actually possesses,

c) provide a reliable method by which “the supernatural” can be distinguished from what the believer may merely be imagining, and

d) credibly explain how “revelation” is not essentially the same as believing something one reads in a storybook,

and it turns out that the apologist fails to deliver on all four points? What then? If Bahnsen is so certain that “the Biblical account of a God who makes Himself clearly known in the created order” is not mistaken, why doesn’t he explain how such claims can be substantiated on the basis of the primacy of existence, which we know is true and fundamental, instead of just avoiding this and these other issues repeatedly, even when he sets out to write a chapter purportedly intended to deal with “The Problem of Knowing the ‘Super-Natural’”? If this god has made itself “clearly known” to men, why do disagreements about the identity of this god and its accompanying theology persist so stubbornly among those who number themselves among “the chosen,” just as we would expect them to do if in the end their theology were seated in the imagination of its adherents?

But Bahnsen insists that his position’s detractors must be committing some fallacy in their rejection of supernaturalism:

This begging of the question is sometimes veiled from the unbeliever by his tendency to recast the nature of theological truth as man-centered and rooted initially in human, empirical experience. However, the very point in contention between the believer and unbeliever comes down to the claim that Christian teaching is rooted in God's self-disclosure of the truth as found in the world around us and in the written word. (Always Ready, p. 187)

Let us make one thing clear: one is not “begging the question” when he rejects subjective, irrational or arbitrary claims. If a man claims that Blarko, an invisible conscious being which exists beyond the universe, created the universe by making a wish, designing all its structures and contents according to its wise “counsel” such that everything “reflects” its infallible mind and unquestionable plan, and he offers no objective method by which we can independently discover the existence of this Blarko and verify the truth of his claim, on what basis should we accept that claim as knowledge? Suppose we point out that, like Bahnsen, this man fails to explain how such knowledge can be possible, but instead focuses on supposed problems in rival positions which reject belief in Blarko. Would this gain any ground for his case? Of course not; problems in a rival position are not going to substantiate such claims.

And notice how Bahnsen’s own position is guilty of the very fallacy he charges the non-believer with committing: begging the question. Bahnsen makes it clear that he must appeal to the supernatural in order to validate his supernaturalism. He refers to “the truth in the world around us and in the written word” of the bible as “God’s self-disclosure,” but nowhere does he explain how man could know this, even if it were in fact true. Simply reading something in a storybook is not sufficient to accept it as truth. Moreover, if what we read in the storybook would require us to ignore fundamental facts which we do know in order to believe what it says, why would we believe it? Time and time again, apologists fail to factor the nature of man’s cognition and its needs into his defenses, and that is because man’s cognition and its needs are of no concern to his religious doctrines. What is important to the believer is believing, not understanding. So we should not expect understanding to be the goal of their apologetic program. Bahnsen confirms this assessment with statements such as the following:

There is no reason to think that theology would be intellectually required to be built upon the foundation of human sense experience, unless someone were presupposing in advance that all knowledge must ultimately derive from empirical procedures. But that is the very question at hand. (Always Ready, p 187)

By “empirical procedures,” I understand Bahnsen means sense perception. Again, he does not want his readers to think that sense perception is our primary means of awareness and, consequently, the base of our knowledge. He says that this is “the very question at hand,” namely whether or not “all knowledge must ultimately derive from empirical procedures.” Would Bahnsen say that some knowledge is derived from an absence of consciousness? If not, then he needs to identify some alternative to “empirical procedures” (i.e., sense perception) as the base from which knowledge can be derived. If “that is the very question at hand,” why doesn’t he address this point?Instead, Bahnsen prefers to dwell on soft targets:

The anti-metaphysical polemic is not a supporting reason for rejecting Christianity; it is simply a rewording of that rejection itself. (Always Ready, p. 187)

It may be the case that “the anti-metaphysical polemic... is simply a rewording of that rejection itself,” but what if “the anti-metaphysical polemic” that Bahnsen has described is not the basis upon which one rejects Christianity? What if instead the non-believer has adopted what may be called the anti-irrational polemic, the anti-subjective polemic, or the anti-arbitrary polemic? I tend to prefer calling it the anti-mystical position. It is anti-mystical because it is first pro-reason, pro-rationality, pro-reality and pro-man. As such, this anti-mystical position is broader than merely a rejection of Christianity; it involves a total decontamination of the human intellect of any irrational, subjective or arbitrary worldview influence, Christianity being merely one of the many views filtered out as a result of an uncompromising commitment to rationality. This is consistent with the two alternative positions which earlier I had proposed in lieu of the Logical Positivism that Bahnsen shadow-boxed:

1. there cannot be a non-objective source of knowledge or information about reality, and

2. it is illegitimate to draw inferences from what is experienced by the senses to what contradicts experience.

Let the apologist come out of the closet to argue for a non-objective source of knowledge about reality. Let him claim legitimacy to drawing inferences from experience to what contradicts it. Let him defend the willingness to blur the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, truth and arbitrariness, for this is the substance of his faith.

by Dawson Bethrick

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